In Other Worlds
This is a two-part series that will lead up to my first poetry breakdown, where I commentate and discuss the creation and meaning of various poems that I have written. Originally I wanted to jump straight into that discussion and talk about a Chinese poetry translation, but I think that some context might be needed first, so I will take this time to discuss my collection of Chinese poetry translations, Moonbeams as Frost
.Moonbeams as Frost
has its origins in my childhood, and even deeper roots in my identity as a Chinese. I attribute my modern love of poetry, in fact, to the first poems I heard and read, which were in Chinese. China has an especially rich history of beautiful poetry, from the Shijing
(which is the oldest extant collection of poetry) to poetry written in more modern times. There is a tremendous scope in style, language, and style, and yet an interesting unity because of the nature of the Chinese language and because of a reverence for the old that is the underpinning of Chinese culture.
Virtually all Chinese poetry is written in classical Chinese, which was for thousands of years the only type of written Chinese around. Everything from Confucius to the national anthem of Taiwan is written in classical. It is distinguished from vernacular Chinese by its extremely terse construction and grammar, although it is possible that this was the way Chinese was once spoken. Imagine if we all spoke in modern English, but wrote in Old English using the grammar and vocabulary of Old English, and you have kind of a sense of what it's like.
It's very difficult for me to describe using English the beauty and the feeling of reading classical Chinese. It is difficult for a variety of reasons. One, the older you go, the more likely you are to bump into characters that are no longer used, or characters that mean different things now in the modern day. Two, classical Chinese is very barebones, and oftentimes whatever is already understood is simply omitted. This means that you need to know the context to understand what's going on. Unfortunately, sometimes it's not always immediately clear what the subject is, and sometimes, it requires outside knowledge to understand the allusion in the text. This is both a challenge, but it is also beautiful. You see, classical Chinese is not powerful because of what is said, but rather because of what is understood. When I read something in classical Chinese, I'm struck by the minimalism and the weightiness of every word, whereas English is filled with useless articles and prepositions and wonky grammatical rules that clutter things up, especially where poetry is concerned.
In terms of form, the fact that Chinese characters all occupy approximately the same syllabic time means that it's easy to group them in lines. The real importance, then, is in rhymes and in tones. Chinese is a tonal language regardless of where you go, and these tones create a lovely rhythm when it is read. Mandarin has 4 tones, but Cantonese has nine, and Taiwanese has 8 with numerous context-sensitive "exceptions," but regardless of which you use to read ancient Chinese poetry, the sonic qualities are beautiful.
Historically, there are two major time periods of poetic renown. The Tang dynasty saw a proliferation in shi
style poetry, which has uniform line lengths and depending on the type, a specific order of tones for each line. Some of the more widely read may recognize Wang Wei, Li Bai (or Li Bo), Bai Juyi, and Du Fu, among others, all of whom were masters of the shi
. The Song dynasty that followed the Tang was dominated by ci
, which were poems set to music, often with nonuniform but predetermined line lengths, a strict order of tones for each line, and a slightly more vernacular style. Su Shi, one of my favorite poets of all time, came from this time period. In terms of other periods, not that they aren't noteworthy, but they didn't have a poetic renaissance on the level as the Tang or Song dynasty.
Now about Moonbeams as Frost.
The only real thing that determines the selection of poems here are poems that I am familiar with that I like. It takes a lot of effort to study and understand each poem, and I don't like to delve into translation without really having a grasp on what they mean. Since I mostly learned modern Chinese, classical Chinese is challenging for me to read.
My translation process is very methodical. First, I read the poem as a whole in the original, examining each character for different possible readings and meanings. Then, I consult commentaries and Chinese glosses to make sure I haven't missed anything, or to clear up any questions of meaning that I have. At this point, I usually try to draw up a literal English translation, which I make use of in creating a more or less artistic English translation. I try to avoid English translations if I can to avoid tainting my own translation, but occasionally if there's something I'm really confused about or something I'm not quite sure how to render in English, I might look up troublesome spots.
My translation style is generally somewhere in between a literal translation (like Arthur Waley) and an "artistic" translation (like Ezra Pound). The former is too stiff for me and the latter is not respectful enough to the source for me. I prefer to understand what effects, feelings, and emotions the poem is trying to evoke in the reader, and using my knowledge of Western form to facilitate that. I try to keep translations fairly close to the original, but I do use a splash and dash of artistic extrapolation to liven things up.
Some favorites of mine
The Ballad of MulanThe sound of weaving, woman's chore--
Mulan weaves on before the door.
But now the shuttle's noise is drowned
By Daughter Mulan's sighing sound.
"Who, my girl, is in your thought?
What memory has your mind caught?"
"No one is in Mulan's thought,
No memory has Mulan caught.
The night before, I saw the post
The Khan sent out to build his host.
In scrolls of twelve did they proclaim
The characters of Father's name.
But Father has no eldest son,
And Brother's not the eldest one.
So I shall buy a saddled horse
To take his place among the force."
Now to the East for valiant steed!
Now to the West for saddle's need!
Now to the South to take the reins!
Now to the North, the whip remains!
At dawn she bids her kin farewell,
At night she camps by Yellow swells.
No cries from family find her ears,
The Yellow River's flow is all she hears.
At dawn she leaves the Yellow waves,
At night those mounts of black she braves.
No cries from family find her ears,
The neigh of foreign horse is all she hears.
My first DD, and also my most ambitious work in the set. I take the song of Mulan and write it in the form of a western ballad. This one took me quite a few drafts/incremental changes to get it to a featurable state.
A Song of Bitter ColdnessWe climb Mount Taihang to the north:
How arduous the way! How high it feels!
The roads of Sheepgut Hill twist on,
Breaking all our brittle carriage wheels.
The trees, they rustle cold and resolute;
The north wind blows its sad and grieving strains.
And up ahead, the brown bears lie in wait
As tigers, leopards roar with loud refrains.
Upon this frozen, near-forsaken hill
The falling snow piles up all thick and high.
I take a deep sigh, lost in heavy thought,
For troubles have assailed me all my life.
My heart is deeply troubled, without rest,
And back to home, my thoughts all fly away.
O'er waters deep, the bridges have been wrecked
And midway through this journey we're delayed.
We've lost the road home and we've gone astray
With nowhere in the dusk to stay the night.
And as this expedition carries on
Both men and horses feel cruel hunger's bite:
They carry firewood inside their sacks,
And chop up ice to boil for their gruel.
That song of Eastern Hills, it makes me sad,
Alas! The pain o
Probably my favorite in the collection. It's a brilliant, lucid piece from the battlefield, and I think the translation conveys the hopelessness that the original heaped in spades.
Snowy RiverNo birds fly o'er the thousand hills, it seems;
Along the myriad paths, footprints are gone.
A lonely old man boats with rain garb on:
Alone he fishes in the snowy stream.
A classic Tang shi
, I love how this one turned out. Its evocative images paint a haunting solitude.
A Winter DreamTo the Tune of "The Son of the River City"
A dream of the year yimao, 20th day of the first month
ten years are all that stand between life and death
try not to think
your grave so far and
no one to hear my loneliness
if we met again you wouldn't recognize me
my haggard face
my frost-white hair
I dreamt that we were back at home again
by your window
hair and makeup
only tears flowing
my heart breaks every passing year
a moonlit night
the mound of pines<
Su Shi may be my favorite poet, but this has the added disadvantage of making his poetry untranslatable for me. I love his poetry too much and see my translation as mere shadows of the brilliance of the original. Nevertheless, I made this attempt (a perpetual WIP) to translate one of his most tragic poems. I would definitely appreciate a lot of feedback on this one!