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Some thoughts on translating Chinese Poetry.|
Here is a common exercise in translating Poetry in the west. In English, and French and Spanish and other western languages, Wang Wei has been translated many times. The spare images and subtlety of his poem "The Deer Park Hermitage" are well known among western poets, and in the 20th Century this beautiful little became a favorite for translation. Here, for everyone's enjoyment, are the original poem, the Pinyin, some of the accepted meanings, and 16 translations, including French and Spanish.
Here we will encounter the first problems of the translator.
Each character has more than one meaning, and each meaning can be expressed in English many different ways. The first character, 空, Kong, can mean air; sky; empty; or in vain. Most of the poets choose the meaning of empty. In English, empty can be expressed many ways. Empty has one meaning as a noun, 5 meanings as a verb, and 5 more meanings as an adjective.
We cannot let this stop us, we must see the words as gestalts; meaningful constructions that can be rendered into our understanding. But we must learn the understanding of the writer. Here, Wang Wei was not being humble or shy by failing to use a pronoun, such as I, The Chinese culture used literary arts to bridge inner feelings with universal realities, and rarely used the "I" as the point of view. We need to see that this changes the reading of the words. Once we can see, and feel, the intent of the words, then we can move on to the rhythm and rhyme, and natural flow of the language in which it was written.
And here is one of the most difficult things. One of the reasons people so love Li Bai, Su Shi, and other Chinese Poets, is the sweet tempo of the language, the ease with which rhyme and pattern bring the beauty of their thoughts to light. We cannot force English patterns unto Chinese thoughts. But we must find a reflection of the Chinese beauty to express in English. In the translations below, only James J.Y. Liu keeps a rhyme, and the rest of the poets pretty much use their favorite verse structures.
And what of allusion and allegory, deeply important parts of all Chinese poetry? Well, without annotating the poems, we must attempt English allusions, and western allegory if we can find common ground. Green mosses allude to seasons, or to Zen allegories concerning nature, life, thought, and place. They are mentioned in poems by Li Bai, Du Fu, Chu Yuan, and Wang Wei. Yet almost no western writer notes this, or tries to add something about this in the English translations.
So. These are thoughts. Below are the many translations, for your pleasure, your pondering, and your commentary.