Shambhala Chinese Poetry

J P Seaton (editor, & translator of most poems), The Shambhala Anthology of Chinese Poetry (Shambhala 2006)

This was a present for my 60th birthday. I was delighted to receive it but obviously, given that I’m now 63, I was slow to actually read it. Seymour Glass’s passion for Chinese poetry and wisdom is what provided the necessary extra spur (I mean, who was that poet who wanted to be a dead cat? And why?).

The anthology opened a space in my head. It didn’t answer the question about the dead cat (the dead cat poem is absent), but it raised many more. It covers 3000 years of Chinese poetry in 246 pages, including notes. It would hardly be fair to expect more than a taster. What’s more, it would be unrealistic for someone as ignorant of Chinese history and culture as I am to expect more than broad-brush help with interpretation. Despite J P Seaton’s lucid introduction and notes, I confess that many if not most of the poems eluded my grasp – all those proper names and elliptical allusions to Taoist, Buddhist and Confucian traditions amounted to little more than mystifying clutter to my uneducated brain. I could appreciate some lines, like Li I’s wonderfully cinematic

Three hundred thousand men, among these rocks,
this once, as one, together turn: gaze on the moon.

I was moved by some whole poems. But all too often I felt as if I was reading a coded message or a paraphrase, missing the actual poetry, roughly an equivalent of ‘Will I compare you to a day in summer? / You are prettier and cooler: / Strong winds rustle May’s lovely blossoms, etc). Once I caught myself thinking, ‘I hope I get to read that poem one day.’ It became obvious to me that if I am to understand and enjoy this poetry I need to devote a lot more time to it. And maybe I will one day. For now I’ve decided to play around in one poem, ‘Thoughts of a Quiet Night’ by Li Po (701–762). I went searching and found an image of the actual poem, on the China the Beautiful site:

That’s 20 characters. On the Poetry Kit site, Li Po’s biographer An-Lee Chang Williams gives a literal one-word-per-character version:

Bed  fore  bright  moon  light
Doubt  is  ground-on  frost
Raise(d)  head   gaze  clear  moon
Dropp(ed)  head  reminisce  home  country

It’s starkly obvious that a translation has to do more than give such a word-for-word rendering. (Incidentally, I notice that even here, if my copied image is correct, the same character has been rendered as ‘bright’ in line 1 and ‘clear’ in line 3.) In his introduction, J P Seaton discusses the visual qualities of the Chinese:  the first line ‘contains among its five characters a moon (the pictograph for moon) and two more moons, one in the compound ideograph bright and another shining dimly and insistently out of the character for the preposition before.’ He comments, ‘The writing system lets Li Po literally fill his little poem with moonlight.’ He doesn’t mention the difficulty of reproducing the musical effects of a tonal language, or the complexities of navigating the distance between the two grammar systems, or what to do about deeply ingrained terms of reference or understandings of poetic form (though he does discuss form elsewhere).

Translating  a poem from Chinese to English will probably never be straightforward. The sound and look of the words cannot be decanted unchanged from one language to the other. From one point of view all a reader can expect is an honest paraphrase. But when you paraphrase a poem, you’ve lost the poetry, so perhaps one ought to hope for a little more: perhaps a poem in English that corresponds as closely as possible to the original, which means taking liberties. On page 90 of this anthology, the poem becomes:

Before the bed, bright moonlight.
I took it for frost on the ground.
I raised my head to dream upon that moon,
then bowed my head, lost, in thoughts of home.

So much has, perhaps inevitably, been lost, and if An-Lee Chang Williams’s list of words is correct, so much has been added.

China the Beautiful and the An-Lee Chang interview give more than a dozen translations between them. And I just found more. Seeing all these attempts to translate 20 words gives a fascinating glimpse of the art of translation and the nature of poetic composition. It also allows for a deeper grasp of this particular poem, as one person after another tries to capture it in all its suggestive particularity. Here’s An-Lee Chang Williams, who inserts less than J P Seaton (she offers us no emotional guidance as Seaton does with ‘dream’ and ‘lost’, but interestingly changes tense from past to present) without being any more lossy (it’s interesting that both of them have avoided the repetition of ‘bright moon’ in line 3 of  the Chinese):

Bright moonlight by my bed:
First I thought it was ground frost.
I gaze up at the moon,
Bow my head, remembering my homeland.

And here, at the further extreme of adding stuff, is L Cranmer-Byng’s art song version from the early 20th century:

Athwart the bed
I watch the moonbeams cast a trail
So bright, so cold, so frail,
That for a space it gleams
Like hoarfrost on the margin of my dreams.
I raise my head,
The splendid moon I see;
Then droop my head,
And sink to dreams of thee –
My father land, of thee!

And how about this, by someone whose name I can’t read, which goes too far on its own merry way to be called a translation as such, but which brings out a meaning of that ‘dropped’ in line 4 that none of the others seemed to notice or even allow:

A splash of white on my bedroom floor. Hoarfrost?
I raise my eyes to the moon, the same moon.
As scenes long past come to mind, my eyes fall again
on the splash of white, and my heart aches for home.

The very first poem in the book is from at least the fourth century BCE. J P Seaton describes it as ‘certainly an honourable expression  of the ideals of democracy as well as a perennial feminist one’. I don’t read it that way at all, but I agree that it captures something profound:

The Peasant’s Song

Sunups, we get to work;
Sundowns, we get our rest.
Dig wells and drink,
plough fields, to eat:
what has some ’emperor’
to do with us?

Now that’s a poem I’d like to read when I have the time.

Fortuitously, this quote from Jorge Luis Borges turned up in my RSS reader while I was drafting this entry:

Not knowing Greek and Arabic allowed me to read, so to speak, the Odyssey and The Thousand and One Nights in many different versions, so that this poverty also brought me a kind of richness.

(From Fernando Sorrentino’s Seven Conversations with Jorge Luis Borges via The Literary Saloon)

Note: I’ve Australianised the spelling in the quoted passages.

5 responses to “Shambhala Chinese Poetry

  1. Lovely essay, Jonathan. I’l refer you (again?) to Pound’s Canto XLIX for his use of the Peasant’s Song. (
    In fact, most of this canto is a translation/adaptation of “The Eight Scenes of Hsiao Hsang.” It’s one of my favorites of EP’s.


  2. Thanks, Will. Thanks also (again!) for the Pound reference, which I enjoyed much more this time, so the anthology must have had an educative effect. Pound’s version of the Peasant’s Song must bring despair to any translator who comes after him. In case anyone’s listening who didn’t click on your link:

    Sun up; work
    sundown; to rest
    dig well and drink of the water
    dig field; eat of the grain
    Imperial power is? and to us what is it?


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