Monday, June 27, 2011

Three Versions Of Wang Wei: "I Close My Brushwood Door In Solitude"

When reading traditional Chinese poetry, I am always aware of the fact that, because I do not know Chinese, I am dependent upon translations.  Translations into English of T'ang Dynasty poetry often, I think, create a deceptive impression of simplicity and casualness.  For instance, in most translations the poetry tends to look and sound like free verse.  However, much of the poetry of the T'ang period (and of other periods) is in fact highly structured, being subject to rules relating to metre, rhyme, voice tone, and, in some cases, grammatical parallelism.

With those considerations in mind, here are three different versions of an 8-line poem by Wang Wei (c. 701-761).

     Living in the Hills: Impromptu Verses

I close my brushwood door in solitude
And face the vast sky as late sunlight falls.
The pine trees:  cranes are nesting all around.
My wicker gate:  a visitor seldom calls.
The tender bamboo's dusted with fresh powder.
Red lotuses strip off their former bloom.
Lamps shine out at the ford, and everywhere
The water-chestnut pickers wander home.

Vikram Seth (translator), Three Chinese Poets (1992).

              Majorie Hayes, "Stone Built Watermill, Somerset" (1934)

          A Picture of Mountain Life

In quietness I close my firewood gate.
A whitish immensity faces the dropping sun.
In every pine are nesting cranes
yet no one comes by my cottage.
Tender bamboos have new bloom on them.
Red lotuses have shed old clothes.
On the bay, lamps and bonfires shine.
Water chestnut pickers are coming home.

Tony Barnstone, Willis Barnstone, and Xu Haixin (translators), Laughing Lost in the Mountains: Poems of Wang Wei (1991).

                                                     Majorie Hayes
                                    "Two Houses in the Woods" (1945)

     Dwelling in the Mountains: Impromptu Lines

In solitude I close my brushwood gate,
In the vast expanse, facing lowering light.
Cranes nest in pine trees all around;
Men visiting my wicker gate are few.
Tender bamboos hold new powder,
And red lotuses shed old clothes.
At the ford lantern fires are lit:
Everywhere water chestnut pickers come home.

Pauline Yu (translator), The Poetry of Wang Wei (1980).

For more in this vein, I recommend Nineteen Ways of Looking at Wang Wei: How a Chinese Poem Is Translated (1987) by Eliot Weinberger and Octavio Paz.  In the book, the authors look at 19 translations of "Deer Park," one of Wang Wei's best-known poems.  It is ostensibly a "simple" 4-line poem.  This is Vikram Seth's translation:

                 Deer Park

Empty hills, no man in sight --
Just echoes of the voice of men.
In the deep wood reflected light
Shines on the blue-green moss again.

               Majorie Hayes, "Cottage and Pond, Abergeveny" (1944)


Fred said...

I would find it hard to choose among the three, even though there are significant differences in some lines. I would probably rank the second a bit lower than the other two because of "whitish immensity." I find that disturbing, for some reason. It just doesn't fit in with the rest of the poem, perhaps because it seems less concrete than the other images.

Bill said...

You are so right, Mr. Pentz! The relentless lucidity of English just destroys Chinese poetry, so most from Ezra Pound on just write English poems. The translations you offer catch the literal meaning I suppose (though I would argue they all miss the shock of the last line – hordes of people discovered in the most desolate of landcapes). But that’s almost beside the point. The power of Tang poetry comes from the strict way the normal semantic richness of Chinese is reduced to five syllable lines containing one image. Grammatically, there are no subjects per se, and the relationship between objects is naturally vague. This is what makes the images sing!

To demonstrate the point, I’ve worked up something that may not work as English but conveys some sense of the original. I can’t handle the rhymes or reduce the lines to five syllables, but it works passably in nine:

Lonely quiet closing firewood gate
Facing vague and ashen falling sun.
Cranes in lazy nests on top of pines
People rarely visit wicker door.
Soft bamboo dusted with new powder
Red lotus former clothes fall away.
Lantern fires on jetty shine a light
Water chestnut pickers everywhere.

Here, by the way is the original:


Stephen Pentz said...

Fred: you and I are on the same page -- "whitish immensity" has always struck me the wrong way as well. I agree that it seems too abstract. "Firewood gate" in the first line also puzzles me. All in all, I suppose that I prefer Seth's version.

Thanks for stopping by again.

Stephen Pentz said...

Mr. Sigler: thank you very much for your version of Wang Wei! I agree that many English translations tend to add something subjective or overly descriptive (e.g., extra adjectives) to the Chinese original, instead of sticking with what is actually there. (The same thing happens with translations of Japanese haiku as well.)

Again, thank you for the Wang Wei, and for your thoughts.

P.S. Apparently Blogger cannot handle Chinese characters, so the original that you forwarded does not appear.

Asha said...

Hi Stephen, a friend sent me your blog link. Thank you so much for this treasure-trove. I also collect poetry and have been running dry since a while, am just not finding any good poems. I am so delighted to find this collection, it will keep me going for many days. This is my collection:

And I love the combination of paintings and poetry! I especially love poems based on paintings. I have a few on my blog too. You may love this one -

Thanks once again for this huge gift!

Stephen Pentz said...

Asha: thank you very much for visiting and for your kind words. And thank you as well for the links to your blog -- I will definitely do some exploring there.

I'm pleased that you found your way here, and I hope that you will return. Thanks again.