Monday, June 25, 2012

On A Boat At Night

Chinese poets of the T'ang Dynasty (618-907) were fond of writing poems while on journeys.  Many of the poets were government officials, and it seems that, if they were not travelling the provincial frontiers on routine bureaucratic business, they were going into exile due to having fallen out of favor with the powers that be.  (This may also account for the large number of farewell poems written by the T'ang poets -- they seem to be always bidding tearful farewells to one another.)

Quite a few of these poems were written on board ship, usually while travelling on a river.  I would hazard to say that the following poem by Tu Fu (712-770) is perhaps the most famous of these on-board-ship poems. But I hasten to add that the poem goes much deeper than the circumstances of its composition.

              Henry Moore (1831-1895), "Catspaws Off The Land" (1885)

  A Traveler At Night Writes His Thoughts

Delicate grasses, faint wind on the bank;
stark mast, a lone night boat:
stars hang down, over broad fields sweeping;
the moon boils up, on the great river flowing.
Fame -- how can my writings win me that?
Office -- age and sickness have brought it to an end.
Fluttering, fluttering -- where is my likeness?
Sky and earth and one sandy gull.

Tu Fu (translated by Burton Watson), Burton Watson (editor), The Columbia Book of Chinese Poetry: From Early Times to the Thirteenth Century (Columbia University Press 1984).

                                     W. E. Leadley, "Driftwood" (1960)

Here is another translation of the same poem.

  Thoughts While Travelling At Night

Light breeze on the fine grass.
I stand alone at the mast.

Stars lean on the vast wild plain.
Moon bobs in the Great River's spate.

Letters have brought no fame.
Office?  Too old to obtain.

Drifting, what am I like?
A gull between earth and sky.

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

As I have noted before, although English translations of traditional Chinese poetry tend to come across as fairly prose-like and casual, the originals were subject to strict rules relating to the number of lines, the number of characters (ideograms) per line, end-rhyme, and tonal parallelism.  According to Burton Watson, the original of this poem was in the form of 8-line, 5-character per line "regulated verse" (which requires a single rhyme to be used at the end of the second, fourth, sixth, and eighth lines, and internal tonal parallelism).  It is extremely difficult (if not impossible) to carry over these formal features into English translations, and translators seldom attempt to do so.

                        Geoffrey Spink Bagley (1901-1992), "Rye Harbour"


alice c said...

I am struck by the significant differences in these two translations. I prefer the Vikram Seth version which feels more poetic but I cannot understand how the moon can 'bob' in one translation and 'boil up' in the other. Is it a function of the complexity of Chinese characters or is the Vikram Seth version an interpretation rather than a translation?

Shelley said...

I like the first translation best.

That poem would be a good cure for a workaholic.

Stephen Pentz said...

alice c: thank you very much for visiting, and for your thoughts on the two translations. I think that I prefer Seth's version as well, and for the same reason as you.

Given Watson's long-time status as one of the best and most reliable translators of Chinese poetry into English, I suspect that his version is more faithful to the original, but that is just a guess on my part.

In one of my anthologies of translations, the editors supply the Chinese characters for the poems, together with a literal translation of each of the characters. However, I didn't have a chance to look at it before making this post. I seem to recall that this poem is in the anthology, so I intend to track it down. I, like you, am interested in the variations in the translations -- "bobs" and "boils up" do seem at odds. As do "sky and earth and one sandy gull" and "a gull between earth and sky."

Thank you again.

Stephen Pentz said...

Shelley: thank you for stopping by again, and for your thoughts. I agree with your comment on the poem being "a good cure for a workaholic." I think that this is true of traditional Chinese poetry as a whole. The grounding in Taoism, Confucianism, and/or Buddhism seems to bring a sense of perspective to things, doesn't it?