Poem: Spring Night (春宵)
Poet: Su Tung-p’o
Spring night, one moment worth a thousand gold coins;
faint scent of flowers, shadowy moon.
Flute song from the high tower: sound soft, soft;
Swing in the courtyard, night heavy, heavy.
Spring night–one hour worth a thousand gold coins;
clear scent of flowers, shadowy moon.
Songs and flutes upstairs–threads of sound;
in the garden, a swing, where night is deep and still. (Burton Watson)
The few minutes of a Spring night
Are worth ten thousand pieces of gold.
The perfume of the flowers is so pure.
The shadows of the moon are so black.
In the pavilion the voices and flutes are so high and light.
In the garden a hammock rocks
In the night so deep, so profound. (Kenneth Rexroth)
Even with no Chinese, one can readily see that Watson preserves much more of the original than Rexroth, who seems to think that the appropriate way to capture the original’s relative simplicity is to burden it with “beautiful” adjectives and an army of insistent ‘so’s. His choice of “pavilion” is also odd: the original makes a clear contrast between the flute song being in a tall building, whereas the swing in the courtyard is on the ground level. This is difficult to capture in English, and neither Watson nor I quite do it justice, but “pavilion” obliterates it entirely.
The Watson translation I quite like—as you can see my first two lines follow his closely. I diverge more in the last two lines, where I don’t think Watson captures certain key aspects of the original. The two lines are clearly parallel: the songs vs. the swing, the high tower vs. the low courtyard, 细细 (soft, soft) vs. 沉沉 (heavy, heavy). Watson gets the first, and he gets the second as best as English (so far as I can tell) allows, but he entirely loses the last. Moreover, the two lines are unequal in both length and structure (specifically, the order in which object and setting appear). I have attempted to preserve that.
As with all my attempts at translation, I welcome feedback. I am not a fluent speaker of Chinese, and though I’ve run the translation past my wife (who is a native speaker) I expect I will still make errors (or simply poor choices).