Translation: Spring Night (Su Tung-p’o)

Poem: Spring Night (春宵)
Poet: Su Tung-p’o



Translation (mine):

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.

Alternative translations:

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).

  1. Hanna said:

    I think in the interest of good poetry it is not necessary to absolutely preserve the original structure of a Chinese poem. The languages differ so radically that in attempting to bring the symmetry and even the duplications over the enormous wall between Chinese and English, you end up sacrificing some overall poetic quality, and I would dump structure before I dump that. I think duplication especially should be left behind, because generally in terms of grammar duplications are used because the only other grammatical option would be to emphasize using more colloquial language, which would take away from the poem.

    The most important thing when translating from Chinese IMO is to capture the overall mood and the images of the poem, since it is awkward and usually impossible to do that while also preserving the structure of a language that English words simply cannot fit neatly inside. I think Watson would agree and for this reason I consider his translation ultimately more faithful than yours.

    A disclaimer: I acquired English and Mandarin simultaneously growing up, but English is the language in which I was educated and it is definitely my stronger language. My knowledge of literary Chinese is still nascent and as such this opinion was formed almost entirely on my instincts. I would like to post my own translation here for you to consider but fear that would be overstepping some boundaries.


    • I would certainly agree that Watson’s translation is the better English poem than mine, and in that respect I have sacrificed poetic quality in favor of structure-preservation. At the same time I don’t think things are completely one-sided.

      Part of what initially attracted me to the poem (in Watson’s translation) is the contrast created between “upstairs” and “in the garden.” The use of “upstairs” creates a very strong sense (at least in my mind) of where the speaker is located: he is downstairs. So you have the speaker downstairs, with song upstairs and night outside. The sense is that the speaker is estranged from both, which then brings back the first line, about the value of the spring night: the impression is created that the speaker is failing to enjoy either of the two pleasures the spring night offers. On realizing this, I as a reader am brought to reflect on the state of a person who simultaneously seems to recognize the night’s pleasures and their value and to be unable to partake in them.

      But so far as I can tell, that’s an artifact of Watson’s choice of the relative term “upstairs” where the Chinese simply has an absolute (“high tower”—or am I wrong about this?). The Chinese does not give any comparable sense that there is a particular speaker located in a particular place relative to this setting, at least I don’t think it does. That’s the danger of preserving mood and image over structure: you are liable to end up with a completely different poem, to replace what is lost with something that in the end does not serve the same role.

      In the end, it’s a trade-off between capturing the original and writing a good English poem. I’m not sure that either is clearly better – as you saw I’ve translated in the other way as well. Part of why I was more literalistic here is that, after we read the Watson translation together, my wife looked up the original and made a comment to the effect of, “I can see where Rexroth is coming from”—she had the same sense that Watson was adding something to the original. So I wanted to get a clearer sense for myself of what was there in the original, so far as my mediocre Chinese allows me.

      About the repetition of the adjectives, we have different instincts. I recognize that the effect in Chinese is not just going to carry over into English. But I happen to really like the effect of the duplications in English, even if it’s not the same effect as in the Chinese.

      Please feel free to post your translations here—I would very much like to read them!


      • Hanna said:

        I actually understood the tower bit as “balcony” first but in the literary sense, it’s supposed to be referring to a tall tower. But I see what you mean by how just the one word “upstairs” indicates speaker location and alters the overall mood of the poem. I did not get a sense that the speaker was not at least in some way enjoying himself when I read it in Chinese. He was solitary, yes, maybe a little lonely, but entranced by the evening and content to be spectator to its beauty. My translation reflects this, because I conceive of everything in the poem as performing an action:

        Spring night – each moment worth a thousand in gold
        Flowers spread their clear scent and moon casts shadows
        A flute sings from the top of the tower, faintly
        The swing in the courtyard falls into blackness

        But that’s one of the dangers of translating Chinese, because the power of it – especially in poetry – is that meaning is very condensed, almost folded in on itself, and mistranslating just one or two characters can skew the entire thing.

        I keep switching around on words, especially “falls,” because I think 落 offers an important sense of movement and physical depth in the poem but I just can’t find the right English word for it. But what I have the most trouble with is “translating” punctuation, since, well…there is none. I think Chinese poetry reads best in Emily Dickinson’s voice, if that makes sense. She sounds similarly strong and continuous. Nothing that indicates a full stop feels right to me.


      • Thanks for sharing your translation. It’s very interesting that you see the poem as very active, because it struck me as being just the opposite (my primary impression, of course, was formed from the Watson and not the original). I saw it as capturing a single moment, albeit a moment richly suspended in time. I don’t really have an opinion on which of these right—I just think it’s interesting that we see it in such starkly opposed manners.

        Some more localized comments below. They’re mostly critical but this shouldn’t give the impression that I don’t like the translation as a whole. I do; I just have more substantive things to say about what I’d change:

        First line: I like “a thousand in gold.” I had wanted to get rid of the “coins” but didn’t see a good way to do so. I think you manage it nicely. I’m less sure about “each moment” (vs. “one moment”): it seems to me to imply a collection of moments, whereas I see the poem as capturing a single moment.

        Second line: I don’t like the “and” here. It loosens the line without adding content. It also makes “moon” appear like a mass noun rather than the name of a particular object, which is awkward. My own preference would be to see the two actions juxtaposed without the “and.” I’d also consider either capitalizing Moon or adding “the”—otherwise it’s still going to feel kind of like a mass noun.

        Third line: “from the top of the tower” –> This gets at something that I think is a general danger in translating Chinese poetry into English. So much of its power comes from being condensed, whereas English grammar really wants to expand and make things explicit. This leads to multiple relatively insubstantial words getting strung together. Here you have two substantial words (‘top’, ‘tower’) corresponding to two Chinese characters, but then four further words contextualizing them. It distends the line and weakens the image. It’s unavoidable to an extent, but my own instinct to avoid such a density of connective words at all costs. (Part of what I don’t like about the Rexroth translation is that he just goes all in this, well beyond what’s plausibly required.)

        Fourth line: In an earlier version of my translation, I used “sinks” for 落, which may improve on “falls.” After all, the night/blackness is heavy. One falls through thin air, but sinks into denser water. (I took it out because my wife suggested that the primary purpose of 落 was to contrast the ground-level courtyard with the height of the tower, not to characterize an action of the swing. This is something that none of the four translations here captures. I just don’t see a way to do it that isn’t ungainly and sure to do more poetic harm than good. I’m obviously not competent to judge which of the two of you is right about the character’s function.)

        – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – –

        I like the idea of reading Chinese poetry in Dickinson’s voice. I’m not sure I quite understand it yet, but it seems like there’s something there, and maybe for the next poem I translate I’ll try a Dicksonized version to see what effects that has.


  2. Hanna said:

    FWIW I just read your other translation and I like that one very much more because it didn’t seem quite as deliberate as this one and you much more effectively captured the core essence of his poem.


  3. Interesting both. Fwiw I like the repetition. (Very much, actually, but then I’m prone to it myself…) But I could do without the synesthesia (how is a scent clear?) and a shadow-casting moon makes more sense to me than a shadowy moon.


    • I see your point about the moon, but I can definitely picture a shadowy moon (as contrasted with a clear or distinct moon), and it seems what the original suggests. The Chinese has the verb 有 (yǒu), literally “has,” which is used for both the flowers and the moon: flowers have (faint/clear/unmixed) scent, moon has shadows. That to me suggests that the moon itself is in shadows.



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