Translation: Spring Night (Su Shi) (take 2)

I have been convinced, especially by Hanna’s comments on my previous attempt at translating this, that pulling the repeated words in the original directly into the translation does not work. Here, accordingly, is a revised translation.




Spring night: one moment is worth a thousand in gold.
Faint scent of flowers, shadowy moon.
From the high tower, a flute song, soft.
In the courtyard, a swing, vanishing in the night.


Without the repeated words, it’s hard to capture the parallelism of the last two lines that is so obvious in the original. I’ve tried to do that by mirroring the grammatical constructions, though I’ve had to lose the direct parallel between the soft flute song and the heavy night. For the last line, I’ve tried to capture the heaviness of the night by making the swing vanish into it. This is a liberty, and maybe an ill-advised one, but I am not sure the last line can be captured without some liberty. (Burton Watson’s fine translation, presented in the post linked above, says the night is “deep and still”—equally a liberty.)

I also made a minor change to the first line, mostly for the sake of rhythm.


I thanked Hanna above for her criticisms of the first, but on re-reading our earlier discussion I realized that my changes to the first and fourth lines above mirrored the translation she posted there. That wasn’t intentional, but very likely was subconscious, so I owe her a second note of gratitude.

  1. Hanna said:

    ‪great!! it’s really within the translator’s rights to take a couple liberties with the text, especially with a target language so essentially different to the source language.

    I actually talked to my mom about this somewhat recently and she explained that such a “tower” or large elaborate house could only belong to a wealthy elite‬ and with that in mind i think that there’s an element of envy of their excess on the narrator’s part. bringing the poem into the current day, it also takes on a sexual tone, considering the phallic symbol of the flute. spring is a sexual season, after all.

    anyway all this has made me even less interested in faithful translations and more interested in just writing entirely new poems inspired by the originals, haha. but of course it’s still important to share the original as closely as possible for those without the benefit of access to a more nuanced understanding of the language


    • I go back and forth on that issue. At times I like Nabokov’s approach to translation (literal, with copious notes), but other times I prefer to see someone craft an English language poem, and I accept that the only way I’ll truly get close to the original is to learn the language. Maybe the ideal is to present both.

      Have you seen this translation by Ezra Pound? I think it’s an excellent example of making a new poem from the original. Nice discussion of several versions at this link:



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