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Pseudo-translations

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


Original:

春宵一刻值千金
花有清香月有阴
歌管楼台声细细
秋千院落夜沉沉

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)

Comments:

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).

As I don’t read Latin, this can’t be called a true translation, but I thought I would take David Ferry’s English translation and convert it into a stricter blank verse. Unencumbered by the original, I allowed myself plenty of liberties, removing some material and adding other material, so this should really not be taken as anything other than an original English poem, though the majority of it derives fairly directly from Virgil’s poem.

The poem is a dialogue between Menalcas and Mopsus. The speaker is indicated to the left of the text.

 


Menalcas

Join me in music, Mopsus, in this grove
of elm and hazel. Take your shepherd’s pipe,
and I shall rouse my golden voice to sing.

Mopsus

Menalcas, as my elder you must choose
the place: beneath these trees, in shadows fingered
by the winds, or else this vine-girt cave.

Menalcas

Our hills know but Amyntas as your rival.

Mopsus

What? Would he outsing Apollo, too?

Menalcas

Sing first, Mopsus, a song in praise of Phyllis,
your love, or Alcon, or in mocking praise
of Codrus. Let Tityrus tend the flock.

Mopsus

I’ll try instead the lines that yesterday
I carved in beech, incising both the words
and music. Watch, Amyntas! Amyntas, hear!

Menalcas

As willow bows before the olive, and
as nard gives way to rose, Amyntas yields.
Begin – for we have reached our theater.

Mopsus

The hazels, old, and rivers, older, keep
the memory of Daphnis. They watched as Nymphs
wept over him, recorded as his mother
in grief loosed heresies against the gods,
against the stars. Nobody then drove cattle
down to the brooks, nor did the beasts consent
to drink. Even in Africa, the lions
were scorched with sorrow, parched by double suns.
Daphnis it was who yoked the tigers, made
them carry Bacchus’ chariot. And Daphnis
led the Bacchic dance, and Daphnis bound
leaves of the vine with fennel – thus he made
the thyrsus. As the vine glories the tree
that holds it, as the grape glories the vine,
the bull the herd, the corn the soil, so, Daphnis,
you are the glory of the rest of us.
The Fates, in stealing you, stole more: Apollo
has left our fields, and Pales, too. In furrows
we had filled with hopes now tares and darnel
and sterile oat-grass grow. Purple narcissus
is selfless now; it gives its place to thistles,
calls bristling thistles the greater beauty. Shepherds,
perplex the ground with flowers, shade the springs
with light-denying trees. So Daphnis would
have liked. Then carve this for his epitaph:
‘The woods knew Daphnis, stars envy the woods;
Lovely the flock, still lovelier the shepherd.’

Menalcas

As sleep is soothing to the weary, as
the brook quenches the summer’s thirst, your song
relieves my soul of lethargy, and proves
you worthy of your master. My turn now
to raise up Daphnis to the stars. I knew
the love of Daphnis well, while he yet lived.

Mopsus

I, having heard the praise that Stimichon
has lavished on your singing, am now restless
to taste of it myself. Begin your song.

Menalcas

Aware that Daphnis must by now have reached
Olympus’ threshold, must see clouds and stars
beneath his feet, so woods and shepherds fill
with joy, and know tranquility. No wolves
beset the sheep, no traps the deer, for Daphnis
loved peace. Wild mountains shout their joy to heaven,
while groves and rocky places sing together,
‘He is a god, Menalcas!’ Daphnis, look,
I give you reason to remember us
with love. Here are two altars for Apollo,
two for Daphnis. Yearly I will bring
fresh milk, rich olive oil, and best of all –
whether in winter’s fire-fleeing cold
or in autumnal shade – I will bring wine.
Then Aegon and Damoetas will sing songs
and satyrs will possess Alphesiboeus
to dance. So will it be for ever more,
that when we bless the nymphs as when we bless
the fields, so shall we bless heroic Daphnis.
So long as boars adore the mountain’s ridges,
so long as fish delight in flowing rivers,
so long as bees shall harvest the thyme fields,
cicadas gather morning dew, this long
will Daphnis’ glory last. Each year, as farmers
each year make binding vows to Bacchus and
to Ceres, we will bind ourselves to you.

Mopsus

For such a song, what payment? The first sounds
of the South Wind as spring begins, the sounds
of waves breaking upon the beach, the sounds
of mountain waters flowing over stones –
these sounds are struck with envy by your song.

Menalcas

None needed. Take this hemlock pipe, the one
I used to play ‘Corydon loved the fair
Alexis’ and ‘Whose flock is this before me?’

Mopsus

Here is a shepherd’s staff. Antigenes
oft asked me for it, oft he was refused,
though he deserved my love. The knots are spaced
at even intervals, the rings are brass.

Poem: Bird song by a mountain stream
Poet: Wang Wei


人闲桂花落
夜静春山空
月出惊山鸟
时鸣春涧中

Person idling, osmanthus flowers falling,
Calm night on the vacant vernal mountain.
The moon comes out, startles the mountain birds,
Their cries recur amid the vernal stream.


This is less an exercise in translation (I can hardly claim sufficient Chinese competency to translate unaided any but the simplest sentences) than in creating a new English poem built from imagistic materials and metrical suggestions found in the Chinese original. An explanation of some of the ways I’ve tried to put the mood of the original into an English idiom follows, for those interested.

The original poem splits into two parts, each consisting of two lines. The first two lines present an image of peacefulness; the last two of action and unease. I’ve attempted to preserve this sense metrically, using predominantly trochaic pentameter for the first two lines and iambic pentameter for the last two lines. I’ve also used a few metrical variations to try to capture something of the original mood. In the original, the first two characters in each line are followed by an implicit break. I’ve transmogrified this as follows. In line one, there is an extra unstressed syllable after “idling,” which, along with the mid-line pause enforced by the comma, creates a strong break between the two images. In line two, I’ve opened the line with a double trochee (“calm night on the”), clustering two stresses at the start of the line and thereby setting off the mountain from the night. In line three there is of course the comma, but also a trochaic substitution (“startles”) that is meant to spring upon the reader in a way suggestive of the fright given to the poor bird. The last line is perfect iambic pentameter with no obvious mid-line break; if there is any such break it is there only because the first three lines have effectively set up that expectation in the reader; but that is not for me to decide.