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Su Tung-p’o

Bernardo Soares (Fernando Pessoa), in his The Book of Disquiet:

I see life as a roadside inn where I have to stay until the coach from the abyss pulls up. I don’t know where it will take me, because I don’t know anything. I could see this inn as a prison, for I’m compelled to wait in it; I could see it as a social centre, for it’s here that I meet others. But I’m neither impatient nor common. I leave who will to stay shut up in their rooms, sprawled out on beds where they sleeplessly wait, and I leave who will to chat in their parlours, from where their songs and voices conveniently drift out here to me. I’m sitting at the door, feasting my eyes and ears on the colours and sounds of the landscape, and I softly sing – for myself alone – wispy songs I compose while waiting.

Though I will not feign to be quite so isolated as Bernardo Soares, this is a mood I know well. I delight in other people from far away, preferring to hear of their songs those muted strains that drift out to me than to be fully present. Yet this is not mere evasion and inactivity, is not pessimism. It is perhaps difficult to impress the vivacity of this mood on one who does not know it firsthand, though Soares succeeds better than I can.

This passage immediately allies itself, in my mind, with the following poem by Su Tung-p’o, which I give in the original, followed by my own translation and that of Burton Watson:

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

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.

What attracted me to the poem is the narrator’s location: not up in the tower with the song, not out in the heavy night, but somewhere in between. Of course, the narrator is a different person than Soares, is not an ineffectual Epicurean. We do not know what brings him to this strange middle position. But the distance is the same.

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).

Poem: Spring Night
Poet: Su Tung-p’o


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 the night is deep and still.

[Burton Watson, translator]

A spring night is to be cherished (“one hour worth a thousand gold coins”) for its beauty: the scent of flowers, the sight of the shadowy moon. This is a simple enough thought. It is with the final two lines that the poem becomes a masterpiece.

We hear “songs and flutes upstairs”—thus a third sense is introduced. The audible revelry contrasts with the visual and olfactory beauty of the spring night. Not that it disrupts it (the night remains “deep and still”), but the “threads of sound” are beautiful in a different way.

Even more important than the contrast of the senses, however, is the information this third line gives us about location. The music is “upstairs.” This tells us that the subject of the poem, the voice of the poem, is located downstairs. That is to say: neither with the revelers nor in the night. Rather somewhere halfway between them, enjoying neither. This is confirmed in the final line, where we see an unoccupied swing, unmoving in the night. There is a place for him in the night; he does not take it. We do not know why.

A spring night is to be cherished, in company or alone it does not matter. Here Su Tung-p’o presents us with a person who cannot cherish the spring night: neither the society it offers, nor the solitude.


[It is interesting, with these thoughts in mind, to consider what a disaster the Kenneth Rexroth translation is. Leaving aside that it is unpleasant English regardless of its accuracy or lack thereof, it captures nothing whatsoever of what I find in the Watson translation. By focusing so exclusively on the images themselves, Rexroth entirely effaces the person from the poem. In Watson’s translation this person is in the margins to be sure, is merely hinted it, but that is precisely the source of the poem’s quiet effectiveness. Rexroth’s poem has no margins whatsoever. It thus becomes a trite bit of nature poetry and nothing more.]