Wang Wei

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


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.