Tuesday, May 17, 2016

Translating Li Bai’s Cháng’àn Xíng (Chang'an Ballad)

The poet should always recognize his complete audacity when venturing into the realm of translation, & venturing to translate Li Bai's great poem 長干行 (Cháng’àn Xíng) is doubly audacious, because one is dealing not only with the great original, but also Ezra Pound's justifiably famous version, "The River-Merchant's Wife: a Letter".  But after some debate, my translation partner Sheila Graham-Smith & I have rushed in where angels fear to tread. You can see the result here.

To say that Classical Chinese presents challenges to the translator is an understatement. It’s difficult enough to render a French, or Latin, or German poem into English, & English is directly related to all three of those languages. There are problems of nuance & expression that arise constantly. But Classical Chinese is a much different situation. While there are important differences between all European languages, & especially between the Romance & Germanic languages (of which English is a hybrid), Classical Chinese (& Mandarin as well) really presents a whole new set of problems that go far beyond nuance. Classical Chinese poems are telegraphic in the extreme; there’s no conjugation of verbs, declension of nouns, pronouns are for the most part absent, word order is not fixed in the way we’re used to (& indeed, word order of Classical Chinese poetry is much more fluid than word order of Classical Chinese prose) & any number of markers that could guide a person through a sentence of French or Latin simply don’t exist on the page. By way of illustration, here is a simplified word-for-word translation of the first six lines of the poem (remembering that a number of these words have multiple possible meanings:

I, your servant develop at first cover forehead
break off blossom gate in front play
boy ride horseback bamboo horse arrive
surround bench play with green plums
together dwell Chang’an inside
two small not have suspicion misgivings

Sheila & I have developed a process for our translations. Once a poem is chosen, I make a literal crib of the characters—but I try to find all the nuances of meaning in the first go-round rather than limiting each character to its most likely meaning. I also find all the existing English language versions of a given poem I can (& also other English language cribs, if they are available), & review them carefully. At what points do they seem to diverge from the meanings I’ve derived from my crib? Do a number of translations (especially among the more reliable translators) all diverge at this same point? At what points are the translations weak as English language poems, & at what points are they strong. I remain of the opinion that one needs to strive to produce the best English language poem possible within the framework of the translation’s determined meaning. If we are going to interest readers in the great poets of another language, how are we going to do so with bad English verse? This is why Pound’s version of Cháng’àn Xíng, for all its errors in translating Chinese to English, is far better than a more accurate version that’s insipid poetry. Pound made mistakes—even some fairly big mistakes—but if you read his poem, you will want to find out more about Li Bai. This is certainly not true for many versions!

Once I’ve compiled the crib & other versions, I work on a draft & attempt to polish that as well as I can before sending it, along with everything else from the poem in Chinese to English versions to cribs to Sheila for editing & research. Depending on the complexity of the issues involved, there may be a number of subsequent exchanges before we settle on a final version.

Now to turn to some specifics. One of the great debates about Cháng’àn Xíng has to do with the speaker’s tone, especially in the poem’s concluding lines. There are some who believe that she is saying she will go as far as Changfengsha but not a step further; others, myself included, believe the tone to be tender & deferential throughout, & I’ve tried to convey that as well as I can. Indeed, the poem’s first character, 妾 or Qiè, can be translated as “I, your concubine”, or “I, your servant”. It’s a word that indicates deference by a woman to a man. However, the most reliable sources all agree that to translate it literally calls too much attention in English to an expression that would be natural in Chinese. Such deference is assumed, whereas in English it would be read either as an unnatural submission or an exotic expression of humility, or both, & the point would be missed. This same character appears again in line 25. I have tried to indicate some of this deference not only in the general tone, but also in my version of line 7: “at fourteen I became, my lord, your wife”; Pound, in one of his more inspired moves, translated this as “At fourteen I married My Lord you.”

But back to Changfengsha. No less a translator than David Hinton renders the ending as “I’m not saying I’d go far to meet you,/no further than Ch’ang-feng Sands.” There is also the problem of the line about the letter immediately preceding this. Why does she ask him to write a letter? Indeed, the line can come across as being imperious, though I don’t believe for a moment that’s Li Bai’s intent. A literal crib of the final four lines might read:

sooner or later to go down three Ba
in advance do letter tell home
together greet not to speak of distance
all the way arrive Changfengsa

San Ba ( sometimes translated as the Three Bas) was a district in Tang Dynasty China in what is now eastern Sichuan; Changfengsha is literally “Long Wind Sands”, & some translate the place name. Interestingly, 巴 means among other things “sorrow”, & if one wanted to take a risk in translating, rendering the San Ba into the Three Sorrows would potentially add to the poem’s meaning. We considered this possibility, but decided we wanted to keep the place names in Chinese—if we translated San Ba, why not translate Chang’an to “Eternal Peace”?

This also raises the point of the conditionality strongly implied in the San Ba line. Is she saying “when you sail back through San Ba” or “if you sail back through San Ba”. This is just the sort of thing that tends not to be explicit in Classical Chinese poetry. We debated this point for a long time. My inclination at one point was to follow the example of Arthur Sze & Jun Tang, who in his paper titled "Ezra Pound’s The River Merchant’s Wife: Representations of a Decontextualized “Chineseness”" & use “if; it seemed to me that "if" softens the request for a letter in the following line. 

But I've changed my thinking on this. First, it seems certain that his return journey would take him through San Ba, so why would she say "if"? Then why would she request a letter? Because she isn't waiting for him to get homeshe's so eager for his return that she wants to meet him on the way. How else would she know when to expect him in Changfengsha? In any case, my somewhat archaic use of “do” in line 28 is intended to convey tenderness rather than a demand. I actually use the expression myself, but then, I too am somewhat archaic at this point. 
The other crux I’d like to mention comes especially in lines 13-14, though the passage really begins in line 7. A literal reading goes as follows:

Fourteen become my lord wife
shy face not yet experience open
lower head toward dark wall
thousand calls not to be one turn around
fifteen begin to beam with joy
desire together with dust follow ashes
always keep to hold pillar truthful
how go up gaze into the distance husband I?

There are two separate issues here, though the lines certainly present a condensed narrative throughout the passage. First, I take lines 8-11 to specifically address sexual awakening. Generally these lines are translated as having to do with whether she would look at, & more specifically, smile for her husband, but I believe the meaning is more intimate than that, & have translated them to suggest that. In this case I’m going a lot on instinct, but Sheila does agree with me on this point.

Lines 13-14 are more obscure however. Pound essentially sidestepped them, especially line 13, which he combined with line 12 to produce: “I desired my dust to be mingled with yours/Forever and forever and forever.” First, it’s worth noting that Classical Chinese poems typically break into couplets, & as such, line 13 would not follow upon line 12 in the way his version suggests. But more importantly, his version is at best an extremely free rendering of the underlying meaning in line 13, without capturing any of the literal meaning.

Line 13 refers to a legend about one Wei Sheng, who, to quote the online Yabla dictionary was a “legendary character who waited for his love under a bridge until he was drowned in the surging waters”, & by extension, someone “who keeps to their word no matter what”. Most, but not all, translations assign these lines as describing the husband—the speaker believes he will stay as true to her as Wei Sheng did to his love.

Not all translators do this, however—JP Seaton & Arthur Sze both assign the line to the woman—that she has decided to stay true no matter what. Sheila’s research uncovered not only the fact that the Blue Bridge where Wei Sheng drowned has proverbially referred to devoted love in general, whether the love is a man’s or woman’s love, but also that the Wei Sheng story, at least by the late Tang, was a Romeo & Juliet type story in which the woman committed suicide after finding out that Wei Sheng drowned. We can’t say for certain this story was current in the high Tang period when Li Bai was writing, but since it’s attested in a written source not all that long afterward, it does seem likely.

What put Sheila on to exploring this question further was line 14. First, she surmised that the line about climbing something high to look for her husband made no sense if line 13 was about the husband, & it’s hard to argue with her logic. She also found stories of women climbing mountains to look for their men returning & staying to gaze so long they turned into salt. It’s our sense that Li Bai is alluding to such stories in line 14, & as such, they complement the Wei Sheng story in line 13.

There are many issues that could be raised in discussing the impossible but richly absorbing experience of translating Cháng’àn Xíng. I’ve only sketched a few of the main cruxes & already this is an extraordinarily long blog post. But I hope this will inspire some to study the poem, the great Li Bai, & indeed, Classical Chinese poetry more deeply. There are wonders to be found.

A select bibliography of important versions of Cháng’àn Xíng, & other Li Bai poems would include the following:

Cooper, Arthur, Li Po and Tu Fu. New York: Penguin, 1973
Hinton, David, The Selected Poems of Li Po. New York: New Directions, 1996
Holyoak, Keith, Facing the Moon: Poems by Li Bai and Du Fu. Durham: Oyster River, 2015
Pound, Ezra, Cathay. London: Elkin Matthews, 1915
Seaton, J.P., Bright Moon, White Clouds: Selected Poems of Li Po. Boston: Shambala, 2012
Sze, Arthur, The Silk Dragon: Translations from the Chinese. Port Townsend: Copper Canyon Press, 2001
Waley, Arthur, The Poet Li Po. London: East and West, 1919

The works by Pound & Waley are both in the public domain, & links to them at the Internet Archive & Project Gutenberg respectively are provided. For what it's worth, I like both the Waley & Sze versions quite well.

Image links to its source on Wiki Commons:“Emperor Minghuang, seated on a terrace, observes Li Bai write poetry while having his boots taken off (Qing dynasty illustration)” – 17th century: piblic domain.

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