A Good Translation of a Bad Poem?

By Lucas Klein, published

Here is one of my least favorite poems in the standard anthology, The Three Hundred Poems of the Tang Dynasty 唐詩三百首, by Meng Haoran 孟浩然 (c. 689 – 740):


It’s one of my least favorite poems* for a number of reasons:

  • it’s redundant: l. 1 says when you’re asleep, you’re not awake (though I suppose there’s some skill required packing so much redundancy into so few words)
  • it’s vague: l. 2 talks of bird cries “everywhere,” as if nothing more specific were available
  • it’s got lazy imagery: “night comes” (l. 3) with the “sound of wind and rain”; if only I could believe that “wind and rain” were code for sex—if so, the poem would be more interesting
  • it’s grammatically incorrect: everyone understands l. 4 to mean that the speaker doesn’t know how many flowers have fallen, signifying some kind of awareness of temporality and ephemera amidst the lulling beauty of springtime, but the words clearly state that he knows exactly how many flowers have fallen

Go ahead—take me to task on my reading of this poem. I’ll still maintain that hating certain works of literature is an essential step in loving other works of literature.

But my hatred of this poem also has something to do with how it’s presented. The poem is harmless enough on its own, but it’s so overplayed, so obstinately recited, that the only rational response is to seethe against it in loathing. The last time I encountered this poem was in a Hongkong bookstore where customers and passersby were greeted with this poem, broadcast on endless loop from the doorway, recited in the malodorous--I mean melodious--tones of a standard-accent Mandarin-speaking kindergartner. In the CD they were peddling, the poem—and many, many more like it—had come to symbolize for Chinese parents and their children something very close to what Confucius, and his Institutes, symbolize for would-be language-learners around the world: in one shot your little Chinese boy or girl can learn Mandarin and the glories of our nation’s longstanding literary and cultural heritage, all for the purposes of building a more harmonious society. Hey, I like beauty, too, and believe that literature has practical applications, but when I see, or hear, literature being put to such uses as this, it’s hard for me not to feel an inner discordance against such enforced harmonizing (the poem, of course, was recited by one voice, not by many, which means that it can’t present any literal harmony, but only demand that we listeners harmonize with it, instead).

Funny thing is, I don’t think this is an inappropriate representation of Meng Haoran at all. That second-rate poet who came to the big city from the sticks (Xiangyang 襄陽 may as well have been Bumblefuck, or maybe Dodge, KS, in the Tang) decided, rather than writing against the dominance of the capital style, to cozy up to it, to write the way they wanted him to, even though they’d probably snicker at his accent (or in this poem, his oblique-tone rhyming) and prefer the work of someone raised in the city and trained to imagine nature properly (no wonder Meng failed the Imperial Exams). What better way to represent this in the present than to use his words to teach Mandarin and an appreciation for mainstream culture to little Cantonese-speaking girls and boys?

But then I came across this poem:

Spring Dawn

From spring sleep
I awake before dawn
To a world filled
With birdsong

A stormy night
Wind and rain I recall
But of ten thousand blossoms
I wonder how many have fallen

I like this poem. I like the detail, the specificity of pre-dawn birdsong, the slight lilt of formalized poetic phrasing in l. 6, the suggestion of an ancient Chineseness in “ten thousand blossoms,” and especially the way the poem snuggles up against rhyme without taking it over (dawn / birdsong) before jettisoning it conspicuously (recall / fallen).

Problem is, of course, that this—as you no doubt have already figured out—is a translation of Meng Haoran’s poem above, by Lan Hua 藍花, a pseudonymous homage to Red Pine. [It’s from this page here, but since it’s an FLG publication—the people who stand outside Chinese consulates and SAR tourist traps handing out leaflets about torture and leaving parties—readers in the Pea Are Sea probably won’t be able to access it; for those who can, you might also find this page interesting, where Lan Hua translates, less compellingly to my mind, one of my favorite Tang poems (by Wang Wei 王維, the poet Meng Haoran wanted to be), or this page, where neither poem in Chinese or English does much for me either way].

But if I like the poem in English much better than I like the poem in Chinese, does that mean that the translation is good, or bad?

I expect many readers will say that the translation is good. Assuming that there’s some beauty in the original, they’ll figure that the translation, in conveying its own beauty, is not only faithful, but a successful avoidance of that fatal trap of translations, academic deadness.

And as far as that goes, they’re right. But while the debate is nowhere near settled in my mind, for the purposes of this blog entry—a form that takes well to bombastic statements, or blogviating—I’ll state a flat-out disagreement. The problem with the saying that a translated poem should read like a poem (Guo Moruo’s 郭沫若 [1892 – 1978] phrasing is probably the most concise: 譯詩得像詩, or “translated poems must resemble poems”) is that the definition of “poem” changes over time and depending on location (as in, different cultures, communities, and sub-communities have different understanding of what defines poetry). At the moment, the prevailing definitions of poetry in the cultures I know something about are still Romantic, which is to say based on self-expressivity and lyric transcendence. Translation, though, at least as I’ve begun to see it, is in place to challenge, to address and redress, such conventional definition: a translation can’t be a vehicle for self-expression, since when you’re translating you’re expressing someone else; a translation can’t transcend, since it’s always got to have something to do with the materials that came before (as in, the original poem). If I like or dislike a translation as a “poem,” I want to be able to like or dislike it (or believe I like it or dislike it) for similar reasons that I would like the original if I were reading it in its language. If I’d like the rhyme in the original, I want to like the rhyme in the translation; if I’d dislike the sloppy diction in the original, I want to dislike the sloppy diction in the translation. I’m not saying that I have some absolute demand of ideally impossible fidelity, or a prescriptive way to produce or measure such fidelity—the interesting thing is how different translators come up with different answers to the same questions—but if translation is going to happen, it’s got to happen because things get translated.

One way to put it is accountability. The translation has to be accountable to—among other things—the piece that it’s translating. If you’re translating a legal contract, your translation has to be accountable to the law and writing of the original, and while the field of meaning and signification is much larger in poetry than in law, some of the same things apply. Especially in Chinese poetry, where accountability to reality—as seen in the story behind the expression 推敲, for instance—has been such a dominant criterion in aesthetic judgment, shouldn’t translation be held to similar, and related, standards?

Then again, if I don’t like Meng’s poem because of its lazy relationship to the reality it portends to depict, and fault Lan Hua’s translation because of its unrigorous representation of the poem it portends to translate, then doesn’t that end up making the translation ultimately more faithful? And doesn’t that mean I should like it more?

*It’s not my least favorite poem; that honor goes to Chen Zi’ang 陳子昂 (c. 661 – 702) for the sentimentalist schlock found in 《登幽州台歌》:
The closest thing this commonplace utterance has to a saving grace is that (tì), which meant “tears” in the Tang, now means “snot.”


# 1.   

As I recall, Arthur Cooper translated Li Bai's response to this poem in a way that I found far more fulfilling than both the original and the response.

But then again: how much of our distaste is from having heard the poem repeated again and again and again? (This may account for my general dislike of Li Bai.) I've got kind of a hate on for "Whose woods these are" -- no matter how much I like and admire Robert Frost -- simply because I had to memorize it in kindergarten.

I don't agree with your reading of line four, by the way; I've always read it with an implied "who?" before , and ascribed it to the broken prosody of the poem as a whole.

Brendan, May 11, 2011, 3:26p.m.

# 2.   

Klein's commentary is a neat example of why China would do well to open its doors to foreign Sinologists. Not just for the occasional lecture, or by translating their books into Chinese; I mean hire them to teach topics like Chinese poetry in their universities.

His take on these Tang Dynasty poems and their translations is so utterly un-Chinese -- and thus refreshing to me -- that it helps one reevaluate them in a totally new light. Bravo!

 Bruce , May 11, 2011, 8:38p.m.

# 3.   

Well, I have a hate for Robert Frost just on principle. But otherwise, good question, Brendan. How much of our response has to do with how we've heard the poem? Obviously, much of it. The context, it turns out, is a big part of the text, which is one more reason translation is so difficult.

And I know that my reading of l. 4 is contentious and controversial (as is my take on l. 1, since many read 不覺曉 as "not aware of the dawn," rather than just "not awake"), but find me another poem where there's an implied "who," or an implied ? I can't think of any.

So it's not only our distaste that comes from hearing the poem again and again; hearing a poem over and over can also give us the possibility of liking, or understanding, something. That's how the canon works--your interpretation is not your own, and you can never read something the first time, since it's already been pre-read for you. The commentaries that explain the poem compel us to make sense out of it, even when it pretty plainly doesn't make sense.

That's not to say that Lan Hua's translation is a failure, only that it's translating a good deal of the "paratext" as well as the text. Which is fine, but it's the encroachment of that paratext on the text that I feel covers the plain truth that it's a lousy poem.


Lucas Klein, May 11, 2011, 9:49p.m.

# 4.   

Thanks, Bruce!

Lucas Klein, May 11, 2011, 9:50p.m.

# 5.   

Re: poems with an implied "who" -- surely that's a feature of classical poetry? The observer, being busy drinking wine and versifying, is just out of the frame. I'd have no problem imposing an "I" on the Meng Haoran poem -- "Spring slumber, and I missed the dawn." The number of poems without a or a far outweighs the ones with.

At any rate, what I think we can all agree on is that "床前明月光" is a crap poem, and generations of Chinese people like it only through the Stockholm Syndrome effect.

Brendan, May 11, 2011, 11:59p.m.

# 6.   

True about LB's 床前明月光; the only interesting thing about that poem is that doesn't mean bed, but chair.

And sure, there are all sorts of elisions of personal pronouns; but where is there an interrogative pronoun missing?

Lucas Klein, May 12, 2011, 12:05a.m.

# 7.   

I think y'all hate 床前明月光 cuz you read it in stuffy 21st-century Mandarin.

Get a youngster to recite it for you in Cantonese. Lots more fun!

 Bruce, May 12, 2011, 1:41a.m.

# 8.   

I've recited it in Cantonese (here it is on YouTube, with recording volume very low). It's more fun, but still a lousy poem.

Lucas Klein, May 12, 2011, 2:03a.m.

# 9.   

"translations are like mistresses; they can be beautiful or faithful but not both."

Dean Barrett, May 12, 2011, 4:11a.m.

# 10.   

Uh, you got the sexist cliché wrong, Dean. Who cares about fidelity when you're dealing with a mistress? The French saying--where translations are known as "les belles infidèles"--refers to women, or wives.

But thanks for relegating us translators to failure from the get-go!

Lucas Klein, May 12, 2011, 6:15a.m.

# 11.   

OK, how about this one then:

"Translations may be moonlight and water while the originals are sunlight and wine." H. A. Giles

Good point though about not worrying about fidelity of mistresses!

Dean Barrett, May 12, 2011, 6:20a.m.

# 12.   

Apropos of the questions surrounding in l.4, I think it just as likely to be an implied "“ as "." Even in my yet-narrow experience with classical, I've encountered a number of implied negatives, often with the character "."

I generally agree, though not on the same grounds, with the judgment that a translator should not bring too much of a poem's paratext into daylight, since "paratext," after all, is the reader's subjective filling in of the penstrokes the poet has left out, and the empty spaces are where the art is.

On the other hand, I can't in good faith agree with Lucas' argument for accountability in translation, because I am honestly grateful for Pound's Seafarer, which he altered pretty significantly, and, after reading the original, I'd say for the better. I know I've read other poems adapted in a similarly successful way, but they're not coming to the brain at the moment.

The problem with "adaptation" as I mean it here is, of course, that most translators simply don't have the talent for it. Most of us when we meta-translate a piece end up doing what Lucas just mentioned, i.e., dig into the paratext, pulling the whole thing off to one side. Pound, by contrast, intensified the charge of meaning (I know, I've used the word) in the language instead of hunting up connotations; in a sense, he moved it upwards instead of sideways. Most of us don't have what it takes to do that.

Lucas, I thought meant something more like "couch" in that time period? At any rate, it doesn't mean "bed." I must say my favorite rendering of this quadrilateral little beauty was:

床前明月光 疑是地上霜举头望明月 我是郭德纲

I'd note that if the original were a good poem, this argument would not exist. Bad poetry is like bad money: it drives out good and only spawns more. Incidentally, I'll note that a period of pretty extensive research into Guo Moruo's work suggested to me that he wrote almost no poetry worth reading twice.

 Canaan Morse, May 12, 2011, 10:30a.m.

# 13.   

Oh, if anyone is interested in reading some comically bad translations of good classical poems, check out Tony Barnstone and Chou Ping's The Anchor Book of Chinese Poetry, or you can see their mutilations of 古诗十九首 on Drunken Boat, here.

"Traveling traveling and still traveling traveling..."

 Canaan Morse, May 12, 2011, 10:39a.m.

# 14.   


That link to The Drunken Boat (not Drunken Boat--they're two different publications) didn't work. Here it is again.

As for bringing in Pound, well, he can support or refute any argument, can't he? (and we all noticed that you didn't mention his Chinese translations in Cathay or the Shih-Ching). Every era has its own norms, of course, and while I think it's important to understand, and even appreciate, or even love, what earlier eras have or had done, I think it would be a mistake to assume that their successes could be reproduced in our era, that we could hold them up as models (no matter how much you might love Shakespeare or Du Fu--or Borges or Cervantes or Pierre Menard--not many people are trying to write like them today, for good reason). For Pound it was important to establish a new poetic in part based on the authority of classical models rediscovered or newly discovered. When I translate, the stakes are different. And one of those stakes is accountability (Anglo-saxon and Chinese were different for EP, but with his Latin and Greek versions, he could eschew close fidelity because, when you can rely on your audience to be literate in Greek and Latin, who needs fidelity? But today, for me, that becomes an impetus for accountability--the idea that anyone else could be checking my work means that I've got to be sure not to let my own indulgence run away with me).

As for an implied , I'd like to see an example from a Tang poem (I don't have anything like a photographic memory, so I'm sure I'm missing a lot), but I also think that the difference between and 不知 is much greater than that between and 不如.

Finally, is short for 胡床 or 繩床, brought from India by traders and itinerant monks and associated with Buddhism (proper Confucians wouldn't sit on anything but straw mats). My understanding is that it was a kind of stool made with rope, as one of its names implies.


Lucas Klein, May 12, 2011, 11:49a.m.

# 15.   

Jasmine farmer's morning worries

oversleeping in spring finks will sing anywhere wind and rain from the night are the blossoms all down?

MW May 2011

Matrin Writen, May 13, 2011, 2:26p.m.

# 16.   

spring dawn, meng haoran

oversleeping in spring chirping birds and the sound in the night wind and rain flowers fall to the ground

MW May 2011

Mritna Wertni, May 13, 2011, 3:55p.m.

# 17.   

你好,Lucas,今天早上起来偶尔看到你的博文我对你不喜欢这首唐诗的理由有点不明白我从小语文不好但这首诗是我最喜欢的一首诗因为这首诗简单易读而且准确的描述了暴风雨后平静的春天早上意境。 First, the poet talks about he just woke up from spring sleep, without aware it is already morning, I think a lot of people have this same kind of experiences, we we wake up, we aren't aware of how long our sleeps are, and 處處聞啼鳥, when he woke up, he heard the birds sing, if you live in some country side, you will understand, when you get up, everywhere is so nice and quiet, the first thing you hear is birds singing everywhere, what a beautiful, fresh morning. 夜来,you cant interpret as "night comes", it is more like as I recall during last night, has no specific meaning. you can check zdic.com under entry #11 “ 用做诗歌词中的衬字八月里桂花香。” and 知多少 does not mean poet does not know how many flowers had fallen down, it is just a interrogative mood that already include an answer to emphasize that there are a lot of flowers fallen. kind of like use "what a blablabla " to emphasize. the poet found out that there are so many blossoms fall down, kind of like "there just too many, who knows how many!". this poem exactly depict a beautiful peaceful spring dawn (the birds singing everywhere) after a spring rain storm night,the poet had a very good sleep, but from some clues, fallen flowers, vaguely recall sounds of wind and raining, he realize it was windy and raining last night, how beautiful can it be to have a safe and sound good sleep during storm night and enjoy the peaceful morning?? What a beautiful, wonderful picture the poet showed you! I really hope you can enjoy this poem because it is so beautiful...

舒晴, May 14, 2011, 11:18a.m.

# 18.   

I'm no expert, but my instinct tells me that in the fourth line the key is not in finding some hidden , but in the use of 多少.

I like the translation by Lan Hua up to the "ten thousand" part, that adds a specific character to the original poem that just isn't there, although I am very glad the translator didn't use the overly misused "myriad."

As for your view of translation, Lucas, that "a translation can’t be a vehicle for self-expression, since when you’re translating you’re expressing someone else; a translation can’t transcend, since it’s always got to have something to do with the materials that came before (as in, the original poem)", I'm afraid you will have to work very hard to convince me of this. Just from your reading of the poem, I can get a picture of what kind of translation you would create, and that tells me something about you. I cam across an example of this the other day (from Robert Wright's The Evolution of God p.240), in such a mundane translation as the Bible, in the Gospel of John we usually read "In the beginning was the Word," but an alternate translation is “In the beginning was the Logos, and the Logos was with God, and the Logos was God." Here you cannot use either translation without showing your theological agenda.

There is also a problem with what "the materials that came before" mean. Let's suppose that your reading represents the ”original" poem as Meng Haoran intended it. Now the translator has a choice of whether to work with this "original" poem or to work with the generally accepted interpretation of the poem. There may be even more choices in terms of different interpretations or the translator's own interpretation. The translator can't make these choices without any self-expression involved, unless I suppose he receives very specific instructions from an editor.

I also feel that your exercise of searching for the original poem can very easily lure the translator into the trap of academic deadness, since in this case the act of translation begins with an academic exercise. For some reason I am always dismayed when I get a new translation and see praise in the forward that the translator is such a great "academic-translator." I believe academics is invaluable, but in the act of translation, I am not sure if that should always be the first step. I think that is why people still like Pound nowadays, because we have been overloaded with academic-translators. It might be best all-around for a separation of labor. The academics can tell us what the "original" poem really was like, and what traditional interpretations were, then the translator can step in and decide where to start.

Anyway, thanks for the post!

Jeff, May 14, 2011, 11:48a.m.

# 19.   

Thanks, Shu Qing, for letting me know you like the poem. It's great to respond to literature, and I'm glad you have a poem you like. It's also a poem I don't like, for many, many reasons, and anyway your taste and mine are probably pretty different. I bet there are any number of poems, paintings, people, and so on that I like that you don't, and vice-versa. So I'm not trying to convince you, or anything else, of anything; I'm just trying to offer something you or anyone else may not have thought of this way. You can do with that what you will.

But when you tell me why you like the poem, I don't think you're telling me you like the poem so much as you like the poem as it's been explained to you. To a certain extent that's all we can ever do, but I'm trying to look at this poem again and ask, "Does it match up? Does the poem as it's been explained to us match the poem as it is?" (and yeah, there's a lot of philosophy behind whether we can ever get to "as it is").

Let me give you another example: "There was a farmer who had a dog and Bingo was his name (oh)." Now, is Bingo the name of the farmer or the dog? Just about all North American children will tell you that Bingo is the dog's name--obviously, right? Who's ever heard of a farmer named Bingo? But grammatically, the sentence is not the same as "There was a farmer who had a dog named Bingo"; the "who" marks a subordinate clause, and so the sentence is equivalent to "There was a farmer and Bingo was his name." B - I - N - clap - clap! Grammatically, you're singing about the farmer, but the difference between grammar and common sense makes you believe you're singing about the dog. That difference between grammar and common sense I call, in a poem like this, bad writing. If Meng Haoran had written 花落已多少 (which would have had better 平仄 scansion, anyway, for a 律絕, though probably a weaker poetic quality [is there a weaker word in any language than ?]), then clearly the last line would mean what you think it means. But as it is, I don't think it does.

Lucas Klein, May 15, 2011, 1:55a.m.

# 20.   

So, Jeff, does the above mean that when I'm offering my interpretation, I'm expressing myself? Well, to a certain extent, yes; everything I say or do is an expression of myself. But when we're talking about current conceptions of poetry, we're talking the "lyric self," that wholly contained transcendent notion that probably hit the west as a response to the increasingly fragmented experience of selfhood called the Industrial Revolution. This is the lyric self that believes in poetry, as Wordsworth did, like a "gentle breeze" that "can come / To none more grateful than to me; escaped / From the vast city, where I long had pined / A discontented sojourner: now free, / Free as a bird to settle where I will," or that, like Whitman, celebrates himself and sings himself. It's like the Romantics took that kernel of truth that something of the self, writ large, is always expressed in writing, and expanded it--while narrowing the definition of the self--to the point where poetry could only be some kind of cri de coeur.

But this ethic of poetry isn't eternal, or universal. Can you tell much about Shakespeare as a person from his writing, or can you tell something about the characters he wrote? Like writing a play, if you're translating a cri de coeur, you may have to get in touch with the cri of your own coeur, but you do so to cri someone else's coeur, not your own.

And the cri de coeur certainly wasn't the ethic of poetry in the Tang (Li Bai is the closest thing we get). Wang Wei (空山不見人) didn't even believe he was there half the time! Of course, that's a fascinating conundrum. In Wang Wei, he's both there and not there at the same time; that's kind of how I imagine the translator. You've got to be there--with your agendas and so on--for the translation to occur, but if that occurrence is going to be translation rather than transposition, the translator's presence has to be an absence.

So, could what I'm saying lure the translator into the trap of academic deadness? Probably, just like talking about "creativity" and "self-expression" can lure the translator into the trap of self-indulgent versions that convey nothing of the poem purportedly being translated (look at Merwin's "translation" of Li Bai's 靜夜思 as "Quiet Night Thoughts": I wake and my bed is gleaming with moonlight // Frozen into the dazzling whiteness I look up / To the moon herself / And lie thinking of home). You translate commercial and legal documents: would you tolerate another translator who took those documents and shaped them in his or sometimes own image, to express him- or herself? Way I look at it, there's nothing special or mystical about poetry; it's all writing, same as fiction or documents. But because it's been exalted--in so many different cultures--for so long, we think it's different, think it's special. And I think that takes a real toll not only on how we look at poetry, but on how we look at translation, as well.

Lucas Klein, May 15, 2011, 2:09a.m.

# 21.   

Well, from your response I can tell that this is just a small part of a much larger and nuanced project, so I'll look forward to reading more about it in detail later.

I do agree that translations should not be misused for the purpose of shaping one's own image, but once you open that door a crack and admit that everything you do is in some way a self-expression, you can never reach your goal of the translator as being completely absent.

I think of translation as being like working as an auto mechanic. I think an auto mechanic can express himself through his work, even though he is not shaping the car in his own image. A fellow mechanic might be able to look closely at what was done and say "yep, that's Jim's work", and I suppose you would be more inclined to read the works of certain translators over others based on having read their previous works.

I would not be a translator if I could not express myself through my work, and I think if you want to bring translation down from some exalted or special status, that you might look at it from my point of view. It seems to me there is nothing exalted or special about saying "I translate for myself, not for the original author."

Jeff, May 15, 2011, 10:04a.m.

# 22.   

Part of your problem with the poem is that you don't understand some of the classical Chinese usage in it. Jue in line one means "be aware of". The last line is a question, not a statement. Also, you have to make allowances for the fact that Classical Chinese is extremely concise, and you can't simply map a one to one understanding of words onto a poem like this.

Poetry is special, precisely because it isn't "ordinary" speech. Rather, it's where language and imagination go beyond the norm. Treating it as if it's just the same as commercial documents would be a good way to misread what's going on, and to impoverish your life at the same time.

For what it's worth, this poem has been considered a classic in its own genre for around 1000 years. It might be worth asking why, rather than just denouncing it.

Incidentally, you are wrong about Pound's loose translations being the result of the freedom to rely on a literate audience. Pound simply wasn't that good at the languages he translated. Consider e.g. how Cimbrorum minas became "Welsh mines".

nickzi, May 15, 2011, 5:09p.m.

# 23.   

Hi, Jeff--

I like your notion of the translator as a mechanic. And the way I look at it, while any mechanic might be able to express him- or herself working on a car, the point of it, the purpose of it, is not self-expression. I guess it's that distinction--and the distance of translation from "poetry," whose purpose is often seen as self-expression--that I'm trying to focus on.


Lucas Klein, May 16, 2011, 1:16a.m.

# 24.   

Hi, Nickzi--

I understand to mean "awake," though it's not that different from "be aware of" (I wouldn't want to map a one-to-one understanding of words onto a poem like this). The question of l. 1 in my mind is : does it mean "dawn," or "aware"? If the former, then Lan Hua's "I awake before dawn" is pretty straightforward; if the latter, then the line is kind of lame. So let's salvage the poem and say it means "I'm not awake by dawn." Fine with me.

But to your assertion that the last line is a question--why? Can you show me another line from roughly the same period where something similar is going on? (one friend showed me 侬今葬花人笑痴他年葬侬知是誰, where 知是誰 pretty clearly wants to mean "don't know who," but that's from so much later in history [the 紅樓夢] that I'm not really sure it matters much).

Also, I never said poetry wasn't special, or that it was the same as commercial documents. I said there was nothing special about it, and that, like other documents, it's writing. Consider Jeff's analogy of automobiles: there's obviously a big difference between a truck and a sports car, and certainly I'd be prone to call one special (i.e., a Ferrari: its design, mechanics, and pricetag are all part of its "meaning," which is more than just getting you here to there--though it has to do that, too). But just because you might say that some car "really flies," you wouldn't want to believe that it actually can, and that it's no longer still a car.

But back to 春曉: why has it been considered a classic for 1000 years? My guess is that it has a lot to do with its mood, which is mild and contemplative, and the fact that in its last line it hints at a mournfulness (falling flowers in springtime are the sad corollary to "If winter comes can spring be far behind?"), which gives the Confucians something to feel smug about. Actually, I'll go further, and say that the poem's amalgam of Daoish nature-imagery, Confucian mournfulness, and Buddhist metric scansion--especially up against Confucian antagonism to frivolous 齊梁體--makes this poem a particularly successful placator. But that doesn't mean I have to like it. Nor does it mean that writing about why I dislike it is "denouncing it."

It's an interesting view of language and poetry you have, where you seem to believe that there's something transcendent and eternal about poetry, but then fault people for not understanding that transcendence in its minutest detail, because of language deficiencies. Still, you might want to consider that translations haven't always been expected to do what we expect them to do today: when Pound (who knew some languages well, and some not so well) was translating, philological accuracy was a pretty new ethic, and certainly one he never gave much truck to. Did he not give it truck because his foreign language skills just weren't up to it? Maybe, but that doesn't mean that he didn't also have ideas and agendas in translation that had to do with his historical moment.


Lucas Klein, May 16, 2011, 1:26a.m.

# 25.   

Sorry if I sound rude, but I think there is something westerners are lacking of: the specific Chinese feeling. The second hate-poem pf you may sound sentimental and banal to you, but for a Chinese, community is very important, and the author was sent to boarders far away from home and may never be able to come back again, it is very natural that he felt sad.

You can learn the language and understand it. But there is a special kind of Chinese sentiment which you don't share. The "good translation" you mentioned above westernized the Chinese poem.

Also, there is a kind of intuition which only a native Chinese speaker can have towards the language. The poem sounds quite well to Chinese ears, but you want to seek some deep meanings in it which it doesn't claim to possess. The meaning is banal, accept it. It is all about the sound.

Btw. the last line is not a question, it means a lot of flowers are fallen down, or "an unaccountable amount of flowers are fallen down".

tess, May 23, 2011, 12:17p.m.

# 26.   


Speaking strictly for myself, I come to this web site for wide-ranging discussion and the occasional insight.

I remain distinctly unmoved by the "I-am-Chinese-and-you-are-not" approach, as it doesn't shine light on the poem and its significance. And it implies that one group of readers is innately better placed to make authoritative statements about a given poem.

Back to the poem, please.

 Bruce, May 23, 2011, 7:47p.m.

# 27.   

Well stated, Bruce. Indeed, Tess, if as a Westerner I will never understand Chinese poetry (because I'm "lacking of" something? because Westerners don't think community is important?), then what's the point of translating? Surely Chinese people are different from people from other cultures, but isn't the point of translation to point out, soften, and then not eliminate those differences?

As for your reading of Chen Zi'ang... really? he wrote this poem in exile? How do you know? Usually this poem is understood to mean that the 古人 and 來者 are great figures in the historical continuum of Chinese civilization. Nevertheless, by now, Chinese poems come with all sorts of stories surrounding them (the "paratext" we were talking about above); do you ever doubt those stories, or just assume that they must be true?

Nevertheless, my point was not that it's banal (solitude in the face of historical absence is not banal at all), but that it's sentimental. I think people's feelings are all pretty much a set amount: what we're on the lookout for is new ways of pointing them out, and sentimentalism seems to me like a lazy way to get at unearned emotion.

As for the poem being all about the sound--I didn't know you were a native-speaker of Middle Chinese! I'm glad you are, though, since I have a question--do and rhyme?

Finally, there's your point about the meaning of 花落知多少. Let's count the interpretations so far: 1. There's an implied 2. It's a question--there's an implied 3. It's a question--there's an implied 4. It's not a question, but a statement that means "an unaccountable amount of flowers [have] fallen down"

I admit to being confused, but if we can't agree on what the line actually means--because we're trying to reconcile it with what we want it to mean--isn't something wrong?


Lucas Klein, May 24, 2011, 3:29a.m.

# 28.   

Just to play devil's advocate…

I think there's something to tess' comment that "there is a special kind of Chinese sentiment which you don't share". We don't need to read this as an essentialist argument, verging on racism, but simply as a statement of different cultural expectations. I've read plenty of Chinese stories that I know were perfectly well written, and yet left me unsatisfied because they were tuned to produce an emotional response that didn't mean that much to me.

Nostalgia for a rural childhood, tess' example of the horror of exile, longing for lost friends… These are all emotional states that "we" might appreciate as one element of a story, but Chinese readers will often accept as ends in themselves, as the raison d'être of a tale. This doesn't have to be ascribed to something in the blood, just something in the culture. It's not that strange.

 Eric Abrahamsen, May 24, 2011, 11:14a.m.

# 29.   

It seems to me Bruce and Lucas are misinterpreting what tess is trying to say. I don't see anywhere where she says she is better able to understand the poem or all poetry and literature for that matter than Westerners. She is just offering her own reading of the poem and claiming that this represents a general Chinese sentiment toward the poem. The comment is helpful, because it shows us how a certain audience may feel toward the poem.

As for Lucas's question about knowing Middle Chinese, it seems to me you are making the very transgression you two are wrongly accusing tess of committing: I know Middle Chinese and you don't, therefore I am in a better position to make a judgment about this poem.

Jeff, May 27, 2011, 8:56a.m.

# 30.   

Hi, Eric & Jeff--

Tess writing "Sorry if I sound rude, but I think there is something westerners are lacking of: the specific Chinese feeling" does indeed sound to me like an essentialist, if not racist, reading of cultural difference. But I don't need to insist on it if other people read it differently. Cultural differences exist, of course, and as I said above, I think the point of translation is to negotiate with those differences.

As for Middle Chinese, well, I think it'd be hard for me to make the argument you think I'm making, Jeff, since I don't know Middle Chinese. I have a dictionary called T'ang Poetic Vocabulary somewhere, but I can't find it, so I don't know if rhymed with . I suspect they did not rhyme, but even if they did, I think it's a strange argument for someone to say "It is all about the sound" when she's also reading the poem through a certain kind of mediation and translation as well.


Lucas Klein, May 27, 2011, 11:39a.m.

# 31.   

For anyone still following along... I had a conversation about the meaning of Meng Haoran's 花落知多少 and how it means "I know how many flowers have fallen" with a Chinese poet and a Hongkong translator of Classical Chinese into (rhyming) English last week. One of them was impressively upset and defensive about my assertion; the other brought up another poem, from roughly the same period (as in, within a few centuries). I'm not backing down from my reading of Meng Haoran, but in the spirit of intellectual honesty, here's the song lyric (ci, ) to the tune of Yu Meiren 虞美人 by Li Yu 李煜 (937 - 978):


The point in question is obviously the second stitch of line 1. Some things to consider: could 往事知多少 be something of an allusion to 花落知多少, and in some way influenced by its grammar (we are, after all, talking about spring flowers falling)? Or are 往事知多少 and 花落知多少 even grammatically identical? My instinct is to understand Li Yu's 多少 as an interrogation of --i.e., "How much do I know about the past?"--but perhaps 知多少 was just the medieval Chinese equivalent of "I could care less," when obviously they mean "I couldn't care less."


Lucas Klein, July 4, 2011, 12:13a.m.

# 32.   

as i ruminate on this rich post & the chewy ripostes, just to add a parallel example : edgar poe translated by stephane mallarmé becomes monsieur poë

gary gach, April 26, 2012, 10:11a.m.

# 33.   

The beauty of the Chinese poetry is how poet needs to express his feelings in a best way within a restricted set of rules. That translation made all the TASTE disappear and I am not sure why people would like it.

Qiang, February 24, 2014, 1:16p.m.

# 34.   

The beauty of the Chinese poetry is how poet needs to express his feelings in a best way within a restricted set of rules. That translation made all the TASTE disappear and I am not sure why people would like it.

Qiang, February 24, 2014, 1:16p.m.


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