Three Translations of a Poem by Li Bai

Let’s look at three different English translations of a poem by Li Bai, a famous Chinese poet of the Tang Dynasty. It can be interesting to see how three different people handle the challenge of translating Chinese into English.

A Farewell to a Friend

With a blue line of mountains north of the wall,
And east of the city a white curve of water,
Here you must leave me and drift away
Like a loosened water-plant hundreds of miles . . .
I shall think of you in a floating cloud;
So in the sunset think of me.
. . . We wave our hands to say good-bye
And my horse is neighing again and again.

     ~ translated by Witter Bynner
Seeing Off a Friend

Green Mountains
Lie across the northern outskirts
Of the city.
White Water
Winds around the eastern
City wall.

Once we make our parting
Here in this place
Like a solitary tumbleweed
You will go
Ten thousand miles.

Floating clouds
Are the thoughts of the wanderer
Setting sun
is the mood of his old friend.

With a wave of the hand
Now you go from here.
Your horse gives a whinny
As it departs.

     ~ translated by Greg Whincup
Taking Leave of a Friend

Blue Mountains to the north of the walls,
White river winding about them;
Here we must make separation
And go out through a thousand miles of dead grass.
Mind like a floating white cloud
Sunset like the parting of old acquaintances
Who bow over their clasped hands at a distance.
Our horses neigh to each other
                    as we are departing.

    ~ translated by Ezra Pound

The Original Poem by Li Bai

送友人

青山橫北郭 , 白水遶東城 o
此地一為別 , 孤蓬萬里征 o
浮雲遊子意 , 落日故人情 o
揮手自茲去 , 蕭簫斑馬鳴 o

Theme

The essence of the poem is summed up in the title. The poem describes a scene of two friends parting. The images relating to the sadness of saying farewell to a friend (the setting sun) and the loneliness of traveling (the drifting tumbleweed or water-plant) are combined with an image that emphasizes the free spirit of the traveler (the floating cloud). A floating cloud never stays in one place for long, and as it moves, it continuously changes forms. You can appreciate its beauty for a short time, but eventually it will disappear from view. Thus, the parting is a bittersweet one.

The friends need not express their feelings to one another. Though unspoken, their sentiments are understood. They simply wave farewell. In the final lines, it is the horse that signals the final goodbye with a sound (蕭簫) that can be translated as ‘neigh, neigh’.

Structure

The original poem was written in four pairs of two lines, with each line containing five syllables. For example, the five words of the final line can be literally translated as: ‘neigh neigh separated horse cries’

One translation of the poem (Bynner’s) has maintained the eight-line length. Pound only added one extra line. Whincup, on the other hand, attempted to keep the feel of the short line length by breaking up each line into two or more lines (but he keeps each pair of lines together within its own stanza).

Parallelism is also used in the original poem between the 1st and 2nd lines (green mountains/blue river) and between 5th and 6th lines (floating clouds/setting sun). These parallel structures are most evident in Whincup’s translation. Whincup states that the power of the imagery of the 5th and 6th lines makes them the heart of the poem.

All three translators adapted the lines to include the grammatical items—such as prepositions, articles and plural endings—expected in English, although Pound still maintains a couple of Chinese grammar features (e.g., no determiner is used for the nouns mind or ‘separation‘). The translators’ use of English grammatical features tends to result in lines considerably longer than the five-syllable original lines.

The translators also have slightly different interpretations of each scene. For example, the last line is written by the different translators as:

  • Our horses neigh to each other. (eight syllables; both horses neighing)
  • Your horse gives a whinny/As it departs. (ten syllables; the traveler’s horse whinnying)
  • And my horse is neighing again and again. (eleven syllables; the narrator’s horse is repeatedly neighing)

Patterns of Tone and Rhyme

Another important feature of the original poem’s structure is its pattern of tones. In spoken Chinese (e.g., Putonghua, Cantonese, Shanghainese), the meaning of the word depends on the tone used (rising, falling or even) when saying it. In traditional forms of Chinese poetry, the phrases are supposed to follow a specific pattern of tones (see How to Write Classical Chinese Poetry for more information). Needless to say, the melodic effect that this pattern of tones produces cannot be achieved in an English translation.

The original poem also features a rhyme scheme in which the last word of the second line (cheng) rhymes with the last word of the fourth line (jeng) and the last word of the sixth line (ching) rhymes with the last word of the eighth line (ming). None of the translations, however, feature a rhyme scheme.

Conclusion

Although the translations neglect the tonal pattern and rhyme scheme and are written in an entirely different grammatical system, they still are able to reflect the clear style and vivid imagery of the original. Of the three translations, I personally feel that Whincup’s stays closest to the original, though I think Bynner’s is the most elegant.

References

Bynner, W. (1929). Three Hundred Poems of the Tang Dynasty
Pound, E. (1987). Collected Shorter Poems. Boston: Faber and Faber.
Whincup, G. (1987) The Heart of Chinese Poetry. New York: Anchor Press, Doubleday.

Your View

Which translation do you like best? Why?

~ by longzijun


Interpretations of Poems


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