J.J. here in my thirteen incarnation as your host. I have for you today two translations of a poem by the Chinese poet Li Bai
, also known as Li Po, which I first encountered in a poetry workshop as an exercise in sharpening one's ear for nuance in diction. Writing a poem requires translating what is in one's head into specific words in the air or on the page; in reading and comparing translations of a particular poem from its original language to another, we can also get a feel for refining the act of writing itself.
If you only have time to read one translation today, read Pound's; but if you have a breath more to read two, start with the first translation by Witter Bynner, and then read Pound's. What images, what impressions do you get from the former vs the latter? Are there particular wordings that seem more or less effective in conveying the speaker's experience?( 'A SONG OF CH' ANG-KAN' trans. by Witter Bynner )
THE RIVER-MERCHANT'S WIFEtrans. by Ezra Pound
While my hair was still cut straight across my forehead
I played about the front gate, pulling flowers.
You came by on bamboo stilts, playing horse,
You walked about my seat, playing with blue plums.
And we went on living in the village of Chokan:
Two small people, without dislike or suspicion.
At fourteen I married My Lord you.
I never laughed, being bashful.
Lowering my head, I looked at the wall.
Called to, a thousand times, I never looked back.
At fifteen I stopped scowling,
I desired my dust to be mingled with yours
Forever and forever and forever.
Why should I climb the look out?
At sixteen you departed,
You went into far Ku-to-en, by the river of swirling eddies,
And you have been gone five months.
The monkeys make sorrowful noise overhead.
You dragged your feet when you went out.
By the gate now, the moss is grown, the different mosses,
Too deep to clear them away!
The leaves fall early this autumn, in wind.
The paired butterflies are already yellow with August
Over the grass in the West garden;
They hurt me. I grow older.
If you are coming down through the narrows of the river Kiang,
Please let me know beforehand,
And I will come out to meet you
As far as Cho-fu-Sa.
---For more translations of the poem in question, see Other Translations of 'A River Merchant's Wife", and A. W. Allworthy's review of 'the New Directions Anthology of Classical Chinese Poetry', ed. Eliot Weinberger, which discusses Pound's translation of this poem in the context of translations by William Carlos Williams and David Hinton. If you have any particular favorite translation to recommend, or one you've done yourself, please share in the comments!