In another of the alarming gaps in my education, I learned of Du Fu, who is “generally described as the greatest of China’s poets,” as an aside to a poet I was after at the time. As I thought about the instability of Du Fu’s name in English, I couldn’t help but think, and what about the poems?
I’d gathered up three books that contain some of his poems, each by a different translator, and set about searching for a poem that appeared in every book. That alone was a challenge; even the titles didn’t match up.
I was reminded by this of Anne Carson’s description of the translator’s dilemma—and the joy:
Prowling the meanings of a word, prowling the history of a person, no use expecting a flood of light. Human words have no main switch. But all those little kidnaps in the dark. And then the luminous, big, shivering, discandied, unrepentant, barking web of them that hangs in your mind when you turn back to the page you were trying to translate.Translator David Hinton provided some clues to the problem of translating from Chinese to English: “The most immediately striking characteristic of classical Chinese is its graphic form” and “its grammatical elements are minimal in the extreme.”
prepositions and conjunctions are rarely used, leaving relationships between lines, phrases, ideas, and images unclear; the distinction between singular and plural is only rarely and indirectly made; there are no verb tenses, so temporal location and sequence are vague; very often the subjects, verbs, and objects of verbal action are absent.So what, pray tell, is a poor translator to do? In translating Du Fu, David Young took this approach:
My being able to situate a poet like Du Fu in the poetic practices of his time is more important, finally, than any fluency in Chinese. Knowing the literal meaning of a group of characters is merely the first step, even for native speakers and readers, toward a successful interpretation of a poetic text.As for Rexroth? Of his work in translating this poet, cherished since adolescence, Rexroth wrote: “I make no claim for the book as a piece of Oriental scholarship. Just some poems.”
With that, here are Rexroth’s, Hinton’s, and Young’s translations of a poem by Du Fu.
WRITTEN ON THE WALL AT CHANG’S HERMITAGE
It is Spring in the mountains.
I come alone seeking you.
The sound of chopping wood echoes
Between the silent peaks.
The streams are still icy.
There is snow on the trail.
At sunset I reach your grove
In the stony mountain pass.
You want nothing, although at night
You can see the aura of gold
And silver ore all around you.
You have learned to be gentle
As the mountain deer you have tamed.
The way back forgotten, hidden
Away, I come like you,
An empty boat, floating, adrift.
-translated by Kenneth Rexroth
INSCRIBED ON A WALL AT CHANG’S RECLUSE HOME
In spring mountains, alone, I set out to find you.
Axe strokes crack—crack and quit. Silence doubles.
I pass snow and ice lingering along cold streams,
then, at Stone Gate in late light, enter these woods.
You harm nothing: deer roam here each morning;
want nothing: auras gold and silver grace nights.
Facing you on a whim in bottomless dark, the way
here lost—I feel it drifting, this whole empty boat.
-translated by David Hinton
I WRITE TWO POEMS ON THE WALL AT ZHANG’S
I came to find you here this spring
among these greening mountains
whack whack of a distant axe
otherwise just huge quiet
I crossed fast mountain brooks
still rimmed with snow and ice
I climbed past Stone Gate cliffs
to seek you out at sunset
when you glimpse gold and silver
you can just ignore them
you hobnob with the deer
and learn their harmless ways
we walk so far into the woods
that we almost get lost
as free of care as empty boats
drifting with any current.
-translated by David Young
Nox, by Anne Carson
Classical Chinese Poetry, translated and edited by David Hinton (greatest poet, p. 190; on classical Chinese, Introduction, pp. xx-xxi; poem, p. 192)
One Hundred Poems from the Chinese, translated by Kenneth Rexroth (just some poems, Introduction, p. xii; poem, p. 4)
Du Fu, A Life in Poetry, translated by David Young (Simic quotation, Introduction, p. xvii; Young on translation, Introduction, p. xii; poem, p. 15)