Thursday, January 4, 2007

STL #54: Reading Wang Wei

One thing I like to do is compare translations of poems. It doesn't matter if I know the language at all or not: the exercise helps me identify specific poetic qualities and refine my own preferences. Some time ago I did a big project of comparing several translations of Tu Fu. I happened to pick up a selection of his fellow Tang dynasty poet Wang Wei's poems by David Hinton, so I thought I'd try again. My range of comparison is much smaller. I only have the Hinton and Cyril Birch's Anthology of Chinese Literature on hand. I'll start with "Deer Park," which Hinton calls Wang's best-known poem. Hinton also provides a crib of the ideograms. Part of the trick to translating Chinese is figuring out how the signifiers go together. The first two lines of the four-line poem go something like this: "empty mountains not see people/only hear people voice echo." Hinton goes into some detail about how he gets from there to "No one seen. Among empty mountains,/hints of drifting voice, faint, no more." He uses the passive voice to create ambiguity as to the actual subject of the sentence. C.J. Chen and Michael Bullock seem pretty sure about the subject. They translate these lines as "On the lonely mountain / I meet no one,/ I hear only the echo/ of human voices."

I don't know who's more accurate. The latter is easier to resolve, with "I" taking control of the imagery. It is also a bit more consciously "poetic" with the repeating long o sound that evokes solitude to our ears. Hinton's lines are maybe better-made, tightly knit with n and m sounds.

The second half goes like this: "return light enter deep forest/ again shine green moss (on/ascend)." According to Hinton, "shine on" is redundant in Chinese, so he renders it "Entering these deep woods, late sunlight/flares on green moss again, and rises." This is hard to parse without his rationale, but let's compare to Chen and Bullock: "At an angle the sun's rays/ enter the depth of the wood,/ And shine/ upon the green moss." This is clearer, but slack from the three prepositional phrases. They intensify the unity of the n sound (which oddly Hinton finds as well). Hinton opts for a more ambiguous rendering again, and provides a reasonable Buddhist rationale in his introduction. The rising light is an event in the empty mind perceiving the "empty mountains." Between these two, I must say I prefer the Hinton as richer and more sophisticated.

While I like approaching translated poems by comparison, this particular poem doesn't mention the most notable feature of the "content" of the poems--the continual reference to the "bramble gate" of his or another's yard. Of the 100 poems in the selection, 22 refer to a yard gate, and a handful more use "gate" for a mountain pass. Most of these gates are Wang's own bramblewood gate, usually closed. Hinton explains that the closed gate is a Buddhist symbol for shunning the false world of sensation, and it points to what I think is the big difference between Wang Wei and Tu Fu. Wang is a hermit, Tu is an exile. I've thought of writing a novel based on Tu Fu's poems (there's a clear narrative of his final river journey). It could even be a screenplay, incorporating his cultivated personality and imagery from poems, but I don't see a similar narrative thread in Wang Wei. While there are poems of him making journeys and talking to friends (responding to P'ei Ti in several poems), he always returns home. While I know and like Tu Fu's poetry better, I relate to this aspect of Wang Wei more.

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