Friday, February 04, 2011

Reading Chinese poetry (in translation of course) is interesting...

...because when I find one I like, I never know whether what I'm reading is actually a good translation of the original.

Here, for example, we have a poem from Xin Qiji (1140-1207), which I liked enormously in its translation by Tony Barnstone:

When young I never knew the taste of sorrow
yet loved to climb up towers,
to climb up towers,
and just to write poems I pretended to be miserable

Now I've exhausted all of sorrow's flavors
but stop before I say it,
stop before I say it,
and finally just say, "What a cool autumn day."

I love the contrast, and the gentle self-mockery of the poet looking back on the silliness of his youth. So I wanted to see whether Helen likes that poem too...which means I start looking for it in Chinese. In this case, I'm lucky, because this is one of Xin Qiji's best-loved poems, and his Wikipedia article gives me the Chinese text. But it also helps me come up with an almost-literal, see for yourself.

醜奴兒 辛棄疾

愛上層樓 愛上層樓
欲說還休 欲說還休

In my youth I knew not the taste of sorrow
I loved to climb towers
I loved to climb towers
And as a game to write poems speaking of my sorrows

But now I know utterly the taste of sorrow
I long to speak and find peace
I long to speak and find peace
But I say, "It's a nice, cool autumn day."
And the translation Wikipedia offers:
When I was young, I could not tell what melancholy was, but I loved to climb towers. As I climbed up this and that tower, I wrote many a poem too, but these poems did not communicate true melancholy, they were simply a word game for me. As for now, I have grown old and tasted the bitter taste of melancholy, I wish to talk and write about it, but I am silenced, I give up even before I try. How I want to talk and write about it, but give up even before trying! I find myself exclaiming instead, that this chilly weather makes a good fall!

Okay, I know classical Chinese requires way fewer words than English; so any Chinese poem will be longer when translated into English. But...42 words (滋味 is a single word) to 108??? Really?

But I do have one site to send you to that does a lovely job of "translating" the poem, though in this case it translates it into visual art and music rather than into English. Here is a short video that consists of an animation that evokes (very successfully) classical Chinese watercolor painting, with this poem sung as a soundtrack and the lyrics showing up karaoke style...but in lovely classical brush-stroke calligraphy. Really very much worth the minute and a half it takes to watch it. (There's more of that style of animation there if you just start clicking on other videos, just as if you were on could spend quite a bit of time exploring there without regretting it.)


At 8:23 AM, Anonymous bonbon2 said...

In Chinese grammer, sometimes it's okay to omit subject in a sentence, as the way we make ellipsis in English. That's why Chinese poets in old times could write in fewer words and make their poems short and catchy without losing the beauty and the emotion.

And you are right about this poem, that it is probably the most-loved poem of 辛棄疾 in modern time, probably every Chinese person could recite a couple of phrases from this poem. :)

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