A very brief note on translating the 300 Tang Poems, with examples

Mike Farman

I like to keep in mind that Chinese characters began life in prehistoric times as evocative  symbols devised by shamans to impress their followers. Evolving over centuries, each character accumulated layers of meaning and artistic significance. By the time of the Tang Dynasty, this acquired mystery, visual and associative power enabled the finest poets to suggest a great deal in the space of a handful of 5- or 7-character lines. Tough luck for the western translator trying to represent them in a target language that is more rational and distinctly more one-dimensional.

So what can be done? Accumulating extra words to add associative density can lead to clumsy verse that moves away from the form and spirit of the original, eroding that precious fraction of “Chineseness” that might be retained in translation. Another approach would be to try and match word to character in the hope that less means more. This minimalist approach may be neater, but the translator could be risking chronic anemia of nuance. Not surprisingly, we are forced into uneasy compromise and land somewhere between these extremes. My personal bias is towards minimalism, but for these 300 Tang translations, I have made an effort to preserve consistency with the other two translators by not straying far from them stylistically.

300 Tang Poems, no. 305

This is a seven-character quatrain by Wen Tingyun (c.812-870), who pioneered the writing of his own lyrics to melodies invented by the entertainment girls; a genre taken up by many later poets that became known as tzu (Wade-Giles) or ci ( Pinyin). This quatrain shares many of the characteristics of his lyrics by using a string of oblique sensual images to paint a picture of a woman languishing alone. Wen could well be described as the first Imagist poet, preceding Ezra Pound by over a thousand years.

The poem is one of a number of “grievance” quatrains on similar themes, including the famous “Jade Stairs Grievance” by Li Bai, also included in the 300 Poems.

The boudoir poem, with its image of the lonely woman, was a great favorite of Tang poets; no doubt it was a reassuring image to contemplate when most officials were obliged to spend much of their lives away from the pleasures of home in the service of the Emperor.  However, this could not be Wen’s excuse, since he repeatedly failed the Presented Scholar examination and is reputed to have spent a good deal of his time hanging out in the city entertainment quarters.

溫 庭 筠

Wen Tingyun

瑤 瑟 怨

Jade Lute Reproach

冰 簟 銀 床 夢 不 成

ice bamboo mat silver bed dreams not here

碧 天 如 水 夜 雲 輕

green jade sky like water night cloud light

雁 聲 遠 過 瀟 湘 去

wild goose sound far go by deep Xiang river

十 二 樓 中 月 自 明

12th floor building middle moon self-evident self clear


Icy bamboo mat, silver bed, lost dreams;
jade green sky like water, frail night clouds.
Cry of a distant wild goose over Xiang river.
In the topmost tower room, her moonlit vigil.

The instrument in the title is a se, an ancient instrument somewhat like a zither with 25 strings. However, since there is no true western equivalent, I called it a  “lute”, which I think has a more romantic feel for western readers.

The first three lines of the quatrain, consisting of a string of visual and sound images, are relatively straight forward to translate, but the final line compresses so much into the seven characters that to convey its essence in a line that matches the others in length is difficult. A prose translation might read “On the 12th floor of the tower, there she is, clearly defined under the moon”. I have to confess that in the struggle to convey it economically, I have had second thoughts, and the translation of the line I give here differs from the one that appears in the 300 Tang anthology.

The Shih Ching , usually translated as either The Book of Songs or the Classic of Poetry, is the first great collection of Chinese poetry. Tradition says that it was edited into its present form by the Sage of Sages, Confucius himself. In fact the book was assembled before, during, and after the life of Confucius. Its more than three hundred poems include fragments of works as old as the Shang Dynasty (traditional; dates 1766-1154 BCE) as well as “contemporary” poems from the Chou feudal states written or spoken by both aristocratic court figures and just plain “folks”. A great deal has been said about the origin of many, if not the majority of the poems as oral “folk” art, but it is clear from the artistry of the written language in which they have been handed down that, like the scribes who improved upon the originally oral poetry attributed to “Homer” in the West to create the Iliad and the Odyssey, the people who converted Chou folk songs and court verses into poetry in written Chinese characters clearly thought of themselves as (and were) artists. So the characters used to render simple and direct lyrical utterances of the illiterate peasant folk often honor them with carefully chosen written vocabulary: the heart and soul of folk art remains clearly present, but literary subtleties are introduced. The scribes who created the Shih Ching were poets, not tape recorders. They chose the best of what existed, and they honored it with their own art.

In its present form, the Shih Ching consists of three major sections, the Kuo Feng, or Odes of the States, comprising 160 of the 300 are generally but not always folk songs. The Ya (Elegant Verses) subdivided with no obvious criteria into greater and lesser, include poems 161-265, and the Sung or Temple Odes high ritual songs and bits of dynastic myth, include poems 266-305. The present selection is comes, all but a single longer poem on drinking and its positive and negative consequences from the “Lesser Elegants”, all come from the Kuo Feng Sections.

Knowledge of the Shih Ching poems was a necessity of diplomatic practice around the time of Confucius, when it was a common practice to deliver or at least support the delivery of diplomatic messages among the feudal domains (the “States or Guo of the Guo Feng) by oral presentation of relevant lines from the Classic. From the Han on many of the poems where imbued with very specific allegorical interpretations, but it is clear that later poets, who memorized the book word for word, used it as allusive material in their own poems at least as often for its plain “folk” messages as for its orthodoxly approved allegorical ones.