Tu Fu, a translation

Translated any poems lately? If so, then why not post them here?
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dedalus
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Tu Fu, a translation

Post by dedalus » Fri Mar 30, 2007 1:30 am

(This is a revision of a January 29th posting which was appended as a comment to Keith's sharing of a poem by Li Po in the Poetry Discussion forum on Feb 1, 2006. It rather sank without trace and I'd like to bring it back, if I may, in light of the haiku discussion below. The original site can be found at http://poetsgraves.co.uk/forum/viewtopi ... 9031#29031)

What I have for you today is a new translation of a poem by Tu Fu, a contemporary of Li Po and equally famous and beloved in China. The pair of them were T'ang Dynasty (618-906 AD) superstars, which, by Chinese reckoning, was the beginning of the Early Modern Age.

There is a great deal of guesswork involved when translating from classical Chinese, much more so than when translating from Japanese, which at least has grammatical markers. The Japanese use "Kanji" (Chinese characters) in conjunction with two phonetical syllabaries, whereas the Chinese use only Kanji and depend on word order to supply grammar and syntax. You'll see what I mean as we move along.

I got talking about this poem with a Japanese colleague at my school who teaches "Classics" (i.e. Chinese and early Japanese literature) and it soon became apparent that the standard English translation -- the one that shows up on dozens of sites on the Internet; every single site, in fact! -- was putting an interpretation on this text that was aesthetically pleasing (Western-style) but in some ways very inaccurate. It didn't respect the deliberate use of repetitive words, for one thing, and introduced the simile of "spray from a waterfall" which simply doesn't exist in the original.

The title of the poem is "Tou-Kou" in the Japanese reading, or "Climbing Upwards" / "Ascending the Mountain".

To begin with, here's the standard translation:

In a sharp gale from the wide sky apes are whimpering,
Birds are flying homeward over the clear lake and white sand,
Leaves are dropping down like the spray of a waterfall,
While I watch the long river always rolling on.

I have come three thousand miles away. Sad now with autumn
And with my hundred years of woe, I climb this height alone.
Ill fortune has laid a bitter frost on my temples,
Heart-ache and weariness are a thick dust in my wine.

Actually, that's not so bad, unless you actually look at the Chinese. You can check out the original poem on the following website:
http://wengu.tartarie.com/wg/wengu.php?l=Tangshi&no=186

What is rather pleasing and innovative about this site is that you can pass your cursor over the Chinese characters and English translations will pop up. To save time, what you end up with is something like this:

Wind - sharp/cutting/biting - heaven - high - monkey(s) - cry - lament;
Lake - clear/pristine/pure - sand - white -bird(s) - fly - return/revolve ;
Without - boundary - falling - tree - mournful- mournful - down
Not - limit - long - river/waters - roll - roll - come;
10,000 - Ri - sad - autumn - always - made/constructed - guest;
100 - year(s) - many - illnesses - alone - climb - station;
difficult - disaster - bitter - hate - complicated - frost - temple/brow;
heavy rain - flood - new - stop/pause/settle/ -muddy/dusty - wine -cup.

I am not a Kanji scholar. I can read several hundred, both simple and difficult -- totally unsystematically -- plus, of course, the two phonetic scripts which are easy to learn. Perhaps I wish to avoid the shame of being totally illiterate in the society in which I live. They don't make things easy. I am below par since 900 Kanji is considered the borderline of functional literacy: 2000 + is normal. Japanese children learn Kanji from the age of 6 to 18 -- from First Year primary to high school graduation -- and have the benefit of matching what they learn to the spoken language which they use as a matter of course. Pity the poor foreigner, who is often completely at sea in this highly literate culture. This, I think, is where the Japanese would rather keep us -- at sea, or across the sea, or if the worst comes to the worst, deathly silent and under it. Acknowledging foreigners can still be rather fraught and tense and difficult. It can seem awfully funny to us. To them it's not.

Right, back to the poem. Here is my version:

Under a cutting wind from the open sky, monkeys are sadly keening,
Over clear lake waters, over white sands, the birds are flying home;
The autumn leaves come fluttering, fluttering down,
The never-ending river is flowing, flowing ....

Ten thousand leagues and the sadness of an autumn traveller:
A hundred years of sorrow attend me, as all alone I climb;
Misfortunes press down on me, frost clings upon my brow.
In this flood of weariness, disused, my wine cup gathers dust.


I have a sort of visual feel for this poem -- I think I can "see" what the guy is saying. Laugh away, but it can be spotted through the Kanji. All these poems are visual "events" and, it must be said, thank heavens for print which the Chinese invented, because brushwork upon a scroll might make these things collectors items but they also become nearly totally illegible!

I was trying to re-interpret Tu Fu and I don't really know if I got there. What I do know is that the "standard translation" all over the Internet is inaccurate and essentially out-of-tune with what he actually wrote more than 1300 years ago. My translation is open to query and criticism, naturally enough, but I just wanted to challenge the standard version.

Is Mise,
Brendan

8)
Last edited by dedalus on Tue Jul 17, 2012 4:12 am, edited 6 times in total.

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Post by Heidi » Fri Mar 30, 2007 6:35 am

Hi Dedalus....

I do not know the poetry of the far east very well. This is absolutely fascinating though...I agree. I will tell you that i have studied Latin American and Spanish poetry however. And, translation is everything!! It is so very important. Your version is truly beautiful, especially in comparison to the one posted on the internet! For example, as simple as , "the birds are flying home;" instead of: "Birds are flying homeward" creates a whole different picture. Furthermore, "spray of a waterfall", is ridiculous and like you, I'm sure the writer did not intend this!!

Great attempt of translation. Your version has flow and makes sense.

heidi

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Post by twoleftfeet » Fri Mar 30, 2007 8:46 am

Ded,

I was struck by (what I take to be) Taoist references in this poem, which
your translation has preserved.

The never-ending river keeps flowing, flowing along

-The river is a metaphor for the Tao, and "ten thousand" refers to
the "ten thousand things" - the myriad manifestations of the physical
universe that are brought into play by the interaction of Yin and Yang
- the "world" that our minds choose to construct from the sea of atoms
swirling round them.

Nice one
Geoff
btw - this thread probably doesn't belong here.
Any thoughts?

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Post by dedalus » Fri Mar 30, 2007 9:17 am

Dear, dear Heidi ... I love you already! But to be serious (for a moment) I agree that translation is one of the more difficult things to carry off well. It's not just deciphering a code, essentially logical and mathematical, it's more often a cultural jump in which the translator becomes a participant -- reluctant or otherwise -- in the creative process.

Even in related European languages there is so much hidden cultural knowledge -- especially in poetry -- that you end up with a whole load of footnotes and insecurities about rhythms and rhymes.

When translating from culturally remote languages (such as Chinese and Japanese) these problems are compounded. After quite a number of years in the Far East I have reached the horrid but inevitable conclusion that we in the West have NEVER, EVER seen a proper translation of a Japanese or Chinese poem*. Unfortunately, it works both ways, so that Shakespeare (for example) in Japanese is totally different from the chap we thought we knew. Kurosawa, the great Japanese film director, has made that clear. The broad swathes come across, but everything gets lost in the details.

Best wishes,
dedalus/ Brendan

* Ezra Pound wrote beautiful pastiches of classical Chinese poetry, thereby popularising Li Po, for example, in the West ... but, but, but, it's NOT what the guy actually wrote in Chinese!!

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Post by dedalus » Fri Mar 30, 2007 9:23 am

Nice one
Geoff
btw - this thread probably doesn't belong here.
Any thoughts?
Yeah, I know. Here was I was trying to keep it quiet. Now you go and bloody well bring it up. Right, thanks a lot, mate ....!! Thanks to you, we'll probably get biffed or told off. Maybe not, they're a nice crowd ... generally speaking, of course! :wink:

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Post by emuse » Sat Mar 31, 2007 5:52 pm

Hi Brendan,

A very interesting discussion. I am fascinated with the idea of language, especially as it relates to culture. As Neitche was rumored to say, we are a different person for every language we speak. I believe that's true, there are aspects of a culture which are untranslatable, many of which are intuited. I've had my own experiences of immersion in other cultures and have found at times the simplist of things fascinating. Sometimes the literal explanation of a word in another language can be poetry itself and act as inspiration. I am reading a translation from the French of Henri Michaux's Ideograms in China. Are you familiar? So now we have a an American guy, translating a Frenchman's interpretation of a Chinese text! How close am I to the original? Who knows. Being familiar as you are with Chinese literature you might be able to refer me to the best translation in English. Even with this third-pronged effort I am able to absorb some of the magic of the original characters (or so it seems) :)

Lastly, do you know the Barnstones? Tony and Willis are both scholars of Wang Wei and have written "Laughing Lost in the Mountains" with assistance from Xu Haixin. Do you consider them good translators? I met Willis at a workshop and bought several of his books. I love him personally but was not attracted to his translation of Rilke's Sonnets to Orpheus. Not because I speak German and feel he betrays the author but I prefer the sensability of Stephen Mitchell for Rilke translations. He is absolutely the best! I also have Willis's translation of Machado which I enjoyed. As for Rumi who else is there beside Barks who does such wonderful work? We must rely on these scholars for a taste of the Sufi.

I think the art of translation is such a strange creature. Sometimes the raw literal effect of the words is stunning (I absolutely BELIEVE that you "saw" the intent of what you translated. It is evident in your loving translation. I think that is the major ingredient in a good translation. That ability to "see" into the author's own visual mock up of the poem.

I have a friend who wrote a book of poems based on Wang Wei's River poems. They are beautiful in their own right and even if not the exact word for word, bring the Westerner a little closer to the mist that lies low among the mountain.

Lastly (and this really is lastly!) I have a few copies from Poetry (a big mucky muck here in the US who puts out snobby poetry mags) of their translation issue (they put out one or two a year of these). It has poems translated from many different cultures. I would be willing to send a few out for purposes of discussion if anyone is interested! Send me your address and I'll send you a copy. The copies of the book include a discussion pamphlet to prompt readers into stimulating discourse.

Well now Brendan, see what yo've started!

E

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Post by David » Sat Mar 31, 2007 9:37 pm

Although it's not about translation as such, but definitely (and relevantly) about the fact that different languages convey different things - not just different words for the same things - can I recommend "Spoken Here: Travels Among Threatened Languages" by Mark Abley.

Not only does it cover (in the words of the blurb) "the South Asian language whose innumerable verbs include gobray (to fall in a well unknowingly) and onsra (to love for the last time)" , but his travels took him here, to take a look at Manx, and - by chance - to encounter my own walking, talking and drinking buddy here in our fair island. He gets a pretty good write-up too.

David

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translation

Post by Heidi » Sun Apr 08, 2007 8:25 pm

I agree that some of the culture and ethnicity can be lost in translation. However, a good translator will take this into consideration. If trained and schooled in languages you also learn and study other cultures. Many of the best translators study year upon year and are very skilled at what they do.

For example, Srikanth Reddy, a professor at the U. of Chicago translates many Spanish poems to English. He is very detailed in his translations and knows a great deal of the hispanic and Spanish cultures. As a serious writer and professor I believe translators, like himself ,are quite capable of conveying the words and cultures of non-english writers.

As a student of the Spanish language I learned a great deal of the varying hispanic cultures. You can immerse yourself in a different culture and have a strong hold on the language to provide good translation. I studied under two professors from Colombia who gave me a great understanding of their culture, as well as the other South American countries and even Spain. They were full of knowledge and well- travelled.

Just a few thoughts! :wink:

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re

Post by Heidi » Mon Apr 09, 2007 2:45 am

Also, what about writers who do not write in their native language? A prime example would be Kafka, who is Polish, but did not write in that language.

More to think about...

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Post by dedalus » Mon Apr 09, 2007 4:17 am

What interests me is the approach to English of bilingual writers from India/Pakistan/Sri Lanka, for example, and from Africa (Nigeria, Kenya, etc.) and even from Ireland (Synge, Brendan Behan, and in our own day, Seamus Heaney). Kazuo Ishiguro would be interesting, too, if he could speak Japanese, but he can't.

PS - I think you mean Conrad, Heidi.

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Post by Heidi » Mon Apr 09, 2007 4:55 pm

Dedalus,
No, I mean Kafka. However, I do stand to be corrected as Kafka was from Prague. He was fluent in Czech, but considered German to be his first language. All of his published works were written in German. Though, he did write letters in Czech. He also studied the French language.

Going back and forth between languages you do become your own translator, in a way.

For me when I was writing literary term papers in Spanish, it was constant translation in my head.

more thoughts...

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Post by twoleftfeet » Tue Apr 10, 2007 8:40 am

It's not just the culture of differenent countries and languages - it's
the culture of a different historical period.
How do you put yourself in the shoes of someone who lived 2000 years ago?
For instance I might be able to speak the language of the Ancient Celts of Britain, but the Druidic religion that informed their spiritual life was all
but eradicated by the Romans

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Post by dedalus » Tue Apr 10, 2007 1:58 pm

Interesting point. Even Shakespeare is becoming more and more difficult to comprehend with each successive generation because many a modern reader can no longer follow the wealth of references and associations. I do, however, think it is still possible to transport oneself back to the mental world of an earlier period by sympathetic projection ... and a great deal of study and immersion! The further back one travels the more difficult it becomes (as your example of the Celts brings out) because there is so much that has happened since then that needs to be discarded and forgotten as well as all the things that need to be learned or recalled. I wouldn't say it was entirely impossible, though. The great misapprehension (as happens frequently in the movies) is to believe that apart from a lack of modern technology and peculiarities of dress that people from previous eras were exactly like us. They were not. They shared many of the same recognisable emotions and motivations (pride, anger, lust, envy, gluttony, sloth ... and what's the seventh deadly sin?) but their mental processes and resultant behaviour would be pretty much incomprehensible to us unless we could spend some time among them, which is hardly on the cards. A lot of the world we presently co-habit is operating on different time zones (I mean centuries, not Greenwich Mean Time) and I'm afraid I have a poem on that topic which will just have to keep for another time. Anthropologists and undercover agents know all about that but not many of the rest of us take the slightest bit of interest, and particularly not politicians or military gentlemen. As we are learning to our cost.

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Post by cameron » Mon Apr 30, 2007 9:51 am

Ded,

Hope you don't mind me moving this? With a bit of luck it will help to kick start this new forum!

thanks
Cam

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Re: Tu Fu, a translation

Post by Lake » Tue Jul 17, 2007 8:06 pm

What an interesting discussion here!

dedalus,

I appreciate your critiques on the translation, especially your detailed study on the repetitive words.
Your version is definitely closer in meaning to the original. Good job!

Lake

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