04 December 2008

李白 Li Bai: 夜思 Night Thoughts

The following is probably the most popular Chinese quatrain. It is by Li Bai (or Li Po) of the Tang dynasty. The title is "Night Thoughts" or "Thoughts at Night". My first attempt was in June last year which I found unsatisfactory. This is my second attempt (the first attempt is in the notes).

Li Bai (701--762): Night Thoughts

1  Before my bed, the moonlight so bright,
2  Be frost on the ground, I suppose it might.
3  I raise my head and the moon I behold, then
4  I lower it, brooding: I’m homesick tonight.

Translated by Andrew W.F. Wong (Huang Hongfa)    譯者: 黃宏發
27th November 2008 (revised 28.11.08)
Translated from the original - 李白: (靜)夜思

1  床前明(看)月光
2  疑是地上霜
3  舉頭望明(山)月
4  低頭思故鄉

Notes:-
* The original poem is in 5-character lines. This English rendition is in tetrameter (4 metrical feet). The rhyme scheme is AAXA as in the original. Below is an older translation of mine penned last year in June and revised in December. It is in hexameter (6 metrical feet) and features two couplets (rhyme scheme AABB):-
Li Bai (701--762): Thoughts in the Still of the Night
1 So luminous is the moonlight on the floor before my bed,
2 And so white that, apparently, the ground is frosted instead.
3 I raise my head to gaze at the moon, o’er the hilltop, so bright;
4 I drop it in thoughts of my homeland, in the still of the night, tonight.
translated by Andrew W.F. Wong (Huang Hongfa) 譯者: 黃宏發
6 June 2007 (revised 9.6.07; 3.12.07; 5.12.07)
* Title and lines 3 and 4 of the old translation: Popularly entitled 夜思, but older versions entitle it 靜夜思, with the additional character 靜 (still, quiet, silent, etc.), hence, the old title “Thoughts in the Still of the night” and the addition of “in the still of the night, tonight” to line 4 of the old translation. Older versions of the poem feature 山月(hill + moon) instead of 明月(bright moon). The old translation of line 3 covers both meanings.
* Line 2: The word “it” appeared twice in draft. I have now deleted the “it” between “Be” and“frost”. I had considered “guess” but have decided for “suppose”.
* Line 4: I had considered “musing” but have decided for “brooding”.

21 comments:

Andrew W.F. Wong (Huang Hongfa) 黄宏發 said...

I now have second thoughts on this new translation and have revised lines 2, 3 and 4. The poem now reads:-

1 Before my bed, the moonlight so bright,
2 Be it frost aground, I suppose it might.
3 I raise my head, the moon for to behold, then
4 Lower it, brooding -- I'm homesick tonight.

Andrew W.F. Wong
5 December 2008

Andrew W.F. Wong (Huang Hongfa) 黄宏發 said...

Sorry, I have now deleted the word "for" in line 3 which now reads: "I raise my head the moon to behold, then".

Andrew W.F. Wong (5.12.08)

Andrew W.F. Wong (Huang Hongfa) 黄宏發 said...

I have further revised my new translation of Li Bai's Night Thoughts. The poem now reads-

1 Before the well, the moonlight so bright,
2 Be it frost aground, I suppose it might.
3 I raise my eyes towards the silvery moon, then
4 Lower them, musing: I'm homesick tonight.

* Line 1: The word 床 should mean “railings of the well”, not “bed”, as in line 4 of another poem also by Li Bai, i.e. “遶床弄青梅” or “Round and round the well we pelted each other with green plums” in 長干行 Ballad of Changgan, translated by Innes Herdan, p. 108 of her three Hundred Tang Poems, Taipei: Far East, 1973, 2000. In that context, only “well” makes sense. Even here, “well” makes better sense as one’s bedside rarely gets frosted. But I have to say that to bow to the popular “bedside” interpretation is understandable. “Before my bed” is, therefore, also acceptable.
* Line 2: The first “it” can be deleted from between “Be” and “frost” but I prefer its retention. I had considered “guess” but have decided for “suppose”.
* Line 3: I have chosen to translate 頭 “head” as “eyes” to make it possible for me to compress the pentameter (5 feet) “I raise my head to eye the silvery moon, then” which is what the original poem says, into a tetrameter (4 feet) “I lift my eyes towards the silvery moon, then”
* Line 4: I had used “brooding” which is on the dark side, but have now decided for “musing” which is natural, neutral and ambiguous.

Andrew Wong (8.12.2008)

Travel Lok said...

I suggest these changes based on your earlier version:
"REFLECTING IN THE WELL, the moon SHINES so bright,
LIKE THE FIRST frost, I suppose it might.
I raise my head to behold the SILVERY moon,
BUT lower it brooding, I'm homesick tonight."
I like to draw on your notes - and use the unique translation of well instead of bed, which also provides a rich visualization of the moon in the sky, reflected in the well, and how the head raises and lowers as if a bucket in a well, lowering to darker thoughts, and rising to the luminescent moon.
The chinese verse can be so terse, it leaves so much to the imagination to be expressed in the translated English poem.

Andrew W.F. Wong (Huang Hongfa) 黄宏發 said...

Thank you, Lok, for your very thoughtful comments. Let me sit on them for a while before reverting to you.
Andrew Wong (13.12.08)

Andrew W.F. Wong (Huang Hongfa) 黄宏發 said...

Lok, Let me thank you again for your very thoughtful suggestions.
On your line 1, "Reflecting in the well", though beautiful, conforms neither to the original nor to the picture of frost on the gound, and "the moon shines so bright" is one foot (stress/accent) too long for the tetrameter (4 metrical feet).
On your line 2, "Like the first frost" introduces the idea of early autumn which is not apparent in the original poem and is best left ambiguous.
On your line 3, "to behold the silvery moon" is again one foot too long. I had to make a choice between "I raise my head to behold the moon" and "I raise my eyes towards the silvery moon" and have decided for the latter.
I have now further revised my translation as follows:-
1 Around the well, the moonlight so bright,
2 Be frost on the ground, I suppose it might.
3 I raise my eyes towards the silvery moon, then
4 Lower them, musing: I'm homesick tonight.
Andrew Wong (15.12.08)

Frank said...

hi, andrew,

having your own blog on "classical chinese poems in english" i really think you have a moral, and almost sacred, obligation to please help to put right the great literary injustice done to li bai's most famous piece (by two 'smart guys' in the late ming and qing dynasty resp. who vainly thought they could out-li bai li bai!). we chinese folks, alas! unlike the japanese for example, have been conned for over 300 years! (there are researches and explanations on the net showing) the original version as given in 康熙皇帝欽定的《全唐詩》唐代詩歌總集威權版本should be:

【靜夜思】 李白
床前看月光, 疑是地上霜。
舉頭望山月, 低頭思故鄉。

also, 床前 is not beside "the well" though it might be interpreted that way. To wit:
「前日遠別離,昨日生白髮。欲知萬里情,曉臥半床月。」韓愈︰〈獨愁〉。
「此草最可珍,何必貴龍須。織作玉床席,欣承清夜娛。」李白:《魯東門觀刈蒲》。

here's my english rendition of li
bai's original version for comments:

Quiet Night Thoughts Li Bai
In front of my bed, I see moonlight bright.
Could this be ground frost formed during the night?
Lifting m'head, I gaze at the mountain moon;
Bowing, I long for home (-- trav'ller maroon'd).

Frank said...

hi, andrew,

in your earlier blog you said, Line 1: The word 床 should mean “railings of the well”, not “bed”, as in line 4 of another poem also by Li Bai, i.e. “遶床弄青梅” or “Round and round the well we pelted each other with green plums” in 長干行 Ballad of Changgan, translated by Innes Herdan, In that context, only “well” makes sense. Even here, “well” makes better sense as one’s bedside rarely gets frosted.

i agree one's bedside rarely gets frosted as it is indoors. but it seems you might have overlooked li
bai's 疑 in 疑是地上霜, he was in bed sleeping; in his drowsiness he
thought he saw with sleepy eyes frost on the ground. hence, 疑是地上霜 which is not actual frost in front of his bed. simple enough
explanation, i believe.

frank

Frank said...

hi, andrew,

may i just add that is also mentioned in li bai's other poems,
as e.g. in line 2 of his following work (with my english rendition for your comments/amendments please):

【下終南山過斛斯山人宿置酒】
李白
暮從碧山下﹐ 山月隨人歸。
卻顧所來徑﹐ 蒼蒼橫翠微。
相攜及田家﹐ 童稚開荊扉。
綠竹入幽徑﹐ 青蘿拂行衣。
歡言得所憩﹐ 美酒聊共揮。
長歌吟松風﹐ 曲盡河星稀。
我醉君復樂﹐ 陶然共忘機。

Down Zhongnan Mountains: Staying Overnight
and Drinking at Hermit Husi's Cottage Li Bai
Softly down the emerald mountains Even'ng roam'd;
Rising from the mountains the Moon followed us home.
Looking back at the winding path we came, it seem'd
Like a jade ribbon on the hills aquamarine.
My friend and I walked to his farmhouse, hand in hand.
Children opened the thatch door (and 'round us did stand).
Strolling on the bamboo-lined verdant trail serene,
My clothes brushed light on both sides the vibrant vines green.
Rested, we talked -- lost in each other's company;
Bottles of fine wine warmed the glowing harmony.
We sang, chorus'd by the rustling wind and pine wave,
Till no more were songs and stars in the Milky Way.
I 'm drunk and you are amused again, and again!
Forgetting all cares, for what more can we ask then?

Frank said...

hi, andrew,

following some v educational and fruitful comments from the posters on your other blog site (at hkej.com), may i just reproduce below my final english rendition of this v famous li lai "mid-autumn festival" poem -- in its original version, i believe, for your readers, please.

【靜夜思】 李白
床前看月光, 疑是地上霜。
舉頭望山月, 低頭思故鄉。

Quiet Night Thoughts Li Bai (701-762)
Before well railings, I see bright moon-light;
It looks like ground frost formed during the night.
Lifting m'head, I gaze at the mountain moon;
Bowing, I long for home so out of sight.

frank
ps: thanks so much.

lily0202022 said...

Your translation looks both elegant and faithful. Especially, the handling of the rhyme (the consonance) sounds really vivid.
I have to say that translating Chinese literature (esp. classical poems) turns out to be a very tricky and knotty work. Many of the meaning conveyed by the poems cannot be expressed clearly using several simple English words, while sometimes a direct translation, which is faithful to the original meaning, only spoils the beauty of the poems.
But in your translation, I think you have reached a balance between the elegance and faithfulness. The revised edition sounds even better. You must have spent much time on pondering over the word choices.

Unknown said...

I am wondering if he was preparing to sleep when he see the bright moon light.

I see the poet was sitting on his bed and saw the bright moon light. Thinking that it would be cold night. He looked up to admired the moon rise above the mountain; look down and then realized he is home sick.

in that sense, can I interprete 床前 as "before my slumber"?

Unknown said...

I had this poem written on a scroll by one of my teachers in 1986 while going the the defense language institute in Monterey, CA. I have always loved it since being a soldier it applied to my life being stationed in hot climates and thinking of my home where it was generally cold. The translation my teacher gave me was "At the foot of my bed the moon light shines" - "It appears to be frost on the ground" -"I look up and see the bright moon" - "I look down and think of my ancestral home". My favorite poem.

whidbeydc said...

Actually, as you read it "Could this be frost formed during the night?" is how I understand my teacher explaining it, that the person is fooled into thinking it is frost by the appearance. It makes sense.

sclim said...

Dear Mr Wong: I have enjoyed the discussions on this poem. It particularly has relevance to me this weekend of the brightest full moon in 2012, coinciding with a late spring frost on the ground outside in Calgary in Canada as I view this moon from my bedroom window, while thinking of Singapore where I was born. I was curious if you could confirm that this is a "mid-autumn festival" poem as Frank has stated in his post, (although you have stated that the idea of "early frost" should be left ambiguous in the translation).

Nothing is impossible for a willing heart. said...

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Ray Heaton said...

I have just come across a book titled "A Handbook of Translation" which has a short chapter on Classical Chinese and uses this poem to demonstrate varying translations are possible; the book include 10 separate translations, the favoured one being by Zhao Zhentao...

Moonlight before my bed,
Could it be frost instead?
Head up, I watch the moon;
Head down, I think of home.

Andrew W.F. Wong 黃宏發 said...

Let me thank all who have contributed to the discussion. I am in the process of finalizing my rendition (or renditions). Before I do, I shall be grateful if Mr. Ray Heaton could let me have the names of the author and publisher of "A Handbook of Translation" so that I can consult that chapter which includes 10 translation of this poem.

mrbboy said...

I take a class of poetry in my chinese department. I dont see why bed here should be well. Li bai loved to drink and wandered around sometimes drinking with the moon in his loneliness. I take it that he fell asleep drunk outside in nature with the sky as his blanket , therefor its not weird that he thought he saw frost around his temporarily bed.

Richard Sharpe said...

1 Beyond my bed the moon shines bright

2 Perhaps a frost is out tonight

Eight syllables and rhymes.

I have something for the last two lines, but they are radical.

Anonymous said...

Hi! How about this:

I thought it was frost at the end of the bed,
But no, it was moonlight, moonlight instead.
I lifted my face to the silvery sky
And wished for my own pillow under my head.

--Abby