02 June 2011

李白 Li Bai: 山中問答 Why in the Mountains

Andrew Wong's English Rendition of Li Bai "Why in the Mountains"

Here is a beautiful little poem by Tang dynasty China's "Immortal Poet" Li Bai 詩仙 李白. I hope my rendition in translation has done Li Bai justice. You may wish to note that I have (a) kept the original rhyme scheme AABA or AAXA (with the "een" rhyme to translate the original "aan" rhyme), (b) provided every line with a "caesura" or "pause" somewhere in the middle (in this case, after 3 beats) to translate the invariable and often very prominent caesura after 4 characters in the 7-character (or after 2 in the 5-character) Chinese quatrain line, and (c) used "beats" or "feet", and not "syllables", to account for the line length of the the English rendition in translating the original lines of equal length (in this case, 7-character). I am in total agreement with the late Arthur Cooper's insistence on the "caesura", but differ from him in that he counts "syllables" while I count "beats". His rendition of this poem can be found on p.115 of his "Li Po and Tu Fu", London: Penguin, 1973, his methodology on pp.82-83. Here is my rendition; please read aloud and enjoy Li Bai (Li Po):-

Li Bai (701-762) : Why in the Mountains (In Reply to the Uninitiated)

1 You ask O why I’ve chosen to live in the mountains green;
2 I smile without replying, my heart sedate, serene.
3 Peach flowers on rivulets gambol, then ramble out of sight; ’tis
4 Heaven and earth with a difference, not of the world we’d been.

Translated by Andrew W.F. Wong (Huang Hongfa)       譯者: 黄宏發
7th November 2008 (revised10.11.08; 14.11.08; 17.11.08: 12.4.10)
Translated from the original - 李白:  山中問答(答俗人)

2 笑而不答心自閒
4 別有天地非人間

* The original poem is in 7-character lines; this English rendition is in hexameter (6 metrical feet). The rhyme scheme is AAXA as in the original.
* Title and lines 1 and 2: My interpretation of the poem is that of the poet “thinking to himself”, not a real dialogue or conversation, hence, my title “Why in the Mountains” and, hence, lines I and 2 can, alternatively, begin as “If you ask” and “I would smile” respectively.
* Line 1: The words “I’ve chosen” or “I choose” are not in the original but can be reasonably inferred. The addition provides a much needed break/pause/caesura to the line, and “I’ve chosen” does the job better than “I choose”.
* Line 2: I had considered “I smile in reply speechless” and have decided “speechless” too strong, hence, out of place for the “heart, sedate, serene”.
* Line 3: I had used “peach petals” but have now decided for “peach flowers”. I have chosen to use “peach flowers” rather than “rivulets” or both as the subject, hence, “(peach flowers on rivulets) … gambol … ramble” to translate and .
* Line 4: I have used “not of the world we’d been” to mean “not of the world we men had been” to translate 非人間. Alternatively, “been” can be changed to “seen”.


Frank Yue said...

hi, andrew,

thanks for a v nice and enjoyable rendition.

as you've so rightly pointed out, li bai is known as the 'immortal poet'.

may i post below two other interpretations, the first (in ABBA rhyme scheme) to show li bai, the 'poet'.

(Mountaineer Answering Secular Questions) Li Bai (701-762)

You ask me why in the green mountains I reside.
I just smile, and answer not -- my heart is at peace.
Away on flowing streams, peach-blossoms gently ride;
In this other-worldly place, all things are at ease.

Frank Yue said...

the second interpretation herewith (in AAXA rhyme scheme a la the original poem and following monk zu manshu's interpretation) shows li bai the 'immortal':

(Mountaineer Answering Secular Questions) Li Bai (701-762)

You ask why in these green mountains living am I.
My heart is at peace; I smile and would not reply.
Like the peach-blossom borne away by th' rambling brook,
To a non-secular world, my spirit soars high!

Frank Yue said...

(of course, for my version 1 above, the rhyme scheme should be ABAB.)

jo said...

wonderful site! just a note, I thought line four translated more like "more like heaven than a place on earth"...as in, the natural scenery is too beautiful to be on earth.

jeffy said...

My favourite. I don't know who this author is but is the best translation I ever saw,

I dwell amongst the green hills: You asked me why,
My soul at ease I smile without reply.
Peach petals swept along the stream,
To other lands beyond this mortal dream.

Andrew W.F. Wong 黃宏發 said...

Dear "jeffy", Thank you for that beautiful rendition which is in perfect iambic pentameter. By the way, are you and Jeff Loh (please see link below) one and the same person? http://jeffinous.wordpress.com/2012/04/18/peach-blossom-girl-dueling-magic-chapter-9/

Unknown said...

I'd very much like to read a discussion of that so difficult to translate 4th line. Particularly puzzling to me (with my limited knowledge of the language) is the grammatical relation between "別" and "有" and in turn the relation between "有" and "非" . Any elucidation of this by you admirable savants would be gratefully received.

Bruce Patterson said...

My interpretation:

You ask why I stay on Green Mountain -
I smile without answering, my heart at ease.
Peach blossom runs with the stream
into endlessness.
Here, apart from the world of men,
heaven & earth are one.