03 July 2012

李白 Li Bai: 玉階怨 Sentiments on the Steps of Marble

Ezra Pound had been much praised for his rendition of this beautiful poem by the Tang dynasty Chinese poet immortal Li Bai (or as Ezra Pound would have it, following the Japanese, Ri 李 haku 白).  His rendition is reproduced below:-  

Rihaku:  The Jewel Stairs' Grievance
as translated by Ezra Pound

The jewelled steps are already quite white with dew,
It is so late that the dew soaks my gauze stockings,
And I let down the crystal curtain
And watch the moon through the clear autumn.

I have recently attempted a translation of the same poem and have come to like mine much better.  Hope you feel the same.  Here goes my rendition:-

Li Bai (701-762):  Sentiments on the Steps of Marble

1  All whitened with dew, these steps of marble,
2  Soaking by late night, her silk socks so soon.
3  Retiring, she lets down her crystalline curtain,
4  Still clinging to autumn’s clear, bright moon.

Translated by Andrew W.F. Wong (Huang Hongfa)    譯者: 黃宏發
15th June 2012 (revised 20.6.12; 25.6.12; 26.6.12; 3 7 12)
Translated from the original - 李白:  玉階怨

2  夜久侵羅襪
3  卻下水晶簾
4  玲瓏望秋月


*    This English rendition is in tetrameter (4 metrical feet) while the original is in 5-character lines.  The rhyme scheme is XAXA as in the original.

*    Title and line 1:  I had considered “jade” and “jadeite” for but have decided for “marble”.

*    Line 1:  I have used “whitened” to translate both and instead of using “grow” or “gather” to translate the verb .  I had originally penned “Whitened” but have now decided for “All whitened” to give my rendition an iambic beginning.  白露 “White Dew” is one of the 24 節氣 “Solar Terms” in the Chinese calendar (which should more accurately be called 農歷 the Chinese Agricultural Calendar as it has both lunar and solar features) with the months and days reckoned according to the waxing and waning of the moon (hence, lunar) but with 24 key agricultural days (and, hence, all other days around these days) in the year reckoned according to the position of the sun (hence, solar).  White Dew invariably falls every year between 7th and 9th of September (please note: September, not the 9th month or moon).  It has nothing to do with the moon waxing or waning, the lunar dates differ every year.  I had originally penned “these steps” but have now decided for “the steps”
*    Line 2:  I had considered “night time” but have decided for “late night”.  For , after  considering both the literal “socks” and “stockings” and the less literal “slippers” (Arthur Cooper) and “soles” (Witter Bynner) as any of these is but a  synecdoche for her feet, I had decided to use a monosyllabic word  (either “socks” or “soles”) so as to be able to retain in the translation the original “silk” which blends in well with “marble” in line 1 and “crystalline” in line 3.  I was much tempted to use “silk soles” but have now decided for “silk socks”  .  I have added “so soon” (not in the original) primarily for the rhyme but also to heighten her wish to continue to stand waiting, if not out on the steps, at least back in her room.

*    Line 3:  I have used the verb “to retire” not as a translation of (which can also mean “to retreat”) as I take the two words 卻下 to be one verb to simply mean “to lower" or "to let down”.  I have added it primarily to create an extra foot for the 4-foot line, but also to make clear that the context requires that she returns to her room.  I had originally penned “Retires, she lets down”.  I then considered “She retires and lets down” and have now decided for “Retiring, she lets down".

*    Line 4:  I have added “Still” (not in the original) to link up the meaning of lines 3 and 4: “she is now in her room (line 3), still her heart is out there with the moon (line 4)”.  I had considered the more literal “watching”, “gazing at” and “looking at” to translate but found them lacking in feeling and have now decided for the less literal “clinging to”.  She must have been looking at the moon for quite some time while out on the steps.  Following most anthologists, I have translated 玲瓏 as “clear, bright”, as an adjective to describe the moon, and not as an adverb to qualify “look”. 



Frank said...

hi, andrew,

thank you for a fine rendition.

long time no see. hope everything's fine with you!

i'm intrigued by ezra pound's translating li bai as 'rihaku' in japanese while his rendition of the body of the great tang poet's poem is in chinese!


Frank said...

and andrew,

if you wish, please just ignore the following (that are some ultra minor points by one guy on your rendition).

1. line 1 "All whitened with dew," (these steps of marble) :

seems to imply that dew is not colourless but 'white'.

2. line 1 "these steps of marble" :

the palace steps in the forbidden city are all made of 漢白玉, a type of 'white' marble while marble itself may be of various and diverse colours. b t w, ezra pound's translation of "jewelled steps" (in his line 1) is way off the mark though imaginative.

3. line 4 "Still clinging to autumn’s clear, bright moon."

it's difficult to relate "clinging" with 望. it seems to weaken considerably the eye-connection and sentiments expressed in the original.

Frank said...

may i post my attempted rendition?




Dews are born and grow on the steps made of white jade;
For lingering too long, her two silk socks are all wet.
She lowers the crystal blinds and, behind the shade,
Gazes at Autumn moon (with a trace of regret).

Andrew W.F. Wong 黃宏發 said...

Forgive my not working on Frank's rendition as I am absorbed in thoughts on my own. May I, therefore, simply respond to the points made.
(*) Ezra Pound named Li Bai as Rihaku because he did not know Chinese and was using materials in the unpublished Fellenosa papers, Ri(李)haku(白) being the Japanese transliteration of the Chinese.
(1) If "whitened" is incorrect because dew is colourless, then the original 白露 is similarly flawed, or is it? Can't a bit of poetic licence be granted?
(2) Point well made about my "marble" and Pound's "jewel" and "jewelled". Again, I invoke poetic licence not so much for Pound but for myself. But it seems to me Frank is re-writting the original line as 露生白玉階.
(3) I think "clinging" is the most beautiful word I have used in my rendition. No one can actgually cling to the moon. Precisely because of this, 望 "gazing at" metaphorically stands for "clinging to" and vice versa.

Cheers, Frank! Long time no see. I am still well. Thank you.

Andrew W.F. Wong 黃宏發 said...

Sorry, Fellenosa in point (*) above should read Fenollosa, being Ernest Fenollosa. Apologies again.

Frank said...

cheers, andrew!

(and cheerio with have a bottle of red wine together when we next meet.)

thanks for the extra info.

when a poet-translator invokes the poetic licence, most things are possible and permissible i suppose.

but i don't think i'm " re-writting the original line (玉階生白露) as 露生白玉階."

my defence: they're one and the same thing. 玉階生白露 = 露生白玉階! (hehee!)

for the dew is colourless. when it gradually gathers on the white marble steps, it appears white in colour too. simple explanation, isn't it?

Frank said...

i meant: "we'll have cheerios together with a bottle of red wine when we next meet."

Ray Heaton said...

There is an extensive treatise on translating this poem here https://getd.libs.uga.edu/pdfs/qiu_xuelai_201205_ma.pdf

This provides an analysis of Ezra Pound’s and Professor Sun Dayu’s translation and a translation cited in Zong-qi Cai’s How to Read Chinese Poetry.

Andrew W.F. Wong 黃宏發 said...

I thank Ray Heaton for alerting me to Qiu Xuelai's thesis entitled Translating Classical Chinese Poetry into English: Challenges and a Possible Solution---A Case Study of Translating Li Po's "Grievance on Jaded Steps" which I have now read with great interest and which I would commend to all who are interested in the poem itself or the translation of classical Chinese poetry in general.