06 June 2014

白居易 Bai Juyi: 讀老子 On Reading the "Lao Zi"

During the last year and a half, I have posted here my translation of 4 chapters of Lao Zi's "Dao De Jing". This has taken me a great deal of time and effort and I now wish to put it aside for the time being and return to my main interest: poetry translation.  For those who are interested in the Dao De Jing, there is an abundance of ready translations.  For books, I commend Arthur Waley's "The Way" and D.C. Lau's Penguin "Tao Te Ching".  On the net, I have seen a complete translation by A.S. Kline - "Tao Te Ching: The Book of The Way and Its Virtues" and another by a friend of mine Lok Sang HO of Lingnan University, Hong Kong - "The Living Dao: The Art and Way of Living a Rich and Truthful Life".  The 2 links are:  -http://www.taoteching.cn/index.php/tao-te-ching-translated-by-a-s-kline/   http://www.ln.edu.hk/econ/staff/daodejing(22%20August%202002).pdf 

Today's poem is about Lao Zi and the philosophy (not religion) called "Daoism" or "Taoism".  The poet Bai Juyi was himself a follower of that philosophy, yet in the poem he appears to be mocking Lao Zi,, or did he not also mock himself, he being a most prolific poet?  Life is full of paradoxes, and self-mockery seems to work wonders.  Let us just appreciate Bai Juyi's sense of humour in what follows:- 

Bai Juyi (772-846):  On Reading the “Lao Zi”

1       He who preaches knows not, he who knows is mute.
2   (These I’m told are the words, of Lao Zi the master of old.)
These are the words, I'm told, of Laozi the master of old. 
(revised 10.6.2014)
3       But if, it be said, the master, was one who truly knew,
4       O why did he pen a treatise, a thousand words five-fold?

Translated by Andrew W.F. Wong (Huang Hongfa)    譯者黃宏發
21st February 2013 (revised 22.2.13; 6.6.14)
Translated from the original - 白居易讀老子

1       言者不知知者默
2       此語吾聞於老君
3       若道老君是知者
4       缘何自著五千文

Notes:
*    This English rendition is in hexameter (6 feet) while the original is in 7-character lines.  The rhyme scheme is XAXA as in the original.
*    Title:  老子 (Lao Zi, Laozi or Lao Tzu) in the title of the poem refers to the book of 5,000 words known as the 道德經 (Dao De Jing, Daodejing or Dao Te Ching) or simply the 老子) authorship of which is attributed to 老子 whose real name was 李耳 (Li Er) who lived circa 500 BCE.  I have, therefore, added the article the and put Lao Zi in quotes in the English title.
*    Line 1:  For “speech”, I had considered “speaks", "professes", "teaches", "declaims”, etc. but have now decided for “preaches”.  There is an alternative version of the original line which has the word in the place of the first which I do not favour as the line is from Chapter 56 of the 道德經 Dao De Jing and is a poetic paraphrase of the opening 2 fragments of the chapter.  The first fragment 知者不言 is rendered by Bai Juyi as 知者默(不言) used to end the line.  The second fragment 言者不知 should, therefore, be a direct quote (and not言者不如) used to begin the poem, particularly in view of what the poet says in line 2.  For “silent”, I had considered “stays mute” but have now decided for “is mute”.
*    Line 2:  I have not rendered 吾聞於 “I hear from” as “… I have heard from …” because it makes no logical sense to take to mean “directly (personally) from”.  I have, instead, taken 吾聞 to be “I’m told” in the sense of  我聽說 “I heard it said” and to mean 出於 “of/spoken by/from the book of”, and have, therefore, rendered 吾聞於 as “These I’m told are the words, of …”  The word is an honorific and 老君 is a grander honorific with the word Lao also referring specifically to Lao Zi.  I have, therefore, rendered 老君 as “Lao Zi” plus “the master of old”.
*    Lines 3 and 4:  The words “But” (line 3) and “O” (line 4), which are not in the original, are added so as to make sure the words that follow, “if” (line 3) and “why” (line 4) are read stressed.  The word “truly” (not in the original) is added to line 3 to complete the 6-foot meter.  These additions help make the paradox, if not also irony, of the poem even more apparent. 

*    Line 4:  I had considered translating 自著 “himself authoring” as “pen his treatise” but have decided for “pen a treatise”.  The word “pen” may not be the correct writing instrument, but is considered a better word than “write” to convey the meaning of self authorship.  五千文 is rendered as “a thousand words fivefold” in order to make the rhyme of “old” (line 2) “five-fold” (line 4).           

4 comments:

Ray Heaton said...


If this poem is considered a "Qijue", 七絕, a heptasyallabic (or septasyllabic) quatrain poem with a strict tonal pattern and rhyme scheme, then shouldn't the lines be broken up as a 4+3 line structure?

If so, the lines would be,

1 言者不知知者默
言者不知, "Those who speak know not"
知者默, "those who know are mute"


2 此語吾聞於老君
此語吾聞, "These are the words I hear"
於老君, "Ah! Laozi" [does using 於 as being Wu! translated to Ah! make more rhythmic sense within this line and coupled with line 4]

3 若道老君是知者
若道老君, "Why if Laozi" [I'd probably translate this as "Why, if the Master", though I'd be tempted to explore alternatives using the second character in this line, 道, Dao, as "The Way"]
是知者, "is one who knows"

4 缘何自著五千文
缘何自著, "For what reason did one write"
五千文, "Five thousand characters?"


Why do I think this important. Well, firstly, I think it would change Andrew's line two quite substantially. Secondly, I think line four then becomes seriously ambiguous, and picks up better on Andrew's comment that perhaps Bai Juyi was mocking himself here?

Andrew W.F. Wong 黃宏發 said...


Ray Heaton is absolutely right to say the 7-character lines in the Qijue 七絕 quatrain (and the Qilu 七律 octet) should be broken up into a 4+3 structure except nobody does it as convention dictates that there should invariably be a caesura (however slight) after the 4th character lest one becomes breathless.
1. I like Ray's line 1 although I prefer mine.
2. The word 於 in line 2 is not the exclamation "wu" or written as 嗚 but the substantive "yu" or written as 于.
3. The word 道 in line 3 simply means, in this context of 若道, "if it is said/if you say" and had nothing to do withe "The Dao" or "The Way".
4. Although from the title and the text there is not much ambiguity, I do like Ray's idea of changing "he" into "one".

Ray Heaton said...

I agree with Andrew on 於 in line 2; I was exaggerating somewhat the caesura and comparing the rhythm with line 4! I would tend towards "from", "these are the words from Laozi", though I do take Andrew's point about the meaning on this line.

I also agree that 道, shouldn't be read as "the Way"; my reason for wanting to explore this was simply that some other translators have indeed made this line into "if the master was one who knew the way"; possibly copying each other's meaning rather than personally interpreting the poem? I too think 道 is tied in to 若, though I suggested "Why if" rather than "if it be said" as I thought that Bai Juyi would not here be casting potential doubt that the master was one who knew the Way (by the suggested questioning "if it is said"), rather affirming it.

This affirmation then allows the ambiguity on line 4, and allows the reader to wonder who is being referred to in the last line.

Although Bai Juyi was somewhat rebellious and an outspoken critic, he did believe in Confucian and Daoist ideals; he chose to use a very brief poem to express his feelings here. Referring to such Jueju, Wang Kaisu said "poems cannot bear even the least brushstroke of floating mist or wasted ink", and Gao Buying said "...if the meaning becomes exhausted, then the spirit will wither, if the language is obvious then the flavour will be short lived..."*; in using these two thoughts I rather liked my resultant ambiguity that lies in line 4!

*both quoted in "How To Read Chinese Poetry", edited by Zong Qi Cai.

Andrew W.F. Wong 黃宏發 said...

I have considered and decided to revert my line 2 to my original "These are the words, I'm told, of Laozi the master of old." This is now effected in this my June 2014 post.