02 July 2015

蘇軾 Su Shi: 題西林壁 (橫看成嶺...) Written on the Wall of Xilin Temple (at Mount Lushan) (1- A range in panorama...)

Today, I am posting a quatrain by the famous Sung 宋 dynasty poet Su Shi 蘇軾 or more popularly known as Su Tung-Po 蘇東坡.  The poem is about Mount Lushan 廬山 in present-day Jiangxi 江西 province.  Xilin 西林 (West Woods or Forest) is the name of a temple.  You may wish to contrast it with Li Bai's poem on Mount Lushan (which I posted in September 2009) in which Li Bai sings of the grandeur of a waterfall in Mount Lushan ("As if 'twere the Silver River, falling from heaven supreme"), while Su Shi here gives us some food for thought in his philosophic reflection: "Because this very mountain, has had me right inside".  As for Li Bai's poem, please go to my rendition of his "View of a Waterfall at Mount Lushan".

This is the first Sung dynasty quatrain I have ever attempted.  I do hope you will enjoy it.   

Su Shi (1037 - 1101): Written on the Wall of Xilin Temple (at Mount Lushan) (A range in panorama...)

1  A range in panorama, peaks if viewed from the side;
2  Far, near, low, and high, these summits differ wide.
3  The true face of Mount Lushan, O ‘tis so hard to tell, 
4  Because this very mountain, has had me right inside.
Translated by Andrew W.F. Wong (Huang Hongfa)   譯者: 黃宏發
27th May 2015 (revised 28.5.15; 2.6.15; 3.6.15; 4.6.15; 5.6.15; 8.6.15; 10.6.15; 11.6.15; 12.6.15)
Translated from the original - 蘇軾: 題西林壁 (橫看成嶺...)

1  橫看成嶺側成峯
2  遠近高低各不同
3  不識廬山真面目
4  只緣身在此山中

*Form, Metre and Rhyme:  This English rendition is in hexameter (6 beats or feet) while the original is in 7-character lines.  The rhyme scheme is AAXA as in the original.

*Line 1:  For I have chosen “range” over “ridge”.  For I have chosen the plural “peaks” over the singular “a peak” as there are over 90 (or, by another reckoning, 170) peaks in the 300 square km. Mount Lushan area (slightly less than a third of the size of Hong Kong).  I had considered “peaks when/as/if viewed from aside/the side”, and have come to decide for “peaks if viewed from the side”.

*Line 2:  遠近高低 “far, near, high, low” can be taken to refer to either (a) the peaks (how far and how high they are) or (b) the vantage point of the viewer (from how far and how high the peaks are viewed).  I have translated it literally to retain this ambiguity but have reversed the order of “high” and “low” in order to create an assonance of the “ai” sound in “high” (at the caesura/pause) and “wide” (at the end of the line).   To heighten this ambiguity, I could have rendered 各不同 as “the sights do differ wide” or “the scenery differs wide”, but had decided for “these summits differ wide”.  I had also considered “differ, divide” as an alternative to “differ wide” the proper adverbial form of which should, theoretically, be “differ widely” which, however, makes no rhyme.  I have, therefore, decided to stick to “differ wide”.  In support of my decision, aside from invoking poetic licence, I reproduce below the entry on “wide” in Fowler’s (p. 850, The New Fowler’s Modern English Usage, 3rd Edition): “It should be borne in mind that there are a great many circumstances, mostly in fixed phrases, in which, though widely is theoretically the needed form, wide is the idiomatic form; …  Thus wide apart, wide awake, open one’s eyes wide, wide open, is widespread, are all idiomatically required (not widely apart, etc.); and there are many more.”  And I wonder why, even if it is not idiomatically required, “differ wide” cannot be accepted as, at least, not incorrect.
*Line 3:  To translate 不識 I had originally considered “I’ve never ever known” and variations of it.  I am grateful to the famed poet/translator Prof. Yu Kwang-chung 余光中 for rendering it as “hard to tell” (his translation of this poem  in his paper “Poet as Translator”, p. 10 in “Dancers and the Dance: Essays in Translation Studies”, eds Lawrence K.P. Wong and Chan Sin-wai, Newcastle upon Tyne: Cambridge Scholars, 2013) which I have now borrowed, thus my rendition: “The true face of Mount Lushan, O ‘tis so hard to tell”.  Here, the word “tell’ is used in the sense of “to discern or recognize … so as to be able to identify or describe …” (Webster’s Encyclopedic Unabridged Dict.)

*Line 4:  I had originally penned the first half of the line as “Only/All because this mountain” 只緣 此山, but have now decided for the less literal yet equally adequate “Because this very mountain” with “this very” (instead of “Only/All … this”) to translate .  For the second half of the line, I had originally penned “has had me trapped inside” with the word “trapped” added to better hint at the poem’s message of 當局者迷 “The one who is in it, doesn’t get it, precisely because he is (too much) in it.”  I rejected it as being too obtrusive and considered the less obtrusive “kept” (“has had me kept inside” or “has kept me right inside”), but have decided to drop them and render it simply as “has had me right inside”.  This I find subtly adequate for the purpose of the message as the word “have” in “had” can mean “to hold advantage over” in addition to the ordinary meaning of “to possess”. 



Andrew W.F. Wong 黃宏發 said...

On re-reading my rendition, I have decided to revise line 3 by moving "O" to the beginning of the line,

Andrew W.F. Wong 黃宏發 said...

On further re-reading my rendition, I have decided to revert line 3 to my original.

Ray Heaton said...

The multitude of views expressed in this poem with the self in the context of the whole allows Su Shi to examine or reflect upon perception, with each vantage point one gained a different perspective on the scene, rather than observing an all-encompassing objective perspective one can only achieve a multiplicity of views. There was no ultimate truth to be ascertained, but there were infinite possibilities from which truth could be realised, an infinite number of pathways to seek (Buddhist) enlightenment, and the Dao (Tao) was therefore uniquely one's own

Su Shi, (sometimes depicted as one of the sages of the three doctrines, 三教 or even 三教九流, tasting vinegar and realising a common reality), believed his writings captured the Dao in its multiple guises, it's numerous pathways. Su's writing, "encountered the twists and turns of mountains", transcended reality and represented a multitude of viewpoints. Maybe it was Su and his writing that saw more of the game, 當局者迷,旁觀者清!

The translation Andrew has created here has shied away from the commonplace "to not know the true face..." but has I feel resulted with an ending for the third line that reads a trifle archaic (O 'tis hard to tell), although I am reticent about suggesting some revision as the same line equally provides a sense of the perplexity of the viewer/poet in the midst of this unfashionable mountain landscape.

Ray Heaton said...

Note, spell checker strikes again! In my last sentence above, please read "unfathomable" not "unfashionable"!

Anonymous said...

Hello, I found your website while looking for alternative translations for a few Li Bai poems (I discovered him today, and spent the whole afternoon reading and researching his poems - time well spent, I'd say) and yours were often my favourites by far. They flow beautifully, and I appreciate the obvious effort that goes into a single translation. I look forward to reading your other translations (future ones, too) and is there a better way to start than with a work by the author of the first chinese poem I've ever read? I think not.

Unknown said...

Truly beautiful and enchanting. What man knows and can ever know is less than what he does not know.h

Unknown said...

How about, "Oh, so hard to decide.