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”.

Classical Chinese Poems in English


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