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”. 


Classical Chinese Poems in English


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