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

*    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).           

Classical Chinese Poems in English


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