Sunday, February 26, 2006

247. Toh-Koh (Climbing Upwards)

Before you start: This poem should be considered as a translation. It is certainly not my own original work -- but, at the same time, it is.

There is a great deal more guesswork involved when translating from classical Chinese than, say, from a contemporary European language.

The signposts are the "Kanji" -- the Chinese ideographs. Each of them stands for a separate thing or action or idea. They act as concrete guidelines across the centuries but their juxtaposition and the absence of clues leaves a great deal open for modern interpretation.

What got me started was this: I got talking about this poem with a Japanese teacher at my school who teaches "Classics" (i.e. Chinese and early Japanese literature) and it soon became apparent that the standard English translation -- the one that shows up on dozens of sites on the Internet; every single site, in fact! -- was putting an interpretation on this text that was aesthetically pleasing (Western-style) but in some ways very inaccurate. It didn't respect the deliberate use of repetitive words, for one thing, and introduced the simile of "spray from a waterfall" which simply didn't exist in the original.

For that reason I decided to re-translate the poem. I don't know if I've done any better (and I'd be delighted to hear from anyone who reads Chinese!!) but I went back to the original -- as it was written 1250 years ago -- and took it from there. Here we go:

Climbing Upwards

Shen Zou 'Poet on a Mountain Top' Ming Dynasty ca. 1500

Under a cutting wind from the open sky, the monkeys are sadly keening,
Over clear lake waters, over white sands, the birds are flying home;
The autumn leaves come fluttering, fluttering down,
The never-ending river keeps flowing along, keeps flowing along ....

Ten thousand leagues, the sadness of an autumn traveller,
A hundred years of sorrows attend me, all alone I climb;
Misfortunes press down on me, there is frost upon my brow,
There are floods of weariness. Dust gathers in my wine cup.

Here's the standard translation:

In a sharp gale from the wide sky apes are whimpering,
Birds are flying homeward over the clear lake and white sand,
Leaves are dropping down like the spray of a waterfall,
While I watch the long river always rolling on.

I have come three thousand miles away. Sad now with autumn
And with my hundred years of woe, I climb this height alone.
Ill fortune has laid a bitter frost on my temples,
Heart-ache and weariness are a thick dust in my wine.

It's very similar ... but it's not the same.

You can check out the Chinese original (plus standard translation) at the following website

What is really cool about this site is that if you pass your cursor over any one of the Chinese characters, the English meaning will pop up. When I consider those many long years of 1000-page dictionaries .... !!

If you are still with me, check out the Kanji:

Wind - sharp/cutting/biting - heaven - high - monkey(s) - cry - lament;
Lake - clear/pristine/pure - sand - white -bird(s) - fly - return/revolve ;
Without - boundary - falling - tree - mournful- mournful - down
Not - limit - long - river/waters - roll - roll - come;
10,000 - Ri* - sad - autumn - always - made/constructed - guest;
100 - year(s) - many - illnesses - alone - climb - station;
difficult - disaster - bitter - hate - complicated - frost - temple/brow;
heavy rain - flood - new - stop/pause/settle/ -muddy/dusty - wine -cup

*Ri - a Chinese measure of distance

I have a visual understanding of this poem: I can feel what the guy is saying. Say what you will, but these poems are visual events, not just when printed, but in the controlled explosions of brushed ink on paper. Thank God for print -- they are almost totally illegible otherwise!

Finally, and I've been saving this for last, Tu Fu, or Du Fu -- To-Ho in Japanese -- was one of a pair of near-legendary poets who became famous (celebrities, superstars) within their own lifetimes during the T'ang Dynasty in China, a period which lasted from 618 to 906 AD. The T'ang interval is generally considered by most Chinese to be the introduction to the early-modern period of their long history. They had concluded their "Middle Ages" in about 1000 BC, around the time of the Battle of Troy. The other famous poet was Li Po, or Li Tai-po (Rihaku in Japanese), a wonderfully attractive person who features in an earlier posting on this Blog, entitled Ezra Pound in China