Spoor of Desire: Selected Poems
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Monday, June 13, 2011

Yet Two More Versions of Wang Wei

empty mountain without men
(one hears some distant sound of speech)
light and shade in deepest wood
green moss creeps up where sun can reach.

mountain void
no one else
in the distance
men’s voices
in deepest woods
green moss rises

The Wang Wei poem illustrates the difficulties of translation a forteriori. The poem is written in “five syllable unregulated verse” which typically includes a primary caesura after the second syllable, a secondary one after the third or fourth. The even lines rhyme, couplets mirror each other syntactically, and the tonal patterns link pairs of lines as well. The parallelism will recall the significance of the yang-yin concept in Chinese thought, but it also has links to, for instance, such structures as the classic blues lyric in which the third line answers, opposes, or completes the repeated first line and the Finnish epic pattern in which every line is followed by a weakened repetition. Surely here we are entitled to invoke the words of A. J. Arberry in the introduction to his translation of Sa’adi’s Gulistan Kings and Beggars who declared that rendering poetry in rigorous traditional forms was an acrobatic performance not unlike “setting an elephant to walk a tightrope.”

In my first version I sought to retain the rhyme pattern of the Chinese, though I do nothing with the tones and substitute a four stress line for the five syllable one. The accentual meter is, of course, far less insistent and information-laden than the original with its syntactic parallelisms. The rhyme may threaten to trivialize the lines for a contemporary American reader with associations of nursery rhymes and advertising jingles.

In the second version I have emphasized the apparently spontaneous descriptive impression such lines create in the European reader by spreading the phrases in a sort of verse field and heightening the aesthetic values with the art historical term “chiaroscuro” and the philosophical/spiritual ones with the loaded word “illuminated.”

Both versions sacrifice the intertextuality of the original with its use of words and phrases recalling Buddhist texts or other poems by Wang Wei or by others. For instance, the title is often translated “Deer Park,” recalling the site in Sarnath of the Buddha’s first sermon. In line three the words “fan jing” suggest sunset and the “western paradise” of the Pure Land School. The characters can mean “late sun” or dusk, but more literally denote “returning view” or “pattern.” On the level of the ideogram, the characters might be read as “movement in reverse,” and “sun above hill.”

Furthermore, other hermeneutic directions are suggested by, for instance, the fact that this poem, though often printed alone, is generally paired with one by Pei Di, as are all the poems of the Wang River collection. Thus in the original each text holds a direct if dialectical relation to another, and the meaning must be sought between the two. Some readers (such as John Holcombe) regard the poem as a comment, not on natural scenery, but rather on examples of landscape panting. These approaches by no means exhaust the possibilities. The poem invites new readings.

For comparison’s sake, thanks to Eliot Weinberger and Octavio Paz Nineteen Ways of Looking at Wang Wei: How a Chinese Poem Is Translated:

Deer Park Hermitage

So lone seem the hills; there is no one in sight there.
But whence is the echo of voices I hear?
The rays of the sunset pierce slanting the forest,
And in their reflection green mosses appear.
(W.J.B. Fletcher, 1919)

There seems to be no one on the empty mountain...
And yet I think I hear a voice,
Where sunlight, entering a grove,
Shines back to me from the green moss.
(Witter Bynner & Kiang Kang-hu, 1929)

An empty hill, and no one in sight
But I hear the echo of voices.
The slanting sun at evening penetrates the deep woods
And shines reflected on the blue lichens.
(Soame Jenyns, 1944)

La Forêt

Dans la montagne tout est solitaire,
On entend de bien loin l'écho des voix humaines,
Le soleil qui pénètre au fond de la forêt
Reflete son éclat sur la mousee vert.
(G. Margoulies, 1948)

Through the deep woods, the slanting sunlight
Casts motley patterns on the jade-green mosses.
No glimpse of man in this lonely mountain,
Yet faint voices drift on the air.
(Chang Yin-nan & Lewis C. Walmsley, 1958)

On the lone mountain
I meet no one,
I hear only the echo
At an angle the sun's rays
enter the depths of the wood,
And shine
upon the green moss.
(C.J. Chen & Michael Bullock, 1960)

On the empty mountains no one can be seen,
But human voices are heard to resound.
The reflected sunlight pieces the deep forest
And falls again upon the mossy ground.
(James J.Y. Liu, 1962)

Clos aux cerfs

Montagne déserte. Personne n'est en vue.
Seuls, les échos des voix résonnent, au loin.
Ombres retournent dans las forêt profonde:
Dermier éclat de la mousse, vert.
(François Cheng)

Empty hills, no on in sight,
only the sound of someone talking;
late sunlight enters the deep wood,
shining over the green moss again.
(Burton Watson, 1971)

Empty mountain: no man is seen,
But voices of men are heard.
Sun's reflection reaches into the woods
And shines upon the green moss.
(Wai-lim Yip, 1972)

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