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Tang Poems 唐诗

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发表于 3-7-2023 16:18:04 | 显示全部楼层 |阅读模式
Classical Verse | Through a Crystal Curtain. The Chinese celebrate Tang poetry as a pinnacle of their culture. Does it survive translation?  Economist, Dec 24, 2022 to Jan 6, 2023.
https://www.economist.com/christ ... le-of-their-culture
https://zhuanlan.zhihu.com/p/603661235
https://zhuanlan.zhihu.com/p/603977258

Note:
(a)
(i) The "crystal curtain 水晶帘" in article title "Through a Crystal Curtain" is derived from a Tang poem. See Note (d) below.
(ii) The article came with the image of a scroll of Chinese calligraphy -- without caption (or explanation in text).

The calligraphy
https://www.facebook.com/photo.p ... 7520000.&type=3
(A) is by Kapo LIU 廖 嘉寶
https://www.kapoliu.art/
("Born and raised in Hong Kong. Currently based in between Ho Chi Minh and Hong Kong")

The spelling is Cantonese, though I would say Gabo is closer than Kapo.
(B) and was based on the poem discussed in Note (e) below.
(iii) I scrutinize Zhihu, comparing each sentence with the original article in The Economist, and find two omissions: the entire third paragraph that is predictable, and three words ("like your correspondent") in paragraph 4 which is baffling.


(b) "The versions of classical Chinese poetry he [Ezra Pound] published in 'Cathay' in 1915 were a declaration that, in a world of Model TS ][sic; should be 'T'] and machine guns, 1,200­-year­-old verse still mattered. * * * [Paragraph 3 was deleted in Zhihu version, which is reproduced here:] Last year Wang Xing 王兴, founder of Meituan 美团, a food delivery giant, quoted 'The book-burning pit,' a Tang-dynasty poem by Zhang Jie (836-905AD) in which an emperor kills dissenting scholars and destroys their work. Meituan's stockmarket value duly fell by $26bn. Classical poetry is so familiar in China that, although Mr Wang pretended otherwise, everyone knew he was criticizing the repressive rule of President Xi Jinping. * * * the rewards are immense, too: a glimpse into a great civilisation, the spritz of fresh imagery * * * As in Shakespeare's England and JS Bach's Germany, something was in the air. * * * Tian Yuan Tan, professor of Chinese at Oxford * * * To dignify a banquet, you declaimed a poem. * * * David Hinton, a poet and translator, argues that Tang China was perfused by Chan Buddhism. * * * Indeed, the language has changed so since the Tang that poems read out loud in the original Middle Chinese would be incomprehensible to speakers of modern standard Putonghua."
(i) 章碣, 焚书坑
(ii) English dictionary:
* spritz (vt): "squirt or spray something at or onto (something) in quick, short bursts   <she spritzed her neck with cologne>"
            (n): "an act or an instance of squirting or spraying in quick short bursts"
   ^ Oxford Languages  (when you enter a word together with this word dictionary (no quotation mark) in the search box of Google Chrome, definitions from Oxford Languages appear.   
   ^ The www.merriam-webster.com says its etymology is German verb spritzen of the same meaning and first appeared in English in 1886.
* declaim (vt): "to deliver rhetorically"
https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/declaim
* perfuse (vt): "[same as] SUFFUSE"
https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/perfuse
* fatuous (adj; Did You Know?)
https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/fatuous
(iii) For JS Bach, see Johann Sebastian Bach
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Johann_Sebastian_Bach
(1685 – 1750)
(iv) "Tian Yuan Tan, professor of Chinese at Oxford"
(A) Zhihu translates the name as 谭天元; it was wrong.
(B) Tian Yuan Tan 陳靝沅, Shaw Professor of Chinese, Faculty of Asian and Middle Eastern Studies, Oxford University, undated.
https://www.orinst.ox.ac.uk/people/tian-yuan-tan

Tan for 陳 is Minnan 闽南 pronunciation.
(v) The verb declaim is defined in (a)(ii) above.
(vi) "David Hinton, a poet and translator, argues that Tang China was perfused [defined in Note (a)(ii) above] by Chan Buddhism."
(vii) "Eliot Weinberger, who wrote a book that compares 36 translations of a single, celebrated four-line Tang poem"
(A) The Economist is erroneous.

Eliot Weinberger, 19 Ways of Looking at Wang Wei. New Directions Publishing, 2016 (64 pages)
is about 王维, 鹿柴 Deer park. (In fact, 柴 means fence, and 鹿柴 means deer fence.)
(B) This conclusion, that The Economist is wrong, is supported by a later statement is this article: "The surface of his [Wang's] poems are often just a series of statements about nature, as in "The Deer Park", the poem Mr Weinberger compares in translation"
(viii) "Yet Frost's epigram is either obvious or fatuous [defined in Note(a)(ii)]. Obvious because nobody could imagine that the sounds and layers of meaning which make poetry sing in one language could ever map directly onto another. Fatuous because of the in-­your­-face fact that, from Chapman's Homer to Seamus Heaney's 'Beowulf', poetry books are bursting with inspiring translations."
(A) epigram
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Epigram
, whose examples can be found in section 4 Poetic epigrams, though epigrams do not have to be poems.
(B) George Chapman
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/George_Chapman
(c 1559 – 1634; "Chapman is best remembered for his translations of Homer's Iliad and Odyssey")
(C) Seamus Heaney
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Seamus_Heaney
(1939-2013; Irish)

Séamus
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Séamus
(James)
(ix) Middle Chinese will be discussed in a separate posting.
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 楼主| 发表于 3-7-2023 16:20:11 | 显示全部楼层
(c) On the Frontier, translated by AC Graham

李贺, 塞下曲
(i) AC Graham
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/A._C._Graham
(1919-1991; Welsh)
(ii) "A Tartar horn tugs at the north wind  胡角引北风"
(A) Tartary
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tartary
("toponym (place name)" )
(B) Tartar
https://www.etymonline.com/word/tartar
(etymology)
(iii) 蓟城
https://zh.wikipedia.org/wiki/蓟城
("為幽州治所所在")

Not to be confused with 天津市蓟州区.
(iv) "The sky swallows the road to Kokonor. 天含青海道 * * * Kokonor comes from the Mongolian word for Qinghai [place or L=k=lake]"

Kokonor
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kokonor
("may refer to:
• Kokonur (or Kokonor), alternative name for the Qinghai province of China
• Kokonor Lake, lake in the Kokonur province, China")
(v) 寒金鸣夜刻 was incorrectly translated as "Cold bronze rings the watches of the night."
(A) 寒金 was 刁斗.
(B) 顾海丽, 刁斗 (under the heading "诗词里赏文物——"). 甘肃日报, June 4, 2020
https://szb.gansudaily.com.cn/gsrb/202006/04/c193789.html
("刁斗最初记载于司马迁的《史记》,是一种青铜铸造的行军用具,每只可容一斗,除了可作为量器向士兵分发粮食,也可作为饭锅用以炊煮,夜里军营巡逻,士兵还可敲击发出声响,相互警示")
(vi) 马嘶青冢白 was translated to "Houses neigh, Evergreen Mound's champed white."

"青冢:指西汉王昭君的坟墓" from the Web. See also 昭君墓
https://zh.wikipedia.org/zh-cn/昭君墓

chomp (v; etymology: "US regional variation of champ")
https://en.wiktionary.org/wiki/chomp
(vii) 秋静见旄头 = In the still of autumn see the Pleiades (旄头 = 昴).
(A) Pleiades
https://www.astroadventures.net/ ... AnswerPleiades.html
("Several of the Bright Pleiades Stars Appear to Resemble a 'Dipper[.]'   So, this star cluster is often mistaken for the Big Dipper! (An asterism and not by itself a constellation)   Note that the Big Dipper (part of the Ursa Major constellation) is only visible over the Northern Horizon but the Pleiades cannot be seen over this horizon from the continental USA. Furthermore, the Pleiades spans only about 1-1/2 degrees (3 moon diameters) on the sky but the Big Dipper's length is more than 25 degrees! (See bottom diagram below.)")
(B) Pleiades
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pleiades
(pronunciation (which reflects its Greek origin)l section 1 Origin of name, section 2 Folklore and mythology: "the Chinese (who called them 昴 mǎo) * * * the Japanese (who call them 昴 / スバル [katakana for] Subaru)"/ section 5 Composition)
(viii) Patrick Moore and Lee Dyson, A guide to the Pleiades. Sky at Knight (magazine), July 7, 2021
https://www.skyatnightmagazine.c ... -clusters/pleiades/
(photo caption: "The individual stars of the Pleiades")
(ix) "Far out on the sands, danger in the furze. 沙远席羁愁。"
(A) furze (disambiguation)
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Furze_(disambiguation)
("is a common name for Ulex, a genus of about 20 species of evergreen shrubs * * * ")
(B) Ulex
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ulex
(photos)
(x) The poem is brimmed with fear. Perhaps because it was written after An Lushan Rebellion
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/An_Lushan_Rebellion  
(755-763)
, after which Tang Dynasty was in decline. I fail to find out when the poem was written, but 李贺 (790-816).
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 楼主| 发表于 3-7-2023 16:24:41 | 显示全部楼层
(d) The Jewel Stairs' Grievance, translated by Ezra Pound.

李白, 玉阶怨
(i) Ezra Pound "was working from notes provided by the widow of Ernest Fenollosa, an American professor in Japan and he makes mistakes. The steps are white jade—marble—not jewelled; the stockings silk."
(A) Ernest Fenollosa
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ernest_Fenollosa
(1853 – 1908; norn in Salem, Massachusetts to father who was a Spanish pianist; "Fenollosa converted to Buddhism; he was given the name Teishin [諦信 (法名)]. He was also granted the name Kano Eitan Masanobu [狩野 永探 理信: ja.wikipedia.org, because he studied under 師事 painter 狩野永悳], placing him in the lineage of the Kanō school [狩野派], who had served as painters to the Tokugawa shoguns")
died of heart attack in London while visiting there.
(B) Jade (silicate) is not marble (calcium carbonate CaCO3).
(ii) "却下水晶帘,玲珑望秋月。 * * * Mr [Harvard emeritus professor Stephen] Owen[(1946- ), Department of East Asian Languages and Civilizations,] says that in the original the moonlight in the last line is scattered by the crystal curtain, just as it was by the dew: the lovers' moon is in fragments."

This makes sense, contrary to my reading before, because one should not LOWER the curtain to observe moon.


(e) Seeing off Zheng, Prefect of Meizhou, translated by Jeanne Larsen.

薛涛, 送郑眉州
(i) 薛涛
https://zh.wikipedia.org/zh-cn/薛涛
(768-831; 歌妓; "父亲死后,薛涛与母亲居于成都,二人相依为命,生活窘困,十六时颇有姿色,通音律,善诗文,迫于生计而沦为乐妓。唐德宗贞元年间,当时的剑南西川节度使韦皋十分喜爱薛涛,多次将其召到帅府侍宴赋诗,还突发奇想授予薛涛 '校书' 一职,虽然上表朝廷未被准奏")
(ii) Jeanne Larsen
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jeanne_Larsen
(iii) Meizhou 眉州 (old name of the present-day 四川省 眉山市)
https://zh.wikipedia.org/zh-cn/眉山市
(section 1 名称来由)
(iv) Mothbrow Mountain 峨眉山 (located in 四川省乐山市峨眉山; 乐山市 being the southern neighbor of 眉山市; summit 3,099m; 峨 does not mean moth, but an adjective meaning high (mountain).
(v) pennon
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pennon
("also known as a pennant")
(vi) 罗敷
https://dict.revised.moe.edu.tw/dictView.jsp?ID=66421


(f) Returning to Mount Song, translate by Stephen Owen

王维, 归嵩山作
(i) 嵩山 (summit 1,512m) is at 河南省郑州市登封市.
(ii) "A clear stream lined by long tracts of brush, There horse and coach go rumbling away. 清川带长薄, 车马去闲闲。 * * * The first couplet sets up a contrast between nature and noise, as the cart trundles beside the water."

I simply do not agree that 闲闲 equates wuth noise. I prefer the translation in
https://www.arteducation.com.tw/shiwenv_a496667a51c2.html
("譯文[:]
清澈的川水環繞一片草木,駕車馬徐徐而去從容悠閒。
流水好像對我充滿了情意,傍晚的鳥兒隨我一同回還。
荒涼的城池靠著古老渡口,落日的餘暉灑滿金色秋山。
在遙遠又高峻的嵩山腳下,閉上門謝絕世俗度過晚年。
* * * 清川:清清的流水,當指伊水及其支流。 * * * 閒閒:從容自得的樣子。 * * * 迢遞:遙遠的樣子。遞:形容遙遠。嵩高:嵩山別稱嵩高山")


(g) Spring Landscape, translated by David Hinton.

杜甫, 春望
(i) David Hinton
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/David_Hinton
(ii) "Du Fu is writing regulated verse [specifically, 五言 律诗]"
(A) regulated verse  近体诗.  en.wikipedia.org.
(B) 近体诗
https://zh.wikipedia.org/zh-cn/近体诗
is composed of jueju 绝句 and lüshi 律诗.

Compare 古体诗
https://zh.wikipedia.org/zh-cn/古体诗
There is no consensus on its English name.
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 楼主| 发表于 3-7-2023 16:31:52 | 显示全部楼层
本帖最后由 choi 于 3-9-2023 09:14 编辑

(h) "But readers in English coming to this poetry for the first time will find it waiting like Pound's white­silk fan, 'as clear as frost on the grass­blade.' "
(i) Zhihu translated the sentence as "但第一次接触这首诗的英文读者会发现它就像庞德的白丝扇一样,像草叶上的霜一样清晰可见。"
(ii) That is because Zhihu was unaware of Pound's own (original) poem, which was INSPIRED by translation by HA Giles of an ancient Chinese poem. Pound's poem employed a metaphor of a fan for a woman set aside by an emperor (or imperial lord). Pound's poem to be analyzed next step by step.
(iii) Ezra Pound. Fan-Piece for Her Imperial Lord:

"O fan of white silk,
             clear as frost on the grass-blade,
You also are laid aside."

(iv)
(A) For HA Giles, see Herbert Giles
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Herbert_Giles
(section 5 Bibliography, section 5.1 Books by Herbert Giles: — (1901). History of Chinese Literature  
(B) Giles
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Giles
(may refer to: Giles (given name), Giles (surname) )
is an English surname of Norman origin.
(v) 旧体诗
https://zh.wikipedia.org/zh-cn/旧体诗
(section 2 历史与分类: section 2.2 乐府诗, section 2.3 古体诗, section 2.4 近体诗)
is opposite 新詩 (after May fourth Movement).
(vi) Lady Pan is
Consort Ban  班婕妤 (c 48 BCE – c 2 BCE)
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Consort_Ban
(section 2 Poems: "is best known for the famous poem attributed to her ('Yuan Ge Xing' or 'Song of Resentment'), in which she compares herself to a discarded autumn fan. It deals with her sorrow at having been abandoned by the Emperor and is written in the yuefu style of poetry. However, there is a certain historical doubt about the attribution of this song to her, especially since it is not mentioned in her grand-nephew Ban Gu's biography of her")
(vii) 怨歌行
viihttps://www.arteducation.com.tw/shiwenv_31c5fb3823cc.html
https://www.cai.cam.ac.uk/sites/default/files/pound2.pdf

(viii) "7.         Fan-Piece, for her Imperial Lord

        O fan of white silk,
                clear as frost on the grass-blade,
        You also are laid aside.

Ezra Pound, from Lustra (London, September 1916); * * * condensed from a 10-line English translation (given in Ruthven, Guide, pp 68-9) of a Chinese poem by HA Giles, A History of Chinese Literature (London, 1901), p 101; this work [Giles's translation] was introduced to Pound by Allen Upward, just before Pound's knowledge of Fenollosa's work * * *

8.            O fair white silk, fresh from the weaver's loom,
        Clear as the frost, bright as the winter snow --
        See! friendship fashions out of thee a fan,
        Round as the round moon shines in heaven above,
        At home, abroad, a close companion thou,
        Stirring at every move the grateful gale.
        And yet I fear, ah me! that autumn chills,
        Cooling the dying summer's torrid rage,
        Will see thee laid neglected on the shelf,
        All thought of bygone days, like them bygone.

HA Giles, A History of Chinese Literature (London, 1901), p 101; compare his translation of 'Liu Ch'e' (History, p 100) by Emperor Wu of the Han Dynasty (156-87 BC) with Pound's condensed and understated version, first published alongside the 'Fan-Piece' and also collected in Lustra (1916)"

Reading Pound: Two.
https://www.cai.cam.ac.uk/sites/default/files/pound2.pdf
, from
Mr [Jeremy] Prynne's Notes and Materials for English Students. Gonville and Caius College, University of Cambridge
https://www.cai.cam.ac.uk/documents/jhp13
("This page has been produced by Caius English Fellow Jeremy Prynne. * * * [sectional heading:] NOTES FOR COURSES, 2: READING POUND[:] Reading Pound: Background," and One to Eight)

The last three letter jhp in the preceding URL are the initials of Jeremy Prynne.
(A) Ezra Pound
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ezra_Pound
(section 10 Selected works: "(1916). Lustra. London: Elkin Mathews (poems)" )
(B) Read for yourself: In the book Lustra, the first page after Ezra Pound's photo explained the meaning of the Latin noun neuter lustrum (plural: lustra).
https://upload.wikimedia.org/wik ... ra00pounrich%29.pdf

Lustra is in public domain because under US copyright law, it was published more than 80 years ago.

Latin-English dictionary:
* lustrum
https://en.wiktionary.org/wiki/lustrum
(C) As you can see, 8 is translation of 怨歌行.
(D) Liu Ch'e is 汉武帝 刘彻. "History, p 100" refers to p 100 of A History of Chinese Literature. Thanks to the page, I know the poem was 落叶哀蝉曲, by Liu Ch'e.
https://www.arteducation.com.tw/shiwenv_d7a4634b69ae.html
("羅袂兮無聲,玉墀兮塵生。
虛房冷而寂寞,落葉依於重扃。
望彼美之女兮,安得感余心之未寧?")
(E) HA Giles, A History of Chinese Literature has no pagination in Gutenberg Project's reproduction
https://www.gutenberg.org/cache/epub/43711/pg43711-images.html
("his [汉文帝 刘恒 Liu Hêng] grandson, Liu Ch‘ê (b.c. 156-87), who succeeded in b.c. 140 as sixth Emperor of the Han dynasty. He was an enthusiastic patron of literature. * * *
The next lines were written upon the death of a harem favourite [李夫人], to whom he was fondly attached:—

'The sound of rustling silk is stilled,
With dust the marble courtyard filled;
No footfalls echo on the floor,
Fallen leaves in heaps block up the door....
For she, my pride, my lovely one, is lost,
And I am left, in hopeless anguish tossed.' ")
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 楼主| 发表于 3-7-2023 16:40:58 | 显示全部楼层
本帖最后由 choi 于 3-7-2023 16:46 编辑

------------text. The Economist
Ezra Pound, an American modernist, described poetry as "news that stays news". The versions of classical Chinese poetry he published in "Cathay" in 1915 were a declaration that, in a world of Model TS and machine guns, 1,200­-year­-old verse still mattered.

  That is certainly what the Chinese think today. In the West poetry is a minority pursuit; in China it is woven into people’s lives. Children learn classical verse throughout their schooling, new poems celebrate births and marriages, and idiomatic speech is embroidered with ancient couplets.

  That is certainly what the Chinese think today. In the West poetry is a minority pursuit; in China it is woven into people's lives. Children learn classical verse throughout their schooling, new poems celebrate births and marriages, and idiomatic speech is embroidered with ancient couplets.

  Last year Wang Xing 王兴, founder of Meituan 美团, a food delivery giant, quoted 'The book-burning pit,' a Tang-dynasty poem by Zhang Jie (836-905AD) in which an emperor kills dissenting scholars and destroys their work. Meituan's stockmarket value duly fell by $26bn. Classical poetry is so familiar in China that, although Mr Wang pretended otherwise, everyone knew he was criticizing the repressive rule of President Xi Jinping.

  Can this ancient poetry come alive to readers who, like your correspondent, speak no Chinese? The barriers are immense: not just temporal, but linguistic and philosophical. However, the rewards are immense, too: a glimpse into a great civilisation, the spritz of fresh imagery, and sudden, consoling moments when an eighth century poet rises up off the page, a human being like any other. Nowhere are these rewards stacked higher than in the poetry of the Tang dynasty.

  The Tang lasted from 618 to 907AD. During its first half, as China flourished, the Silk Road brought luxuries, wealth and exoticism. The capital Chang'an, modern day Xi'an, had about 1m inhabitants. Perhaps 5% of them were literate. Before a rebellion knocked everything off centre in 755, it may have been the most prosperous and cosmopolitan city in the world.

  As in Shakespeare's England and JS Bach's Germany, something was in the air. Early in the Tang, poetry ­writing was brought into the examination that selected scholars for the bureaucracy. Among the finest Tang poets were great drinkers who had studied for the exam but failed it, or who could not hold down a government job (some things never change).

  Verse was communal. Tian Yuan Tan, professor of Chinese at Oxford, explains that, during this time, it spread from the court into everyday life. When somebody left town, you wrote a poem. To dignify a banquet, you declaimed a poem. If your friend was out when you dropped by, you left a poem behind.

  Plenty of people could write Tang verse. Stephen Owen, a Harvard professor who may have translated more of it than anyone, says that, even if writing good poetry was formidably hard, everyday poems were easy to toss off—Chinese has plenty of rhymes and stock allusions. Fortunately, the best verses were rapidly anthologised, one reason so many still exist.

  And poetry was becoming more contemplative. Some wrote of the miseries of exile. The rebellion caused upheaval and suffering, some of which coloured poetry. David Hinton, a poet and translator, argues that Tang China was perfused by Chan Buddhism. All this gave verse a depth that court poetry had lacked.

  It is one thing for Chinese speakers to look back on the Tang poets in awe. It is quite another for their poetry to work in modern English. Robert Frost, a 20th century American writer, is supposed to have said that "poetry is what is lost in translation". If so, grappling with Chinese poetry is doubly futile. English has no tones, or characters—which may add layers of meaning. Eliot Weinberger [1949- ; American], who wrote a book that compares 36 translations of a single, celebrated four-line Tang poem, points out that Chinese verbs have no tense, the sentence may have no subject and a single character could have several meanings (modern Chinese is less ambiguous, because it tends to group text into two-character units). That leaves the translator with a lot to fill in. Mr Hinton says that European poetry is "the same grammatical world just reorganised." [This quotation mark is indeed placed after the period] By contrast, "for Chinese, you pretty much have to reinvent it because the language is so radically different." [So is this quotation mark]

  Inevitably, there are plenty of bad versions of Chinese poetry. It is unfortunate that the first Tang poem in English, "Climbing Qi Mountain in The Double Ninth Day 九日齐山登高" by Du Mu 杜牧 (803­852), from a missionary called Robert Morrison in 1815, mixes up the words for wild geese and swallows. The rhymes of Launcelot Cranmer­ Byng, a renowned British translator who died in 1945, are hard for the modern ear to bear.

  Yet Frost's epigram is either obvious or fatuous. Obvious because nobody could imagine that the sounds and layers of meaning which make poetry sing in one language could ever map directly onto another. Fatuous because of the in-­your­-face fact that, from Chapman's Homer to Seamus Heaney's "Beowulf", poetry books are bursting with inspiring translations.

  Indeed, the language has changed so since the Tang that poems read out loud in the original Middle Chinese would be incomprehensible to speakers of modern standard Putonghua. In a sense, everybody who experiences poetry across a millennium experiences it in translation. As a rebuke to Frost, Mr Weinberger begins his study: "Poetry is that which is worth translating." Here are five Tang poems. Judge for yourself.


China has hundreds of poems about the frontier. Most of them were heroic, but here Li He (791­-817), a Late Tang maverick, instead paints a desolate picture of a barbarian threat out in the nothingness.

        On the Frontier translated by A.C. Graham

        A Tartar horn tugs at the north wind,
        Thistle Gate shines whiter than the stream.
        The sky swallows the road to Kokonor.
        On the Great Wall, a thousand miles of moonlight.
        The dew comes down, the banners drizzle,
        Cold bronze rings the watches of the night.
        The nomads’ armour meshes serpents’ scales.
        Horses neigh, Evergreen Mound’s champed white.
        In the still of autumn see the Pleiades.
        Far out on the sands, danger in the furze.
        North of their tents is surely the sky's end
        Where the sound of the river streams beyond the border.

  A lot of Chinese poetry layers images on top of each other. In the first stanza, Li He begins with a panorama—Kokonor comes from the Mongolian word for Qinghai, a region 1,700km west of Beijing.

  Then he zooms in on the soldiers, down to the plates in their armour. The Evergreen Mount is the tomb of Wang Zhaojun, who was sent as a wife to appease a Barbarian leader. The mound was supposed to be green—but here, in the moonlight, it is drained of colour, like the steppe.

  And the last stanza pulls back out again. Mr Tan points out that Li He mixes scenery and emotion. The flickering star­-cluster that Westerners call the Pleiades was an omen of barbarian invasion. Although the soldiers cannot see the horde, they sense it and they are apprehensive. The Yellow River flows from the wilderness into China, unstoppable.

The next poem is about a woman at court who is let down by her lover. As in much Chinese poetry, it draws its power from what is left unsaid.

        The Jewel Stairs' Grievance 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.

  This lament is unusual for Li Bai (701­-762). He was an extrovert best­-known for writing about friendship and drinking. The woman has been waiting for her lover for some time because her stockings are soaked. It is a clear night: he has no excuse. By the third line she has accepted that he is not coming and returns to her room, lowering a beaded curtain. The moon could represent two people's separation, grievance or a mirror of the woman's mind, empty and at peace. As Pound remarks in a gloss, "the poem is especially prized because she utters no reproach".

  Pound did not speak Chinese. He was working from notes provided by the widow of Ernest Fenollosa, an American professor in Japan and he makes mistakes. The steps are white jade—marble—not jewelled; the stockings silk. By tradition, poems like this are in the third person, with the poet as an omniscient observer. Mr Owen says that in the original the moonlight in the last line is scattered by the crystal curtain, just as it was by the dew: the lovers' moon is in fragments.

  Pound's versions of Chinese poems were so fresh that "Cathay" had a profound and lasting influence on modern American poetry. Pound wanted to escape the sentimentality and prolixity of the Victorians. In the crystalline economy of Japanese Haiku and classical Chinese poetry he found the means.

Farewell poems make up a lot of Tang verse. Most were formulaic, but this stands out not only for its emotional subtlety, but also because its author, Xue Tao (ca.768-­831), was a courtesan famed for her writing.

        Seeing off Zheng, Prefect of Meizhou translated by Jeanne Larsen

        Rain darkens Mothbrow Mountain;
        the river waters flow.
        Parting:
        her face behind her sleeves, she
        stands atop the watchtower.
        Two matched pennons,
        a thousand mounts
        in pairs on the Eastern Road—
        alone she gazes
        like a faithful
        wife toward the column's head.

  The figure two runs through this poem. The woman's sleeves, the standards, the columns of cavalry all contrast with the couple who are separated as he leads his troops to war and she is left behind.

  According to Jeanne Larsen, the translator, the complete Tang anthology features about 2,250 poets; 130 of them are women, represented by 600 poems. Courtesans were entertainers. They were meant to be gifted poets and musicians. In an age when wives were usually uneducated, their conversation lubricated the dealings between powerful men. "Sex was part of it, of course," Ms Larsen writes, "but only part of it."

  Xue Tao was especially successful. Eventually she retired and was able to live independently—a fate denied most courtesans, who were forced into marriage, concubinage or prostitution. Before that, she spent years in the service of a military governor in modern-day Chengdu in Sichuan. It is said that he asked her to be awarded the title Collator, the office of collecting and combining texts, as recognition of her writing.

Pound was drawn by Chinese poets’ focus on images. Nobody saw more clearly than Wang Wei (699­761), who here writes on another Tang theme: going home.

        Returning to Mount Song translated by Stephen Owen

        A clear stream lined by long tracts of brush,
        There horse and coach go rumbling away.
        The flowing waters seem to have purpose,
        And birds of evening join to turn home.
        Grass­-grown walls look down on an ancient ford,
          As setting sunlight fills the autumn mountains,
        And far, far beneath the heights of Mount Song,
        I return and close my gate.

  The first couplet sets up a contrast between nature and noise, as the cart trundles beside the water. Then the poet sees the river returning to the ocean and the birds to their nests: Wang Wei wants to leave behind the stresses of government work and retire in peace. The next three lines describe a series of barriers—ancient walls, the forded river and a range of tall mountains. But the last barrier, the gate, subverts them. Behind it lies seclusion and awareness.

  Wang Wei was also a painter. He is "a guy that can see", says Mr Owen, the translator. "Always visualizing what's there and what's not there." The surface of his poems are often just a series of statements about nature, as in "The Deer Park", the poem Mr Weinberger compares in translation. The details seem natural, but the closer you look the more you find.

  Wang Wei was a Buddhist, too. From the age of 30 he studied under a Chan master. This poem is usually thought of as a reflection on the universal desire to withdraw from the hurly­-burly of life. Mr Hinton also detects a deeper, Buddhist yearning for meditative peace and enlightenment.

The An Lushan Rebellion of 755 lasted seven years and brought destruction that the Tang Dynasty never fully overcame. Roughly 1,200 of the poems of Du Fu (712­-770) are from that time, 80% of what survives. This is about how it feels when the world falls apart.

        Spring Landscape translated by David Hinton

        The country in ruins, rivers and mountains
        continue. The city grows lush with spring.
        Blossoms scatter tears for us, and all these
        separations in a bird's cry startle the heart.
        Beacon­fires three months ablaze: by now
        a mere letter's worth ten thousand in gold,
        and worry's thinned my hair to such white
        confusion I can't even keep this hairpin in.

  The first line is one of the most famous in all Chinese poetry. Du Fu is stuck in the capital, separated from his wife and children, the country is at war but, as spring comes, the natural world keeps turning. As he reflects on the devastation and the misery, he smiles wryly at the hopelessness of his situation.

  Du Fu is writing regulated verse, which sets up a perfect series of parallels visible in the literal translation. Mr Tan points out that in the first couplet Du Fu stands back to contrast the city’s suffering with nature's indifference. In the second he draws in: water droplets and birds' cries are now echoing his sorrow. The third speaks of the civil war, comparing it with his own isolation from his family. And the last focuses on the poet himself. He is not falling into self­-pity, but gently laughing at his own ridiculous transfer of worry from the ruin of the nation to the security of the hairpin he uses to fix his official hat—mockery all the more penetrating because, as Mr Owen notes, Du Fu never won high office. All that in 40 characters.

  In translation you lose the parallelism of Du Fu—indeed Mr Owen and Mr Hinton say that in English end-stopped lines using repeated patterns soon pall. You also miss literary allusions and the resonance of phrases that have entered the Chinese language.

  However, Mr Tan observes that translation has one advantage. To the Chinese, voluminous commentaries weigh down these poems, rather as Hamlet's "To be, or not to be" is freighted with overuse. But readers in English coming to this poetry for the first time will find it waiting like Pound's white-­silk fan, "as clear as frost on the grass­blade".
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