Thursday, May 21, 2009

I brood in shame

This post juxtaposes a powerful English translation of an old Chinese poem with two translations that fall short.

In the year 1090, Su Shi (also known as Su Dongpo) recalled a poem he'd written in 1071, while he was vice-governor of Hangzhou: "On New Year's Eve I was on duty in the yamen, which was filled with prisoners in chains; the sun set and I was still unable to return to my quarters, so I wrote a poem on the wall." (André Lévy, Chinese Literature, Ancient and Classical, William Nienhauser trans., Indiana University Press, 2000, p. 94.)

This was Su Shi's poem, translated by David Hinton:

On New Year's Eve I should be home early,
but this office full of business keeps me.
Writing-brush in hand, hiding my tears,
I face all these bound prisoners, helpless
little people scrambling for food, snared
in the law's net, and no reason for shame.
I'm no different: adoring a meager salary,
I follow orders, losing my chance to live
quiet and far away. No telling who's noble,
who vile: we're all just angling for a meal.
Could I free them for the holiday at least?
I brood in shame before ancients who did.

The last line of the poem is a reference to the old practice of freeing prisoners at New Year's.

From David Hinton, Classical Chinese Poetry: An Anthology (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2008), quoted in this superb New Republic article about recent English translations of Chinese poetry.

Michael Fuller's translation of the same poem is strikingly different:

Written on the Wall of the Prefectural Audience Hall

On New Year's Eve one ought to return early.
But I am detained by official matters.
Holding a brush, I face them, weeping,
Mourning these jailed prisoners.
Men of little stature make their schemes for foodstuff,
And when caught in the net, know no shame.
I too am enamored of my meager salary.
Toeing the line, I failed to return to retirement.
One need not speak of the worthy and the dolt:
Both make plans in order to eat.
Who can obtain a temporary reprieve?
In wordless dejection, I am ashamed before former worthies.

Michael Fuller, The Road to East Slope: The Development of Su Shi's Poetic Voice, Stanford 1990, p. 144.

Burton Watson's translation:

New Year's Eve*

New Year's Eve - you'd think I could go home early
but official business keeps me.
I hold the brush and face them with tears:
pitiful convicts in chains,
little men who tried to fill their bellies,
fell into the law's net, don't understand disgrace.
And I? In love with a meager stipend
I hold on to my job and miss the chance to retire.
Don't ask who is foolish or wise;
all of us alike scheme for a meal.
The ancients would have freed them a while at New Year's -
would I dare do otherwise? I am silent with shame.

*Watson adds this note: Written in 1071 when Su was vice-governor of Hangchow. By custom, criminal cases involving the death penalty had to be settled before New Year's.

Burton Watson, The Columbia Book of Chinese Poetry: From Early Times to the Thirteenth Century, 1984, p. 299.

Here is Su Shi's poem in the original Chinese:

除日当早归,官事乃见留。
执笔对之泣,哀此系中囚。
小人营糇粮,堕网不知羞。
我亦恋薄禄,因循失归休。
不须论贤愚,均是为食谋。
谁能暂纵遣。闵默愧前修。

Source here.

David Hinton's rendering of the poem takes more liberties than Fuller's, but is by far superior. Watson falls short in that he fails to be faithful to the Chinese original and to the demands of good English poetry.

To me, these three translations are an object lesson and a warning not to translate poetry. Only (good) poets ought to tackle translating poetry.