This is an excerpt taken from an essay by Tony Barnstone on the subject of translating the Chinese poet Han Shan.
“Esthetically, I am attracted to many aspects of previous translations of Han Shan’s work. I like the chances the Gary Snyder takes with the translations, sometimes at the expense of full accuracy, but invariably making the poems better in the process. I have something of a quibble with Snyder’s use of slang, which sometimes makes his Han Shan seem old-fashioned, instead of fresh and contemporary. So, for example, Snyder writes about Han Shan’s search for immortality and vain attempt to brew elixirs of immortality: “[I] Tried drugs, but couldn’t make Immortal.” Snyder has him complain that “Some critic tried to put me down,” and say that he moved to Cold Mountain to get away from his “tangled, hung-up mind.” In such lines Han Shan becomes a 1960’s hipster, which is interesting in its way, but it poses the same problems as would a translation of Han Shan into hip-hop slang or skateboarder slang. The slang ages fast, hip becomes un-hip, cool becomes uncool, and phat becomes old hat.
I admire Red Pine’s terseness and occasional attempts to slip in a slant rhyme as a gesture towards traditional Chinese form, and I admire the narrative clarity of Burton Watson’s versions. They represent the extremes of concision and expansion, and at their best they do amazing work. Here is a Han Shan poem translated by both Red Pine and Watson:
is there a self or not
is this me or not
this is what I ponder
still seated against the cliff
while between my feet green grass grows
and on my head red dust settles
I’ve even seen members of the laity
leave fruit and wine by the bier
trans. Red Pine
Have I a body or have I none?
Am I who I am or am I not?
Pondering these questions,
I sit leaning against the cliff while the years go by,
till the green grass grows between my feet
and the red dust settles on my head,
and the men of the world, thinking me dead,
come with offerings of wine and fruit to lay by my corpse.
trans. Burton Watson
Here you can clearly see the tight concision of the Red Pine version and the prosy directness of the Watson version. In the Watson poem, for example, the five-syllable closing line of the poem is rendered with 14 English syllables, whereas Red Pine uses just 7. The line literally means “spirit bed give wine fruit.” Red Pine’s translation is accurate and condensed like the original, and I like his use of “bier” to suggest the soul’s bed in the mountain, just the right term. On the other hand I also liked the fact that Watson’s translation got so clearly at the fact that passersby see the poet in his mountain resting place and see it as a deathbed because he has fallen so still in his meditation on and connection with nature. On the other hand, to do so he sacrificed a bit more of the letter to get at the spirit.
I chose a slightly different path. Here is the version I did with Chou Ping:
Do I have a body or not?
Am I my body or not?
Brooding on this,
I let things pass, sitting against a cliff
till green grass spills between my feet,
red dust cakes my head,
and common men, thinking me dead,
leave wine and fruit by my bed.
I had fun with the three end rhymes, the off-rhymed “this” and “cliff,” and the repeated end-word “not.” I preferred to have the poem move as one sentence after the opening questions of the first two lines. The stillness of each line in tension with the ongoing flow of the sentence felt to me organically connected to the stillness of poet and mountain in a world of flow and change.
Is our translation “better” than that of Red Pine or Burton Watson? That’s not really the point, and it is a question for which Han Shan would have had only disdain. I don’t wish to be like his scholar, “totally ruined by books,” or like the living creatures he scorns because “they scheme to eat each other, / never understanding cause or effect, / blind babies asking what’s the color of milk.” I do hope that our translation is of a quality to stand alongside the fine work that they have done.
I like to think of the translator making a poet’s words come to life in another language as the musician who activates the otherwise inert score of a composer. It isn’t music simply because the right notes are plunked out in the right order, because time is kept with a metronome. Han Shan has been a lucky composer. His work has been played elegantly by musicians with very different styles and abilities, from pure scholars to pure poets. And if I were to be honest I would have to admit that I choose to play his music on my instrument less for the enjoyment of the audience than for the pure pleasure of allowing his ancient spiritual music to sing through me.”