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Translating the Shorter Chinese Poem: Back to Basics

Li Bai’s Quiet Night Thoughts (靜夜思: jing ye sī) is a simple but famous poem, known to schoolchildren across China. {1}  I’ve chosen it firstly because it has been translated extensively, and, secondly, because it has reportedly given translators a lot of trouble. {2}  Cai {3} provides a prose rendering, the original in Mandarin and pinyin, and a word-for-word rendering:

chinese poetry translations cover

Before my bed, the bright moonlight
I mistake it for frost on the ground
Raising my head, I stare at the bright moon;
Lowering my head, I think of home

靜夜思   jing ye sī

床前明月光    chuang qian ming yue guāng
疑是地上霜    yi shi di shang shuāng
舉頭望明月    jŭ tou wang ming yue
低頭思故鄉    dī tou sī gu xiāng

bed front bright moon shine
suspect is ground top frost
raise head gaze bright moon
lower head think old hometown

The last word, clearly vital, is 鄉 (xiāng) which means village, local neighbourhood, and, by implication in this context, the poet’s home.

Previous Renderings

In a most informative paper on rhyme in English and Chinese poetry, Charles Kwong {2} provides two earlier English renderings, both by distinguished translators:

The first is by Xu Yuanzhong (1994): A.

Thoughts on a Silent Night: Li Bai

Before my bed a pool of light—
Can it be frost upon the ground?
Eyes raised, I see the moon so bright;
Head bent, in homesickness I’m drowned.

The second is by John Turner (1989) B

Night Thoughts

As by my bed
The moon did beam,
It seemed as if with frost the earth were spread.
But soft I raise
My head, to gaze
At the fair moon.
And now,
With head bent low,
Of home I dream.

Internet renderings include:

Hugh Grigg (2012) C

Bright moonlight before my bed;
I suppose it is frost on the ground.
I raise my head to view the bright moon,
then lower it, thinking of my home village. {4}

Wikipedia Writers (2020) D

Moonlight before my bed
Perhaps frost on the ground.
Lift my head and see the moon
Lower my head and I miss my home. {5}


Quiet Night Thought (100 Tang Poems 2020) E

At the foot of my bed, moonlight
 Yes, I suppose there is frost on the ground.
 Lifting my head I gaze at the bright moon
 Bowing my head, thinking of home. {6}


Quiet Night Thoughts (Chinese Learning 2020) F
 
Moonlight shining through the window
Makes me wonder if there is frost on the ground.
Looking up to see the moon
Looking down I miss my hometown. {7}

Quiet Night Thoughts (Zawadzki 2016) G

Bright shines the Moon before my bed;
Methinks ’tis frost upon the earth.
I watch the Moon, then bend my head
And miss the hamlet of my birth. {8}

Night Thoughts (Huang 2008) H

Before the well, the moonlight so bright,
Be it frost aground?  I suppose it might.
I raise my eyes towards the silvery moon, then
Lower them, musing: I'm homesick tonight. {9}

Quiet Night Thoughts (Chinese Folk Songs 2020) I

At the end of my bed, the moon is shining bright,
I think it looks like frost upon the ground.
I raise my head and look at the bright moon,
I lower my head and think of home. {10}

Quiet Night Thoughts by Li Bai (American Literature 2020) J

Before my bed
there is bright moonlight
So that it seems
Like frost on the ground:

Lifting my head
 I watch the bright moon,
 Lowering my head
 I dream that I'm home. {11}

Comments

Only A, B, G and H employ rhyme, and only the rhyming in H reproduces Li Bai’s aaxa rhyme scheme. With respect to metre, the renderings range from strict iambic (B, G) through various approximations to metre to pleasing free verse (D, F, I, J). Most reproduce the original quatrain, but B has 9 lines and J has 8 lines. All but B and J reproduce the theme of homesickness, and all but G reproduce the parallelism of head raised and lowered in lines 3-4.

Rhyme or No Rhyme?

Though ‘the arguments against translating poetry into rhymed and metered verse are persuasive, rhyme can play an important part in the original poem: it marks a completion, a rounding of the line, and acts as a further ‘marker’ in the development of the poem as a whole. Furthermore, the sound effects produced by the succession of rhymes undoubtedly heighten the illocutionary power of the poem.’ {12} Equally clearly, rhyme done badly will sink a translation.

The first thing to check is how readily or otherwise rhyme can be achieved. In fact it’s not too difficult. If we want to duplicate the original’s axaa rhyme scheme we can write:

Before my bed the moonlight shines, although
it may be frosted ground for all I know.
I raise my head and have the moon remind
me of the home I left and long ago.

Or:

Before my bed the moonlight shines, although
it may be hoarfrost there for all I know.
I raise my head to gaze on that full moon
but find deep thoughts of home left long ago.

If we want rhyming couplets aabb we can write:

Before my bed the moonlight shines, although
it may be hoarfrost there for all I know.
I raise my head and have the moon remind
me of the homestead I have left behind.

Or possibly, if we accept pararhyme:

Before my bed, and bright, is moonlight found,
which may be hoarfrost only on the ground.
I raise my head to see the moon aloft
and lower it to think of home I’ve lost.

Cross-rhymes are more difficult. This is a little contrived:

Before my bed, the moonlight shed its brilliant bloom,
although it may be hoarfrost there I’ll find.
I raise my head to see the brilliant moon
and lower it to think of village left behind.

And if dispense with rhyme altogether we can write:

Before my bed, and bright, the moonlight shines,
although it may be hoarfrost on the ground.
I raise my head to gaze on that full moon,
and lower it to think of home I’ve left behind./
but think of that far home I’ve left behind./
but see in depth the home I’ve left behind.

Parallelism

Before going further we need to look at the parallelism. The moon up above is a reflection of frost down below.  In the second couplet the poet looks up to see the moon (a familiar image of home and family togetherness) and down to think (with an implied chill about the heart) of his home neighbourhood. It’s the parallelism — frost in nature, frost in the heart— that tells us that Li Bai is saddened by thinking of home. This rather rules out example J, which has missed the whole point of the poem. Other renderings understand the poem, but do not evoke sadness sufficiently. They cite homesickness, but phrases like ‘I think of home’ or ‘I miss my home’ etc. don’t cut it: they’re the language of everyday speech, banal in the English poetry tradition.

Developing a Translation

The last line is therefore crucial, and is the one we should develop first. The problem is this: Though Li Bai’s language is simple and perfectly clear —舉頭 / 低頭 — raise head / lower head, we don’t normally say in English ‘I raise my head . . . and lower my head’. It’s not natural speech and would be sanctioned in poetry only if something momentous were to follow. Continuing with ‘I miss my home’ is bathetic. We need something stronger, and with two feet taken up with ‘I lower my head’ we have only three feet at our disposal. Obvious possibilities are some variety of:

a. I lower my head and think of home again

b. I bow my head and brood on home I’ve lost.

c. I raise my eyes to see the brilliant moon,
but lower them to homelands long ago.

d. I raise my eyes to see the brilliant moon,
but lower them to home seen long ago.

Version c replaces ‘head’ by ‘eyes’ but parallels ‘ground’ with ‘land, but d is the more pleasing.

Or we can drop the ‘I lower my head’ and put more strength into the concluding phrase:

e. I raise my head to gaze on that full moon
but drop into the homeland of the heart.

f. I raise my head to gaze on that full moon
but fall to home the heart had long ago.

g. I raise my head to gaze on that full moon
but find the depths the home had long ago.

h. I raise my head to gaze on that full moon
but hurt in depths the home had long ago.

Finally, if we put the raising and lowering of the head in line 3, we can write something like:

i. I raise my eyes but flinch from that bright moon,
and feel the depths the home known long ago.

j. I raise my head but flinch from that bright moon
that speaks of heart’s own home of long ago.

It’s not an easy decision. Li Bai’s language is especially simple, and should be kept so. But neither do we want to write something in ‘Jack and Jill’ language that too much goes against the English poetry tradition. With misgivings, I’d prefer something like j, when we have:

Before my bed the moonlight shines, although
it may be frost on ground for all I know.
I raise my head but flinch from that full moon
that shines on home the heart held long ago.

That has some of the phrasing, vowel variety and alliteration that ‘simple’ poetry in English requires, but we would certainly have to provide a word-for-word rendering of the original, explanation of its structure and a justification for departing so far from a literal rendering. A more conventiona rendering is:

Before my bed the moonlight shines, although
it may be frost on ground for all I know.
I raise my eyes to see the brilliant moon,
but lower them to home seen long ago.

References


The updated article, properly referenced, can be found in the free pdf ebook Background to the Chinese Translations.

For the Chinese poetry translations only click here.

For Notes on Poems 1 to 36 click here.

and for Notes on Poems 37-93 click here.