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Tuesday, December 6, 2016


Preparing for our Tang poetry podcast I found this translation from a few years back of a short poem by Li Bai.    It's another fine example of Li Bai's genius.  This Lament is a poem of great restraint.  It is also a poem about restraint.  This is essential to understanding Li Bai’s greatness  – how perfectly he matches words to meaning, making the poem an even more accurate reflection of the experience it’s meant to convey.

I have seen a few other translations of this poem that don’t quite capture the delicacy of the image in the first line.  The literal text reads – beautiful person rolls pearl curtain.  One of the standard translations of this line by Witter Bynner is –

How beautiful she looks, opening the pearly casement

In other words, in Bynner’s translation the woman who is the subject of the poem is literally standing in front of a pearl curtain or window sash of some sort.  Of course, that’s perfectly possible but I prefer to read the pearl curtain more as a metaphor for the tears themselves as they roll down her cheeks.  

Now I really don’t mean to criticize Bynner by pointing out this difference.  In fact, both literal and metaphorical readings are possible.  That’s part of the challenge and pleasure of translating classical Chinese poems into English – the compaction of the grammar and the density of the literary allusions in the original poems make precision in translation impossible.  And one thing I hope English readers can come to appreciate – sometimes by comparing various translations of the same poem, sometimes by looking to the literal translation as well – is that the original poems themselves have this richness and complexity, as all truly great poems do.   

Please indulge me in one more bit of explanation about my reading of this poem.  I said at the outset I think this is a poem about restraint.  We usually think about crying as a display of emotion but part of what I love about this poem and about the image of a pearl curtain or curtain of tears, is that it conceals just as much as it reveals, a realization which is perfectly suited to the poem’s last line – the heart’s unknowingness which could be referring to the heart of the poet, the heart of the lady (who could be confused about whether she hates her lover, herself or some rival) or the reader’s, or all hearts, for that matter, such being the nature of a true lament.  Again, this is an ambiguity much more easily rendered in Chinese than in English.

Down her lovely face
The screen of pearls unfurls

Deeply creased in a frown
Her brow flutters like a moth

But see how the tears
Only leave a faint trace

And the heart remains unknowing
Just whom it is she hates



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