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Tuesday, April 24, 2018

Immortal Spirit Roving Among the Mountains (by Bai Juyi)

One of the wonderful things about reading and translating Chinese poetry is coming to the realization that Tang poets at their best will be playful and teasing, taking delight in ambiguity and uncertainty, as any good artist should.  As the translator Red Pine explains it, there are as many possible translations of a classical Chinese poem as there are translators.  Word by word and line by line we are faced with choices and multiple meanings.  While every translator must make choices, we must also pay homage to ambiguity and try to preserve it, finding a way in our own words to maintain some of the liminality and magic of the original poem's conceit.

This short poem by Bai Juyi I translated this morning provides a good example of the beauty of the original poem's deliberate ambiguity and the consequent danger of a translation or reading in which the meaning is overdetermined.  The uncertainty Bai is playing with here is tied up in the phrase 出人间, which appears and the end of the poem's first line.  Departed from the human realm is how I've chosen to translate this phrase.  But what exactly does that mean?  Is this a poem about the bardo state and what happens to the human spirit after we die?  Or is it a poem about the contemplative state and what happens to our spirit as we seek detachment from the mundane realm of human affairs?  For me the magic of the poem lies somewhere in between -- the very place where the clouds continually well up and gather around the mountain it seems. 

Immortal Spirit Roving in the Mountains

Gloom takes hold
Settling around the heart
It’s the condition of those
Recently departed from
The human realm
A man feels bewildered
Strangely unsettled
Doubtful and detached
Not yet completely whole
Far from it in fact
Like the legion of clouds
That well up and gather
Around the mountain





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