Found in Translation
By Catherine Platt
Li Shangyin, the Poet of Illicit Love
Everyone who passes through Chengdu hears of Du Fu (712–70), the great Tang Dynasty poet who made his home here at the end of his life. But many other classical poets wrote about the region as well. One of my favorites is the later Tang poet Li Shangyin, (813–859) whose work is known for its subtlety and ambiguity. Li's official career was full of setbacks and frustrations, and his poetry is dense with political allusions. But he is best known for his melancholy love poems, and in particular his untitled series about one, or several, unknown lovers. On a more contemporary note, Roger Waters used lines from Li Shangyin in The Pink Floyd song "Set the Controls for the Heart of the Sun"—a connection you can read about in depth at Bathrobe's "Chinese, Japanese & Vietnamese Language Site".
Sent North on a Night of Rain
Here is a character-by-character breakdown of a poem Li Shangyin wrote while working in Sichuan, with my translation below. The trick to a good translation is to find a balance between the layered meanings of the original and an English version that reads like poetry. I made this one rhyme because it was easy to do so, but usually rhyming the English requires too much twisting of meaning or syntax, or both. If you search online, you can find different versions of this and other works by Li. I like the site tartarie because it offers mouse-over translations of each character (site is in French and English; navigate to English from within internal pages).
夜 雨 寄 北
Yè yŭ jì bèi
Night rain send/mail north
Sent north on a night of rain
君 问 归 期 未 有 期,
Jūn wèn gūi Qí wèi yǒu qí
You ask return home date not yet have date
You ask when I'll return—I don't yet know,
巴 山 夜 雨 涨 秋 池。
Bā Shān Yè yŭ zhăng qīu chí
Ba mountain night rain overflow autumn pond
In the Sichuan hills it rains tonight, autumn pools overflow.
何 党 共 剪 西 窗 烛,
Hé Dāng Gōng jĭan xī chūang zhu
When together cut west window candle
When will we trim the candle by the west window again,
却 话 巴 山 夜 雨 时？
Qùe Hùa Bā shān yè yŭ shí
Again talk ba mountain night rain time?
Recollecting this time, the Sichuan hills, this night of rain?
"Ba Mountain" refers to the ancient kingdoms of Ba and Shu, which were situated in Sichuan. Since "Ba" doesn't carry any resonance in English, I translated it as "Sichuan," and "hills" fits the rhythm better than does "mountains." I chose to divide the English poem into eight lines to echo the brevity of the Chinese seven-syllable lines, but purists might prefer to leave it as four longer lines.
A knowledgeable Chinese reader said the translation is accurate and flows well but fails to capture the ambiguity of the Chinese original. Although it reads as though written to the poet's wife, the imagery of exile, sadness, and separation also implies Li's sorrow over political isolation and a desire to be back in the thick of things at court. This concept of 怀才不遇 (huáicáibúyù; "unrecognized talent") is a common theme in classical poetry. If you can figure out how to convey all these layered meanings in an English version, you're well on your way to becoming the next Du Fu.
Sent North on a Night of Rain
By Li Shangyin
You ask when I'll return
—I don't yet know,
In the Sichuan hills it rains tonight,
Autumn pools overflow.
When will we trim the candle
By the west window again,
Recollecting this time,
The Sichuan hills, this night of rain?
Catherine Platt arrived in Beijing as a student in 1985, and her life and work has intersected with China ever since. She developed an interest in classical Chinese poetry at Durham University, UK, where she majored in East Asian Studies. Based in Chengdu with her family since 2004, she writes and consults for NGOs and is an editor of Mala, the Chengdu Bookworm Literary Journal. Catherine is currently working on translations of contemporary Chengdu poets.
This article was first published in CHENGDOO citylife Magazine, issue 39 ("shopping"). Photo courtesy of Wu Zhuoling