A literary-minded student asked me last week to write a short piece for a campus magazine, addressing a classic Chinese poem, the art of translation, and how the poem might reflect my current state of mind being so far from home — all in 350 words. Writing short has never been my strong point, but this piece did come in just over 400. Loyal readers will notice and, I hope, forgive a slightly recycled lede.
Maybe this is not the best moment to be listening to a song called “Give My Regards to Broadway,” which came up when I opened iTunes. I’ve been given eight different English translations of a classic poem by Li Bai. Being a journalist by training and an essayist by nature, I don’t think I have much of a feel for poetry in general, and I know very little about Chinese poetry in particular. So Andrea, my student and assigning editor, has explained that the moon is a symbol of home.
The poet is clearly far from his home. The elements of his poem are simple: a bed, the night, the moon and its light, the frost on the ground and, most important, the homesickness they conspire to produce. Yet the emotions are deep and complex.
What strikes me is how well the eight versions illustrate an often-overlooked fact: that translation is an art in itself. From one set of Chinese characters and one set of images, eight different translators have each produced a slightly different work of poetry. In part it is a matter of word choices, which English offers in abundance. (I often remind students that there are many different ways to say almost anything in English.) From the little I know, Chinese strikes me a much more visual language than English: you think in pictures, we think in words. So it is also a matter of the way the images are arranged.
If pressed to choose one version that best reflects my own emotions as a newcomer far from home, I would probably say the seventh, “In the Quiet Night,” with its simple elegance:
So bright a gleam on the foot of my bed
Could there have been a frost already?
Lifting myself to look, I found that it was moonlight
Sinking back again, I thought suddenly of home.
It is, I think, the word “suddenly” that seized my attention. Such feelings do come upon the traveler without warning. While they can linger, they often pass as daylight replaces them with the new experiences that drive travelers to leave home in the first place. This version captures a single moment that comes and goes as quickly as the frost.
Each culture and, of course, each individual have their own symbols. Mine may be less elegant than Li Bai ’s poetry, but the moon shines over Broadway, too, and its music has a poetry of its own.