20 May 2006

I made it to the library just before closing time, flip-flopped up to 895.10 in the Dewey Decimal spiral, and paged throughthe tables of contents of fat anthologies, looking for the ones with "Yu Meiren." There wasn't time to sit down and copy out the translations, so I had to check the books out and bear them away, 10 or 15 pounds of them, perhaps. Besides the anthologies there was Ezra Pound's Cathay, by Wai-lim Yip, which I got just for the heck of it, even though I doubt I'll find time to read it before I have to take it back, and my slight acquaintance with Wai-lim Yip is already enough to make me hate him (see his translation, below).

I also ended up with a book of Lu You, which was sheer carelessness. David Gordon spelled his name Lu Yu, which I mistook in my haste for Li Yu, though I was in doubt over the title: The Wild Old Man, which didn't sound like my mournful aristocrat at all. I was about two centuries off, it turned out, as well as having associated two names that are wholly dissimilar: 李煜, 陆游. Most embarrassing.

Anyway. I bore my finds off to the Westlake Center food court, where I got a mango lassi and sat looking out the window at all the fashionably-dressed loitering youth, in between reading poems.

When I was done with my lassi and all the Li Yu translations, I put band-aids on my feet (my flip-flops are too new), packed the books up again, and set off home, thinking about grammar.

The other night when I slopped out my own translation, I indulged in a bit of wilful misreading. I knew that 何时了was always taken to mean "when will [the subject under discussion] end," not "it might end sometime," or "when did it end," but since my grasp of classical Chinese syntax is weak and I could therefore adduce no certain evidence to the contrary, I allowed myself to make the sort of Poundian assumption that Chinese has no syntax and therefore I could cast it in the past tense if I damn well felt like it.

Further, the preponderance of evidence suggested that spring flowers and autumn nights were to be taken as markers of the ineluctable passage of time, not as pleasant things whose disappearance (or the draining away of one's enjoyment of) might be mourned.

But what if he did mean "when did they end"? I thought. They were of course still literally there, but he couldn't enjoy them because he was too miserable. Wouldn't that be nice?

The versions I found in my internet trawling tended to confirm my original impression that the way I wanted to read it was just plain wrong. Those versions were mostly pretty lousy, so far as effectiveness went, and I couldn't figure out where they came from, but whoever made each of them did seem to have a good idea what the words meant, and they all pretty much agreed.

And then I went to the library, and found translations by clearly identifiable translators, with all sorts of academic and literary credentials, and they all agreed, too.

So when I was walking home, it was with no real hope that I searched my mind for parallels in modern Chinese that would seem to support the reading I was having to abandon. “甚么时候结束?”呢?No, definitely present (when does it generally end?) or future (when, in this particular instance, is it going to end?) .

I didn't find any reassuring examples, but I kept searching, because, dammit, I liked my misreading.

We've been having a stretch of sunny warm weather, and at 6:30 on a Saturday evening there were lots and lots of people at tables outside coffee shops and bars and restaurants, happily talking and having coffee and drinks and food.

"Is it gonna end?" I heard one of them say.

Which settled it. Not the way I wanted it settled, but quite definitively.

I wish I could always count on divine intervention when my judgment fails.

* * *

These are the translations I found, progressing from intolerable to good:


Wai-lim Yip (Chinese Poetry: Major Modes and Genres, 1976)
1. Spring flowers, autumn moon: when to end?
2. The past: how much is known?
3. Upon the tower last night, east winds blow again.
4. Native country: unbearable to look back amidst the bright moon.
5. Carved railings, jade inlays should still be there,
6. Only faces are changed.
7. How much sorrow do you have?
8. The way a spring river eastward flows.

Cyril Birch (Anthology of Chinese Literature: From Early Times to the Fourteenth Century, 1965)
When will the last flower fall, the last moon fade?
So many sorrows lie behind.
Again last night the east wind filled my room--
O gaze not on the lost kingdom under this bright moon.

Still in her light my palace gleams as jade
(Only from bright cheeks beauty dies).
To know the sum of human suffering
Look at this river rolling eastward in the spring.

Tony Barnstone and Chou Ping (The Anchor Book of Chinese Poetry, 2005)
Will spring blooms and autumn moon never end?
These memories are too much.
Last night east wind pierced my narrow tower again,
and I saw lost kingdoms in the clean bright moon.
The carved railings and jade steps must still be there,
though lovely faces must have aged.
How much sorrow do I feel?
Like river water in spring it flows to the east.

Stephen Owen (An Anthology of Chinese Literature: Beginnings to 1911, 1996)
Flowers in spring, moonlight in fall,
when will they ever end?
and how much can we know
of what is past and gone?
Upstairs in my room last night
the east wind came again;
I cannot bear to turn and look home
in the light of the moon.

Its carved railings and marble pavements
are, I'm sure, still there--
all that changes is the flush
on the face of youth.
Tell me then of sorrow--how much can there be?
It is exactly like:
a whole river of springtime waters
flowing off to the east.

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