What a horrible translation of Chinese poem

I am a fan of classical Chinese poetry and Li Bai is one of my favorite poets. His poem, 长干行, was about a devoted yet lonesome wife yearning for the return of her husband and recalling those old good days when they two spent together.

The poem was translated by Ezra Pound into English. Pound was a well-known American poet. He was a translator of many Chinese poems. His translations were considered by literature critics as among the best.

Internet search (of course in Chinese!) told me that Pound’s English translations of Li Bai’s above-mentioned poem are very popular among literature scholars and students in the United States. I want to know if that is true. Then I wrote an email to my colleague, a full professor with expertise in English literature. Here is her email reply: “Ezra Pound translated a bunch of Chinese poems and this was probably one of them. His work introduced Chinese poetry to the west. I don’t think that means its popular though.”

I feel relieved, knowing that this translated poem is not popular in the west. Honestly, Pound’s translations are horrible. First, his translations do not rhyme so it is unpleasant to hear when you read them aloud. Second, use of level and non-level tones in the original poem made it rise up and down in tones. The translations have no level and non-level tones at all, thus losing the work’s musical beauty. Third, this is also the most unforgivable one: The original poem is full of vivid and profound imageries. With the English translations, we can no longer see a “poetic world”(Tang, p.187), a concept which is “most central to Chinese poetry (Tang, p.187).”

Pound loved Chinese culture but clearly he did not understand Chinese language and culture well. So I don’t know why he had the courage to translate Chinese poems. Translating poems into a different language is a mission almost impossible to achieve. This is even truer for the translation of Chinese poetry into English.

Libai_touxiang

Li Bai. Photo credit: Public domain work, via Wikimedia Commons

640px-Ezra_Pound_2

Ezra Pound. Photo credit: By Alvin Langdon Coburn (1882–1966)

(National Portait Galley, London) [Public domain],via Wikimedia Commons

Below are the original poem and the translations:

长干行

The River-merchant’s wife: A Letter

妾发初覆额,折花门前剧;

While my hair was still cut straight across my forehead, I played about the front gate, pulling flowers.

郎骑竹马来,绕床弄青梅。

You came by on bamboo stilts, playing horse, You walked about my seat, playing with blue plums.

同居长干里,两小无嫌猜。

And we went on living in the village of Chokan: Two small people, without dislike or suspicion.

十四为君妇,羞颜未尝开。

At fourteen, I married My Lord you. I never laughed, being bashful.

低头向暗壁,千唤不一回。

Lowering my head, I looked at the wall. Called to, a thousand times, I never looked back.

十五始展眉,愿同尘与灰。

At fifteen, I stopped scowling, I desired my dust to be mingled with yours.

常存抱柱信,岂上望夫台。

Forever and forever and forever. Why should I climb the look-out?

十六君远行,瞿塘滟滪堆。

At sixteen, you departed. You went into far Ku-to-en, by the river-swirling eddies.

五月不可触,猿声天上哀。

And you have been gone five months. The monkeys make sorrowful noise overhead.

门前迟行迹,一一生绿苔。

You dragged your feet when you went out. By the gate now, the moss is grown, the different mosses.

苔深不能扫,落叶秋风早。

Too deep to clear them away! The leaves fall early this autumn, in wind.

八月蝴蝶黄,双飞西园草。

The paired butterflies are already yellow with August. Over the grass in the West garden.

感此伤妾心,坐愁红颜老!

They hurt me. I grow older.

早晚下三巴,预将书报家。

If you are coming down through the narrows of the river Kiang, Please let me know beforehand.

相迎不道远,直至长风沙。

And I will come out to meet you As far as Cho-fu-Sa.

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