Classical poem translation: “The Second of a Series of Miscellaneous Poems” (雜詩其二) by Tao Yuanming (陶淵明)

By | February 1, 2021

The majority of my translation projects over the last few years have involved works from the first half of the 20th century, which means writings that are at least 70 years old. When you go that far back there are differences in vocabulary, grammar, kana and kanji usages, to mention just a few. But what I find even more interesting are the differences in culture––although sometimes things I learn through reading and translating classical literature still apply to modern society.

To be frank, history was not my favorite subject in my school days, but perhaps that was because of the dry way it was often presented: memorize this fact, memorize that date. But history is so much more entertaining when encountering it as part of a translation project; not only is there exciting context involved (like a story and characters), but in cases where historic or cultural details impact the resultant translation, history actually matters, unlike simply memorizing random facts that you may never use again.

What I learn is usually related to Japan and the Japanese language, but once in awhile I get to go beyond these areas. In my most recent translation project, “Days and Nights”, I got to experience a little bit of China’s history and language. This was actually a nice coincidence since I was already interested in those things, especially the Chinese language which I had briefly studied in bits and pieces (mostly Mandarin).

In the story “The Master of the Wanderer’s Tavern”, a man named Takayoshi (whose wife had passed away some time ago due to illness) struggles with a terrible loneliness. Four lines of a certain poem are quoted, and then described as follows:

Takayoshi liked this passage from some poem––capturing feelings that would emerge from somewhere deep inside him, making him yearn to be with someone else, especially in the mornings when the pale moon was out. 

A little research showed that this poem was the middle portion (lines 5-8) of “The Second of a Series of Miscellaneous Poems” (雜詩其二), written by Tao Yuanming (陶淵明) who was a renowned 4th-century Chinese poet (he has also been called “Tao Qian” or “T’ao Ch’ien”). While for the book itself I only translated the four lines and put a note about the poem’s author and title, now that the book is finished I wanted to go back and translate the entire poem and post my findings here. But before I give my translation I wanted to talk about some important background information. 

The poem was originally written in a classical form of Chinese with five characters per line, for a total of 12 lines. From what I have seen, the five-character form has been historically one of the more common forms. While not quite the same thing, you can compare this to a Japanese Haiku (俳句) that is in the 5-7-5 form. 

Perhaps it is characteristic of the five-character form, but what is amazing (and confusing) about this poem in particular is that it seems to consist mostly of a string of one- or two-character words (mostly nouns and verbs from what I see), with very little in terms of grammar. There is apparently nothing to indicate verb tense and nothing to indicate how words are connected (like English’s propositions or Japanese’s particles). In case you are curious, it seems that even in modern Mandarin there is really no concept of verb conjugation, and strictly speaking tenses don’t exist, although there are apparently a bunch of words that help indicate tense. But these words aren’t used in this text.

To give you a concrete example, the first line is “白日淪西阿”, which you can take to literally mean “white sun falls west hill”. Fortunately it seems that even centuries-old Chinese uses an SVO word order where the verb falls in the middle, which is similar to English (while very different than Japanese’s SOV), and hence a bit easier for English speakers to understand. But while this first line seems pretty straightforward, some of the other lines are much harder to figure out what is going on. It’s not just the lack of the syntactical sauce, but the fact that many words have multiple definitions and there isn’t enough built-in context to easily select which.

But despite whatever high self-evaluation I have of my linguistic abilities, I know there is no way I would ever get a firm grasp of classical Chinese in just a few hours (or even a few days). That’s why I ultimately had to rely on translations and explanations of this poem in Japanese in order to translate it to English. Sure, I think most people would agree that a secondhand translation has less of a chance to be accurate compared to a direct translation, but in my case I didn’t have much choice. The other reason I don’t mind using Japanese to help is that I doubt Hayashi Fumiko was completely fluent in Chinese, and using Japanese translations/explanations as a reference may get me closer to how she understood this poem. I feel a little more comfortable doing this sort of thing for a poem, where interpretation and the reader’s feelings are generally more important than specifying something exactly.

Ironically, it turns out that using Japanese as a source for this poem is not as easy as it may seem. Translating Chinese poems into Japanese is often done using a technique called yomikudashi (読み下し) that involves rearranging the characters in the text and adding some extra words to glue things together so the result can be understood in Japanese, albeit in the form of a literal translation. To give an example, the first line of the poem:

白日淪西阿

Could be written as:

白日 西阿に淪(しず)み

Here we see a few changes. First, the word order is adjusted to match Japanese word order, and there is a space after the first two characters to help see the conceptual separation. Also, the particle に is used to convey direction, and there is the okurigana addition of “み” plus the furigana “しず” since in modern Japanese other kanji are used for しずむ (to go down or sink), such as 沈む.

I chose this first line as an example because it’s fairly simple, but yomikudashi often involve older classical forms of Japanese, such as  “するを” or “するも” that can further complicate things and take extra time to figure out. (My feeling is that this is perhaps done to retain a feeling of “classicalness” to the poem.) So sometimes just going through the Japanese translation was quite an effort.

Probably because this poem is somewhat famous, I found several of these translations in Japanese, but more useful were the handful of sites that explained each line of the poem in more detail. Even so, there were various interpretations and explanations that were not always clear, so in the end I had to synthesize all this information to try and understand the meaning of this poem, and only then figure out how to phrase that naturally in English. I also looked up many of the words in a Chinese/English dictionary just to double-check things and make sure I was not missing any nuances. 

I used a bunch of pages but this one was one of the more helpful pages, although the colors make it difficult to read. This page also gave some good commentary on the poem. Near the end of this project I also used some of this commentary in Chinese, through a Chinese to English translator, although what I learned was similar with some of the Japanese explanations. Out of curiosity I did try to plug in a few lines of the poem’s original text into a translator, but that was mostly useless. For example, when given the first line of the poem, Google Translate responded with the cryptic “Dayronsia”!

Anyway, without further ado I’ll give you my English translation. I think the above probably makes this clear, but I definitely consider this to be an experimental translation.

The blazing sun sinks to the west

In the east, the pale moon emerges from behind a peak

Shining brightly over an immense distance

Across the entire infinite sky

The wind blows through my house

My bed, bitter cold throughout the night 

I see how the weather and the seasons have changed

Sleepless, I come to know the true length of the night

I yearn to talk, but there is no one to lend me an ear

I raise my glass and offer a toast to my lonesome shadow

Time moves on, leaving us behind

We possess ambition, yet lack the opportunity for success

I think of this, and a sorrow surrounds me

My mind refusing to quiet until the break of dawn

Here is one of the easier yomikudashi translations that I used as a reference:

白日  西阿に 淪(しづ)み,

素月  東嶺に 出づ。

遙遙として  萬里に 暉(かがや)き,

蕩蕩たり  空中の景。

風 來りて  房戸に 入れば,

夜中  枕席 冷ゆ。

氣 變じて  時の易(か)はるを 悟り,

眠らざれば  夕(よる)の永(なが)きを 知る。

言(かた)らんと 欲せど  予(われ)に和(こた)ふる無く,

杯を揮(あ)げて  孤影に勸(すす)む。

日月  人を擲(なげうち)て去り,

志 有れど  騁(は)するを獲ず。

此れを念(おも)へば  悲悽を 懷(いだ)き,

曉に終(いた)るまで  靜かなること 能(あた)はず。

And here is the original poem in classical Chinese:

白日淪西阿,

素月出東嶺。

遙遙萬里暉,

蕩蕩空中景。

風來入房戸,

夜中枕席冷。

氣變悟時易,

不眠知夕永。

欲言無予和,

揮杯勸孤影。

日月擲人去,

有志不獲騁。

念此懷悲悽,

終曉不能靜。

Finally, if you want to see what happens to Takayoshi, you can check out “Days and Nights” here on Amazon.

Thanks for reading!

(I only touched on machine translation briefly in this article, but if you want to see more on that topic check out my Machine Translation Showdown article.)

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