1994-06-08: Nineteen Ways of Looking at Wang Wei

Nineteen Ways of Looking at Wang Wei

How A Chinese Poem Is Translated

by Eliot Weinberger and Octavio Paz (1987)

This book considers 19 (really 21) translations of a poem by the Tang poet Wang Wei, titled Deer Park. It is a study of translation, and thus of the propagation of memes. The introductory matter is quite explicit about the infectious nature of memes.

Weinberger first presents the Chinese characters (four lines of five characters), and a transliteration of the characters in modern dialect (the difficult pinyin transliteration), then the “relevant” translations of the characters (some have a few reasonable alternatives).

emptymountain(s), hill(s)(negative)to seeperson, people
butto hearperson, peoplewords, conversationsound, to echo
to returnbright(ness), shadow(s)to enterdeepforest
to return, againto shine, to reflectgreen, blue, blackmoss, lichenabove, on top (of), top

There are 24,576 different choices for the raw words. (This is calculated by multiplying the number of alternatives 1*4*1*1*2 * 1*1*2*2*2 * 1*4*1*1*1 * 2*2*3*2*4 = 8*8*4*96). There is much room for choice by someone who wants to make a poem from Wang Wei’s characters. Most of the possibilities arise from the last line.

When I showed the words to Chris (1994-06-05), she immediately read off the following selection.

 empty mountains (negative) seeing people

but hearing people’s conversation echoing

rays of sunset entering the deep forest

again reflecting green moss above

 A few minutes later she wrote the following

An emptiness in the mountains

there are no people here

But listen to the ancients’

conversation, echo near.

Light coming back to

the forest primordial

Again the colored lichen

shines above so cordial

 The title is given as “Deer Park”, though the actual translations of the title characters are not given. After a few pages of general commentary, the translations are given, each with commentary.

Most translations are variations on the literal interpretation of the sights and sounds of the poet (some with different titles). In part this seems due to a common understanding about the first two characters of the third line, that “returning shadows” is a trope meaning rays of sunset (explained in a footnote).

However, in the introductory matter, a comment about the title struck me. The title is said to be probably an allusion to the place where the Buddha gave his first sermon.

The Teaching Grove

 Empty hills, no one to see.

But hear someone’s words echo.

Brightness comes back to the deep forest.

Again, on green moss, reflection.

 The question of translation of memes is of great interest to me. To this end, a comparison of the translations and my own effort, reveals none of the others took the same direction as I did. In particular, all the others took the second line nearly literally, referring to present, but unseen, people’s voices. I find it immensely interesting that Chrissy’s poem refers to ancient conversation, much as mine does! (I had decided on the direction I would take, but had not yet mentioned it to anyone, before Chrissy wrote hers.)

[the day after the first part of this report, I added the following alternative translations of the title and lines of the poem]

Ta: The Teaching Grove

1a: Empty hills, no one to see.

2a: But hear someone’s words echo.

3a: Brightness comes back to the deep forest.

4a: Again, on green moss, reflection.

The lines are uneven, with 7, 7, 9 and 8 syllables. They aren’t particularly smooth, and some of the words don’t seem right.

3b: Brightness comes back to the deep wood

Using ‘wood’ instead of ‘forest’ seems to give a more friendly tone to the surroundings, more tame or park-like, less wild. Still, the wood is ‘deep’, getting little sunlight, hence dim. A suitable place to find inner light.

3c: Light comes back to the deep wood

‘Light’ is better than ‘brightness’, since brightness is too physical; light is closer to enlightenment. I don’t think this poet has experienced ‘enlightenment’, but has been meditating for many years; it is part of his life. This line also has seven syllables, which now seems better.

3d: Light returns to the deep wood

‘Comes back’ doesn’t sound as nice as ‘returns’. The line still has seven syllables.

3e: Light returns in the deep wood

Line 3d ignored Wang Wei’s ‘enter’, and used ‘to’. It is too literal, saying the light comes to the forest, not to the poet. Using ‘in’ seems close enough to ‘enter’.

4b: Again, on green moss, reflect

Now the last line is seven syllables, but it sounds like an order to the reader, who is not likely to be on green moss at the moment. The longer line is better.

4c: Again on green moss reflection

This was the only line with punctuation. Dropping the commas makes the line rush, and makes it less clear.

1b: Empty hills, no one to see

The line is not really a sentence, merely an evocative sequence of words. The period is thus superfluous. Drop only this one and the others look odd, so drop them all; it’s a poem not an essay. The commas are there to separate semi-thoughts.

1c: No one seen in empty hills

This has merit. ‘Seen in’ flows better than ‘to see’. It’s still seven syllables. It drops a comma.

1d: No one seen on empty hills

‘In’ or ‘on’? The park is in hilly country, maybe even mountainous, though that seems wilder. Of course poets seldom burrow into hills, but I think the ‘in’ is more geographic than containing.

1d: No one seen among empty hills

Now it sounds like a crowd of hills, and it’s eight syllables.

2b: Yet hear someone’s words echo

A slight change. I prefer ‘yet’ for its connotation of ‘despite’. Perhaps ‘but’ has this connotation, but ‘but’ is so common that it is weaker.

Tb: The Sacred Grove

This makes the grove itself the focus, rather than the activity it is associated with. The associations are already so weak that this is a bad idea. Also there are other, and more important, teachings than the merely ‘sacred’. Also, the connotation is more Indo-European (Sacred Oaks, Druids, Mistletoe) than I want.

Finally, I settle on lines 1c, 2b, 3e and 4a, without periods, and the Ta title.

The Teaching Grove

No one seen in empty hills

Yet hear someone’s words echo

Light returns in the deep wood

Again, on green moss, reflection

This version of Wang Wei’s poem is meant to evoke the activity of the poet, not the setting chosen for the activity. I see someone walking to a grove, either a revered site of an ancient teacher’s activity, or a similar setting deliberately maintained to evoke meditation and reflection on a master’s words, suitably isolated in hills away from mundane human activity. The poet enters the grove, which is otherwise deserted and silent. But the setting evokes an echo in the mind’s ear of the master’s discourse. Though the wood is deep and dim, meditation’s associations fill the mind with light, if not enlightenment. Not for the first time, the poet sits or reclines on green moss, reflecting on the master’s words.

The four lines themselves probably don’t convey this intent. I have tried not to add anything to Wang Wei’s words. Of course, his words were embedded in a cultural matrix that imbued them with much of their meaning. From here and now, that matrix is unavailable. We can’t even be sure what English words best convey the meanings he had in mind when he wrote each character. Perhaps I have been too constrained. The title should help establish what the poem is about; I hope sufficiently so.

A more explicit version may be clearer, if more essay-like.

The Teaching Grove

No one is seen in these empty hills,

Yet an echo of the Master’s words are heard.

In the dimness of the wood, his light returns.

Once more, sitting on green moss, reflection.

Somehow the last line got disconnected from the rest in this version. Curious. Needs work.


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