LITTLE PLUM TREE IN A MOUNTAIN GARDEN, OR SOMETHING LIKE THAT
Lin Bu, "Shan Yuan Xiao Mei," (trans. Edward C. Chang)
Lin Bu, "Shan Yuan Xiao Mei," (trans. Wu Li)
Lin Bu, "Shan Yuan Xiao Mei," (trans. Richard Edwards)
Lin Bu, "Shan Yuan Xiao Mei," (trans. Red Pine)
Reviewed by Anne Lu
American essayist and translator Eliot Weinberger begins his 1987 study, 19 Ways of Looking at Wang Wei, by defining poetry as "that which is worth translating." The irony is that some of the greatest poetry seems determined to not be translatable, yet perhaps it is because of this enigmatic contrariness that it is perpetually "insinuating itself in the minds of readers, demanding understanding...provoking thought." Certainly, Wang Wei's four-line poem "Lu Zhai," the subject of Weinberger's close reading, has stayed alive and inspired never-ending attempts at translation. Yet the vast majority of great Chinese poetry has not enjoyed international immortality. One such poem is "Shan Yuan Xiao Mei," by the great Song dynasty poet Lin Bu. Describing plum blossoms in a mountain garden, the poem is known in Chinese poetry for making the flower the archetypal symbol of beauty and the recluse. Curiously, however, there seem to be only four published English translations of this famous Chinese poem—but as 19 Ways has shown us, more attempts do not always translate to better understanding. Let us try to understand this ancient poem and the difficulties facing the brave few who have tried to transform it—first, however, let us approach the poem in its original form:
"Shan Yuan Xiao Mei" is only 56 characters long, broken into four lines of two phrases each. The phrases are distinct, but related thoughts, which together form a complete idea in each line. Like most classical Chinese poems, the original text is deceptively concise and self-contained. A word-by-word translation, however, immediately provides a sense of its true complexity:
Each character takes up so much space in even this most straightforward English translation that it is impossible to keep the original lineation, thus the translated lines are numbered so that line 1.5 refers to the second half of the first line in the original. Alternate meanings of a word are given directly underneath the primary translation. Sometimes, the combination of two characters produces a meaning that is more than, yet associated with, the definitions of each individual character. The primary individual definitions are given first to preserve the sense of seven characters per half-line, but the combined connotation that a Chinese reader would understand is placed underneath and in between the translations of the two characters in question. Thus, in line 1.5, the characters for wind and direction can be taken together to mean the general bearing of the garden or the pleasant feelings within it. Similarly, in line 3, "frost bird(s)" could possibly be a metaphor for any white-feathered bird, but due to Lin Bu's reputation as a mountain recluse, this poem became the basis for a literary trope and proverb, literally "(one with) plum blossoms for a wife and cranes for children." "Frost birds" is thus understood to mean snow cranes in the general Chinese literature (Di 1). Now that we are somewhat acquainted with the poem, let us examine the three and a half translations available to us, beginning with the earliest:
Although this is a pretty poem, as a translation, some moments are fanciful or simply inaccurate. The title is baffling; the original connotes the fresh solitude of a mountain garden, in which a little plum tree simply exists in its subtle beauty. To imply that the plum flowers embarrass the garden is to annihilate the simple being of its beauty and to awkwardly anthropomorphize the intensely contained, almost stoical, scene. The central solitude of the mountain is completely absent; Red Pine's plum tree could very well be in a perfectly cultivated imperial garden, regularly trimmed for the enjoyment of equally domesticated concubines. It is important to note that "yuan" does not necessarily connote the domesticated and cultivated "garden." In the original title, the context of the mountain that the "yuan" is more removed and serene than the typical household or palace garden.
Unfortunately, this translation becomes more pedantic than poetic. It attempts to recreate the rhythm and rhyme that are so inevitable in the Chinese, but which sacrifice the translation's flow and conciseness. It generally reads like a Chinese teacher attempting to explain the intricate poetry in prose, albeit strangely rhyming, to Anglophone students. Where Chang misinterprets an image, his attempts to explain only aggravate the problems. Like Red Pine, Chang encounters the relentless subject-pronoun problem, but instead of minimizing it, he emphasizes it by specifying that this is "my garden," and makes the image even more domesticated by turning the mountain into a hill. His bird—a specific individual—is presumably small and light like Red Pine's "snowbirds," but Chang is so considerate as to also create a twig for it to fly down to. Or perhaps the twig is simply there to almost-rhyme with the following line's weakly ambiguous "it." Does "it" mean the tree, the twig, or the bird? The original has many moments of beautiful ambiguity, but this is not quite so. Chang further simplifies the problem of "close" or "appreciate" by saying, "I...stand nearby." While the words seem to vaguely match up with possible meanings of words that also happen to be in the original, the meaning is completely distorted. Finally, who ever heard of using a wine jar to harmonize rhymes?
The title is the best we have seen, perhaps because it is the simplest. It is still odd, however, to refer only to a "small plum" when the poem is clearly about the blossoms or at least the tree. The character for "plum" could easily mean "plum blossom" or "plum tree" in ordinary use and this is even more plausible in condensed literary Chinese, where one character is often understood to represent the meaning of several. The first couplet takes some liberties with wording, but the meaning is generally conveyed in an appropriately simple and concise tone. The couplets are a good compromise between the unavoidable wordiness of the English and the original form of four distinct pairs of related thoughts. It is unclear why "sparse branches" ominously "loom" in the second couplet, but if we think about it, branches appearing in the water as shadowy forms—a definition of "loom"—imaginatively conveys the main idea. Oddly, the branches, not the fragrance, float in the "moonlit air," which, like in the previous translations, does not quite evoke the dusky haze that so beautifully contrasts with the limpid water. Despite these lapses, however, the ephemeral delicacy of this serene beauty comes through. Wu Li avoids any clumsy explanation or embellishment of the third couplet, and while the fourth couplet is syntactically awkward, his interpretation is perhaps the only one that is consistent with at least one of the original's many possibilities.
Although only partial, this translation does not feel the need to assign every idea the subjects, objects, verbs, tenses, pronouns, prepositions, and conjunctions that English grammar demands. Instead, it is impressionistic in its broad splashes of imagery. Indeed, as can perhaps be gleaned from the word-by-word translation, Chinese poets do not feel the same constraint as do their English translators to link every word to the next with easily followable syntax. In all previous translations, then, the translator was simultaneously presenting and explaining every word and how it relates to those around it, assuming that this was necessary for it to make sense in English. What they missed was that just as Chinese prose can be logical and syntactically obvious, English poetry can demand leaps of imagination and instinctual acceptance of image. Perhaps the central problem was that translators were attempting to transform Chinese poetry into English prose, resulting in misguided precision at times, confused vagueness at others, and crippled musicality in perpetuity. Like with "Lu Zhai," we are left with just a taste of the beauty of "Shan Yuan Xiao Mei," with no translation quite allowing us to fully appreciate or know it. Yet just as poetry relieves the speaker in their unattainable yearning, perhaps this tantalizing frustration will keep this poem alive for many translations and transformations to come.