Last updated 10 January 2016.

Mark Rosenfelder's China Construction Kit is one of two books currently on my to-read list. I've not yet read it in an organised, linear fashion, but I have opened it to random pages.

One thing that has intrigued me is the discussion of the classic 8th Century Chinese poem Lu Chai (~ Deer Park) by Wang Wei on pages 232-3. Rosenfelder provides the following translation of his own, as well as two other English versions for comparison. He also mentions the book 19 Ways of Looking at Wang Wei, which discusses multiple attempts made by translators over the years.

An empty mountain. No one is seen
Yet we hear the sound of voices.
Evening light penetrates the deep forest
It shines again on the green moss.

This made me want to create a version. I don't know any Chinese and did not do any prior research; I just wanted to try and distill what I intuitively felt were the most essential features of the translations provided into an aesthetically pleasing form.

(If any purists are reading this, I say only that there is a place for all kinds of adaptations, suitable for different purposes, and there is only a problem if one kind tries to pass itself off as another.)

Here's what I came up with after a day (v2). Hear me read this version aloud at and scroll down for commentary and variations.

An empty mountain. No human presence seen.
Yet voices are carried on the air.
The light of dusk between the forest branches
Strikes green moss that breaks its shaded depths.

An earlier draft (v1) ended somewhat differently: "The light of dusk between the trees is shining / And strikes green moss where forest depths begin." At the time I imagined the sunlight penetrating the edge of the forest, but on reflection I decided it must refer to a beam (or multiple beams) of light fully surrounded by shadow, like the circle of yang surrounded by yin on the yin/yang symbol.

The following image captures the landscape and atmosphere that I imagine Wang was talking about.

The reference to the forest being deep seemed essential to me, but I couldn't fit it in a pleasing way on line three, so I moved it to line four. It also pleased me aesthetically to finish by evoking the image of dark forest punctuated by patches of illuminated moss.

I completely ignored the reference to periodicity (the "again" in the last line), as the significance wasn't apparent to me. Every translation adds some things and subtracts others, as you will see if you look it up online. But I've since realised this aspect can be reinstated by changing "between the" to "again through" in the third line, giving us the following (v3).

An empty mountain. No human presence seen.
Yet voices are carried on the air.
The light of dusk again through forest branches
Strikes green moss that breaks its shaded depths.

Researching the poem after completing my attempt (v2), I learned, among other things, that the Chinese does not explicitely mention it being evening. But apparently one phrase can refer to the evening idiomatically, and most but not all sources interpret as such it this context. Anyway, at the time I assumed the evening setting was significant because of being the time of transition between day and night — another yin/yang reference, but it seems to be more complicated.

Had I researched the poem BEFORE composing a version, I would not have written the same version. (I would not have written any version at all, being quite overwhelmed by the multitude of interpretations.) But this was an aesthetic exercise, not a scholarly one, so accuracy was quite beside the point.

My version makes no pretence to be anything it is not (such as "accurate" or "informed"). But I hope that in its unassuming whimsy, it pleases you.

Update: I've come up with a more literal but less evocative translation (v4):

Empty mountain. No-one seen
But voices echo in the breeze.
Setting sun through forest trees
Shines again on mossy green.

Some comments on this new version:

● I am now slightly better informed — roughly as informed as someone might be after finishing a school project or browsing ten pages of Google results. Not as informed as someone might be after having a school project marked.
● There's no question that v3 fits Western tastes better than v4. I tested both versions on Dad, who liked v3 and found it evocative but thought v4 was "very cold". I'd add that v4 sounds a bit like something out of a children's book.
● On the other hand, v4 is much closer to Wang and might be useable in a "just the facts" publication such as a textbook. I'm comfortable calling v4 a "translation" whereas I prefer to call v3 a "version".
● So, v3 is a better poem but v4 is a better translation. There's no escaping the fact that different versions have different purposes and a poet has to decide on their priorities. The poetic shortcomings of v4 might be largely due to my limitations and the limitations of English, but there are also cultural differences in what people expect poetry to be.
● If you like, you can ask which version comes closer to having the same effect on a modern Western audience that Wang's original would have in eighth century China, and whether any English versions by other translators come closer than either. But that would mean knowing what effect Wang was aiming for (e.g. whether it's to evoke a sensory image or something else), and since he isn't alive to correct you, you are largely free to conclude what you like.
● Commentary on Wang often finds Buddhist themes in the poem, the main points being (a) mention of emptiness, (b) indirect perception of reality, (c) symbolic significance of sunset and its direction, and (d) enlightenment of the green moss. I think this is probably correct, but it is also a nature poem, and Wang surely intended the two readings (natural and spiritual) to be in harmony and not in competition. (A few versions by other poets make the spiritual reading dominant.)
● My tentative suggestion is that the natural reading is a better guide for understanding what Wang put into the poem, whereas the spiritual reading is a better guide for understanding what he left out. I wrote v4 on the assumption that I'm right about this.
● Commentary also points out that ancient Chinese poetry was rich in parallelism, and I think this too is better reflected in v4. In the first two lines, the parallelism is sight vs sound, and in the last two lines, it's something like cause vs effect, or origin vs destination (of sunlight).

Further reading:

This is a PDF copy of the book reviewing the multiple translations.

This is another article with interesting perspectives, although it rather bafflingly refers to "word-for-word pinyin translations" and to Pinyin differing in meaning from the original characters, which makes no sense as Pinyin is a romanisation scheme and has nothing to do with translation.

Rosenfelder (in a tweet responding to this post) is critical of this source, primarily on the grounds that it overanalyses the characters. I don't disagree, but with all its eccentricities I expect it still brings something to the table. And if all analyses are flawed, the cure is to read more of them so that no one source dominates our thinking.

Written by Rosenfelder in response to this post. A quick overview of the poem word by word and line by line.

A Youtube video from a course on Chinese language. Another quick overview that also includes the entire poem read aloud. Clearly tries to keep things simple, possibly to a fault (as opposed to other sources that make things too complicated).

A Google Books result critical of Weinberger and Paz. Always good to have a second opinion. (See also Footnote #2 in the textetc article.) Page 125 is unfortunately not available in the preview; I'd be interested to know what it says.
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