Wednesday, November 3, 2010

The Shen Garden - Lu You

 This is the poem that Lu You wrote forty years after the chance meeting with his beloved, Tang Wan, as described in the previous posting (Nov. 2nd).  The translation is by a very interesting person, Qiu Xiaolong, a Chinese-born poet/professor at Washington University who writes in both Chinese and English, as well as translating T.S. Eliot (!) and others into Chinese.  Qiu is also the author of a detective story series set in modern day Shanghai: they are a great read as both social commentary and a good crime yarn.  I highly recommend them.  (The first one is called "Death of A Red Heroine" and this is a link to a review of it.)

As previously noted, translations are tricky business, even between languages from the same "family", like the Romance languages.  (As close as Italian, Spanish, and Portuguese are to each other, I've seen some terrible choices migrating a poem from one to the other.)  Going from a pictograph-based language like Chinese to English takes amazing skill and double sensitivity to intent and result.  Simply, it takes another poet, but a poet aware of his own ego, limitations, and biases.  Of the translations I have read, this one fulfills the task the best.

When revisiting the past by recalling a memory, nothing has aged.  Going back to a physical place, one must be prepared for the opposite, and the consequences depend on one's preparation and expectations.  In this poem, Lu appears to have been ready and thus not jarred by the changes: his tone is observational and accepting, not questioning or raging.  Someday, I hope to be that way myself about the past.

The Shen Garden
                                    transl. by Qiu Xiaolong

The sun is sinking behind the city wall
to the sad notes of a shining bugle.
In the Shen Garden,
the pond and the pavilion appear
no longer to be the same,
except the heart-breaking spring ripples
still so green under the bridge,
the ripples that reflected her arrival
light-footed, in such beauty
as would shame a wild goose into fleeing.


It’s forty years since we last met,
the dream broken, the scent vanished,
in the Shen Garden, the aged willows
produce no more catkins.
I’m old, already turning into the dust
of Mount Ji, when I shed a drop of tear
at this old scene.
                                                      Lu You – 1125-1210

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