After a long hiatus, the Tang Spirit newsletter returns this week with a trio of poems by Wang Wei translated by Lan Hua.
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On Translating Best By Translating Least

Tang poetry, landscape painting and Chan Buddhism -- Wang Wei was a genius of all three disciplines. And what’s even more remarkable is that sometimes he managed to incorporate all three of these talents into a single work of art.

The poems we have translated for this week’s newsletter are a case in point, a series of three poems called Yu Gong Valley. These poems are masterful examples of Tang regulated verse composed in the jueju style, with five characters per line, arranged in four couplets each, all subject to a precise rhyming scheme. The poems describe a trip that Wang Wei took with a friend (or perhaps a servant) to the Yu Gong Valley. This is a real place somewhere in north central China and Wang applies his considerable skills as a landscape artist to provide just enough detail in the three poems so we can picture the place clearly. And being a disciple of Chan Buddhism, these poems also quite clearly describe Wang’s internal journey. Thanks to his extended metaphor, we are rewarded with quite a good glimpse into the inner Yu Gong Valley as well.

Poem and painting by Wang WeiIn order for you to better enjoy these poems, a further word about the title may be helpful. Yu Gong Valley is one of those Chinese place names that carry a dense association of meaning. It is a real place in China and there is also an old folk story to go along with it about a nobleman who pursues a deer on a hunt. As such, it is almost impossible for a translator to capture the rich context in a simple phrase. Even David Hinton (who is probably one of the best regarded non-academic translators of Tang poetry working today) struggles with these poems and ends up translating the place name as, Duke-Simpleton Valley, which falls short of the poetic, at least to my ear.

More importantly, while Hinton’s translation may be literally accurate, I think it also obscures the point of Wang’s deeper meaning here. For me, Yu Gong is a paired concept, much like Yin and Yang, that is best understood across a range of possible meanings – Yu which can mean stupid, crude or imbecile and Gong which can mean Duke or noble or lofty. So rather than provide a precise meaning, however accurate, I would prefer to preserve the lovely sound of the original name and make you good readers work a little bit harder to grasp at what Wang is saying.

In this way, I am at least partially trying to adhere to good Daoist practice (and Daoism, after all, is a fundamental part of Chan Buddhism) in the way I have approached the task of translation, by paying heed to the notion of intentional inaction, or wu wei (无为), the hope being that translating best may sometimes be achieved by translating least. It sounds easy doesn’t it?

The Yu Gong Valley - I

Heading into a valley
Quite simply traveling
With nobody else
But Master Li
To accompany me

Nothing is needed
For either of us
Except a place to sleep
Empty and carefree

Content without regard
Whether it’s spring or summer
Or whichever way
East or west may lie

Just like a child
That’s how it feels
Lowly and lofty
At one and the same time

愚谷与谁去 - 唯将黎子同
非须一处住 - 不那两心空
宁问春将夏 - 谁论西复东
不知吾与子 - 若个是愚公

The Yu Gong Valley - II

A simple home
In a simple valley
A valley at first that
Looks so unbecoming

Although we travelers
Leave not a trace
Still the valley resounds
With an answering cry

And to a cloudless sky
Comes the onset of darkness
Followed soon enough
By day’s bright return

Here’s the true meaning
Of this place
Simple valley
From simplicity itself
Everything else derives

吾家愚谷里 - 此谷本来平
虽则行无迹 - 还能响应声
不随云色暗 - 只待日光明
缘底名愚谷 - 都由愚所成

The Yu Gong Valley - III

To find this valley
So lofty but plain
Depends on nothing
But a careful search

Not looking all over
For some remote spot
Because this place
Lies closer at hand

Traveling once
It can be reached
Without much trouble
But to abide in its presence
Requires greater depth

Living by the word
As mortality’s guest
When desire takes hold
It’s to this simple place
The mind returns

借问愚公谷 - 与君聊一寻
不寻翻到谷 - 此谷不离心
行处曾无险 - 看时岂有深
寄言尘世客 - 何处欲归临

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Other Recent Work by Lan Hua

Joe Lamport (who use the pen name Lan Hua for his translation work) is currently also writing a book length poem called The Life and Times of Richard Musto about an 88 year-old man who lives on the streets of New York. You can learn more about this work by visiting the blog he maintains to chronicle its progress: Richard Musto blog

About the Tang Spirit Network

The Tang Spirit web site has been developed as a joint effort by Lan Hua and Steve Zhang. Our goal is to help preserve and promote the spirit of Tang poetry. Whether you are new to Tang poetry or already an enthusiast, a student of Chinese or a lover of poetry, we hope you'll visit our site and find something of interest there.

In the Tang Spirit,
Lan Hua - November 12, 2012