Two Different Ways to Describe a Retreat

Once again I’m resuming publication of the Tang Spirit newsletter after a long hiatus. My apologies but I’ve only quite recently finished another long-term writing project, which has enabled me to return to the practice of translation on a more consistent basis. In fact, I’m hoping to re-launch of the entire Tang Spirit website in the not so distant future.

For now, though, let me briefly explain that the new Tang Spirit newsletter will be both more frequent and briefer than was previously customary (at least that’s the plan). Issues now will more typically discuss a single poem, sometimes with only a brief explanation. This is the case with this current issue which provides a new translation of a poem by Wang Wei about his retreat to the mountains south of the Tang capital in Chang An.

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For a while I’ve been reading and trying to translate Wang Wei’s poetry. My friend Steve Zhang was kind enough to send me a collection of 300 of Wang’s poems, which he had color coded to indicate which ones he thought were most worthy of attention – a very helpful shortcut as I tried to acquaint myself with this large body of work.

Even so, it hasn’t been easy. Although I’ve read and greatly enjoyed Wang’s poems in translation, I’ve found it much more difficult to crack the code on my own. And when I’ve been able to puzzle out the general sense of the characters, it’s still been hard for me to discern the distinctive qualities of Wang’s voice. To be sure, without hearing something distinctive, it’s impossible to do a good job as a translator. I mean why bother translating if you can’t really hear a poet’s voice in the first place?

But then quite by accident I came across this Wang Wei poem about his retreat in the southern mountains. I read it first in a translation by Witter Bynner, which I’ve copied below. For those of you who are not familiar with the name, Bynner is a 20th century American poet and translator whose work has attained wide recognition in the last 10 years largely because the full text of his translation of the classic Tang anthology has been put online by the University of Virginia. (You can find the full collection of Bynner’s Tang translations here.)


My heart in middle age found the Way.
And I came to dwell at the foot of this mountain.
When the spirit moves, I wander alone
Amid beauty that is all for me....
I will walk till the water checks my path,
Then sit and watch the rising clouds --
And some day meet an old wood-cutter
And talk and laugh and never return.

                                                Witter Bynner

Wang Wei's RetreatBynner’s version reminded me of the difficulty I’ve been having translating Wang Wei on my own.  The poem as he translated it sounds generic, almost commonplace in its observation of nature, particularly the last couplet that describes the old woodcutter emerging from the forest – a wise old woodcutter being one of the stock characters to appear in Chinese nature poems.   This is not at all what I expect from a writer of Wang Wei's stature -- revered as one of the greats in the Tang canon, his paintings as well as his poetry, renowned for his depiction of Nature.

But after reading the poem a few times, and comparing Bynner’s translation to the original Chinese text, I came up with a reading that helped me move beyond the stock imagery.  It occurred to me that this poem is not just about seeking a peaceful retreat in nature (which strikes me as the flavor of Bynner’s version).  This poem, I realized, is steeped in the spirit of Chan – it’s a poem about detachment, more particularly the detachment one strives for in the course of growing old.  The woodcutter who appears in the final couplet may be better understood as an older and more detached version of the poet himself who is encountersed in the course of his seclusion. 

On Detachment in
The Southern Range  

Being middle aged and
Inclined to the Way
I made my home of late
Deep in the southern range

Drawn by the promise
Of beauty and solitude
Seeking mastery
Of Nothingness 
And Self-knowledge

Coming to a poor
Secluded spot
By the water’s edge
I sat and stared
At the clouds rising

When by fortuitous chance
An old man emerged
From the forest and
We chatted and laughed
For a long while without
A thought of returning

Joe Lamport

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Some of you may scratch your heads and wonder what I’m talking about. Or perhaps you don’t see much difference between Bynner’s version and my own.  But by comparing these two versions of Wang's poem, I hope some of you can better appreciate the pleasures and challenges of translating Chinese poetry.  Translation is really just a form of close reading, a way of coming to terms with another poet’s life and thoughts more directly.  Anyone who enjoys Chinese poetry can and should try to do it for themselves.  If you feel so inclined, here is Wang’s poem in Chinese followed by a literal rendition in English.  so you can get started playing around on your own.






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Zhong Nan Karma of Departure

Middle years inclined good Way
Late home south mountain frontier

Desire for beauty alone direction
Triumph matter emptiness self-knowledge

Walk arrive water poor place
Sit look cloud rising time

By chance happening of worth old woodsman
Talk laugh not return period of time

Thanks and best regards, in the Tang Spirit --

Joe Lamport (formerly known as Lan Hua)

May 2013 Subscribe to our email newsletter.

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The Tang Spirit web site has been developed as a joint effort by Joe Lamport 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.