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Lu Zhai – Traditional Poem from the Tang Dynasty

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A translation, not an adaptation

The poems from the Tang Dynasty have received widespread attention as they create unique, meaningful perspectives on nature without an emphasis of the human mind (Glaser). During this era, considered the peak of Chinese poetry, poets were interested in structure: most of the poems strictly contained 4 lines with 5 words in each line. One in particular, “Lu Zhai” by Wang Wei, has been translated in many ways with each version having its own merits and shortcomings. In order to truly convey the beauty of Wang Wei’s poem to modern English-language readers, the translator should not neglect the original form, meaning, and cultural ideals of the poem; thus, Wai-lim Yip’s almost trot translation, “Deer Enclosure” is a stronger translation than Chang Yin-Nan and Lewis C. Walmsley’s imitative translation, “Deer Forest Hermitage.”

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Because it is evident that “Deer Enclosure” recognizes and respects the structural form of the traditional poems from the Tang Dynasty, this version is a stronger interpreted translation than “Deer Forest Hermitage.” A part of the beauty in “Lu Zhai” is the ability to convey a meaningful, alluring scene with only a few words – “Deer Enclosure” is simply crisp and concise. By translating it with a small amount of words, Yip is still able to convey the same meaning, keeping the concise impact of the original poem. Interestingly, the order of the words and the use of punctuation is also completely different for “Deer Forest Hermitage.” Since this translation only has one period throughout the entire piece, it makes the whole poem one blended concept, while the original, along with Yip’s attempt, has two periods almost as if it is reflecting upon two different ideas. The first sentence is about the quiet mountain while the second sentence is about the relationship between the moss and the sun’s reflection. Additionally, this particular version changes the couplets but it does not at all “improve the poem or the flow of imagery” (Weinberger 19). The original poem starts with a larger, general picture and then becomes specific with the reference of the moss and the diagonal light shining through. Before the Tang dynasty, poetic structure was not emphasized but because this Wang Wei poem was written in a time where structure became traditional, it is important that the translation at least attempts to keep the form, which is exactly what Yip attempts to do in his translation. “Deer Forest Hermitage” is simply not a translation, but rather an imitation of the Wang Wei’s poem.

Fidelity to the original title is critical: the terms “hermitage” and “forest” are not visible in the original Chinese characters from Wang Wei’s poem; therefore, the direct translation “Deer Enclosure” is a closer respectful version of the original. Hermitage is a place where a hermit—a social recluse—lives, or the term can also be defined as the “condition of a hermit” (“Hermitage”). Hence, the term “hermitage” almost contains a negative connotation in that someone or something excludes themselves from society. The part of the beauty in the poem is the inability to sense a human protagonist, yet being able to understand the subtle fascination of nature. I do not enjoy the title by Yin-Nan and Walmsley, for the utilization of “hermitage” in the title diminishes those beautiful aspects of the poem as it makes it seem like someone in the forest or the forest itself is a “hermit.” Notably, in short poems where every word makes a huge difference, the title is crucial in determining the emotional theme to the poem. In these poems, the title trickles down into the rest of the verses and creates a mood and can sometimes give a general theme for the reader. “Deer Enclosure” is practically a direct translation from Wang Wei’s original, and it even leaves room for more interpretation. “Deer Enclosure” is a stronger translation into English because it is concise and does not diverge from Wang Wei’s feel of nature that does not involve human beings.

Wang Wei chose specific words in his poem in order to depict certain imageries reflective of his ideals, thus by completely changing phrases or vocabulary in a way Yin-Nan and Walmsley do in their version, a translation loses the true sense of the masterpiece. In the original poem, the first line illustrates that the mountain does not have people in it. Yin-Nan and Walmsley translated that into a “lonely mountain,” giving the assumption that empty is equal to lonely. This is an unfavorable choice, for in Buddhism, there is a sense of peacefulness with the world and a beautiful calamity involved with the idea of emptiness. During the Tang Dynasty when this poem was written, Buddhist teachings were becoming increasingly taught and followed by people in China (Columbia University). Paul Rouzer, a professor of Chinese literature at Columbia University explains Buddhist quietism as “the idea of stilling the heart of passions when you live in reclusion.” As a Buddhist I know that the minimalism and emptiness of nature is beautiful and engaging in this religion. Wang Wei even labels his walks by himself “glorious moments all to myself” with nature (Ward). Postulating that empty is synonymous to lonely is a terrible translation and does not follow Wang Wei’s school of thought. A culturally important concept has been Americanized, as the translators in “Deer Forest Hermitage” looked over the ideological meanings each word has. Yip’s version honors the Buddhist ideals and because of his consideration in the poem, his translation is more loyal, and a more powerful translation than Yin-Nan and Walmsley’s version.

By adding new perspectives as a “translator” in a way Yin-Nan and Walmsley do, the imitation suggests different connotations and meanings compared to the original and is not reflective of what Wang Wei wanted to demonstrate poetically.“Deer Forest Hermitage” employs the phrase “motley patterns” which suggests that the mosses all look different and are unique of one another. However, there is no mention of such in the original and so it is not what Wang Wei wanted to convey in his poem. By including the word “motley,” Yin-Nan and Walmsley puts an unnecessary emphasis on the moss. There is a reason why Wang Wei did not write or even suggest “motley patterns” or “faint voices” in Chinese and it is not the translator's position to change that. According to Vladimir Nabokov, the worst of the “three grades of evil” in the world of translation is when the masterpiece is modified, “beautified” by the translator (Nabokov). The “Deer Forest Hermitage” translation tampered with the artistic work in a way that does not work in his favor. Direct translations are never possible between languages; however, it is insulting to the authentic poem to change it and call it a “translation.”

Nonetheless, both versions of the poem include an aspect I appreciate in word choice, as they both incorporated a negation in the poem after the idea that there is no one to be seen on the mountain. In “Deer Enclosure” Yip chooses to insert “but” in the second line and Yin-Nan and Walmsley put this in the last line. Strategically, this makes sense as the original’s first character in the second line means “yet” or “but” (Glaser). I think this is a crucial part in the poem: the only exceptions to the evident nothingness are the human voices in the protagonist’s head or the forest air. Many of the translation versions did not do that and I believe that both “Deer Enclosure” and “Deer Forest Hermitage” did justice to that particular part in the poem.

“Deer Enclosure” is an admirable translation as it fulfills the role of allowing English readers to understand the concept of the poem without losing too much of the meaning or the structural clarity of the classical Chinese text. By incorporating the semi-colon in the first line, Yip is able to compose a concise line that develops an image that this particular mountain has seen no sign of humans. Furthermore, in Asian countries, the moisture in the air makes plants this blue-ish green—plants are thought to be so green in nature it was almost blue. The direct translation of blue may have confused an American audience, thus “Deer Enclosure” changed to adapt to the new readers, which seems to have worked. The purpose of translation is to be similar to the original while looking closely at the author's style and original meaning. “Deer Enclosure” is the most similar in style, form, and meaning. Of course, for English speakers, Yip’s translation may appear choppy; however, I appreciate being able to see that this translation is in fact not the original version and I believe that the minor choppiness is only a small sacrifice in translating the poem with an appreciation to the author.

As a person who is trilingual, I understand the frustration that arises from the difficulty of translating specific words or phrases into other languages, for some expressions in a particular language simply do not exist in other languages. Linguistic differences are the outcome of cultural, societal differences, thus, languages are reflective of the population of those who speak the language. By evidently changing words and the form of the poem, a translation is no longer a translation as it takes away from the cultural significance the poem contains. “Deer Forest Hermitage” changes too many aspects of the poem while “Deer Enclosure” is a close, strong translation that makes phonetic sense grammatically, yet respects Wang Wei’s artistic words that built the poem. Perfection in translation is unattainable but Yip’s version comes close, as he directly translated the text, yet made sure it is still natural to read and also concise. Yip stayed true to the original in a way that respects Wang Wei. In doing so, English speakers now have the capability of experiencing the true beauty of “Deer Enclosure” the way the author intended it to be.

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