In my China book I included a poem by the Táng poet 王维 Wáng Wéi, 鹿柴 Lù Chái (Deer Park), one of the most-translated poems from Chinese.

Prompted by my friend Adrian’s thoughts on the poem (with his own translation), I thought I’d provide the glosses and grammatical notes so you can create your own version.

(The poem may actually be Lù Zhài. 柴 is sometimes read zhài, but my dictionaries don’t have this reading, apparently rare.)

空山不见人

Kòng shān bú jiàn rén

empty mountain not see person

An empty mountain. No one is seen

“Kòng shān” is a topic here, giving the setting. The subject is omitted— this lack of overt viewpoint is one of the features of Chinese poetry.  Rén can of course be either “person” or “people”. Chinese verbs have no tense, which helps create a timeless mood in poetry. (They have aspect, but with the limited characters per line available, I believe it’s rarely used in poems.)

但闻人语响

Dàn wén rén yǔ xiǎng

however hear person words/speak sound

Yet we hear the sound of voices.

OC is comfortable with N +  N, or as here, N + N + N phrases— “person speech sounds”. Again, no explicit subject— my “we” is an interpolation, to avoid an awkward passive. 

返景入深林

Fǎn jǐng rù shēn lín

return brightness/view/situation enter deep/thick forest

Evening light penetrates the deep forest

The first word is difficult. It just means ‘return’, but what is returning light? My friend Ran suggested “the setting sun is described as returning its light because as it moves forward toward the horizon, any sort of light it casts is perceived as being opposite to its direction of motion.”  To me the sentence suggests the edge of the forest, where low evening light temporarily lights up the forest floor. In any case translators all seem to agree, for whatever reason, that we’re talking about dusk!

复照青苔上

Fù zhào qīng tái shàng

repeat/again shine dark.green moss above/on

It shines again on the green moss.

Easy part first: “X shàng” is the OC way of saying “on X”; versions that use the meaning “rise” are a real stretch.  I’m not sure why “again” is specified, unless it’s what I mentioned above— a daily cycle of low light illuminating the forest floor. (Or moss in the trees— see the picture in Adrian’s posting.)

If you missed it: lines 2 and 4 in the original rhyme.  Lines 1/3 do not, either in Mandarin or in Táng Chinese.

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