Rhyme: Du Mu
Du Mu (803-852): Ascending to Lv-you Plain
An illustration for: Nine Maxims On Translation
E Bruce Brooks / University of Massachusetts / 5 Dec 2002
We here compare rhymed and unrhymed translations of the same Chinese poem. The original, let it be said at once, does rhyme.
This is a quatrain, in seven-syllable meter, each line having a caesura (a sense of division, not a one-mora pause) after the 4th syllable (the line structure is thus 4 / 3 syllables). The even lines of a quatrain always rhyme together, and the first line may also rhyme, at the discretion of the poet. The present example is not part of a larger set, but it does resonate with other Tang poems. We here judge it on its own. Here are two versions of Du Mu's quatrain, each of which has a note referring to the earlier poem which sets the stage for his effort.
Translated by Irving Y Lo
Sunflower Splendor (1975)
Soaring into the distant sky, a lone bird disappears.
Ten thousand ages dissolve and vanish in this instant.
Look, where are the deeds of the Han empire?
The Five Mounds* lie treeless where autumn wind rises
*I.e., the five imperial Han tombs - Chang-lin, An-lin, Yang-lin, Mau-lin, and Ping-lin - outside of Chang-an. Also cf. Tsvn Shvn, "On climbing the Pagoda . . . The five tombs were those of the five emperors of the Han dynasty (0206-220). They were located across the Wei River to the north and northwest of the capital. They would have been from 10 to 25 miles distant from the pagoda and over eight hundred years old when this poem was written."
Translated by E Bruce Brooks
Other Mountains (1993)
An endless sky without a speck,
a lone bird fades from view,
Here the myriad ages have
their final obsequies;
This is what the House of Han
comes to in the end -
Not so much as a single tree
to stir in the autumn breeze*
*Du Mu here applies an extra turn of the screw to the poem by Shvn Chywaen-chi on the tombs of the Latter Han rulers at Bei-mang. There were still trees by those tombs, in that earlier day. By Du Mu's time, Han had receded even further into the past, and even the trees were gone.
The first version implies an obliteration of the distance between the poet and the Han Dynasty, whereas the original (like the second version) is concerned with the distance: it shows the Han vanishing into the past as the bird vanishes into space. The second version is more faithful to the form (including rhyme) of the original. As to which version presents Du Mu with more point, force, and consecutivitity (here defined as how one gets from the climax in line 3 to the denouement in line 4), the reader may judge.
Thus far the poems; we may also compare the footnotes. The note to the first translation (actually two notes as published, here combined as one) carefully names and locates the five burial mounds of the Former Han emperors. This shows a skillful use of the dictionary, but it probably makes little difference to the impact of the poem. The impact of the poem needs no topographical gloss for anyone who has read Shelley's Ozymandias. The special twist of Du Mu's piece for one familiar with Tang poetry is better given in the comparison with Shvn Chywaen-chi's earlier effort on a similar theme, as in the second translation. Han and its splendors are not merely remote in time: even the wind in the trees mourns for it no longer.
Still better than a note on the earlier poem, is the actual presence of the earlier poem. This is the principle on which rational anthologies are constructed. For a mini-anthology, see the Two Tang Poems page.
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5 Dec 2002 / Contact The Project / Exit to Lectures Page