Words Open Doors: Night on the Great River (Three Translations)

Image courtesy stock.xchng
Image courtesy stock.xchng

Words Open Doors: Night on the Great River (Three Translations)

by Dr. Holly Ordway

Translation is impossible.

Exact translation, at any rate. Even the words that are seemingly the most straightforward, with ordinary dictionary definitions (like bread, or day) have roots of meaning and history that make each language’s word for something have a slightly different flavor.

Looking at three English translations of Meng Hao-jan’s “Night on the Great River,” I am struck by the richness of the words in the first two lines of this short poem.

The little island on the river: what is it like? And the narrator: what does he feel?

William Carlos Williams calls it a “misty islet,” Kenneth Rexroth a “hazy island,” Gary Snider a “misty island.” Is it misty, in the sense of a cool, fine mist of water hanging in the air, a veil of mist that glows in the last rays of the setting sun? Or is it a heat-haze, the air stultifying and still, making the very air feel heavy as one breathes?

And then there is the poet-narrator’s response to the scene: “my sorrows grow”; “I am overwhelmed with nostalgia”; “my loneliness comes again.”

These three very different translations open up the complexity of emotion. Sadness, like happiness, or love, or peace, or anger, or any emotion, comes in many forms and has many nuances. One of the gifts of poetry is to provide meaning for the words we use to talk about these states of the soul, of the heart.

Sorrows: one gets the sense that the poet-narrator is reflecting on all the things that trouble him, perhaps things that he can’t do anything about, but wishes that he could. Or perhaps things that he himself has failed at. Nostalgia is a different kind of sorrow: a sweet pain, a memory of a golden, happy time or place that is now past. There is a sense of loss in nostalgia, but also within the reach of that mood is the recognition that there was goodness in that remembered moment, and the goodness was real and enduring even though the moment has passed. Loneliness: a very different kind of sorrow, a sorrow of missing pieces, of feeling disconnected from the life of friends, of community.

All of this could have been in the heart of the poet-narrator, in that quiet moment on the Great River; or evoked by the poet’s words in the imagination of the translators; what  each translation does is to body forth Hao-jan’s images into English words, so that we too can drift by the island and be moved by the moon coming close to the earth, and thereby to share something of Hao-jan’s vision.

Translation is impossible; this is part of the poet’s magic. Every word, every different word, opens a door.


8 thoughts on “Words Open Doors: Night on the Great River (Three Translations)

  1. Alexander J. Wei says:

    I have a lot to say about all this; you may (possibly) wish that you had not provoked this. My grandmother was a great lover of Tang dynasty poetry, and she passed that love to my father, and him to me.

    The whole question of translation, particularly poetry, was covered in detail in Douglas Hofstadter’s Le Ton Beau de Marot:In Praise of the Music of Language. He also talks a bit about it in his much more famous and Pulitzer Prize winning book “Godel, Escher, Bach”. Among all the books he has written, he lavished much obsessive effort on these two books, but the first is practically unknown.

    Meng Hao-jan is the older Wade-Giles romanization of the poet’s name; in modern pinyin, he is Meng Haoran.

    Our starting point for analysis is to recognize that this is a 4 line poem with 5 characters per line. Below is a one-word translation of each character. This is all taken from “Chinese Poetry” by Wai-lin Yip, 1997, p. 231.

    move boat moor smoke shore
    sun dusk traveler grief new
    wilds far-reaching sky low/er tree
    river clear moon near/s man

    Of course, a one-word translation of a character is just as treacherous as practically any other translation, and each character has a constellation of possible meanings, particularly in Chinese, a language that is highly evocative and poetic.

    More later

  2. Alexander J. Wei says:

    To add to the three translations we already have, I have more.

    From Yip’s Chinese Poetry, two translations:

    Stayover at Chien-teh River

    A boat slows, moors by beach-run in smoke.
    Sun fades: a traveler’s sorrow freshens.
    Open wilderness. Wide sky.A stretch of low trees.
    Limpid river: clear moon close to man.

    A boat slows,
    moors by
    beach-run in smoke.
    Sun fades:
    a traveler’s sorrow
    Open wilderness.
    Wide sky.
    A stretch of low trees.
    Limpid river:
    clear moon
    close to

    (a more figurative version of the same words)

  3. Alexander J. Wei says:

    This poem is one in the famous Tang Shi Sanbai Shou, or 300 Tang Poems anthology. There have been many attempts to translate this anthology: I own two such.

    One is Witter Bynner’s The Jade Mountain(1929), which I own in The Chinese Translations (1978)

    A Night Mooring on the Chien-te River

    While my little boat moves on its mooring of mist,
    And daylight wanes, old memories begin…
    How wide the world was, how close the trees to heaven,
    And how clear in the water the nearness of the moon!

    The other is Innes Herdan’s “300 T’ang Poems”, 1973.


    My boat is moored
    beside an island of mists;
    In the twilight
    a stranger grows melancholy.
    Beyond the desolate fields
    the sky rests on the tree-tops;
    In the clear river
    the moon seems very near to man.

  4. Alexander J. Wei says:

    The last translation I have to contribute is from a Chinese publication, Tang Song Shi, or Tang and Song Poems, 1997.

    Mooring on the Jiande River

    Mooring boat near a misty isle,
    Evening adds more to a traveler’s grief.
    In the vast wilds, trees seem to touch the sky,
    On brightening waters, the moon comes to my sight.

  5. Holly Ordway says:

    Thanks for your very thoughtful response, Alexander! The additional translations are a reminder of the organic nature of language (especially poetic language.)I found the consideration of the translation to be interesting as a way of thinking about the potential of my own (English-language) poetry. Each word choice evokes far more than the dictionary definition.

  6. Alexander J. Wei says:

    Specifically about your comments, Dr. Holly:

    From Yip’s Chinese Poetry, we can see that it is not necessarily an island. We clearly moor, and there is a shore. Most of the translators come out with an island or an isle, but Bynner and Yip do not. Which you choose has a lot to do with one’s intuition or feel, or just how you would LIKE it to come out. Also, being on the river, it is more likely to be water-mist, but there again, it’s translator’s choice.

    The word chou2 in modern Chinese means worry or be anxious. But there has been more than a millenium for linguistic drift to occur. Incidentally, someone reciting this in modern Chinese would notice a lack of poetry; linguistic drift makes these poems no longer rhyme as they did then, or if they are recited in Cantonese or other throwback dialects.

    Nostalgia is indeed a common theme in Chinese poems.

    A scholar-poet like Meng Haoran might do a lot of traveling; to one’s official post, for example. And there was a great aesthetic of capturing one’s feelings by writing a poem on viewing nature and the scene.

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