Drizzle and Plum Blossoms: Four Poets of the Song Dynasty
Translated and with an introduction by Li C. Tien and John Palen
March Street Press, 2009
Reviewed by Matthew Falk

Translators of poetry face many pitfalls. Between the purist's intention to render literal meaning and the creative artist's wish to interpret or embellish, a precarious balance must be maintained. You must watch out for what Angela Palandri has called "the Scylla and Charybdis of translation … the unimaginative and the over-imaginative." This is perhaps especially true when the languages involved are as distinctly dissimilar as Classical Chinese and contemporary English. In Drizzle and Plum Blossoms: Four Poets of the Song Dynasty, Li C. Tien and John Palen show us how to do it right, being neither slavishly literal nor too free.

The collaborative nature of their project, undoubtedly, contributes to its success. Tien and Palen, who both live in Midland, are experienced poets whose separate skill sets complement each other. According to the book's introduction, Tien (who was born in China) first provided Palen with "a character-by-character word list and a rough verse translation" for each poem. Palen then, in turn, produced a rough draft in English for Tien to review, leading to "a back-and-forth process of mutual revision." The result is a product benefitting from the careful efforts of both men.

The careers of the Song poets whose work this volume contains span a 200-year period from the beginning of the eleventh through the end of the twelfth centuries CE. Sandwiched between the Tang Dynasty (China's "golden age” of political unity) and the Yuan (when the kingdom was ruled by the Mongols), the Song period had a highly sophisticated and refined literary culture. Among the elite, making poetry was a popular pastime. A characteristic genre was ci (sometimes spelled chih), in which new words were written to well-known melodies. Most of the poems Tien and Palen have selected for their volume are of this type. The introduction explains that ci poetry originally dealt with "beauty and … love" but was later "expanded … to heroic subjects."

Despite their remoteness in time and place, the poems contained here are filled with life and, in some ways, are strikingly modern. These four poets (Ouyang Xiu, Su Dongpo, Lu You, and Xin Qiji) share a concern with subjective perception and personal experience that makes them immediately accessible to American readers. Tien and Palen have highlighted this accessibility through their use of precise and concise language.

Which brings us back to our discussion of the problems of translation. I'm not a scholar in the field, but I do know my way around a Google search, so I read some alternate versions of a few of these pieces, just for kicks. What I found suggests that Tien and Palen have achieved something rare and admirable in "carrying across" (which is the root meaning of "translating”) both the content and the style of their sources.

For example, let us consider the verse by Ouyang Xiu (1007-1072 CE) that opens the collection, "To the Tune 'Picking Mulberries.'"A literal, unimaginative Englishing of this poem would go something like this:

Light boat short oar west lake good

Green water gently curving

Fragrant grass long dyke

Faint pipe song everywhere follow

Without wind water surface glaze smooth

Not notice boat move

Little move ripples

Startle rise sand bird brush bank fly

Not quite Ezra Pound, is it? Now here's how Tien and Palen handle it:

At West Lake we dip oars

in winding green water

near the young grass

on the long embankment.

Faint music follows us,

voices, instruments. We glide

in stealth on a windless surface

smooth as glass,

though our subtle ripples

startle the shorebirds

and send them skimming

the water's edge.

Inevitably, some details have been lost, many others altered, but in general, these lines hew to the original yet work as an English poem. The nature of the Chinese language has compelled the translators to make a series of choices—Chinese ideograms do not ordinarily specify number, tense, or parts of speech, for example—and whenever choices are made, taste becomes an issue. Fortunately, Tien and Palen exhibit consistent good taste as well as common sense.

At the other extreme from excessive literalness lies embellishment. To illustrate, let us consider two versions of a verse by the fourth poet featured in Drizzle and Plum Blossoms, Xin Qiji (1140-1207 CE). Tien and Palen render "To the Tune 'The Ugly Slave'" thus:

When I was young

and hadn't known sorrow,

I loved to climb high places,

 loved to climb high places

and write poems

that strained for sorrow.

Now that I have tasted

all there is to know of sorrow

I hesitate to speak of it,

hesitate to speak of it.

Instead I say, "This cool

autumn weather is so fine."

This is elegant, straightforward, and effective. One could argue, however, that Xin's work is overly sentimental—it's understandable that a translator might want to tone it down, bringing it in line with contemporary sensibilities. But once one embarks down this path, where does it end? What about a translation such as the following, which a professor at the University of Macau (whom I won't name) published on his blog?

the young don't know how misery tastes 
they've always one more step to climb 
they've the stiff upper lip for it too 
but that's not the way a poem's made

having been through the mill a bit 
one prefers the passage down stairs 
one pauses often on the way, admiring 
the season, admiring the view

This is far too free, more of a response to the original than a translation per se. There are alterations in content: What's all this about preferring the passage down stairs? Who said anything about admiring the view? There are alterations in structure: The repetition of lines, which Tien and Palen preserve and which is present in the original Chinese, has not been honored. The emotional tone has been utterly transformed from nostalgic to wry. Tien and Palen's translation, in its faithfulness to Xin's own words, is superior, even while it shows Xin to be a big old cheeseball decadent sentimentalist, the product of a culture that valued that sort of thing. Knowing this about the poet, though, readers can forgive him.

Much of the work in Drizzle and Plum Blossoms is similar to Xin's in exhibiting lyricism, first-person immediacy, and a tendency toward aestheticism. Readers with knowledge of Chinese and/or a taste for authenticity will appreciate the decision to include the Chinese text of each poem in both traditional and simplified characters, while those who can't recognize a single word may still be able to enjoy the aesthetic appeal of the ideograms on the page. The expected tropes of Chinese poetry, the orchards and wine and moon over mountains, are all present and accounted for, but there are also subtle surprises, and the whole is marked by a lively, engaging intimacy, as of real people speaking in a natural way across a distance of centuries, still managing to tell us something we didn't already know.

© Matthew Falk, 2009