Poems of Bai Juyi
Returning Late on West Lake and Gazing Back at Lonely Hill Temple (for my guests)
Willows, lake, pines, island, lotus flower temple.
It is late as I row away from holy ground.
Ripe cumquats along the shore. Heavy rain.
Wet palm leaves tremble in the gentle wind.
On smoky waves, I gently row, beneath a dark blue sky.
Rambling temple roofs lean against the rising dark.
Reaching the shore, one last backward longing look
At the palace of the perfect man, rising from the waters.
What does it take to translate Chinese poetry?
Chinese, to start with. I know some Chinese but I wish I knew more. So you also need dictionaries. Lots of dictionaries. I have five and one can be used as a doorstop in a high wind. But I still don't have what I really need. It would be good to have the equivalent of the OED, where each entry is dated by first known occurence. I haven't found that one yet. And so anachronism is a clear and present danger in my work. I alleviate this with textbooks on Classical Chinese. But the danger is still there.
You need to be poetic. This is something intangible that poets, and their translators, work on. It kind of comes. And then it goes. When it is present, especially through an entire poem, you can hardly take credit for it. As Kenzo Awa said of kyudo: You don't shoot -- IT shoots.
And then you need mileage, lots of mileage. Your rubber meeting the road in this real and only world. Mileage I've got. A lifetime of hard mileage on mostly bad roads. And human mileage isn't like vehicle mileage. You don't move so fast. Just a little bit each day. So, if you aren't caught up in yourself, you have plenty of time to study the scenery and interact with your fellow travellers. That's what people end up being, you know -- either scenery or travellers.
The real travellers are like Bai Juyi, engaged with everything and feeling the joy and burden of the journey. In 西湖晚归回望孤山寺赠诗客, Bai Juyi reminds us of our common destination, "the palace of the perfect man." This perfection is right here in this only world. But we only get to visit it briefly, sometimes merely hovering outside, peering in through the open gate. And then we have to go back where we came from. Which sucks.
The poetry in this poem comes from knowing, somehow, that we came from that perfection, not from where we seem to live now. And all of our real mileage is the long journey we make to realize, demonstrably, that we have never, ever, really left home.