Poems of Bai Juyi
Sick of Big Empty Streets, in Two Parts (Part 2)
I remember how calm it was, at first, back then.
I was humbly preparing to admonish the government.
It was like when the soldiers were killing off the Empress
And everyone's life was haggard and thin.
But, even though I sympathised with people's troubles,
I didn't write about them. I turned away.
I was busy writing "Songs of Qin,"
My mind was busy mourning some old things in the past.
At the time, the nobility were all loudly fluorishing
And the idle were too numerous to count.
High Heaven had not yet learned
That thorns and brambles were covering the earth.
Now only empty thoroughfares do I see
Where once I saw my lifelong ideals.
Reading about it now, I start to cry
And moan again, tears running down my face.
To compose a poem with all these rhymes
I hid away in a wooden hut.
I devoted myself to work among the pear trees
And bestowed my love on the best ideas I could.
Those powerful men will be forgotten.
But these poems will surely be appreciated.
Look, here in my box of papers,
The silverfish are already devouring my words.
If you don't know why I've chosen to be buried out here,
There's time to ask before you have to mourn for me.
Then, when you finally come to weep by my tomb,
I can give you one last tearful embrace.
My collection of Bai Juyi only has the second part of this two-part poem. There are two or three thousand poems in Bai's Complete Works that have come down to us. At the rate of about one a week, it will take me around 60 years to translate them all. Which would make me around 120 years old at the finish line. I wouldn't hold my breath waiting on Part One, if I were you.
I've been reading other people's, famous people's, translations of some of the poems appearing in this collection. I can tell you that one of them, long dead now, cheats. He gets an idea in his head and then twists what remains of the poem to conform to that idea. In some cases, there is no conceivable way the five characters in the poem can mean what he makes of them, not even if you take two lines together, as they are often intended.
It's okay to get the idea in your head. But it is not okay to cheat. It is also not okay to say that your idea is anything like what the poet intended, even if you don't cheat. We cannot know what Bai Juyi intended. Not even if he tells us his intentions for that poem. We cannot really know the layers and implications of the characters as he uses them. We cannot get inside a Tang poet's head, not honestly, not even if someone puts a gun to our head.
Which makes me wonder, or at least try to formulate, what it is I think I am doing here. Okay. No hesitation. No mulling it over. I'll just spill it out as it comes. I'm trying to see what I can recognize of Bai Juyi's mind. He has a mind which, at some level, is like mine. So we have a bit in common. Same with emotions and similar. So when I look at him, in this poetic way, what can I recognize? And how can I, across all the poems I translate, make that recognition tenable and coherent and artistically satisfying.
I can't pretend to get at the truth. Whatever the truth about Bai Juyi, it is 1000 years and half the earth's surface away from me, wrapped in the most opaque and opalescent jewel of a language ever created by the mind of man. No one can get at that truth from here. The most we can offer is an honest and, hopefully, beautiful recognition. At least an honest one.
While we're being honest here, I will add that the above-mentioned cheater does reveal quite a bit of truth about Bai Juyi, partly in his notes and partly in his uncheated translations. So he expresses good qualities in addition to his cheating. The problem, obviously, is that if you cannot sort out the cheating for yourself by translating from the Chinese, you have to view all his translations with suspicion now that I've told you about him. Except you don't know his name. And I'm not telling. Like Bai Juyi, I am a gentle man (space intended). And a gentleman does not exult at his moral superiority over the cheater. That's a stupid game.
But a gentleman can form a gentle moral lesson from the story of a cheater, for our mutual benefit. That's precisely what Bai Juyi believed was the point of poetry: to improve mankind. He wasn't sure it worked. He agreed that it was likely to backfire. But he kept at it. And mankind is better now than it would be without Bai Juyi and his two or three thousand poems. So, as for his theory of poetry: QED.