Li shangyin 1: walking without trace

It is not the lovers who are at the center of this ancient Chinese love poem, but the relationship: it is interrupted, consists of longing, desire and distance. In the Chinese original, the personal pronouns are missing – a challenge for the translator.

L i Shangyin (813-858) is considered one of the darkest and most difficult poets in Chinese literature. His poems are famous Without title, erotic poems, which in their allusive, at first glance often enigmatic symbolism may remind one a little of European baroque poetry or Mallarme’s sonnets. Among them there is also a short cycle of four poems, of which, however, in selection volumes and anthologies usually only the first or the first two are presented, which is unfortunate in that these four poems depict the four stages of a love relationship:

– Longing, desire
– Fulfillment
– Cold, separation
– Loneliness, Death

The first two and the last of these strictly formed poems are eight-liners of seven characters each (resp. syllables), with a caesura after the fourth syllable; the likewise eight lines of the third poem consist of only five characters/syllables. Here is the first poem, first in the original version with interlinear version (please click on the respective line):

It is noticeable that – as is usual in classical Chinese poetry – personal pronouns are missing, d.h. it is not explicitly stated who is being talked about here, who is talking, who is dreaming or writing a letter. The only person named is a Junker Liu: Behind this is an allusion to Emperor Wudi (reg. 141-87 v. Chr.) of the Han dynasty, whose real name was Liu Che and who was enthroned at the age of fifteen. Like many other emperors, he also devoted himself to the search for immortality, for which no effort was too great for him. The immortals were said to live in the Penglai or Peng Mountains, a legendary island mountain range situated in the Yellow Sea. Emperor Wudi is said to have once tried to meet a deceased palace lady again with the help of a Daoist sorcerer, but he was told that he would not be able to see her again for another forty years in the Penglai Mountains.


The Penglai Mountains
(Yuan Jiang, active as a painter 1680-1730)

The interior described in the third verse pair speaks at least rather for a woman, whose situation is described: Kingfishers and lotus flowers were popular decorative motifs, whether on screens, blankets, or clothing, and evoke erotic associations: Kingfishers symbolize a happy pair of lovers, lotus blossoms the beauty of a woman.

A woman seems to wait for one night (in ancient China the night was divided into five double hours, the fifth being the last before sunrise) for her lover, from whom she has no sign of life and who promised to come, without keeping this promise. The night passes, a dream awakens new fears that urge her to write a letter, which must be done so quickly that there is no time to rub the pressed ink with water on the rubbing stone until it is sufficiently thick. But the candle burns down, the fragrance fades away, the (life-)time passes by without anything changing. The beloved seems to be more distant than the Elysian mountains, which rise, as it were, multiplied to infinity between the lovers, as indicated by the conspicuous use of the character 遠 twice (far), in the dream of the third verse and in the seventh verse, is still underlined. The kingfishers in the fifth verse, which are only "half" covered in candlelight, also illustrate the separation of the lovers.

It is typical for classical Chinese poetry that man reveals himself to us here only indirectly. As it characterizes East Asian cultures as a whole (and as it is also expressed in Confucian relationship ethics), the focus is not on the individuals who enter into a relationship, but on the relationship itself: it is what creates and shapes people and their feelings in the first place, and thus gives structure to the community.

The relationship, which is subtly paraphrased here with images, is the interrupted one, characterized by distance, which is expressed in the feeling of desire, the insatiable longing for the beloved person. The attraction for the translator is now to dispense with personal pronouns in German as well and to bring the desire itself into focus, even if this does not quite succeed and in the last verse a "us both" cannot be avoided. Allusions, like the one to "Junker Liu", can of course, if one does not want to destroy the form of the poem, only be placed in a commentary, but one can try to convey as much information as possible in the poem itself, while avoiding proper names that are meaningless to the German reader. In the original, the first, second, fourth, sixth, and eighth verses each end in the same rhyme. In German, the rhyme was used where it lent itself, without distorting the meaning too much.

The candle envelops the golden kingfishers half in its glow.
A whiff of musky incense permeates through lotus blossom ornaments.
A young emperor hardly knew that the Elysian mountains were so far away.
Ten thousand Elysian mountains must be between the two of us.

Image credits:
The Penglai Mountains – by Yuan Jiang (袁江). Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

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  • Published in: Essay, Poetry, Translate
  • Tagged in: Chinese poetry, Li Shangyin, Li Shangyin – Four poems without names, poetry, translation

By Raffael Keller

Sinologist, translator and librarian. He has u.a. a volume of poems by Du Fu (Tang period 618-907) as well as works by Xiao Kaiyu (b. 1960) and translated by other contemporary Chinese poets.

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Lyric or. Poetry translations are among the most difficult services I know of. Personally, I prefer to speak of transmissions rather than translations because I do not believe in interlingual synonomy. The many explanations of the few lines make the linguistic difficulties clear. I have a question about the wording: "In the original, the first, second, fourth, sixth, and eighth verses end in the same rhyme. In German, the rhyme was used where it lent itself without distorting the meaning too much." Why is rhyme not dispensed with in the transmission? Rhymes nevertheless form a formality, already in the original, a formality which is not to be carried through at all.

You can pour the wine from the bottle into a glass or simply on the table. Also the puddle of wine has a form, which however invites less to enjoyment than the wine in the glass, because also the freedom (whether of rhymes or other design rules) is a form, which however does not necessarily yield the most lasting and most beautiful results, as one can observe at present at our freedom glorifying western societies again well. Form and content are interdependent and cannot be separated from each other, least of all in poetry, which is why, in my opinion, the translation of a poem should also give an impression of its form. Or: The higher the hurdle one sets for oneself, the more impressive the jump if it succeeds, and the more spectacular the fall if it proves to be too high. Fortunately, there are no bruises to worry about in this discipline. When I started translating 15 years ago, however, I thought about it a little differently, as you can see from this little essay:

If freedom worries you, I take the liberty to demonstrate to you in the context of your picture, which freedom you have taken in relation to rhymes: You put me a wine glass from China on the counter of your bar, but you cut it in half with a massive blow to enable lasting effects, as you explain to me with a smile. Now you pour wine on the split debris and ask me in passing: "Isn’t this beautiful?"

Shards bring luck, and a libation appeases the gods! But maybe I should take the liberty in the future to drink the Li Shangyin 847 or another noble drop directly from the bottle, by self-sufficiently refraining from pouring a glass of it to others (because the wine comes from China and not the glass).

The Chinese glass: "In the original, the first, second, fourth, sixth and eighth verses end in the same rhyme."

I thought it was just a formality?

On page 86 Bill Porter (Finding Them Gone) translates another poem ("Untitled") by Li Shangyin, which also found its way into the 300 Tang Poems. At that time he was 15.

@ Anselm Buhling: I still think that the rhymes are a formality; but I used Raffael Keller’s image to demonstrate something. In the transmission to renounce rhymes, I would rather prefer, than the shambles ("In German, the rhyme was used where it offered itself, without distorting the sense too much.") to trust.

Raffael Keller has presented his work here, explained his approach and, in response to your inquiry, justified his decision – in a friendly and professional manner. I find it a pity that you did not address his reasons, but instead misappropriated the image he used for a polemical low blow.

The discussion about how to deal with rhymes has been going on for a long time – with good arguments from each side. Here would be quite an opportunity to tie in with this and have a stimulating, even controversial debate. However, this can only succeed if each one responds to the other’s reasons and explains his own. I would be very happy if you could also do this with kindness and respect.

Sorry, I cannot remember a polemical low blow. On the contrary, I went into detail without mincing words, both in terms of ‘freedom’ and in terms of the question of ‘form and content’ (in the context of the picture), and I wonder now what could have been aberrant about it, or is it that what I said is not understood? Perhaps I did not express some of the well-known views; are they missed??

To be on the safe side, I emphasize once again my view without pictures: One would misjudge the long used freedom to deviate from the original rhyme form in a translation. Obviously, however, there is no other way. However, the very attempt to ‘salvage something’ from the scheme might indicate only lingering remnants of the original scheme. That is why I would dispense with the scheme. That is all I said.

Thank you. The problem was the unfortunate and unnecessary image of the pile of broken pieces, not your view. It is much easier to talk about without pictures. So let’s just leave the court of broken pieces behind us.

unfortunately I came across this interesting discussion only now. May I nevertheless add my two cents?
When translating Chinese poetry, the strict formal structure to which it is subject is usually overlooked and not taken into account. However, the quality of a classical Chinese poem is defined less by its content than by its form. With all understanding, a translator should make an effort not to let this formal structure of the original fall completely under the table. In many cases, however, this is exactly what happens, and thus an essential attraction of Chinese poetry is lost for the Western reader.
The clearest characteristic of the formal structure of the poems is the rhyme. To negate the presence of rhyme in the original is certainly the most radical form of rhyme criticism, more thoughtful translators put forward other arguments which, in my opinion, nevertheless do not hold good. Thus Rainald Simon deliberately omits the following in his new Shijing translation
"to a rhyme following the original structure,…because this would require extensive and thus distorting interventions in order to render the structures adequately.
Finding a compromise between literalness, correctness of content and imitation of formal aspects is exactly the task of the translator. Who then simply renounces the rhyme, makes it too simple for himself. That an exaggerated rhyming gives every poem something "lyre-like" is undisputed and can best be felt in the translations of Alfred Forke, who sometimes gives the single line of verse two rhymes (one before and one after the caesura). Nevertheless, the recreation of the rhyme undoubtedly present in the original
"a kind of forced naturalization into the realm of German rhyme, which distort(s) the original " (R. Simon)
to call is already a little bit absurd. And to do without the rhyme out of the fear that to today’s reader of poetry the rhyme seems dusty and often almost a little cranky," (R. Simon)
cannot be the appropriate reaction. Linguistically, even the masterpieces in the language of Goethe, Schiller or Lessing appear strange to today’s readers. But would it be the appropriate reaction to rewrite "Faust" into the language of today’s smartphone users?? In the case of Chinese poems, I prefer to stick with Volker Klopsch, who maintains "the binding of language by stanza and rhyme", since "any linguistic arbitrariness would be misleading".
If one only wants to take a minimum of consideration of the formal structures into account in the translation, one must in my opinion least of all do without the rhyme. That is why I have used a continuous rhyme scheme in German in my translations, without sacrificing the literalness of the transmission. Of course, one must be aware of the danger of compromising the character and poetry of the poem in the search for a suitable rhyming word. The rhyme scheme in the original, which usually follows only one syllable in the whole poem, can hardly be followed in the German language. Only in very rare cases this can succeed. At least in the one-verse short poems, which are only four verses long, I have made an effort to achieve the rhyme scheme aaba applied in the original in German as well. In more than 80 percent of the cases, this is. To give the poem a certain rhyme scheme in the translation is, in my opinion, absolutely without alternative; not primarily because the original also works with a rhyme, but because a rhyme scheme, be it as it may, can best convey an impression of a formal "straitjacket" in which the poets were packed and under whose restrictions they had to write their poems. A renunciation of the rhyme would suggest a poetic freedom and unboundedness, which is least of all to be found in Chinese poetry, it would suggest that the Chinese poems are verses rippling along in a free rhythm, informally and unconstrained, which tell of people who are just as free and cavorting in nature. But exactly the opposite is the case, and it is precisely to convey this idea that rhyme is so important. It seems to be completely irrelevant in which scheme the rhyme appears in the translation, it cannot follow the original 1:1 anyway. So why not choose an all-encompassing rhyme (abba) now and then, if it fits linguistically, or a cross-rhyme (abab) or a more complicated rhyme scheme?.

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