Poet's Pick April 26
Tao Yuanming 陶淵明
"Returning to Live in the Country"

Selected by Tina Chang
National Poetry Month 2013

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Tina Chang's Poetry Month Pick, April 26, 2013

"Returning to Live in the Country (1)"
by Tao Yuanming   陶淵明 (365–427)
Two Translations

Returning to Live in the Country (I)
Translation 1

In my youth I was out of tune with the common folk:
My nature is to love hills and mountains.
In my folly I fell into the net of the world's dust,
And so went on for thirty years.
The caged bird longs for its old woodland;
The pond-reared fish yearns for its native stream.
I have opened up a waste plot of the south moor,
And keeping my simplicity returned to garden and field.
A homestead of some ten acres,
A thatched cottage with eight or nine rooms;
Elms and willows shading the hinder eaves;
Peach and plum trees ranking before the hall.
Dim, dim is the distant hamlet;
Lagging, lagging hangs the smoke of the market-town;
A dog barks in the deep lane;
A cock crows on the top of the mulberry tree.
My door and courtyard have no dust and turmoil;
In the bare rooms there is leisure to spare.
Too long a captive in a cage,
I have now come back to Nature.

Returning to Live in the Country (I)
Translation 2

Little not fit common charm
Nature basic love mound hill
Mistake fall world net in
Thus went ten three years
Cage bird long for old forest
Pond fish long for old deep pool
Start barren south fields border
Observe awkward return field orchard
Plot residence 10 more acre
Grass house 8 9 rooms
Elm willow shade behind eaves
Peach plum collect hall before
Dim far person village
Reluctant to part ruins village smoke
Dog bark deep alley in
Chicken mulberry tree peak
Door yard no earth mix
Modest room have more vacant
Long at confinement in
Again get return self right


* Tina Chang Comments:
A few years ago I had the occasion to meet and introduce Bei Dao, one of China’s most well regarded contemporary poets, at Princeton University’s library. He and his translator had made the decision to project Bei Dao’s poems in Chinese and their English translations side by side during their reading. Afterward, a Chinese audience member raised his hand and asked Bei Dao if he minded that the English translation varied drastically from the version written in his native tongue. The audience member detailed what was sadly lost in translation. Bei Dao smiled and replied, “My poems are translated into twenty five languages. One eventually has to learn to let go. Rather than pondering the losses, I like to think about what is gained.”

For Poetry Month, I’ve chosen two vastly different translations of Chinese poet Tao Yuanming’s “Returning to Live in the Country (1).” One of his most celebrated poems, it has been translated countless times though these two examples demonstrate how a poem can be transformed and even reenvisioned in the mind of the interpreter. There is surely, in both, a strong collaboration at work of sound, of texture, structure, and vision. Since both translators have left their names off of each translation, I’ll call them translation 1 and 2.

Tao Yuanming (365–427), also known as Tao Qian, lived during the Six Dynasties period (c. 220 - 589 CE), writing between the Han and Tang dynasties.  Particularly notable was his tendency toward extreme solitude and a desire for a life of seclusion. In order to fulfill familial obligations, he served a military post and later took on a position as a magistrate. He became dissatisfied with this path and longed for nature and a more simplistic, reclusive existence. “Returning to Live in the Country (1)” marks his withdrawal from service and a return to a place where he felt most at home, one in which he was surrounded by country, wilderness, and quietude.

Translation 1 offers a reading that is lyrically graceful, rendering the speaker’s experience of nature with a sense of wonder and melancholy. The longing he feels for gardens and fields is complicated by his frustration and loneliness when remembering the “caged” life when he tended to his official obligations which he described as having lasted a long 30 years. The expansiveness of hills and mountains contrasts greatly with the hanging smoke of the populated market towns. The sense of friction between past and present unfurls with the images of peach, plum, homestead, and hinder eaves. His newfound peace is palpable in the bare rooms where there is room to breathe, explore, and think. This translation offers the reader a conclusion in which the speaker is finally home and at home having arrived at this point of locale and realization from long years of duty and distance.

In contrast, translation 2 takes me on an unexpected, thrill-seeking, syntax-bending trip. Comprised of short mostly five-word lines ranging from seven to ten syllables, and devoid of articles and conjunctions, I imagine this poem’s interpreter as someone uncompromising and rebellious in his/her approach to language. I envision rooms opening and closing, starts and stops, grandiose leaps that only make sense if the reader has enough faith in the space between words as much as they believe in words themselves. Lines like, “Little not fit common charm/ Nature basic love mound hill/ Mistake fall world net in,” at times don’t seem like a translations at all but a play of text as worlds and also a choreography of audio patterning. The setting the translator reveals is one filled with sputter, spark, ignition. The “cage bird” and “pond fish” belong nowhere, not in nature, not in their rightful homes but in the fitful recesses of the translator’s imagination where, “dog bark deep alley in.” The translation’s achievement lies in the creation of structured atmosphere, one in which place is as fragmented and disrupted as experience and memory.

As I read, I am pursued not by the sense of right or wrong of translation. Neither do I abide by the rules of adhering to the poet’s original vision. Rather, I am led by instinct and curiosity, audacity and assumptions. I can only guess this translation would anger admirers of Tao Yuanming’s work who was known for his eloquence and simplicity of speech, and also for his meditation free of complication and difficulty.

As a poet, I shed the grand debates about translation when I encounter a poem such as this. As with most notable poems, I find myself leaping off a cliff in the hopes that where I land is not here, not now, not ever. What should I do with a line such as, “Reluctant to part ruins village smoke.” In this instance, I disobey and part the ruins as if they were the heavy curtains of civilization and find myself both stranded and found in a territory where the text is charged, free, and liberated. “I like to think about what is gained,” claimed Bei Dao regarding the interpretation of his work and this range of possibility is the most immense landscape a poet could hope for.

About Tina Chang:
Tina Chang was raised in New York City. The current Brooklyn Poet Laureate, she is the author of Half-Lit Houses (Four Way Books) and co-editor of the anthology Language for a New Century: Contemporary Poetry from the Middle East, Asia, and Beyond (W.W. Norton). She has received awards from the Academy of American Poets, the Barbara Deming Memorial Fund, the Ludwig Vogelstein Foundation, New York Foundation for the Arts, Poets & Writers, and the Van Lier Foundation, among others. She teaches poetry at Sarah Lawrence College.

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