Wei Shao sent me this photograph of the English translation of a famous Chinese poem:
Here's the story of how this translation came to be. The author, who posted it on Renren (Chinese clone of Facebook), said he was caught doing English homework in a Chinese class by his Chinese teacher. The teacher was angry and punished the student by making him translate Shǔ dào nán 蜀道难 ("The Way to Shu Is Hard") into English.
The poem is by Li Bo / Bai (701-762), one of the preeminent Chinese poets of all time. Here is the original Chinese text with Mandarin translation, and the original text with interlinear Mandarin translation.
There are many other online websites that provide Mandarin translations of this and other poems written in Literary Sinitic. Here is the original text with Pinyin annotations for each character. There are lots of not very good English translations available, e.g., here and here, and some better ones, as here.
Here is a good translation of the poem by Lucas Klein:
I: The Road to Shu is Hard (Li Bai)
Dangerous and High.
The road to Shu is harder than
climbing the sky.
Cancong and Yufu forged this boundless country.
years later, finally,
relations with the Qin have begun,
the passing of settlers’ smoke.
Taibai to the west:
can pass it, reaching out
as far as Emei peak.
collapses. The mountain
Warriors (strong) die.
Sky-steps hook together
on the cliff-face walkway.
Above, six dragons drag the Sun chariot back
to avoid the high peak.
Below, rushing waves whirlpool, churning back
Yellow cranes can’t fly over it. Monkeys and gibbons yearn
to cross it, but they hang,
The heights of Qingni.
Nine bends. One hundred steps.
Coiling through the rocks
Touch Orion. Pass Gemini.
Look up, panting, heaving.
Hand on the chest.
Sit with a long sigh.
Tell me, Westward Voyager:
When will you come back?
These crags on this trip are insurmountable.
Tragic birds moan on ancient trees.
Circling in the forest cocks fly,
chased by hens. The cuckoos
yelp at the moonlight.
Sad, desolate mountain.
The road to Shu is harder than climbing
the sky. Hear this
and your face bleaches out.
These linked peaks are a foot from the sky.
Decrepit pines hang upside-down
from the cliff face.
Flying and bursting, waterfalls cascade
with whooshes and whirs.
Thundering gullies spin stones and
How dangerous this is.
Why in hell are you coming this way?
Lofty and steep, Sword Hall on the rocky peaks.
With one man blocking
the pass, ten thousand troops can’t
And if the guards are not kinsmen,
they turn into
Avoid the wild tigers in the morning.
Avoid the long snakes in the night.
They’ll sharpen their teeth.
They’ll suck your blood.
They’ll kill you like flax.
Happy talk of the Brocaded City
is no match
for an early trip
The road to Shu
Harder than climbing
Sidle back. Look west.
All my sighs
Klein's translation may be found here, together with an unusual poetic response by him.
A few basic notes:
- Shǔ 蜀 is the name of one of an ancient kingdom in southwest China (in the area of what is now Sichuan Province).
- Cancong and Yufu were semi-legendary rulers of an independent state of the same name that preceded the Shu kingdom mentioned above.
- Qin is the name of the first Chinese empire, which conquered the independent state of Shu and many other polities.
- Taibai is the name of a mountain one must pass on the way to Shu as one heads westward from Chang'an (now Xi'an), capital of the Tang Dynasty; Emei is a peak in the heart of Shu; and Qingni is a peak that stands at the entrance to Shu.
- Brocaded City is a fancy way to refer to Chengdu, the capital of Sichuan.
- A common recurrence in Chinese history was for the emperor to flee to remote Sichuan from the capital in the Yellow River valley when there was rebellion, invasion from the north(west), or other reason for the weakening or collapse of the dynasty.
It is ironic, but fitting, that the translation with which we began this post was the result of a student doing English homework in a Chinese class. Such, however, is the reality of the day in China: English is at a premium.
But, no matter how good one may be in English, if one's Chinese is not up to the task, the resultant translation will jar the senses.
[For a fine translation of "The Way to Shu is Hard" and a scholarly treatment of its literary background, see Paul W. Kroll, "The Road to Shu, from Zhang Zai to Li Bo," Early Medieval China, 10-11.1 (2004), 227-54. A pdf of the 29-page article is available here.]