There are few poets or poetic traditions that can evoke the magic of wine in more poignant and elegant fashion the the great poets of the early Chinese tradition. Some 1200 years ago, some of the most beautiful poems I have ever had the joy, honor, and pleasure of reading were written, and Li-Po is perhaps the greatest Chinese poet of them all. I love his writing for so many things, certainly one of which is his love of wine, and his uncanny ability to weave it into the stunning context of his otherworldly wisdom and insight. Never has wine seemed so mystical, so perfect, so holy, so infused with pathos, so real, than in the following:
“Drinking Alone Beneath The Moon”
Among the blossoms, a single jar of wine.
No one else here, I ladle it out myself.
Raising my cup, I toast the bright moon,
and facing my shadow makes friends three,
though moon has never understood wine,
and shadow only trails along behind me.
Kindred a moment with moon and shadow,
I’ve found a joy that must infuse spring:
I sing, and moon rocks back and forth;
I dance, and shadow tumbles into pieces.
Sober, we’re together and happy. Drunk,
we scatter away into our own directions:
intimates forever, we’ll wander carefree
and meet again in Milky Way distances.
This particular translation is by a gentleman named David Hinton, who is, for my money, absolutely and unqualifiedly the most brilliant translator of ancient Chinese poetry into English working today, or ever. The art and craft of translation is a vexing one, and there are traditionally thought to be two schools existing on two ends of a spectrum: on one end is the idea that one translates for accuracy, to the letter, regardless of how the poem may read in English. The goal is to get the poem right linguistically. On the other end is the idea that you translate not the letter of the poem, but the spirit. The idea is to get the poem right conceptually. Given how different are the English and the Chinese languages, this conundrum of how to translate is all the more front and center, and it’s all the more difficult to reconcile the two sides.
There was a great wave of translation of both Chinese and Japanese poetry in this country starting in the late 40s through the 60s; it seemed essentially to accompany the rise of The Beat Generation, and their slow morphing into what later became The Hippies; the counter-culture through this period became fascinated with, for lack of a better term, “The East”; Zen Buddhism, Meditation, Yoga, etc., and poetry came along as an integral part of the experience. To my mind, the most notable translators of this era were Gary Snyder (whose translations of Han-Shan’s “Cold Mountain Poems” pretty much remain the gold standard), Kenneth Rexroth, and Robert Bly, among others. In varying ways, all three of these translators were essentially “spirit” translators. Alternatively, academia was the realm of the “literalists,” Burton Watson probably being the most influential.
David Hinton for me does the seemingly implausible; he perfectly constructs a balance between the two schools, managing to maintain what might be said to be the awkward structures and ungainly phrasings of the original Chinese, yet manages to extract exquisite English poems from this source material. Put another way, they may be in English, and read beautifully as such, but they still feel Chinese. Reading them, they unfold unlike any other translations I’ve ever read; I think he’s done an extraordinary job, and accordingly, given us all an extraordinary gift from an extraordinary time.
I’ll leave you with one other example, a beautiful poem by T’ao Ch’ien called “Drinking Wine,” as translated by David Hinton:
I live here in a village house without
all that racket horses and carts stir up,
and you wonder how that could ever be.
Wherever the mind dwells apart is itself
a distant place. Picking chrysanthemums
at my east fence, I see South Mountain
far off: air lovely at dusk, birds in flight
returning home. All this means something,
something absolute: whenever I start
to explain it, I forget words altogether.