Tuesday, May 15, 2012

Many Shadows of Lǐ Bái Drinking by Moonlight

Tracy Lord (Katherine Hepburn): There was a Chinese poet who was drowned while trying to kiss the moon in the river. He was drunk.
George Kittredge (John Howard): I'd say as much.
Tracy Lord: But he wrote beautiful poetry.

-- The Philadelphia Story (1940), by Donald Ogden Stewart (directed by George Cukor)
The poet that Katherine Hepburn's character refers to is 李白 Lǐ Bái* (701 – 762), one of the major poets of the Chinese Tang dynasty. I don't know the origins of the legend about his death, which is apparently fairly widely known, but it does seem that both drinking and the moon are recurring images in his work. In particular, one of his most famous poems, 月下獨酌 (Yuè xià dú zhuó), is about both. It has been quite widely translated -- as this fabulous post amply demonstrates by presenting 43 (!) translations (from which I've taken most of the translations I'm including here). I thought I'd share some with you.

But first, here's the original Chinese (via A. Z. Foreman):


-- 李白
And, in somewhat nicer calligraphy, here's an image of the poem from Wikipedia:

The following pinyin reflects how it would be spoken in modern Mandarin -- which, of course, is way off: Lǐ Bái wrote earlier (or around the same time) as the Beowulf poet,** and of course the language's changed. But it's still interesting, I think. (Again, via A. Z. Foreman)
Yuè xià dú zhuó 

Huā jiān yī hú jiǔ,  
dú zhuó wú xiāngqīn; 
Jǔ bēi yāo míngyuè,  
duì yǐng chéng sān rén. 
Yuè jì bù jiě yǐn,  
yǐng tú suí wǒ shēn;  
Zàn bàn yuè jiāng yǐng,  
xínglè xū jí chūn. 
Wǒ gē yuè páihuái,  
Wó wǔ yǐng língluàn; 
Xǐng shí tóng jiāo huān, 
Zuì hòu gè fēnsàn. 
Yǒng jié wúqíng yóu, 
Xiāngqī miǎo yúnhàn.

-- Lǐ Bái
If you want to hear what that Mandarin sounds like, there are a number of readings of it on Librivox here.

Ok, let's look at the English. First, here's a character-by-character gloss (which I first found here):
moon, under, alone, pour wine

blossom, among, one, pot, wine
alone, pour wine, without, one another, intimate
to lift, cup, invite, bright, moon
couple, shadow, complete, three, people
moon, since, not understand, drink
shadow, disciple, follow, my body
temporary, companion, moon, shadow
to go, cheer, must, to reach, spring/joy
I, song, moon, irresolute, wander
I, to dance, shadow, remnant, in confusion
to be awake, accompanying, to make friends, joyous
intoxicate/finally, each, divided, scattered
forever, to bind, not, merciless, to travel/roaming
heavenly river/Milky Way, profound/remote, cloud, man

-- Glossed by Jordan Dickie
That's not a translation per se, but again, I find it interesting. But now let's look at some real translations.

First, here's a translation by Witter Bynner, an early Twentieth Century American poet who worked from glosses by Jiāng Kànghú (江亢虎) on an anthology of translations called The Jade Mountain.
Drinking Alone with the Moon

From a pot of wine among the flowers
I drank alone. There was no one with me—
Till, raising my cup, I asked the bright moon
To bring me my shadow and make us three.
Alas, the moon was unable to drink
And my shadow tagged me vacantly;
But still for a while I had these friends.

To cheer me through the end of spring . . .
I sang. The moon encouraged me.
I danced. My shadow tumbled after.
As long as I knew, we were boon companions.
And then I was drunk, and we lost one another.
. . . Shall goodwill ever be secure?
I watch the long road of the River of Stars.

-- Translated by Witter Bynner
If you want to read more of Bynner's translations of Lǐ Bái, there are a bunch of them online here.

Next, here's a translation by A. Z. Foreman, from whom I took the Chinese and pinyin versions above (and whose translation is, unlike most of those I reprinting here, not in the 43-translation roundup):
Pouring Myself Drinks Alone By Moonlight

Amid the flowers: a jug of wine.
I pour alone and friendlessly
Raise my cup to invite the moon down
Then face my shadow to make us three.
But the moon just doesn't know how to drink
And my shadow just follows me the whole time.
Still I must make friends with moon and shadow,
Enjoy, while I can, the year's brief prime.

I sing: the lit moon swings along.
I dance: my shadow jumps and sways.
While yet lucid, we share our pleasures;
Blacked out, we go our separate ways,
By feelingless wandering bound forever
To meet back up in the deep Sky River.

-- Translated by A. Z. Foreman

And a translation by Ezra Pound:
Amongst the flowers is a pot of wine

Amongst the flowers is a pot of wine
I pour alone but with no friend at hand
So I lift the cup to invite the shining moon,
Along with my shadow we become party of three

The moon although understands none of drinking, and
The shadow just follows my body vainly
Still I make the moon and the shadow my company
To enjoy the springtime before too late

The moon lingers while I am singing
The shadow scatters while I am dancing
We cheer in delight when being awake
We separate apart after getting drunk

Forever will we keep this unfettered friendship
Till we meet again far in the Milky Way.

-- Translated by Ezra Pound

And one by poet and novelist Vikram Seth:
Drinking Alone with the Moon

A pot of wine among the flowers.
I drink alone, no friend with me.
I raise my cup to invite the moon.
He and my shadow and I make three.

The moon does not know how to drink;
My shadow mimes my capering;
But I’ll make merry with them both–
And soon enough it will be Spring.

I sing–the moon moves to and fro.
I dance–my shadow leaps and sways.
Still sober, we exchange our joys.
Drunk–and we’ll go our separate ways.

Let’s pledge–beyond human ties–to be friends,
And meet where the Silver River ends.

-- Translated by Vikram Seth

And one by Elling O. Eide:
Drinking Alone in the Moonlight

Beneath the blossoms with a pot of wine,
No friends at hand, so I poured alone;
I raised my cup to invite the moon,
Turned to my shadow, and we became three.
Now the moon had never learned about drinking,
And my shadow had merely followed my form,
But I quickly made friends with the moon and my shadow;
To find pleasure in life, make the most of the spring.

Whenever I sang, the moon swayed with me;
Whenever I danced, my shadow went wild.
Drinking, we shared our enjoyment together;
Drunk, then each went off on his own.
But forever agreed on dispassionate revels,
We promised to meet in the far Milky Way.

-- Translated by Elling O. Eide

And, finally, another one not in this great translation round-up, a translation by David Hinton (who calls the poet Li Po*):
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.

-- Translated by David Hinton
For a great many more translations, you should see this fabulous blog post I've already linked repeatedly. (I probably wouldn't have bothered with this post myself, save that some of the things I've included -- the pinyin, the literal gloss, the Foreman and Hinton translations, a few links -- aren't in that post.)

See you in the River of Stars.

Update, June 1: I stumbled across yet another poem not in the above-linked set of translations, so I thought I'd add it here. Frederick Turner, a poet who is the author of two science fictional epic poems, The New World and Genesis, has also done an entire book of translations of Tang poetry, freely available online (albeit in pretty awkward formatting, but hey, it's free). Here's his version of 月下獨酌:
Drinking Alone under the Moon

Among the flowers with one lone jug of wine
I drink without a friend to drink with me.
But I’ll lift up my cup, invite the moon,
So with my shadow we will make up three.

The moon’s immune, though, to debauchery,
And my poor shadow follows me in vain;
Still, Moon and Shadow are my company–
The joys of spring may never come again.

So as I sing, Moon wanders aimlessly,
And as I dance, poor tangled Shadow reels;
Sober, we were in perfect harmony,
Now, drunk, there’s no connection of our heels;
But, careless of this world, we’re bound, one day,
To meet together in the Milky Way.

-- Translated by Frederick Turner

* There seem to be two readings to the second character of 李白's name (I have no idea why), so that it can be transliterated in pinyin either as Lǐ Bái or as Lǐ Bó. This is in addition to the fact that you'll see other transliteration systems used, the Wade-Giles system for example, in which the poet's name is written either as Li Pai or as Li Po. All four are the same poet, and are represented by the same characters, 李白.

** Beowulf is dated to sometime between the eighth and eleventh centuries; Lǐ Bái wrote in the eighth. Still, it seems like a good point of chronological comparison for English readers.

1 comment:

william max said...

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Opposing forces.