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Still Night by Li Bai

By katrinaJ Sep 19, 2011 1768 Words
A Comparative Analysis on Five Versions Translations of “Still night thoughts” by Li Bai Abstract: Based on comparative analysis of 5 English versions of Li Bai’s “Still night thoughts”, the paper attempts to make a study of Chinese to English poetry translation. Since poetry is a special form of art in that poetry presents profound meaning and intensive emotions by means of various imageries and scrupulous selection of words, translators not only need to have a good command of both two languages and wide knowledge of the culture background, but also should do some apt recreation and pay much attention to the selection of words. Key Words: poem, translation, comparison

“Still night thoughts” is one of the most popular poems in china, for its words are simple, sentences are easily understood, and its meaning arouses sympathy. It depicts in a silent moon night, the author sitting on the bed saw bright moonlight on the floor, and then he raised his head and watched the same moon that was above him and also above his homeland, which reminded him of his home. After that, he hung his hand, missing his hometown. There are dozens of “Still night thoughts”’s translations, I pick up five of them and compare them as following to present the effect of recreation and word selection in the poetry translation.

Comparative Analysis:

Version one:
Night Meditation
In front of my flooded with moonbeam,
I mistook for frost appears on the floor;
Lifting my head trying to watch the moon,
I dropped again for missing our home town.
This version is from a veteran writer Lin Jianmin (林建民). The length of sentence is almost the same that each sentence is composed of seven or eight words. At this point, it resembles five character quatrains. Meanwhile, the meaning of every sentence is very closely to the original one and there is only a little adjustment of word order in first two sentences. Obviously, Lin tried hard to accommodate his translation with the original one. In terms of form, this version is very faithful. However, the use of some verbs is not proper. For example, “trying” means make an attempt or effort, but in the third sentence, the author raised his head spontaneously when he found the light from the ground. In the fourth sentence, the verb “drop” means fall suddenly, but in that scene, writer was absorbed in nostalgia; therefore, according to common sense, he must not have made such a big movement. In addition, there are some commendable creations in this version. In the first sentence, Lin used the verb “flooded” vividly to highlight the brightness of the moonbeam. In the fourth sentence, “our hometown” instead of “my hometown” arouses association that someone in the author’s hometown is also watching the moon and missing him. They are the translator’s recreation of the original poem. In general, it is a good translation and expresses Li Bai’s emotion accurately.

Version two:
Thoughts in a Tranquil Night
Athwart the bed
I watch the moonbeams cast a trail
So bright, so cold, so frail,
That for a space it gleams
Like hoarfrost on the margin of my dreams.
I raise my head —
The splendid moon I see:
Then drop my head,
And sink to dreams of thee —
My fatherland, of thee!
This version is from the British sinologist L. Cranmer-Byng. His translation is very different from the original poem in form and meaning. The sentences are complicated and the expressions are too far away from the original one. We can find no evidence in Li Bai’s poem about “so cold, so frail” in the second sentence and “on the margin of my dreams” in the fifth sentence. Also, in the last sentence, the noun “fatherland” departed from the author’s opinion, because the creation time of “Still night thoughts” was in the glorious age of Tang dynasty, Li Bai wrote this poem to express his homesickness rather than patriotism. I suppose the translator was not familiar with the creation background of the original poem, yet the culture background is the important part to analysis the motivation of writer’s work and to comprehend it better. Though L. Cranmer-Byng tried hard to recreate “Still night thoughts”, his lacking of culture background led to improper change. As a whole, this version is not a successful translation.

Version three:
So bright a gleam on the foot of my bed,
Could there have been a frost already?
Lifting my head to look,
I found that it was moonlight,
Sinking back again,
I thought suddenly of home.
This version is from a Harold Witter Bynner, an American poet. Though its form differs from the original one, it is a simple and beautiful poem. It began with the phrase “so bright” attracting the readers to read forward and distinctively showed the brightness of the moonbeam. In the second sentence, the translator did not mention what the bright gleam was, instead he wrote a rhetorical question “Could there have been a frost already?” he did not used any words to express “疑” in the original poem, his expression manifested it well. In the next sentences, he selected the word “lift” and “sink” to display the writer’s movement. “Lift” and “sink” comported the slow movement which implied the complex emotion of he writer. In the last sentence, Bynner utilized the adverb the “suddenly” which added the finishing touch the pen. Despite of no related words in the original poem about the word “suddenly”, we can feel from the scene that Li Bai watched the moon which associated him with the homeland, and then the strong emotion of homesickness occurred to him, so the nostalgia was a spasm. Bynner stretched his imagination moderately and added the hidden meaning into the translation. Overall, this version not only displays the beauty of “Still night thoughts”, but also showed the translator bilingual language skill.

Version four:
As by my bed
The moon did beam,
It seemed as if with frost the earth were spread.
But soft I raise
My head, to gaze
At the fair moon. And now,
With head bent low,
Of home I dream.

This version is also from a foreigner John Turner. This version and it is a typical English poem. There are various sentence patterns and some sentences are separated into different lines and different in size. For instance, in the last two sentences, “With head bent low” is an independent nominative sentence and “of home I dream” is an inverted sentence. All these sentences in picturesque disorder present the irregular beauty of the English poem. As for selection of words, Turner did a good job as well. Since the translator has already mentioned the moon in the first line, it is proper to use “seemed as ” to express “疑”. Also, the verb “gaze” emphasized the writer looked at the moon for a long time that well displayed the complicated feelings in the writer’s heart. The phrase “bent low” used by Turner accurately depicts the slowly and gently movement of the writer’s head. Anther apparent characteristic of this translation is its rhyme. It adopts iambic pentameter that is “aba ccdd b” rhyme which makes the poem full of beauty of sound. However, the word “beam” in the second sentence is not suitable, for “beam” is used to indict a line of light which is different from the scene that the moonlight covered the ground. “Soft” in the fourth line is unnecessary, for the reason that the writer is not prepared to feel sad and he raised his head naturally when he saw the light on the floor. It is superfluous to add the word “soft” here to enhance the emotion of homesickness. In general, it is a good translation and displays “Still night thoughts” with the beauty of English language.

Version five:
Moonlight before my bed,
Could it be frost instead?
Head up, I watch the moon;
Head down, I think of home.
This version is from Zhao Zhentao (赵甄陶). This translation is simple and easily understood, its structure is clear and lucid, and it is easy to read, sing and memory. At this aspect, this version is very alike the original poem. But this translation is a good poem, because the wording of it is rough. For example, “head up” and “head down” in the last two sentences express the movement of raising head and falling head of the writer too straight and directly that they can not present the subtle emotions implied in the movement. In the first two sentences, the translator omitted all words about the brightness of the moonlight in order to keep the translation succinct. However, moon is the most important imagery in this poem in that moon has a special meaning in the Chinese culture that it often closely related to the family, hometown or motherland, and it is the key to arouse the nostalgia of the writer in this poem. Therefore, this omission is not desirable. Meanwhile, Zhao made little creative changes in the translations. Although this version gets on for the regular beauty of Chinese ancient poem, it is not a beautiful English poem and can not represent the splendor of “Still night thoughts”.

Generally speaking, the criteria of poetry translation are according to three sections -- faithfulness, expressiveness and elegance. Without enough knowledge of the culture background and the accurate understanding of the original poem, it is hard to achieve faithfulness and will mislead the readers, as version two mistakes homesickness with patriotism. On the base of faithfulness, excellent bilingual language skill is a must; otherwise original poem will lose its beauty under the translator’s hand, as version five is a plain and too direct poem. In addition, apt recreation is needed to cater for different language user and even add beauty to the poem. Version one, three and five are successful examples with the translator’s ingenuity, including wording, sentence pattern and organization. Although there is no equivalence between two different languages, especially the geography locations of two languages users are far away so that there is a huge difference between two culture backgrounds, in order to transform a form of language into another, translators have done a great job, doing research on the creation background the experience of the writer, and digesting original poem, and then tried their best to select and organize words, and make fit recreation to approach the beauty of the original poem.

1.孙晓艳,《静夜思》英译本的回译比较[J],学术论坛,2009 2.孟宏,从《静夜思》四种英译文分析诗歌翻译的意境再创造[J],作者杂志,2009 3.卢佳、魏敏、尚菲,古诗《静夜思》英译评议[J],作者杂志,20096 4.金春笙,李白静夜思的英译研究[J], 韶关学院学报,2007,(7) 5.江丽慧、刘洪泉,浅谈《静夜思》的十二种英译[J],2006 6.雍文明,从李白《静夜思》的几则译文谈古诗英译[J],2007,(8)

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