cold mountain 8

I grew up among coyote willows and cottonwood, marking veins of water on the Great Plains. The incessant prairie wind blowing through the cottonwoods sounds like the clapping of happy ghosts. Sallow and scanty, the scruffy little willows guard the edges of ponds and rivers even at high altitude. I saw them on winter flattops, just below treeline, stiff like a dead man’s hand jutting up through the ice. If it’s the land of milk and honey you came for, take these bitter tonics instead to ease your way home. All that lies buried under the hummocks and grasses becomes the glory of next summer’s flowers.


I’ve been wondering if commenting on the Chinese poem itself was something I ought or ought not to do. One thing I didn’t realize when I began was how much I would disagree with some of Red Pine’s translations; for example, he translates the third stanza, which begins at the top of the second line in the image above, as “he can’t imagine death,” whereas I would have been more literal, with “he cries out, ‘No death today!'” Although I still intend to do a translation of a poem once every ten days or so, today I thought I’d just walk through some of the associations that led to the particular response I had, because I realize not everyone might read Chinese. For Red Pine’s translation of the poem, see the Google books copy, pg. 41.

The poem in Chinese plays a lot with the opposition between up/down, ephemerality/permanence, and life/death, although these aren’t the only pairs suggested in the poem. I started by noticing the idea of “eminence,” 俊傑, which is further played on by the character for “up,” “upward,” and sometimes by extension “best,” 上. Here, 上 literally means the man is riding “up on” his horse, but the imagery works well, since 俊傑 also means “lofty.” The English “fine young man” doesn’t quite convey the sense that 俊傑 carries, although when I scanned the poem before reading Red Pine’s translation I too picked “fine” as the way to describe the young man. The “willows” 柳楊 in the second line can refer to women, and there’s another way to approach the poem, through male/female, yin/yang, samsara/enlightenment present here. The image of the Great Plains, where I grew up, with willows and cottonwoods lining the banks of streams sometimes cutting down between rises in the land, came strong to me, though, when I thought about being on horses and pointing out willows. Despite being thought of as flat, the Great Plains undulate over the vast areas, and water (marked by cottonwoods and willows) is best seen from an elevation. And that’s where my response began.

It was also a surprise to see “milk and honey” 醍醐/石蜜 used here to denote something similar to our use of “the land of milk and honey” as a kind of ideal world or paradise. I’ve seen 醍醐 frequently in Buddhist texts to mean the refined or clarified butter of the Buddha-dharma (most excellent in quality and taste), but not in other Chinese texts to imagine an idyllic world.


6 comments on “cold mountain 8

  1. Kevin Kim says:

    Fascinating insights! I wonder: have you had the chance to read anything by Victor Mair? I know him mainly for his work on the Te Tao Ching [sic: he’s not the only thinker to contend that the Te section should actually be first], but I also know him by reputation as a formidable East Asia and South Asia scholar. I wonder what sorts of interpretive insights about Chinese you might gain from reading his monographs and papers. He once wrote a fascinating essay on why the Chinese word for “crisis” should NOT be interpreted — as it so often has been in the West — to mean “danger plus opportunity.”

    Meanwhile, I have no clue as to Red Pine’s level of expertise in C-to-E translation.

    (Pssst! “IncessAnt”!)

    • seon joon says:

      Dang…you know, I wondered about incessant; and I can’t remember how it ended up incessent, but shoot. Guilty as charged. Spelling was always one of my weakest points.

      I haven’t read anything by Mair, although I’ll certainly look him up after this. So much of my reading of Chinese comes through the Korean first–I use a Korean dictionary that includes idiomatic usages as well as a character history, which really helps getting past a facile reading of a character. It’s not so much that Red Pine is incorrect in his translations as it is that I can see the choices he’s made, not only in translation but also interpretation. I interviewed him for our school magazine last year, and he talked about “translating” poetry as a kind of dance, in which it’s not so much a linguistic exercise as a creative endeavor undertaken in the effort to reveal the before-words energy that the poem, in Chinese and then through his work in English, expressed. I’m either not good enough yet, or too firmly literal, to make the leap that Red Pine made with the line “he can’t imagine death.” Because that’s certainly the foundational mind-set that would lead someone to cry out, “No death today!” There is a highly observational quality to Red Pine’s poems, as if he (or the poet, as RP reads him) is standing oblique to the events of the poem. To say “he can’t imagine death” is very different from having the same young man shout, almost in your ear. I’m very impressed with RP, even though I disagree; I also admit I may disagree because he’s far superior as a translator. Not merely a little bit better, but in many ways exemplary.

    • Hari Prasad says:

      FWIW, I think Red Pine’s English-language versions of Cold Mountain’s and Stonehouse’s verses are the best we have. They project a wonderfully consistent persona, tone, and perspective, and the lines scan beautifully, whether read silently or aloud. I also like his volume of Wei Ying-wu’s poetry (“In Such Hard Times”), as well as his collection of T’ang and Sung Dynasty verse, “Poems of the Masters.”

      On the other hand, RP’s sutra translations are only mediocre, not because of the language per se, but because his grasp of the content is inadequate (although essentially on par with that of most other contemporary interpreters). RP’s latest effort, the Lankavatara Sutra, is especially disappointing. I know he worked on it conscientiously for a long time. Bottom line: Red Pine is a very good poet!

      As for Victor Mair, I’d say his Lao-Tzu and Chuang-Tzu translations are OK but nothing special and suffer from a confident superficiality. Robert G. Henricks’s Lao-Tzu is better, as is Watson’s Chuang-Tzu (quite good!). However, it’s A.C. Graham’s Chuang-Tzu, along with Roth’s “Companion to Angus C. Graham’s Chuang-Tzu,” that greatly reward long-term study.

      • seon joon says:

        I agree that RP’s translations are excellent, and in that sense may be “the best we have,” and for exactly the reasons you list. The consistency is something I’m particularly aware of, because (as I note in my response to your other comment) while there are particular lines that I would have translated differently, I’ve noticed that the way RP choses to translate or interpret a particular line is done to keep what I’m calling the “oblique stance” of the poems to the events or scenery they describe. Not aloof, but oblique; although it’s not the only way to experience Han Shan, without being able to read the Chinese for oneself, RP gives us access to him in this way.

        Thanks for the recommendations on Lao-Tzu and Chuang-Tzu. I’ll probably be looking at those kinds of texts more in depth in 2013, and so it’s good to know what books I ought to keep an eye out for.

        As for RP as translator of poetry vs. translator of sutras: the jury’s still out, for many of us. I loved his translation of the Diamond Sutra, for example, as being the only English-language version I’m actually able to chant (in English) and enjoyed reading. That Red Pine is a preeminent translator of poetry is undoubted, but after reading a lot of the other sutra translations out there, I’d say that he’s a skilled sutra translator as well, although not what he is as a poetry translator. What he lacks in academic understanding he makes up for in aesthetic sensibility, and someone sensitive to bad writing, I appreciate that. (The same is the reason Kumarajiva’s Chinese translations are preferred to Hsuan-tsang’s more correct but less elegant ones.)

        Again, thanks for your input and thoughts!

  2. Hari Prasad says:

    Looking at Red Pine’s translation and note (but without sufficient knowledge of classical Chinese to compare the English version to the original), I’d say that “No death today!” might be too ebullient an exclamation in Han Shan’s otherwise affectless take on this “fine young man.” And because “willows” may refer not only to women but to prostitutes (leaning over balconies, no less!), it occurs to me that the preceding lines (“A fine young man on horseback / waves his whip at the willows) could also allude to (let’s say) unthinking sex. The poem itself strikes me as a snapshot of a care-less youth who pursues sensory pleasures rather than spiritual disciplines because, like most young people, he’s unable to imagine and prepare today for the inevitable deterioration/death that awaits him in the future.

    In any case, thank you, Seon Joon, for your responses to Han Shan’s poems. I’m enjoying them very much, and I hope you’ll comment again on the poems and/or RP’s translations.

    • seon joon says:

      I agree that the literal translation of the line we’re parsing is too exuberant; but it is the literal translation and stands as a counterweight to RP’s subdued style. There are other instances of this particular decision of subtle over literal in his translating. If the entire poem were translated differently, we may not respond to the directness of “he cried, ‘No death today!'” as being emotionally out of place; it seems more so in the context of RP’s consistent style than in the original.

      I’m aware of the allusion to prostitutes, but I was more immediately drawn into the physical image of a willow than the interplay of opposites in the poem. There’s always several ways to approach a poem, and Han Shan’s able to offer those approaches simultaneously.

      Thanks for your sharp eye on the poetry! I’d be interested to hear your readings and reactions to other poems, as well.

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