Autumn Air, Li Bai

moon, boat, water, Li Bai

The autumn air is clear,
The autumn moon is bright,
Leaves that have fallen gather and scatter,
Jackdaws roosts and start anew.
Yearning for each other, when shall we meet again?
It is hard to love this night

Qiū fēng qīng,
Qiū yuè míng,

Luò yè jù huán sàn,
Hán yā qī fù jīng.
Xiāng sī xiāng jiàn zhī hé rì?
Cĭ shí cĭ yè nán wéi qíng!

秋 风 清
秋 月 明
落 叶 聚 还 散
寒 鸦 栖 复 惊
相 思 相 见 知 何 日
此 时 此 夜 难 为 情

The Sublime

I suppose that it is the purpose of all great poetry to express the sublime. By sublime is meant the grandeur of the moment, the ineffable expression of an emotion that defies expression. For Li Bai, the moment was a clear, bright autumn evening, perfect in every way, except for the pain felt when two lovers were parted.

And the ridiculous; or, alas, it is hard to translate Chinese

Li Bai’s poignant homage to two lovesick lovers, each one under a bright autumn moon, each feeling the clear autumn air, but separated, like fallen leaves briefly coming together and scattering again, like jackdaws, stealing moments together then parting.

Translating Chinese characters into English is a difficult problem. Grammar plays a part. Take for example, the first two lines. I will use pinyin to illustrate the point.

Qiū fēng qīng,
Qiū yuè míng,

Li Bai uses but three characters while English requires the use of ten, adding both articles and a verb to convey a complete sentence. I suppose, the translator could say, “Clear autumn air” and “Bright autumn moon” are not familiar English constructions.

I need not mention the obvious loss of rhyme and rhythm that naturally occurs in translations that retain the original meaning.

Like English combining one Chinese character with another often creates a unique meaning. In English, fire and house, means something quite different from firehouse. Like wise, in Chinese. Take the first tow characters in fifth line of Li Bai’s poem, 相 思, Xiāng sī. Literally, one gets cold crow, but the combined meaning is jackdaw, a bird that is known for its thieving habits in building a nest. Had the translator chosen crow or raven, the poem would lose the sense of two lovers stealing moments together.

Sometimes, the translator must abandon the literal Chinese to get the sense of the poem. The last line of Li Bai’s poem starts out with 此 时 , Cĭ shí , literally, at this time. It is followed by 此 夜 , cĭ yè, this night, and ending with 难 为 情, nán wéi qíng, which most translators interpret as hard or difficult. Li Bai’s rhyme and rhythm are nice, but in English it sounds better, and is closer to the poet’s intent to say, “It is hard to love this night.”

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