Li Bai’s ‘Drinking Alone in the Moonlight’

Li Bai’s ‘Drinking Alone in the Moonlight’

Classical Chinese poetry from the Tang Dynasty: an interpretive translation

By Lan HuaCreated: Apr 24, 2011Last Updated: Apr 24, 2011

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A Taste of Tang

Photo of painting of “Li Po Chanting a Poem", ink on paper, by Liang K’ai (13th century) (Public domain image)

This week I’d like to explain the approach I take to translating these poems. Whether you are literate in Chinese (and take issue with my use of particular word or phrase) or not (and haven’t the slightest idea how far from the original I choose to stray), I hope you’ll appreciate these poems more by understanding something about my method.

I think it’s next to impossible to translate literally from Chinese to English and at the same time write a good English poem. So instead of translating word by word, I try to adhere as closely as possible to the spirit and meaning of the Chinese original.

The primary reason I find literal translation problematic is because there are so many profound differences between the logic and structure of classical Chinese and modern English. A line of Tang poetry may be beautifully constructed, grammatical and completely ambiguous, because it lacks pronouns, tense indicators and other elements that are an essential part of a well formed English sentence. So a literal translation of a Tang poem into English will almost of necessity sound stilted and choppy, like bad Haiku. It may also be barely intelligible (not that this isn’t often the case with much contemporary poetry) whereas the original is harmonious and rich in associativemeaning.

And due to the inherent ambiguities introduced by the mere passage of time, it’s impossible to translate Tang poems without making choices and additions and filling in some blanks.

To better illustrate what I’m talking about, here is my translation of a poem by Li Bai, who many consider to be the greatest of all Tang poets. I am including a literal translation for you to compare to my version. By reading these side by side, I hope you will better appreciate my point about the difficulties (and pleasures) of Tang translation. This is too slippery to be classified as an exact science. And since this particular poem happens to be one of the most frequently translated of all Tang poems, after reading my translation you can follow the link below to compare it to a number of other versions, none of them even close to literal.Tang poetry: Li BaiMany other translations are available online.

Or for a translation of the same poem by the great 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

Editor’s note: This is a series of  translations of Chinese poetry from the Tang Dynasty being published on The Epoch Times website. Each piece will be accompanied by its Chinese original, an interpretive English translation, and a small essay of introduction, contextualization, and appraisal.

Lan Hua is the pen name for a New York-based writer and    translator. The name means Blue Flower, both in tribute to Red Pine (who    towers above him as the greatest living translator of the Poems of the Masters) and the broader lyric tradition in which he tries to participate.


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