Monday, December 01, 2008


No one to see on the empty mountain,
only the echo of someone's voice.
Light returns to the dusky forest,
makes the dark moss shine again.

- Wang Wei
(translation mine)

Inspired by Weinberger's Nineteen Ways of Looking at Wang Wei, which compiles a set of alternate versions of a four line poem by Wang Wei (you can find the full set of translations included in the main book - there are two others in the notes after the book that aren't on the site - here, along with some other translations)

The thing that struck me about the poem - and made me attempt a translation of my own (not that I could have resisted anyway) was the resonance (heh!) of the word 'echo'. Most of the translations Weinberger includes assume that the sound in line 2 is being heard directly - but an echo does not come straight to us - it goes away from us and then comes back. And that, to me, is the key to the poem - the sound moving away and returning, the light fading and brightening, the perfect doubling of reprise on reprise, so that the light hitting the moss at dusk becomes not only the 'echo' of the light hitting the moss in morning, but the echo of an echo, a figure suggesting both renewal and diminishment.

The sound of the echo returns to fill a silence that sound has vacated, the light of the evening returns to illumine what the light of morning has left dark. Each arrives unexpectedly - the light because it is time for sunset, and we are expecting darkness not light; the sound because the first line has told us that the mountain is empty, so that the sound takes us by surprise. And each bears traces of the distance it has travelled to get here - the sound is fainter, the light (surely) more dim.

Emphasizing the 'echo' makes another thing possible - it allows us to free the poem of human presence entirely. Even if we take away the annoying 'I' that older translations tend to include, we are still left, in the translations that Weinberger offers, with the speaker(s) behind the sound in line 2. Presence nibbles at the margins of the poem, threatens its serenity. But make the sound an echo, and it is possible that there really is no one there, that the sound comes from far away (and by implication, from long ago) and is heard by no one, just as there is, perhaps, no one who wanders so late in the forest to see the light shining on the moss. The entire poem rests on a sense of absence that is both intuition and premonition (what will happen when the voices fade, when the sun sets?) and the substitution of echo for voice, by making the poem lonelier, somehow enhances that effect.

I've taken a number of other liberties with the poem, of course (and since I don't speak a word of Chinese they really are liberties) - notably the choice of 'dusky' (my alternate version replaces dusky with darkened in line 3 and dark with black in line 4) and the reversal of the order within the first line, which is partly just to be different, and partly to suggest both the senses of 'no one to observe' and 'no observer' - but hey, experimenting is what this blog is all about.

Finally, just in case you think I've totally lost it, here's the other Paz version that Weinberger includes in his book, and which I think is really interesting (it's PAZ, duh!):

No se ve gente en este monte
solo se oyen, lejos, voces.
Bosque profundo. Luz poniente:
alumbra el musgo y, verde, asciende.

No people are seen on this mountain,
only voices, far off, are heard.
Deep forest. Western light:
it illuminates the moss and, green, rises.

[Translation by E. Weinberger]


Ana said...

I do not think you lost it - I did . The translations are quite a joy to read -some more than the others. And I’m caught by your point – the symmetry, I like that.

Among my favorite translations is the one by Margouiles – maybe because the way he takes advantage of the impersonal “on” . I think a rough English version would be :”All is so solitary in the mountain/ One hears from afar the echo of human voices,/ The sun that enters farthest in forest / Reflects its brightness on the green moss.”

Falstaff said...


Weinberger translates the Margouiles as:

"On the mountain everything is solitary / One hears from far off the echo of human voices / The sun that penetrates to the depths of the forest / Reflects its ray on the green moss"

And he talks about the impersonal 'on' as well.

km said...

Maybe it's just the desi in me, but somehow I can't read the word "dusky" and not think about matrimonial ads :)

Ana said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Ana said...

I deleted the previous comment because Falstaff was talking about the book, I was talking about the on-line article. The book will be added to my list.

why would one use dusky on a matrimonial add? -if the answer is obvious and I an diot, just ignore the question...

km said...

Annamari: It's a euphemism used by Indian media, to describe women who are not "white". (Another one being "wheatish" complexion).

//By no means am I comparing Falstaff to those writers...