Su Tung-P’o (1037-1101 CE) is the first poet I’ve tried systematically to translate. Before this, I didn’t know anything about him — except I’d always very much liked Written on the north tower wall after snow.
But, after translating that poem, I made a decision it would be better to do a group of poems from each poet I started — so I could acquire a sense of the poet’s individual voice and priorities — than to jump around.
Su T’ung-P’o turned out to be a surprise for me. I’ve always liked Chinese poetry — probably ever since long ago listening to and loving Gustav Mahler’s Das Lied von der Erde. But, I found something in Su’s poetry that speaks to me personally — more than I ever expected.
It’s curious that Su, like Wang Wei, is known for his Buddhism. But they differ. A feature of Wang’s poetry is it’s impersonality, its visible renunciation of the self. In Eliot Weinberger’s book, he criticizes some translators of The Deer Enclosure for making it personal, for introducing a narrator referred to as, “I.” After trying a few of Wang’s poems I find I can dispense with the narrator in some, but definitely not all. Su Tung-P’o is quite the opposite. I find his poems work best if I make the narrator prominent, clearly visualizing his sequence of physical actions and psychological changes. The voice I hear then is a highly personal one — someone with whom I would very much like to have been friends, 1000 years ago.
Su Tung-P’o — my translations
- A visit to the Temple of Auspicious Fortune, alone at Winter Solstice
- A visit to the temple of the God of Mercy, on a rainy day
- Awaiting the new year
- Dreaming of My Deceased Wife on the Night of the 20th Day of the First Month
- Impromptu Verse
- Impromptu Verse, again
- lyrics for the tune of “Fairy Grotto”
- lyrics for the tune of “Immortal by the River”
- Mid-autumn moon
- Written on the north tower wall after snow
These 10 entries represent all the word-by-word translations of Su Tung P’o poems I can find, and so there won’t be any new translations from me until I can find another source — or else learn to use the Chinese dictionary resources on the Web — or else until I find an appropriate Chinese collaborator to work with me.
As I look over these poems, obviously composed at different periods of Su’s life, I’m amazed at their variety and beauty, their depth and subtlety. I’m amazed at the strength of Su’s thought.
I might try to arrange them in a thematic order, but perhaps they’re better in the random dictates of the alphabet. At least the two Impromptu poems are together and followed logically by the Fairy Grotto. And, at least, the series ends with the Written on the North Tower wall after snow that I will always love.
— an ancient Chinese quotation,
widely attributed to Su Tung P’o
Main topic page: _ Chinese poetry