Spring Night (after Wang Wei)

Spring Night (after Wang Wei)

Among falling devilwood blossoms, I lie
on an empty hill this calm spring night.
The moon lunges above the hill, scaring the birds,
but they’re never quiet in this spring canyon.

Another try at an old favorite…

I consider this adaptation rather than translation, but perhaps appropriation or even remaking might be more accurate.

Here’s the transliteration from chinese-poems.com:

Person idle osmanthus flower fall
Night quiet spring hill empty
Moon out startle hill birds
Constant call spring ravine in

So many choices, none of them exactly right, none of them entirely wrong. How does one imply idleness, what words to use for “flower” (blossom? petal?), or for that matter, “fall” (descend, flutter, spiral)? And how to describe a moonrise that scares the constantly calling birds? My first attempt began:

“I lie among the falling petals”

but it seemed vague. The word “osmanthus” fattened my tongue, or so it felt, but the osmanthus americanus, otherwise known as devilwood or wild olive, grows in parts of Texas. So I brought the poem closer to home.

I considered naming the birds (quail came to mind) but decided against. In this case the specificity felt somehow intrusive.

My hope is that I’ve managed to amplify, in some small way, previous iterations, and that while the edges are still a bit blurred in morning’s first light, perhaps they’ll become slightly crisper by the evening.


36 thoughts on “Spring Night (after Wang Wei)

  1. This post reminds me a little of me in my danish classes (I’ve been learning danish since I moved to Denmark 3 and a half years ago) 🙂 struggling with the teacher to find the best translation for what we have to learn. Out of a class of around 15 students I am the only one sitting there, frowning at the ceiling, interested to find the exact perfect word to match what our teacher is teaching us. And I am not satisfied with a close enough translation. I always want the best word and I love it when I finally find it.
    Anyway… I think it’s beautiful what you do 🙂


  2. Honestly, I really like the chinese-poems version, which is more succinct and beautiful. The word choice really matters, instead of the format. Unlike Chinese, English has its advantage when it comes to the sounds.


  3. Well done.

    In general,I would favor naming the kind of bird as a counterpoint to the “devilwood blossoms”. But here I agree it’s a difficult choice. The sound of name of the specific bird you would hear where you are would make the difference.

    More importantly, I think something closer to the Chinese in the third line. A crude attempt here for illustration only:

    From behind the hill – the moon. Birds startle up
    always chattering in this spring canyon.

    Thanks for stopping by my place so I had the opportunity to find yours.


  4. Hi Robert – Thanks for visiting my liking my blog post. Your take on transliterations is interesting. So much depends on context and nuance and tone and feeling in language that we can really only interpret meaning from one language to the other. Thanks for the intro to these lovely Chinese poems.


  5. I love the line, ‘The moon lunges above the hill, scaring the birds’ – it creates an image that you can almost hear as well – looking at the original literal translation, I would have found it hard to know where to start, although the literal translation itself has some lyrical qualities. You have managed to keep them, and yet bring a new sense to the poem. TDx


  6. Pingback: Spring Night (After Wang Wei, After Robert Okaji) | Atomic Geography

  7. Reading your thoughts on choosing just the right word is most instructive for an aspiring writer. And the process of considering alternatives makes for a rich poetic experience in itself – like reading several different poems. Thankyou!

    I would so welcome your taking a look at my newest offering on Cereflections.com and suggesting some new words!


  8. Just keep experimenting. For example: idleness– vacant spirit; flower fall– petals fainting into slumber; moonrise– eye of night yawns and stretches its light, surprising the wings in song. Nice post. Peace.


  9. Hey Robert, I like your work here. It’s funny how even in a case like this, where you’re not strictly trying to “translate” but to write a poem of your own that reflects Wang Wei’s into this century, much of the act of translating can happen in context outside of just choosing words. While you avoid the word “idle” or “idleness” your first two lines convey to me that very very important element of the poem, and what would have been important for Wang Wei’s readers as well. Idleness in English to American (and Texan!) readers might mean lazy, unmotivated, heeeey downright unAmerican! To a poet of Wang’s time it was a cultivated state of mind involving listening, taking in things as they are, observing, feeling the things of the world passing by and through. Now for Americans, what could typify that calm but observant state of mind better than the first two lines? That’s what I like about this poem, and that is so much the challenge of this type of writing.


  10. Hehe, I can see why you liked what I just posted. There is something more satisfying about the unfaithfulness of appropriation than the always-not-quite-faithfulness of proper translation—to me, at least.

    I’m very pleased to have found your blog. I look forward to idling here from time to time.


  11. I can see why my blog Nuance attracted your attention. I love your sensitivity here.
    do you care for suggestions/ If not – just don’t read the rest of this. I think your osmantus flower is just fine – Chinese or Japanese images always bring up “flowers” – the word spreads cherry blossoms all over the place. You have the falling blossom and the man retreating – all moving away from you -how about something that suggests the petals withdraw? Then the birds shrink away from the moon too – it unsettles them.
    Like the haiku, is this special form of poetry?
    There is an absolutely wonderful little book – The Narrow Road to Oku with translations by Donald Keene and illustrations by Miyata Masayuki (wonderful – gorgeous book). I got it several years ago for $25 – I see Amazon had a new copy for $69 and a used one for about 36. I tells of the journey and has the haikus plus some Japanese writing, and, as I said, gorgeous art work.


    • I welcome suggestions (and occasionally follow them)! But I do love your idea of withdrawal. Thank you. Yes, it is a special form that follows conventions, but alas English is not conducive to them. I have several translations of The Narrow Road, but not the Keene. I’ll keep an eye out for it. You might also enjoy Sam Hamill’s version, or perhaps Cid Corman’s.


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