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.

“Spring Night” made its first appearance on O at the Edges in April, 2014.


76 thoughts on “Spring Night (after Wang Wei)

      • I don’t think it’s too much at all. You’re drawn into the calm hillside until the moon lunges and then the devil in devilwood comes out to play.
        (Sorry about the duplicate and messy comments. My coffee hasn’t kicked in this morning.)

        Liked by 1 person

      • I liked the sound of it better than osmanthus or wild olive, which I think would have lent it a different atmosphere. And I don’t think there is enough coffee in the world today!


  1. I don’t think it’s too much at all. You’re sucked into the calm hillside until the moon lunges and then the devil in devilwood comes out to play.


  2. Fascinating to see the thought processes you go through in each incarnation of the poem, Bob. I like how you’ve specified the person, though. I can’t really know, not being a Mandarin (or Cantonese) reader, but “person idle” sounds so much better (and relatable) as “I.” I’m also taken with devilwood and the concept of an empty hill, though you’ve expertly inserted the narrator onto the hill (therefore, is it really empty?! eureka!). There’s so much going on with this fragment; imho, you’ve done a wonderful updating of a timeless poem and made it more warm and inhabited, and much less distant (the original: observed & related, almost from afar; yours: observed & related, but more importantly, lived).

    Liked by 1 person

  3. I like your version – and thank you for sharing the thoughts of a translator. I know the difficulties.

    The original: 《鳥鳴澗》(Bird Call Creek)
    by 王維 (Wang Wei)


    The first two words, 人閒 “person idle” means “when one is at ease”, so although it does not nominate the person, we can all take it as a comment from the poet of his own experience. It sets the scene : in the quiet of the night. 桂花 Osmanthus fragrans has tiny flowers; usually you smell it before you see it, and often you don’t see the source of the scent. I have one in my garden.

    Although there is a current of disquiet in this poem, those elements such as the falling of flowers, the fluster of roosting birds, the disruption of the quiet night by their calls accentuate that stillness. By the way I do not agree with the translation of “constant call”; to me 時鳴 describes a temporary disturbance, I would say “occasional calls”.

    Chinese is concise but not precise, particularly in poetry.

    Liked by 4 people

  4. So nice to get an insight into the making of an o at the edges poem! Funny what you say about edges getting crisper- I started reading your post late last night but stopped to give it a proper read in the sharper state I’d be in, in the morning. Not sure I’m as sharp as I’d hoped, but I enjoyed your poem haha

    Liked by 1 person

      • Yes, I’m a morning person too. With my son having the first night in a long time of sleeping it through in his own cot, I probably should have been brighter eyed and bushier tailed today, but maybe the extra sleep dulled the senses a little- took away the edge of frazzled energy I normally have in the morning haha. Always something to complain about…

        Liked by 1 person

  5. Thank you for sharing your thought process…it can be agonizing trying to find the right fit when translating–it is certainly a delicate art that carries so much responsibility. If you stray too far, you cannot convey the original meaning, but too literal a translation is awkward. I applaud your efforts and admire the result!

    Liked by 2 people

      • Too true friend, too true! And that is the plight of the writer. There are so many beautiful words out there, how can we choose just one when five would go perfectly in that spot? And the concentration involved! I start to seek the word in my brain…I see them like connected tunnels, and if I can get the feeling I want to convey and find just one word that approaches it, the tunnels start to light up and I can get closer and closer to what I want. But if my husband or children suddenly appear, the tunnels all become dark again, and I have to start from the beginning. It becomes frustrating when you go through the same tunnels over and over again and never reach your destination. I should probably try to wake up at five a.m. if I want some proper writing time. 🙂

        Liked by 1 person

  6. Now I feel better. I promised you (I would do this for just anyone) to share my piece inspired by Li Po and found myself unable to do so without commenting on the how and why of translating from the Chinese. I see you feel similarly.
    Later today will it will post on my blog for you master, from your humble student, as the Chinese would say.

    Liked by 1 person

  7. Pingback: Spring Night (After Wang Wei via Robert Okaji) | Jilanne Hoffmann

  8. Pingback: The “Telephone” Poetry Challenge | Brigit's Flame Writing Community

  9. This is indeed a very intriguing poem, or poetic image. Many possibilities exist for wording it in English, but I doubt that language can equal the simultaneous multiple imagery possible with Chinese ideograms. Here are three variations of one paraphrase, based on what you have written and explained.

    Spring Moonrise #1

    In idle calm I lie as Osmanthus petals fall
    across this open hill sprawled under springtime night,
    then moonrise startles birds with its silent burst of light
    fading down in ravine shadows with echoes of it all.

    Spring Moonrise #2

    In idle calm I lie as Osmanthus petals fall
    across this open hill sprawled under springtime night,
    then moonrise startles birds with its silent burst of light
    fading down in ravine shadows with echoes of their flight.

    Spring Moonrise #3

    In idle calm I lie as Osmanthus petals fall
    across this open hill sprawled under springtime night,
    then moonrise startles birds with its silent burst of light
    fading down in ravine shadows with echoes of their call.

    The original idea is one of timeless and compelling beauty. Thanks for describing it.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you for these. We could no doubt produce hundreds of variations, which speaks to the delights and challenges of translation/adaptation. Amazing what so few words can provoke.


  10. This was very interesting and expressive or the opportunities are there to be so. I had a go:

    Basking in the shower of blossoms; sweet olive skins
    fill the vacant hill in meditation of spring this eve.
    Silvered smiles, though sincere, intimidate fleeting birds,
    temporarily their spring-song’s echo flows through the gorge.

    Thank you for the ‘like’, and will be back to explore your site thought provoking set up more.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you. The lunging moon may speak too much to personal experience, and might be improved by toning down the phrase a bit. I think if I were to revise this one, it would be very different.


  11. I read Jilanne Hoffmann’s poem first and found it moving. She said she was inspired by you, so I wanted to check it out. I love the line “The moon lunges above the hill, scaring the birds.” Telling the backstory adds so much to the post. Very nice! 🙂 Marsha 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

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