Apricot House (after Wang Wei)


Apricot House (after Wang Wei)

We cut the finest apricot for roof beams
and braided fragrant grasses over them.

I wonder if clouds might form there
and rain upon this world?

The transliteration on Chinese-poems.com reads:

Fine apricot cut for roofbeam
Fragrant cogongrass tie for eaves
Not know ridgepole in cloud
Go make people among rain

Each adaptation poses its challenges, and this one was certainly no exception.
First I identified key words and determined how or whether to use them.
Apricot, roofbeam, cogongrass, eaves, ridgepole, cloud, people, rain.

Apricot was a given. It offered specificity, and feels lovely in the mouth. Roof beams, as well. Cogongrass didn’t make the cut. It is indeed used for thatched roofs in southeast Asia, but it felt clumsy; in this case, the specificity it lent detracted from my reading. And rather than use “thatched” I chose “braided” to imply the layered effect of thatching, and to imply movement, to mesh with and support the idea of clouds forming and drifting under the roof. “Not know” posed a question: did it mean ignorance or simply being unaware, or perhaps a state of wonderment? I first employed “unaware” but thought it took the poem in a different direction than Wang Wei intended (but who knows?). “Ridgepole” seemed unnecessary. So I chose to let the reader follow the unsaid – using “form there” to reinforce the impression already shaped by the roof beams and the grasses “over them.” I admit to some trepidation over the second couplet. It may still need work.


“Apricot House” first appeared here in December 2014.

65 thoughts on “Apricot House (after Wang Wei)

  1. This is wonderful. The art of translation fascinates me, and I appreciate this glimpse into your thought process as you worked through this poem. I wonder about the second couplet too. The literal translation “go make people among rain” is so evocative and takes my mind in a couple different directions.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Wonderful work. I find translation to be a difficult place for my head to be, if that makes sense. The work of two poets, generally without the permission of one of them ;). But is it any different than a writing prompt (except more difficult)? Maybe it is?

    Liked by 2 people

  3. thank you so much for sharing this wonderful piece of artistry; I was wondering about what it might be like with the ridgepole outside of the apricot house; and the apricot turned over as its own cover. Not sure if that would make any sense. But this is a lovely poem and art segment. Thanks again.

    Liked by 2 people

  4. This is lovely. Poetry of very few words is the hardest because every word has to do double or triple duty. The combination of images reminded me instantly of a Cat Stevens lyric that has always haunted me:
    I built my house of barley rice
    Green pepper walls and water ice
    Tables of paper wood, windows of light
    And everything emptying into white.
    “Apricot” is great because we aren’t used to thinking of it as a wood, so it concentrates the attention–and you still get the benefit of the fruit, so to speak. And I like that you kept “fragrant” in there to pick that up. The second couplet is missing the idea “people” but it is very good in and of itself, especially by posing a question and inserting the “I.” You bring a lot that is not necessarily in the original, but as an adapter, you have that freedom. Adaptations tend to be aesthetically superior to true translations, where semantic equivalence has to be the first priority.

    Liked by 3 people

    • It’s difficult to prevent my 21st century, middle-aged, Texan persona from sneaking into these adaptations, but I try (no pick up trucks in this one). True translations are hard! I bow to those who render them well.

      Liked by 2 people

  5. After all that has been said, more words seem superfluous but I want to offer the original text and some thoughts.


    I would have chosen different words if I was to offer a word for word translation. For example, the Chinese word 裁 was given the word ‘cut’ in the first line. It is not wrong but 裁 implies a great deal more care than simply ‘cut’ – the word is used to describe tailoring, with exact measures to fit. Further more, since the subject is the apricot tree, the word 裁 can also be translated as ‘to plant’; that is, the line could mean ‘planting apricots to be made into beams’

    Second line: 結 was translated into ‘tie’. Again it is not wrong, but the Chinese character can also mean ‘to knot’, ‘to unite’. 宇 may mean ‘eaves’ but it is more often used to mean ‘house’. So the reading of the first two lines may give you a totally different translation.

    Third line: 棟is the pillar on which the beam rests so from the ground, the horizontal plane of growing (beam, thatch) we are lifting our heads along the vertical (pillar, sky/cloud) to the sky.

    Fourth line: 人間 is rarely translated as ‘amongst men/people’. Here it definitely means ‘on earth’, or ‘mankind’ as the ‘sky’ refers to heaven.

    I hope I did not confuse you further. 🙂

    Liked by 2 people

  6. Pingback: Go Make People Among Rain | method two madness

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