Pound’s Chinese Translations

When I first considered discussing Pound’s Chinese translations I naturally thought I would discuss his translation of Li T’ai Po’s "The River-Merchant’s Wife: A Letter" since it might well be my favorite Pound poem. After a few minutes browsing the net, however, I decided I would leave well-enough alone, and simply point to Modern American Poetry’s various interpretations as well as other translations of the poem, a very concrete illustration of the difficulty of accurately translating a poem from one language to another (in particular note the “literal” translation at the end of the article).

Although I felt it unnecessary to discuss my favorite Pound poem, I am still quite impressed by his Chinese translations. More than most of his poems, they seem to focus on universal feelings and emotions and illustrate his considerable talent in conveying these feelings concretely and succinctly. The feelings can be as common and everyday as saying goodbye to a friend:


Blue mountains to the north of the walls,
White river winding about them;
Here we must make separation
And go out through a thousand miles of dead grass.

Mind like a floating wide cloud,
Sunset like the parting of old acquaintances
Who bow over their clasped hands at a distance.
Our horses neigh to each others
as we are departing.
-Li T’ai-po

For me, the hazy mountains with the river winding through them is an excellent symbol, objective correlative, if you will, of great distances, the kind of distance that will soon separate them. At such moments, it’s hard to stay focused, so many thoughts drifting through your mind, thoughts of the future, thoughts of the past, but always is almost always a sudden sorrow at such partings, though words of parting may be as casual and non-commital as the horses’ neighs.

Or they can be as dramatic as standing guard over a desolate wasteland:


By the North Gate, the wind blows full of sand,
Lonely from the beginning of time until now!
Trees fall, the grass goes yellow with autumn.
I climb the towers and towers
to watch out the barbarous land:
Desolate castle, the sky, the wide desert.
There is no wall left to this village.
Bones white with a thousand frosts,
High heaps, covered with trees and grass;
Who brought this to pass?
Who has brought the flaming imperial anger?
Who has brought the army with drums and with kettle-drums?
Barbarous kings.
A gracious spring, turned to blood-ravenous autumn,
A turmoil of wars-men, spread over the middle kingdom,
Three hundred and sixty thousand,
And sorrow, sorrow like rain.
Sorrow to go, and sorrow, sorrow returning,
Desolate, desolate fields,
And no children of warfare upon them,
No longer the men for offence and defence.
Ah, how shall you know the dreary sorrow at the North Gate,
With Rihoku’s name forgotten,
And we guardsmen fed to the tigers.
by Rihaku ( Li T’ai Po)

It wouldn’t be hard to imagine an American soldier, if soldiers still wrote poetry, standing guard in some lonely outpost in Afghanistan penning this poem. The loneliness and sense of alienation would be a familiar feeling for soldiers, one I felt in Vietnam nearly forty years ago, one nearly as old as the “sands of time.” Surely the desolation left by such barbarous wars is as old as the Mongolian invasions of China, as new as the bombing of Iraq. Nearly as predictable as the seasons, man’s wars turn a “gracious spring … to blood-ravenous autumn.”

And in this “turmoil of war” it is always “sorrow, sorrow like rain./ Sorrow to go, and sorrow, sorrow, returning,/Desolate, desolate fields.” Strangely, though, new generations somehow manage to forget this sorrow as the names of the poets disappear and the old soldiers fade away, forgotten memories and lost opportunities.

6 thoughts on “Pound’s Chinese Translations”

  1. Two lines to go:
    “Mind like a floating wide cloud”
    “Sorrow to go, and sorrow, sorrow returning…”
    the starkness of bald desolation in both.

  2. Pound’s work is missing from my shelves of poetry books. Back in the early days of my “formal” study of poetry, Pound’s politics were a major issue for me, so stayed away from his work. Your commentary on the poems and translations makes me want to take a closer look at his work. Thanks

  3. Thank you for your posting of Li Po’s work. I’ve appreciated his imagery for a long time. I would be interested if you happen to know of how one might find a recording of “Taking Leave of a Friend” in the original Chinese. It would be great to hear it in the original language. Thanks again.

  4. Unfortunately I have never heard an original Chinese recording of any of the many Chinese poems I’ve read.

    It would, indeed, be intesting to hear it, though.

  5. Did Pound do a version of Li Po’s “War South of the Great Wall”? If so, do you have a copy of it I might have? Or is it online anywhere? I have two other translations.. Taylor Stoehr and David Hinton. But I was sure there was this other one by Pound. At least I thought Simon Loekle (WBAI-FM) reading all three on his radio show several weeks ago. Thanks for any information you might have. Regards, Reva

Comments are closed.