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Manoa 12.1 (2000) 137-139
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Reflections on My Translations of the T'ang Poet Han-shan
Translating Asian Poetry: A Symposium
A truly apt translation of a poem may require an effort of imagination almost as great as the making of the original. The translator who wishes to enter the creative territory must make an intellectual and imaginative jump into the mind and world of the poet, and no dictionary will make this easier. [End Page 137]
In working with the poems of Han-shan, I have several times had a powerful sense of apprehending auras of nonverbal meaning and experiencing the poet's own mind-of-composition. That this should happen is not altogether odd, for although Han-shan is intense, the range of his sensibility is not as strongly tied to Chinese cultural and historical phenomena as the sensibility of Po Chü-i, Tu Fu, or Tu Mu. Also, the purely physical side of the Han-shan world--the imagery of cold, height, isolation, mountains--is still available to our contemporary experience: I have spent much time in the mountains, and feel at home in the archetypal land of Han-shan. It would be well-nigh impossible to feel similarly at home with the concubines, summer palaces, or battlefields of much of Chinese poetry.
Part of my translation effort was an almost physical recall of the ponderosa and whitebark pine, granite cliffs, and frozen summer lakes of my own Sierra Nevada experience. The mountain imagery in my translation can be taken as an analog (a "translation") of the lower, wetter, greener mountains of south China. My initial blocking-out was done in the fall of 1955 in a graduate seminar in T'ang poetics at the University of California-Berkeley. The instructor was Chen Shih-hsiang. As I wrote elsewhere, "Chen was a friend and a teacher. His knowledge and love of poetry and his taste for life was enormous. He quoted French poetry from memory and wrote virtually any Chinese poem of the T'ang or Sung canon from memory on the blackboard." I had just returned from a summer working as a trail-crew laborer in the northern Yosemite backcountry, which attuned me to working with a "mountain poet."
As the poem here makes adequately clear, though, Han-shan was not exactly a "nature poet." He was a person who left his old self behind to walk in the world of jijimuge ("fact-fact-no-obstruction"), which is, in the philosophy of Avatamsaka (Hua-yen) and in the practice of Zen, just this very world. The recurrent image of Cold Mountain and its roughness is the narrow gate through which Han-shan tried to force his perception of a whole world, and this helps to explain his poetry's calm intensity.
In some ways, our contemporary idea of Han-shan is the creation of the Zen tradition and the Chinese delight in eccentrics. His poems are much loved in Japan, and formal Zen lectures are given on his work. The mountains and caves that are associated with him are still there: people visit them regularly. According to traditional scholarship, Han-shan lived from a.d. 627 to 650. The scholar Hu Shih places him circa A.D. 700 to 750.
In a tangle of cliffs I chose a place--
Bird-paths, but no trails for men.
What's beyond the yard?
White clouds clinging to vague rocks.
Now I've lived here--how many years-- [End Page 138]
Again and again, spring and winter pass.
Go tell families with silverware and cars
"What's the use of all that noise and money?"
Gary Snyder continues to be a prolific author of translation, poetry, and prose. His most recent book, Mountains and Rivers Without End, won the Bollingen Prize for poetry in 1997. He has received a Guggenheim fellowship and is a member of the American Academy of Arts and Letters and the American Academy of Arts and Sciences.