Wang Wei

During my favorite dynasty, Chinese philosophy passed through a period called the Hundred Schools of Thought. What a fantastic time to be a scholar! Granted life for most people was fairly turbulent as the period was marked with weak political control, chaos, and war. Perhaps this is a necessary soil for producing such a rich diversity of thought. Each School of the period was attempting to construct a distinct system. They influenced each other though a cross-pollination of ideas and they influenced each other through conflict and argument. Experimentation was the order of the day. The Schools that survived from the period were strong enough that they still exist twenty-two hundred years later. It’s tragic that the same richness of thought didn’t survive through more peaceful times. I feel that organizations can be poisoned by a surfeit of agreement as surely as they can fall from a lack of internal unity.

Moving into my second favorite dynasty, we find a fantastic poet, Wang Wei. A half-remembered translation relayed in a conversation of his poem “A Song at Weicheng” first brought him to my attention.

“Wait, friend, and share another drink.
Tomorrow you’ll be past the mountains
and there will be no more
another drink, friend.”

It turns out that the original doesn’t literally translate to this in English. A professional translation is below.

“A morning-rain has settled the dust in Weicheng;
Willows are green again in the tavern dooryard….
Wait till we empty one more cup –
West of Yang Gate there’ll be no old friends.”

Translation is a tricky activity. Depending on how tight the rules you impose, many works are simply untranslatable because there’s no way to convey that same experience and meaning that a native speaker would hear. Word choice, rhythm, and references are some of the obvious difficulties to translate. So by necessity, I’ve been fairly comfortable with fairly loose translations – including reinterpretation. Which is mostly to say that I like the original version that I remembered, as wrong as it is to the purist. I would rather live in a  world where one hundred translations can exist and the audience can choose among them than live in a world where the Immortals decide the canonical translation.

If you’re interested in more Wang Wei, I’d recommend “Walking In Mountains In The Rain” (translated by David Young) to give a taste of his style.

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