Du Fu and the Old Man of Emei.

Anatoly Vorobey posted a poem by Du Fu (aka Tu Fu), 漫成二首, in the original and five translations, one in Russian (excellent, by Alexander Gitovich) and four in English. I love that sort of comparison; here are my two favorites among the English renderings:

On the Spur of the Moment, II

River slopes, already midmonth of spring;
under the blossoms, bright mornings again.
I look up, eager to watch the birds;
turn my head, answering what I took for a call.
Reading books, I skip the hard parts;
faced with wine, I keep my cup filled.
These days I’ve gotten to know the old man of Emei.
He understand this idleness that is my true nature.

(translated by Burton Watson, The Selected Poems of Du Fu, 2002)

Haphazard Compositions, II

On the river floodplain it is already mid-spring,
under the flowers once again a clear morning.
I raise my face, avid to watch the birds,
I turn my head, mistakenly to answer someone.
When I read, I pass over the hard words,
with ale before me, full pots are frequent.
Recently I’ve gotten to know an old fellow from Emei,
he understands that my indolence is my true nature.

(translated by Stephen Owen, The Poetry of Du Fu, 2016)

The last translation, by Edna Worthley Underwood and Chi Hwang Chu, is horrible; for one thing, Emei (aka O Mei) is one of the Four Sacred Mountains of China (and a favorite name for Sichuanese restaurants), not the name of a hermit, for crying out loud.


  1. ə de vivre says

    Weren’t hermits sometimes referred to by the name of the mountain (or whatever) where they lived? That was at least the case for Hanshan, who, whether or not he existed and/or wrote the poems attributed to him, refers to both himself and his mountain as “Cold Mountain”.

  2. Ogion, whose true name is Aihal (or Erehal, depending on whom you ask) was known as the Mage of Re Albi (his village) or of Gont (his mountain/island).

  3. “Hard parts” or “hard words”? I’d like to know what a sinologist would say about it.

  4. Trond Engen says

    I was going to say that I like Watson’s version better than Owen’s, for how it flows more naturally in the middle lines, probably choosing that flow over nuances in the original. But rereading I see that Owen has a few things right too. “Mid-spring” is better then “mid-month of spring”. And both Watson’s “river slopes” and Owen’s “river floodplain” are too technical in English. Unless there are allusions I don’t take.

    It’s always a question how precise a translation should be. I tend towards not very precise. Or not precise on the micro-level in order to be true on the macro-level. Whatever Du Fu said about the location by the river, he chose the exact words for poetic reasons — ambience, allusions, assonance and rhythm. And that’s what the translator should translate.

  5. I agree. (And of course my favorite translations from Chinese are Pound’s, the least faithful of all.)

  6. Strange that the poet has ale in one version and wine in the other.

    ‘River slope’ doesn’t mean anything to me, as an English phrase. Floodplain I know, but it is what I might call a river meadow in more colloquial language.

  7. Strange that the poet has ale in one version and wine in the other.

    I wondered about that too. Google Translate gives this for the line in question:

    “He greedily looks at the bird and turns back to wrong.”

    So I have no answers.

  8. “Mid-spring” is better then “mid-month of spring”

    Well, yes, but technically speaking the meaning of Chinese 仲春 is ‘mid-month of spring’ (the second month of spring), not ‘mid-spring’. It’s actually the second month of the year.

    “river slopes” and … “river floodplain”

    江皋 apparently refers to the river banks or the land at the sides of the river.

    “Hard parts” or “hard words”? I’d like to know what a sinologist would say about it.

    Probably very little. Technically, 字 refers to characters. But in English, “hard characters” would not make much sense to someone who didn’t know Chinese. “Hard parts” (more colloquially “hard bits”) probably comes to mind more naturally for English speakers, which is why two translators choose it. Hinton’s “hard words” is a compromise that takes into account the fact that English normally speaks of “words” rather than “characters”.

    Strange that the poet has ale in one version and wine in the other.

    If the Chinese then were drinking anything like what they drink today, 酒 would certainly not be translated as ‘ale’ or ‘wine’. These make the drink sound awfully civilised and easy on the palate (and on the throat, oesophagus, and stomach). Modern Chinese 酒 is most commonly a distilled grain drink that is nothing like either wine or ale.

  9. So “hooch” or “rotgut” would be more accurate, if less poetic.

  10. The Chinese concept of alcoholic beverages remains rather, er, fluid; when I was teaching in Taiwan in the ’70s, I was offered “wine” at dinner which turned out to be Johnny Walker Black.

  11. “When I read, I pass over the hard words,
    with rotgut before me, full pots are frequent.”

    “Reading books, I skip the hard parts;
    faced with hooch, I keep my cup filled.”

    Not sure which sounds better. Maybe they should be swapped around.

    With regard to 峨眉老, in modern Chinese adding 老 after a person’s name is a sign of great respect, unlike putting 老 first, which is a familiar expression for an older person. I don’t know about Classical Chinese, but if it is the same as the modern language, it refers to ‘the old man of Emei’, with considerable respect for his status. The translations run the gamut from ‘the old Sage on O-mei’, ‘the Hermit O Mei’, ‘the old man of Emei’, and ‘an old fellow from Emei’. The Hermit O Mei is wrong but easily fixed as ‘the Hermit of O Mei’. But the gap between ‘the old Sage on O-mei’ and ‘an old fellow from Emei’ is less easily fixed.

  12. Distilled spirits were not available in Du Fu’s time.

  13. LH: Could you share with us, or post a link to, the Russian version?

  14. It’s the first thing in the first link.

  15. Matt Anderson says

    There’s not much agreement on how best to translate jiǔ 酒.

    Here’s what Paul Kroll’s A Student’s Dictionary of Classical and Medieval Chinese has to say about it:

    gen. term for alcoholic beverages produced through fermentation, incl. those with infusions or spices that sometimes lend various colors such as rose-pink or amber. Although most drinks designated by this word are made from cereals and are thus akin to beer, from Western Han times it also ref. grape-wine (first brought from Central Asia) and “burnt-wine” (brandy), the former becoming esp. popular during Tang times; use “wine” as preferred rendering for its inclusiveness; to use “ale” is misleading as it ref. only to a specific type of beer which is actually most similar to → 醴 lǐ.

    I personally think either ‘beer’ or ‘ale’ is better than ‘wine’ for brewed grain drinks, but each translation has its proponents, and who knows whether Du Fu is referring to grape wine or burnt wine or brewed millet or whatever else (I usually work with texts from before grape wine was introduced to China, so I usu. go with ‘beer’ or ‘ale’, but my general experience doesn’t really apply here). I’ve also heard ‘brew’, which I think is kinda nice, though the connotations probably aren’t what Du Fu had in mind.

  16. Hmm, “brew” isn’t bad — certainly better than my jocular suggestions of “hooch” or “rotgut”!

  17. Matt Anderson says

    I’m not a fan of any of the traditional non-distilled Chinese alcoholic beverages that I’ve tried (tho they’re all preferable to the stuff Bathrobe mentions, unless you’re trying to get into a competitive drinking contest), and I think “hooch” or “rotgut” would work perfectly well to describe them. But i imagine Du Fu, whatever particular beverage he was enjoying, would have thought he was drinking something a little more refined. So I guess what I’m saying is, there’s no way to get it right, but you can’t really say any choice is wrong either.

  18. January First-of-May says

    Hmm, “brew” isn’t bad — certainly better than my jocular suggestions of “hooch” or “rotgut”!

    I probably would have proposed “booze”, but that’s likely to be too generic.

  19. There was an old fellow from Emei
    Whose consumption of hooch and cheap ale may
    Have stunted his need
    To ponder and read
    But drink more! There’s always a new day.

  20. David Marjanović says

    Obligatory Omeisaurus with a heavily outdated phylogenetic tree.

  21. “Booze”?

    The poem really speaks to me, now that I’ve retired.

    Idleness has always been my true nature, even when I was supposedly employed, and my cup is full of booze as I write this.

  22. Speaking of drams: do you ever jousel them?

    The magic began as soon as a customer ordered. The barkeeper combined the ingredients from one bottle after another into a tall glass, which was then handed to one of the many so-called shaker boys standing next to them. “The delicious concoction is shaken and jouseled,” the Times-Democrat reported, “the ice tinkling against the glass, the rich cream rising, the delicate color becoming richer.” Finally, in one deft movement, the mixer removed the silver cover, and “the fizz in all its toothsome glory stands ready to be sipped in ecstasy.”

  23. The poem really speaks to me, now that I’ve retired.

    Idleness has always been my true nature, even when I was supposedly employed

    Same here on all counts!

  24. jouseled

    I wonder if this is an oddball spelling of jostle, which has no /t/ in it.

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