Just four lines long, the ancient Chinese poem 'Deer Park', by Buddhist poet Wang Wei, has inspired poets and translators through the ages. Eliot Weinberger's '19 Ways of Looking at Wang Wei' collects nineteen different translations in English, Spanish and French, along with commentary by Weinberger and Octavio Paz. Reading so many variatons of one text, without being able to access the original directly, has a curiously meditative effect, at once enlightening and humbling, as the 'real' meaning of the poem remains elusive. It also makes this volume an excellent introduction into the subtle, deeply religious thought behind this eighth century poem.
The poem's form is simplicity itself: a quatrain of five characters each, making 22 characters in total (including the title). Each character represents a word or concept; e.g. the two title characters are for 'deer' and 'park', or 'grove'. (The title probably refers to the Deer Park where Gautama Buddha held his first sermon.) A character-by-character translation of the poem looks something like this:
Empty mountain not see people
Only hear people talk sound
Return brightness enter deep forest
Again shine green moss upon.
The "brightness" in line three may also mean "shadows". And that's where the difficulties of interpretation start. Wang Wei's Chinese is not only archaic, it is also part of a language and literary tradition that is completely different from Western poetry. Stripped of articles, tenses and pronouns (there is not even a narrator), Chinese poetry is more like a string of concepts or images, which can be rhymed or juxtaposed. For instance, the "not see people" in the first line mirrors the "hear people" in the second line (as seen in the repetition of the character for 'people' or 'person'). As Weinberger comments, "Chinese poetry, like all ancient poetries, is based on parallelism: the dual (yin-yang) nature of the universe."
One of the few translations to render this fluently in English is the one by Burton Watson, acclaimed by Weinberger as one of the closest to the original in form and spirit:
Empty hills, no one in sight,
only the sound of someone talking;
late sunlight enters the deep wood,
shining over the green moss again.
(Note that Watson has managed to use only 24 words - six per line - for the original 20 characters.)
However, while the first couplet is relatively straightforward, the second leaves a lot more to the translator's (and reader's) imagination. Beyond the fact that there's more parrallelism going on ("brightness" vs. "dark forest", "return" and "again"), its meaning remains rather obscure. Octavio Paz supplies a key to understanding the poem's ending:
...for Wang Wei the light of the setting sun had a very precise meaning. An allusion to the Amida Buddha: at the end of the afternoon the adept meditates and, like the moss in the forest, receives illumination. Poetry prefectly objective, impersonal, far from the mysticism of a St. John of the Cross, but no less authentic or profound than that of the Spanish poet. Transformation of man and nature before the divine light, although in a sense inverse to that of Western tradition. In place of the humanization of the world that surrounds us, the Oriental spirit is impregnated with the objectivity, passivity and impersonality of the trees, grass and rocks, so that, impersonally, it receives the impartial light of a revelation that is also impersonal.
Or in Weinberger's final analysis of the poem:
An endless series of negations: The mountain seems empty (without people) because no one's in sight. But people are heard, so the mountain is not empty. But the mountain is empty because it is an illusion. The light from the Western Paradise, the light called shadow falls.
Via Crystalpunk, who also gives Weinberger's preface.