Dream-Journey to Mount Tian-Mu: A Sigh of Farewell
A translation (without apology)
In an earlier post, despite my deep and abiding ineptitude in all things sinological, I offered my own translation of Tao Yuanming’s famous and blessedly brief fable The Peach Blossom Spring. At that time I declared my intention also to undertake the much more formidable task of rendering Li Bai’s (701-762) “Dream-Journey to Mount Tian-Mu” into English. This is perhaps the most famous work by Li Bai (or Li Bo or Li Po, depending on which transliteration you favor), so I am hardly the first to make the attempt. In fact, it may well be the single most frequently translated specimen of classical Chinese verse in the entire canon. It has appeared under any number of variant titles—“Journeying to Mount Tianmu in a dream,” “Song of a Dream Visit to T’ien-mu,” and so forth—and in a bewildering variety of distinct but similar versions. Every translation of the classic anthology Three-Hundred Tang Poems includes it, of course, but so does almost every collection of classical Chinese poetry, and every collection of Li Bai’s poetry in particular. Among its more distinguished translators have been Shigeyoshi Obata, Witter Bynner, and Burton Watson; of its less distinguished translators the names are Legion. Over the years, however, I have become increasingly dissatisfied with the efforts of all its translators, good, bad, or indifferent. The fault for this, though, as far as I see it, lies not so much with any of them as with Ezra Pound.
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