quiet night thoughts
[2021 njg/rg]

translation variations of an 8th century poem by 李白 called 静夜思 ...


李白 (701-762)



Jìng Yè Sī

Chuáng qián míng yuè guāng
Yí shì dì shàng shuāng
Jǔ tóu wàng míng yuè
Dī tóu sī gù xiāng

gloss [njg]

Quiet Night Thoughts

bed [in front of] bright moon light
suspect [is] ground on frost
lift head gaze bright moon
hang head [think of] old village home

meaning [njg]

Quiet Night Thoughts

Clear moonlight illuminates
the ground in front of the bed,
[I] wonder if it might be frost.
[I] lift my head to gaze at the [bright, clear] moon,
[I] hang my head [and] long for home.

draft [njg]

Quiet Night Thoughts
Li Bai (701-762)

Bedside moonbeam light,
Perhaps a sheen of frost.
I lift my gaze to the moon,
Sink my head toward home.

alt-draft 1 [njg]

quiet night thoughts

this moonlit ground,
or sheen of frost—
my moonward eyes,
these homeward thoughts.

alt-draft 2 [njg/rg]

Bed side floor moon
Like frost ground sheen
Head up moon gaze
Head down home dream

alt-draft 3 [njg]

Bedside moonbeam
frostlike sheen
Eyes to the moon
Head hung in home dream.

alt-draft 4 [njg/rg]

Floor moon
Frost sheen
Moon gaze
Home dream

emoji draft 1 [njg]

🛏️ 🌔
❄️ ✨
👁️ 🌔
😔 🏞️

emoji draft 2 [rg]

🌙 🛌
🌬️ ❄️
👀 🌝
🤔 🏠

contextual reflections [njg] ...

The translation of classical Chinese poetry has a history thick with controversial intentions and assumptions. This is exemplified by Cathay, a 1915 collection of classical poems that poet Ezra Pound rendered based on the notes of Ernest Fenollosa. Pound had no knowledge of Chinese, and Fenollosa was learning it with a Japanese teacher. Nevertheless, this modernist take became an anchor point for the West’s view of Chinese poetry, and for an approach to translation that decentered continuity of understanding.

I’ve found that it is common for translations of Chinese poetry to come across as either free verse or nursery rhyme. In hopes of providing an alternative, I prioritized both sound patterns and the sense of reading between and beyond the lines.

This poem has a particular modern context. Despite the literary register, it is learned by millions of children, often before they even start school. It is debatable whether this should affect the translation, but I do see it as a reflection of two poetic elements: consistent, undulating rhythms, and strong imagery created by the concrete nouns that end each line. I tried to maintain these elements in my translation.

interactive transfluxion [njg/rg] ...

in order to foreground multiplicity and tap into the agency of readers, we created an "interactive transfluxion" version of the poem. here, by clicking a given line, you are able to toggle through the permutated variations included above. if the version below does not seem to be working, you can download the html file here and then open it in any browser.

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