My Translation of A Li Bai Poem

A couple of years ago I was asked by an ex-boss to search for an appropriate Chinese classic couplet for use in a calligraphy artwork, which was to be framed as a farewell gift for a retiring British senior manager who claimed to love Chinese art. Naturally, I was required to also give him the translation of the chosen writing. One of Li Bai’s (李白) poems titled “Farewell to A Friend” (送友人) immediately sprang to mind and I thought a pair of lines from the poem would be perfect for the purpose. Then I searched on the University of Virginia website for an English translation of the poem. I took a look at it and felt that it bothered me. So I decided to do my own translation.

Li Bai was one of the most renowned poets in the Tang dynasty and was honored with the name “Poem-God” (詩仙). This poem of his is in the famous collection of the “300 Tang Poems” (唐詩三百首). It is a five-character-regular-verse (五言律詩). According to the website, the translations of all the poems are primarily taken from those in Witter Bynner’s The Jade Mountain: A Chinese Anthology (1929).

The pair of lines that I lifted from the poem was: “浮雲遊子意 , 落日故人情”, which is the essence of the poem. This is also where my translation differs substantially from Bynner’s. With due respect, I think the Bynner translation missed the similes used by the great poet to portray the friend’s long-cherished wishes to be a free traveler (like “roaming clouds”) and to express the poet’s own deep sentimental attachment towards his friend at the parting (like “setting sun”).

The Original:

青山橫北郭 , 白水遶東城 o

此地一為別, 孤蓬萬里征 o

浮雲遊子意, 落日故人情 o

揮手自茲去, 蕭簫斑馬鳴 o

My Translation:

Green hills skirt the northern border,

White waters gird the eastern town;

Here we part with each other,

And you set out like a lonesome wisp of grass,

Floating across the miles, farther and farther away.

You’ve longed to travel like roaming clouds,

But our friendship, unwilling to wane as the sun is to set,

Let it be here to stay.

As we wave each other good-bye,

Our horses neigh, as if for us they sigh.

(All rights reserved)

Witter Bynner Translation on the UVa Website:

With a blue line of mountains north of the wall,

And east of the city a white curve of water,

Here you must leave me and drift away

Like a loosened water-plant hundreds of miles….

I shall think of you in a floating cloud;

So in the sunset think of me.

…We wave our hands to say good-bye,

And my horse is neighing again and again.