Breaking “The Great Taboo”: A Translation of Li Bai’s 李白 “Drinking Alone Beneath the Moon 月下獨酌”

There is a tradition among English translators of Chinese poetry that all Chinese poems should be translated as unrhymed free-verse. This tradition goes back at least as far as Ezra Pound–whose “translations” bear little resemblance to their originals–and is very much alive and kicking. So much so that I am borrowing Nathan Sivin’s term, “The Great Taboo,” to describe it. As with the taboo Sivin was decrying, the punishments for breaking the Great Rhyming Taboo are so hideous that no one has dared to speculate what they might be, but neither has anyone dared to translate Chinese poetry in rhyming, metrical verse. This is particularly odd since a great deal of Chinese poetry does rhyme, has a specified number of syllables per line, and in many cases follow elaborate rules regarding other aspects of their construction. Even those genres of poetry that, on paper, look most like free-verse–such as the song-lyrics (ci 詞)–were written to accompany particular tunes that imposed strict constraints on the poem’s structure. Throughout its history Chinese elite poetry has thrived in a dynamic relationship to more popular styles of verse, and was always musical–as seen in the fact that the modern generic term for poetry, shige 詩歌, includes the character ge 歌, meaning “song.”

At any rate, here is my effort to break the Great Rhyming Taboo in a translation of one of Li Bai’s 李白 (701-762) best-loved poems. I have maintained his rhyme scheme, converted his five-syllable lines into five-foot lines, and when possible placed a pause in the English roughly where the caesura occurs in the Chinese.

月下獨酌

花間一壺酒,獨酌無相親;
舉杯邀明月,對影成三人。
月既不解飲,影徒隨我身;
暫伴月將影,行樂須及春。
我歌月徘徊,我舞影零亂;
醒時同交歡,醉後各分散。
永結無情遊,相期邈雲漢。

Drinking Alone Beneath the Moon

Amidst the blooms, a lonely jug of wine,
A solitary draft, none here but me,
I raise my cup, a toast for the bright moon;
Together with my shadow, we make three.
The moon has never understood his cups;
My shadow is content to follow me.
But now I’ll take my shadow and the moon,
As drinking buddies—just in time for spring!
I sing: the moon just loiters, hesitant;
I dance: my shadow shakes and flails and sways.
Sober, we shared in each other’s joys;
Drunken, we must walk our separate ways.
Forever bound to roam beyond all cares,
Let’s meet again upon the Milky Way!

One thought on “Breaking “The Great Taboo”: A Translation of Li Bai’s 李白 “Drinking Alone Beneath the Moon 月下獨酌”

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s