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-language translators of Chinese poetry to translate all Chinese poems 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 the historian, Nathan Sivin’s, term–“The Great Taboo,”–to describe it.

As with the taboo Sivin was decrying (daring to write about the history of science, medicine, or technology in China), 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 rhymed, 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 follows elaborate rules regarding tone patterns, then placement of caesuras, etc.. Even those genres of Chinese poetry that, on paper, look most like free-verse–such as the 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 maintained a relationship with popular verse and song. Even today, generic term for poetry, shige 詩歌, includes the character ge 歌, meaning “song.”

Here then, is one of my efforts to break the Great Rhyming Taboo: a translation of one of Li Bai’s 李白 (701-762) best-loved poems. I have maintained his rhyme scheme, and transformed his five-syllable Chinese lines into five-foot English lines. When possible, I have arranged a slight 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 part, each to his way.
Ever-bound, roaming without care,
Let’s meet again, far on the Milky Way!

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