Inhabiting Wang Wei

In The Emptiness of Wang Wei, I transduced Wang’s famous eighth century  poem titled, in English, Deer Park , Deer Enclosure or Deer Fence.  “Transduction”  is my term for a process that reworks a poem’s existing translations (literal or poetic) into a new poem.  It seems most often a strategy applied to ancient Chinese poems.  Ezra Pound in his Cathy Poems was the first to take this approach.  Octavio Paz asserts that despite not knowing any Chinese, Pound created “the modem tradition of classical Chinese poetry in the poetic conscience of the West”. [1]

In my previous post I said  transduction “is an attempt to transform a distant literary energy to a local one”.  Now I might compare it to 3-D printing a mask of an ancestor’s face using the DNA from a lock of hair found in a piece of jewelry.

Transducing uses and extends Marilyn Gaddis-Rose’s idea of stereoscopic readings [2].  Here the original text is read with one or more existing translations to provide the basis for a new version.  The goal is “to intuit and reason out the interliminal” i.e. “what lies between the source phrase and the target phrase”. [3]

At the time of the first post, I hoped to do better in the future.  This post is that fraught attempt.  As Gaddis-Rose points out, any translation risks, possibly embraces, a cultural colonization, remaking the original to conform to Western or contemporary expectations.  “At the very least, [the original’s] distinctive features may be smoothed or removed”. [4]

Even the strategy employed by one of my favorite contemporary poets, Robert Okaji,  does not escape this quandary.   Not making any claim of translation, Okaji offers his “take” on famous Chinese poems. [5]

While the poems he produces speak eloquently for themselves, they share the interliminal, trans-civilizational, time traveling space that trans(lation)(duction) also inhabits.  Flawed as they may be, these attempts  do allow “readers [to] collaborate, criticize and rewrite, thereby enriching their experience of literature”.[6]  Full disclosure of the strategies involved seems the only, if inadequate, path open.

It may be refreshing to consider a transduction quite different, but at least tangentially related to my efforts.  The  band Tang Dynasty is credited with being the first heavy metal band in China.  It did so while valorizing that period in the country’s history.

Walter Benjamin’s highly influential essay The Task of the Translator sums up the goal of any trans-civilization, time traveling project.

The task of the translator consists in finding the particular intention toward the target language which produces in that language the echo of the original. [7]

A high bar to be sure.  Compounding these general trans(lation)(duction) issues are elements of Chinese poetry that are untranslatable.

“19 Ways of Looking at Wang Wei” Weinberger, Paz

The Chinese educated elite has considered calligraphy the ultimate art form since about 200 BCE.   This “artful writing” combines artistry and meaning in both the visual and the lexical.

Adding another layer, Deer Fence’s four lines and five characters per line form a rectangle.  The poem itself is a picture. [8]  English’s nearest analog, concrete poetry, rarely achieves such a full merging of visual form and meaning.

Wang Wei was both an accomplished poet and an artist of considerable note.  He is credited with originating the Southern Style of Chinese paintings.  However, none of his work survives. [9] Artists of this style sought to express inner realities by working quickly with calligraphic brush strokes.  They paid less attention to detail and formal composition than did the Northern Style. [10]

Wang Wei saw painting and poetry as interchangeable.  Subsequent Chinese critics compared his poems to paintings and his paintings to poems. [11]  Certainly the Southern style and Wang’s poetry share stylistic qualities.  We can infer, I think, that the Southern School’s emphasis on interiority may also carry over to Wang’s  poetry.

Increasing the trans(lation)(duction) challenge,  Chinese grammar excludes subject, number, and tense. [12]  Such a grammar naturally produce effects of the impersonal and universal that frequently seem unnatural in English. [13]   They also produce an aural economy that echoes the language’s visual economy.

A recital of the poem in Chinese illustrates this.   The following video then presents an English translation  that is both traditional and fairly literal.

And for  further comparison, consider the following literal and poetic translations: [14]

Deer Enclosure

Empty hill not see person
Yet hear person voice sound
Return scene enter deep forest
Duplicate light green moss on

Hills are empty, no man is seen,
Yet the sound of people’s voices is heard.
Light is cast into the deep forest,
And shines again on green moss.

Even if we have no Chinese, we can hear that the literal translation does a good job mirroring the original’s rhythm and cadence.  However, it does not result in natural English.  The second (poetic) translation, and the translation in the video, reverse the strengths and weaknesses of the first translation.

But literal translation is not what it seems.  Contemporary English has a promiscuity of synonyms and word choices. While synonyms have similar general meanings, they differ in usual usage and nuance. This makes making any “literal” translation into English an act of significant interpretation in and of itself.

How then do we achieve a balance between fidelity to the original while producing a stand alone English poem?   Are these goals even desirable?

The danger of this “faithful” position is that attempting to imitate the sounds of the great master in a new language produces just that: an imitation that cannot rise to the level of the original. This may occur because of the translator’s lack of skill or because the “receiving” language—English, in this case—is an entirely different medium, at a very different point in its development, a point at which the particular sound effects mean entirely different things. [15]

Before shifting our focus from these general issues to the target poem, we  may wish to consider Wang Wei’s life and times.

The Tang Dynasty was a tumultuous time in China’s history.   Wang Wei’s life and his career in the imperial court shared in the upheavals.  Wang enjoyed and suffered multiple successes and demotions during his Court career.  His wife’s death when they were in their thirties hit him very hard.  In response he took a  Buddhist vow of celibacy.

Later, during the pivotal An Lushan Rebellion, Wang, sick with dysentery, was captured by the rebels.  They forced him to collaborate in their rebellion despite his efforts to make himself useless to them by harming himself.

The Tang forces later retook the area  where Wang Wei was held.  They arrested  him as a traitor and imprisoned him.  His high-ranking brother plead his case, but it was not enough.   Critical to his eventual pardon and release were the poems he wrote during captivity.  Their praise of the Tangs were important evidence of his loyalty. [16]  He retired to his estate after that.

Wang Wei and his close friend Pei Di, wrote the Wang Stream Collection while wandering the grounds of Wang’s estate.  They composed them  some time after the An Lushan Rebellion started, but before Wang’s capture.  (The poems that ended up so important to Wang’s release had been smuggled out of the rebel area by Pei on the back of a Buddhist sutra.)

Each poet wrote 20 poems about 20 sites within Wang’s estate.  The Deer Fence discussed here is Wang Wei’s version.  The four line, five characters per line structure they developed was both a completely new poetic form and an artistic success. [17]

While the Tang Dynasty  was a time of great turmoil, it was also a very cosmopolitan period in China’s history.  Trade via the Silk Road, was extensive and brought people from all over Asia into China.  Their ideas and religions contributed both to a vibrant and diverse culture and a distrust of the foreign.

A similar dynamic of synergy and distrust existed among the adherents of Confuciusism, Daoism, and Buddhism.  All had already co-existed in China for hundreds of years.  They deeply influenced each other.  At the same time, they competed for the beliefs of both the common people and the elites.

All of this encouraged innovation in the arts and philosophy and played an important role in Wang Wei’s life.  Most at issue here however, are Wang’s Buddhist beliefs.

Wang Wei was known for his devotion to Buddhism.  He established a monastery on his estate where he undertook meditation retreats.  He also contributed additional money to its upkeep.   Most of  the wealthy who provided estate space for monasteries were content with the considerable tax advantages and “good press” it provided.

While Wang Wei is most identified with the then emerging Ch’an tradition,  he is known to have had contact with Esoteric Buddhism through his mother and brother. [18]  However, little evidence firmly places his Buddhist allegiance in either camp. [19]  If anything, it is as likely that Wang developed his own syncretic version of Buddhism that included elements of Daoism and Confuciusism.

How then did Wang Wei understand and live his Buddhist beliefs?  To inform, if not answer this question, we might pose the following question, “What is the best way to put oneself in the way of enlightenment?”

One approach is to compare the teachings for the ordained to those for householders.  One tradition says the teachings for householders are only provisionally useful.   A person who follows them may, at most, increase the likelihood of gaining a favorable rebirth for attaining enlightenment.  That is to say, in such a future rebirth, the person might become a monk, to a lesser extent, a nun, or in the Ch’an/Zen tradition, a hermit.

Still, many of the Buddha’s teachings recounted in the Pali canon dispute this.  These focus on how householders can attain enlightenment in their current lives.  The development of Esoteric Buddhism strengthened this interpretation.

By the time of our favorite poet, Wang Wei, this debate was in full swing.  While we do not know Wang’s specific Buddhist allegiance, we do know some of his Buddhist views.

A  simplified account of Buddhist Emptiness is that all things exist as a result of causes and conditions.  This is a description of how things are able to come into existence, function and cease to exist, not an assertion of essence.

Wang Wei interpreted this to mean that apparently contradictory activities could be seen, through their mutual Emptiness, as having the same essence, and therefore as being  functionally the same.  This interpretation is characteristic of the collision of Buddhism and Daoism in China.  Daoism sees Emptiness as a generative essence.

Consequently,  he could see politicking at court as advancing his progress toward Enlightenment as much as his estate retreats .  He referred to  himself a “recluse official”.   That is,  he believed he was a recluse at court and an official while meditating.  (Maybe “hermit bureaucrat” would be more descriptive). He is credited with being the first to make such a claim using Buddhist philosophy. [20]

Of course the paths of the ordained and the householder are quite different.  Trying to do both at the same time is a sure path to internal conflict.  Despite his assertions to the contrary, that is how Wang Wei  experienced them.  So much so that he has been known as one of the “torn souls of literary history”. [21]

While some of Wang Wei’s poems are explicitly Buddhist many are clearly nature poems, or by extension perhaps, Daoist poems .  However Deer Fence is read and translated  as both.  Many see the poem’s nature images as metaphors for Buddhist ideas.

So let’s start with that title.  Deer Park, Deer Enclosure or Deer Fence perhaps.  Here the literal approach would seem to have an advantage simply because at this stage, the poem provides no other context.  Yet  from my informal survey of extant translations, “Deer Park” seems to be the most common translation.  Gary Snyder’s version which many commentators view as the most successful, uses this title.  Why use a non-literal translation?

Translators and their supporters using “Deer Park” usually assert the title is an allusion to the Deer Park at Sarnath, India.  There, Buddha gave his first teaching after attaining Enlightenment.  This strategy signals the reader to interpret the natural images of the poem, not at face value, but as Buddhist metaphors.

Large estates were something of a rage for the rich at Wang Wei’s time.   Many contained  deer hunting preserves which had been a phenomenon throughout Eurasia for centuries before the Tang Dynasty. [22]   Wang chose the general term “Deer Enclosure”for the poem’s title.  As I noted above, The Wang Stream Collection,  consists of this and 19 other poems named for sites within the estate.  It seems much more likely that the title keeps to the overall theme of the collection and refers to  Wang Wei’s deer preserve, not to the one at Sarnath.

So  I think that inserting an allusion to Buddha’s first discourse is not supported by the context of the poem.  To read this as a Buddhist poem requires evidence from the poem itself.

However, I also find “Deer Enclosure” and “Deer Fence” awkward and not really referring to anything in contemporary experience.  So for this transduction, I’m going to try to clearly set the scene rather than pursuing the original’s economy of language.  So I render the title as:

In the Estate’s Deer Preserve

Now we can consider first character of the poem.  Is “empty” a somewhat odd adjective of hill or mountain (the character can mean either), or a  noun, a reference to Buddhist Emptiness, or both?

In my previous post, I transduced the first word as “contingent” rather than the all but universal “empty” to make a direct reference to Emptiness.  At the time I felt that this was something of a placeholder.  Now I’m going all in and rendering it as “Voidness”.  This makes it an explicit reference to Buddhist Emptiness.  It therefore interprets the poem as describing an interior experience, echoing his approach to painting.  At the same time, “Voidness” can  just as easily refer to whatever Daoist concepts may have informed Wang Wei’s sense of the word.  Both religions used the same word for their respective concepts.

The impersonal narrator is on the hill/mountain, not observing it.  So I’m choosing the phrase “at land’s height” to indicate interiority rather than detached observation.

The literal translation’s “not see person” presents a variety of possibilities.  The “not” is a negative prefix, and could apply to either “see” or “person”.  Each word could be translated as any synonym.  So here I’m implying the “seeing”, not directly stating it.  Then I’m choosing the economical “no one” to creates a first line of:

Voidness.  At land’s height, no one.

The next line, literally, “Yet hear person voice sound” should be fairly straightforward to paraphrase into passable English.  But I’m gong to take it a step farther .

Disturbing the meditation on Emptiness are voices.  Interpreting them as external voices is by far the most common approach.  These voices could just as easily be the impersonal narrator’s own internal monologue bubbling up.  In that case, we enter the territory of the Buddhist idea of No Self.

Gong-Ans, developed in China during the Tang Dynasty were the predecessor of Japanese Zen koans .   Both discuss initially private exchanges between a Master and Student that subsequently became generally known and discussed.  The retelling  of these “public cases” distilled them into  koans, some of which have entered our contemporary popular culture.

There are no “right” answers to these questions posed by a Master to a Student.   Rather, the Master evaluates the Student’s response by  how it demonstrates the Student’s understanding of the issues the question encapsulates.  In that spirit, I traduce the line as  a gong-an in which the narrator questions the selfness of his own internal voice.

Yet whose words persist, echo?

The third line of literal translation of Chinese Poems is   “Return scene enter deep forest”.  Synonyms for return are “revert to” and “restore”.[23] Is this as a temporal return in which the impersonal narrator refocuses on meditation, or a physical return to the scene?  Both interpretation have adherents.

I’ve already committed to an approach based on interior experience.  So the “return scene” part of the line I will render as “Merely breathe again”.  I intend this to refer to the foundational meditation practice of observing one’s breath. [24]

“Enter deep forest” however is not a return to the forest, but an entry, perhaps for the first time.  Since our narrator is already in the forest, we can take this as a metaphor for engaging with a deeper reality.  All of which leads me to:

Again breathe to find deep woods.

Although the fourth literal line, “Duplicate light green moss on” is suggestive of a striking scene, its exact meaning is not at all clear.  “Duplicate” can be rendered as “repeat”, “repeatedly” etc.  “Light” could be “shine”, “reflect” or any similar word.  The apparently clear word “green” could in fact be “blue”, “black” or “young”.  “Moss” is just about universally translated as such, although it could also refer to lichen.  And finally “on” simplifies the other, probably more literal meanings of “top, superior, highest, go up, send up”.

At a minimum, the line  presents a striking  image of illuminated moss.  The common translation of the adjective modifying  moss is “green”.  This seems a bit redundant, while “young”, as in the bright green of new growth, presents interesting possibilities.

At any rate, for many, the bight moss is  a metaphor for Instantaneous Enlightenment.  Most assume this is a specifically Ch’an or Zen concept.  However,  it occurs in just about every form of Buddhism.

It’s all a lot to fit into a compressed format.  My version of this line implies repetition rather than giving a synonym  for it.  It consists of two images of striking greenness.

“Go up” and “send up” suggest  to me an upward movement of the narrator’s attention, rather a shining down of light onto the moss.  So here I wish to imply that upward movement by the order of the images I have chosen for the line.  My last line is:

Babymoss . . . canopy light

So the following is my transduction of Wang Wei’s poem:

In the Estate’s Deer Preserve

Voidness.  At land’s height, no one.
Yet whose words persist, echo?
Again breathe to find deep woods.
Babymoss  . . . canopy light.

Structure in poetry both limits and expands word choices.  The original had a very precise, but minimalist structure, similar to calligraphic strokes.  Only brevity reflects brevity.

However, five words for each line is tough to duplicate in English.  So in my transduction, each line (including the title) is 7 syllables long.  It seemed short enough to produce a compressed poem, but long enough to accommodate its narrative flow.  While it may recall various Japanese poetic forms, it evolved organically as a result my struggle with the poem’s form and meaning.

As Ilya Kaminsky said to translate, or in my case, to transduce “is to inhabit” the poem. [25] That’s just how I have felt  writing this essay and transducing this poem.


See also The Emptiness of Wang Wei


[1] Eliot Weinberger, Octavio Paz, 19 Ways of Looking at Wan Wei (47)

[2] Gaddis Rose, Marilyn: Translation and Literary Criticism (90)

[3] Gaddis Rose (8)

[4] Gaddis Rose (88)

[5] Okaji, Robert Night Journey (after Tu Fu)

[6] Gaddis Rose (2)

[7] Benjamin, Walter Selected Writings Vol 1 The task of the Translator (258)

[8] Chinese Calligraphy

After Wang Wei’s “Snow Over Rivers and Mountains” by Wang Shimin 1668, Wikipedia

[9]  It was common practice in Chinese painting for artists to copy the paintings of past masters and then acknowledge that in the copy’s title.  Subsequent artists would copy  one of the copies and acknowledge the original master.  Such copies of the copies are the only residue of Wang Wei’s paintings.

[10] Wikipedia Southern School

[11] Malenfer Ortiz, Valerie Dreaming the Southern Song Landscape: The Power of Illusion in Chinese Painting (69)

[12] Link, Perry.  A Magician of Chinese Poetry.  The New York Review of Books 11/24/16

[13] Liu,James J.Y.   The Art of Chinese Poetry (36)

[14]   Chinese Poems.

[15] Kaminsky, Ilya, Translator’s Note: Eight Poems by Marina Tsvetaeva, Poetry Magazine

[16] Wikipedia, Wang Wei

[17] Lewis, Mark Edward, China’s Cosmopolitan Empire, the Tang Dynasty (128)

[18] Jingqing Yang: The Chan Interpretations of Wang Wei’s Poetry (107)

[19] Jingqing Yang: The overall thesis of the book is that while Wang Wei considered himself a Buddhist,  little evidence establishes him as a Ch’an adept.

[20] Jingqing Yang (107)

[21] Willis Barnstone, Tony Barnstone, Xu Haixin Laughing In the Mountains: Poems of Wang Wei, p xvii Introduction

[22]  Thomas Allsen , The Royal Hunt in Eurasian History (43)

[23]  Translating Wang Wei All following synonyms listed in this section are from this post.

[24] How to meditate on the breath was one of Buddha’s first teaching.  An Shigao translated the “Breath-Mindfulness Discourse” into Chinese around 150 CE.

[25] Kaminsky, Ilya

4 thoughts on “Inhabiting Wang Wei

  1. The best translations leave room to completely modify what’s being said in order to promote understanding.
    Aggretsuko has a wonderful one, where the Japanese “short-timer” is translated into English as “Calendar” — because “your days are numbered!”.
    It’s always pleasant to find translators who are willing to transmogrify for comprehensibility.

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