Night rain, a letter north

You ask when Im coming,
I do not know
On Bashan Mountain the night rain
is flooding the autumn pool.
When can we trim wicks again
by the window
And talk all night while
the mountain rains?

—Li Shang Yin
translated by Francis Chin
Time out in the mountain

RAIN falls through the night while one sits snug and warm inside one’s little house in the mountain, makes for a heart-tugging picture. To complete this charming scene, one has one’s beloved companion – wife, soul-mate, collaborator in one's scheme of happiness – to share the night in loving recollection and doing the petite tasks that make life pleasant and endearing.

In modern terms, I would describe the poem as “multimedia”, generating vivid images, sound and sensation in the reader’s mind of a night in the mountain, and the ceaseless drone of the rain. It’s all atmosphere and flashbacks – we are not told who the poet’s companion was (some say his wife) but he recalled they once shared a rainy night together in the mountain.

The poem is condensed, packing a universe of sentiments into a single word or phrase. Translating it into English is tricky. A too-literal translation makes it wobbly. A free translation may be easy to read aloud and truer to the spirit of the poem, but it may end up adding far more than what the poet has intended.

As always, the secret is to strike a happy balance.

A word-for-word rendering:

Night-rain letter north

You-asked return-date no-such date
Ba-shan (Ba mountain) night-rain fills autumn-pool
When old-times together trim western-window wicks
And talk Ba-shan night-rain time

Here’s a staccato, windy translation by two Singaporeans, Lien Wen Sze and Foo Check Woo, in Tang Poems Revisited (1996):

You ask my date of return
I know not the date

On this mountain
the night rain
brims the autumn lake

When shall we
By the west window
Together trim the candle

And recollect this moment
A rainy night in the mountain.

Here’s another freer translation, by American poet Witter Bynner:

You ask me when I am coming, I do not know
I dream of your mountains and autumn pools brimming all night with the rain
Oh when shall we be trimming wicks again, together by your western window
When shall I be hearing your voice again, all night in the rain?

Note: The Chinese text is arranged in the traditional vertical column format, reading from right to left. The first column is the title and the poet’s byline.

Francis Chin, July 7, 2002

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Rain in the mountain in Bashan