Two Poems About the Moon, one mentioning the moon six times and the other not mentioning the moon at all [new translations]

Two poems about the moon, one mentioning the moon six times and one not mentioning the moon at all


Sky Dream

Li Ho (790-816)

In the sky, that cold toad’s eye weeps.
Between towers of cloud its clarity slants, unstuck,

a jade wheel rolling anew in each drop of dew, glinting
off imaginary immortals on the fragrant path as they meet

and watch dust and ocean trade places beneath the Three Mountains
and even as they blink a thousand years run by like horses. Meanwhile,

way up there, to the toad the great nations are nine wisps
of angry mist and the wide ocean of sorrows a small spilled cup.


Still Night, Thoughts

Li Po (701-762)

Moon’s so bright before my bed
I mistook it for frost glowing on the floor.

I lift my head, and old hopes, to that moon,
then back down, eyes full of a dream of home.


–translated by Jeff Schwaner

25 thoughts on “Two Poems About the Moon, one mentioning the moon six times and the other not mentioning the moon at all [new translations]

    1. Jeff Schwaner Post author

      Thank you, sir! Li Po and Li Ho are certainly a contrast in style; but I thought these two poems were calling out to be placed together like this–one highly impersonal yet unique in Li Ho’s crazy way; the other deeply personal yet done with such economy and concision.

      1. zdunno03

        Yes,they work well as companion pieces.
        You seem to be working on compiling translations from the Chinese now. And that will also work well as companions pieces to your own original work.

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  2. christineplouvier

    I don’t read Chinese, but the literal translation Robert Okaji posted spoke to me this way:

    Light startles me awake – at first,
    I think I sleep again amid the frost.
    Then from the bed I raise my head
    And see the moon – relax! I’m safe at home.

    It can be difficult to strike a balance between translation and interpretation. I’m attempting to read Im Westen nichts Neues in the original (it’s going slowly – it’s been a long time since I lived in Germany). The two English translations I’ve read completely miss a wonderful German play on words that’s in the first paragraph. I want to know what else I’m missing!

    1. Jeff Schwaner Post author

      Right! For instance, in classical Chinese poetry the moon is often seen as a way of communicating with those you are not with at the moment. Two friends can look up at the same moon and know that same evening their dear friend is also doing the same. Thus the moon is so near–so bright it’s mistaken for frost in his room–and so far, unreachable, at the same time, it generates both hope and heartbreak. Li’s use of the moon characters visually overemphasizes this (in the word for brightness, for instance).

      In trying to translate these poems, I have sought out not just multiple translations, but even multiple transliterations–even the bare bones definitions of the characters are not the same across transliterations. Seaton, for example translates the verb in the second line to be “suspect” and not simply “think”, which generates the idea that the speaker mistakes the moonlight at first for frost because it is so bright in his room.

      While I could not use the word “moon” six times in that four line poem the way Li Po uses the the moon character or characters containing the moon, I tried to represent that omnipresence of moon-ness in other ways–the speaker’s eyes are “full” like a moon, with hopes,and maybe tears as well, those full eyes reflecting old hopes and home. I poured as many moon-looking lowercase o’s in those four lines as I could to do a little homage to Li Po’s great work of craft that is essentially untranslatable in English.

      I think Li Po might have been happier with your version–if he only could have written it safe at home! But I like what spoke to you in the poem and came out in your version, and the poem is universal because everyone has been woken by the moon at some point, and can share some aspect of that experience which is both diminishing and enlarging at the same time.

      1. Mary Tang

        The Chinese word in the Li Bai poem is ‘suspect’, in this context ‘wonder if’. What you said is true: “the speaker mistakes the moonlight at first for frost because it is so bright in his room.”.

      2. Mary Tang


        The above is Li Bai’s poem. It does not have six moons though I can understand why some people may think so. The word ‘moon’ is 月 and there are two of those in the poem. Someone must have decided to count the 月 in the characters 明 meaning ‘bright’ and 望 meaning ‘look’ as well. Those words do not mean moon. The word 明 is made up of two parts, a window (though some people think it is a sun because it has evolved to the modern character 日) on the left and 月 on the right. Similarly the word 望 uses the character 月 as one of its components.

        Chinese writing is modular, like Lego. Words are ‘made’ using other words as ‘parts’, sometimes because of their meanings, sometimes because of their sounds etc. I can write a essay (more like a book) about it but it comes to this: personally I do not believe Li Bai meant to put six moons in the poem.

      3. Jeff Schwaner Post author

        it is hard to read the mind of a poet who wrote thirteen hundred years ago, that much is very true. Seaton very much understands that the word for moon is not used six times, but finds the use of characters which have the moon built into them as part of those building blocks quite striking, and makes a compelling argument to me that Li was well aware of his choices. But who knows? I remembered Seaton’s observation after reading the Li Ho poem and thought “Sky Dream” a great counterpoint to the “Quiet Night” in many ways, not the least being the absence not only of the character for moon, but of any character containing the moon character as a component. A poem about the sky, from that period, without the visual reminder of the moon, even though the moon plays its part in the poem? Very striking! especially when read next to “Quiet Night.”

        Do you have a favorite translation of “Quiet Night”?

      4. Mary Tang

        I have many volumes of Li Bai’s work but all in Chinese. I did buy one volume of translations but a friend who can’t read Chinese borrowed it. I have read a lot of theories written in English about Chinese language that is contrary to what Chinese people know of their own tongue. However, these authors are usually well known in the English speaking world so they are respected and therefore believed. Many Chinese people don’t respect their own language enough to argue or perhaps they just don’t know better (Cultural Revolution). I often have this sort of discussions with people but they always cite some book written in English by some Western authors they trust. That’s fair enough. As you said, we can’t get into the poet’s head now but it pains me to hear people suggests such naive literary devices being used by one of our greatest writers. Perhaps if they read more of his work they would not dream of it. This poem is on our primary school syllabus and every Chinese school child knows it by heart like yours would know Twinkle Twinkle Little Star (borrowed from Mozart) because it is very simple. Li Bai used to write plainly at times so that everyone can appreciate his work. He is such a master that he can boldly use the word moon and not couch it in allegory such as ‘jade plate’. I am amazed that such theories can emerge from Westerners studying his work.

      5. donegallizdoyle

        Thanks so much Jeff for the poems, the exchange here with Christine Plouvier, the education about translation and alliteration. How lovely to see a comparison of translations and an illumination of LP’s craft and yours. Especially appreciatr your explaining your use of extra lower case ‘o’ s to parallel the characters used for the moon. And I love your story of the sharing of the moon with distant friends. I feel I have had a personal moon poetry seminar! Many thanks 🙂

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  5. S.C. Hickman

    I loved your translations… that last one hit me:

    I lift my head, and old hopes, to that moon,
    then back down, eyes full of a dream of home.

    It’s that since of what’s absent in the between his rising with old hopes and the laying back down with that dream of home that fascinates: the communication that happened was the hole in the poem of his mind, the moment that was both immanent in transcendence; or, a transcendent immanence. Very much like some of John Ashbery’s works, too… strange that! It’s as if the moon becomes the object that holds language rather than reflecting it, and the mind can only describe the silence in this confrontation not what is communicated which is essentially silence as an affective relation.

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  7. Harry Miller

    These are among the best translations of Chinese poems I’ve read. I’m very glad the WordPress algorithm sent me your way. I recently posted a Chinese poem and a brief lament about the difficulties attendant to translating Chinese poems on my blog.


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