by Li Bai 李白 (701-762)


Before the bed—there—the bright moonlight

appears to me as frost upon the ground.

I raise my head and gaze upon the moon.

I bow my head and long for my hometown.






by Han Shan 寒山 (fl. Tang dynasty)


People ask me the way to Cold Mountain.

Cold Mountain? There are no roads that reach it.

At summer’s height, the ice has yet to melt,

and the rising sun is veiled by fog and mist.


Me? By what paths did I find the way to it?

Well, your heart and mine—truth is, they differ.

But if that heart of yours were more like my own,

you’d be able to find your way to its center.

Original ↓




















Translator's Note

The journey is one of the most common motifs in Chinese poetry. From early times, successful scholars, merchants, government officials, and poets spent long periods of time away from home. In a poetics deeply concerned with imagery, journeys were a powerful image for exploring a variety of themes. In the two poems translated here we see both the significance of the journey for the poet and the location of the poet’s heart. For Li Bai, a literatus who traveled to make a living, his heart was his hometown, from which the journey separated him. For Hanshan, a Buddhist recluse, the outward journey was a metaphor for the inward journey, and the destination—far removed from ordinary dwellings—was enlightenment, his true home.

In my translations, I follow the lead of Tony Barnstone and William Carlos Williams—though with different results. I see a poem as a machine made of words that does some particular work. My job as a translator is to craft an English poem that accomplishes, as far as possible, the same work as the original. Doing so demands that I pay attention not only to a poem’s words but also to its formal character. Rhyme, meter, rhythm, structure—all of these contribute to the work a poem does, and a translation should be an essay at achieving the same work using the resources of the target language and its poetics.

The result is often a “parallel” poem that translates the formal character of the original into target language forms that have a similar character. In these two poems for example, I have translated the Chinese pentasyllabic meter as English iambic pentameter. Both meters, in their respective traditions, are classical and dignified while maintaining a natural feeling. I have also strived as much as possible to maintain the rhyme scheme of the originals by availing myself of the many forms of English near rhyme.

No translation can claim to be the only “correct” one, but the translation of classical Chinese poetry into English has been overwhelmingly dominated by imagistic, free verse that ignores the formal and sonic character of the poems in Chinese. I agree with Dana Gioia that this homogeneous approach to translation not only obscures the differences between poets, traditions, movements, and eras but also deprives English-speaking poets of the inspiration new forms can provide. I hope that the approach presented here helps expand the possibilities for the translation of Chinese poetry.

Stephen Boyanton


In the Classroom