‘River snow’, by Liu Zongyuan (773–819)

January 1, 2006 (revised Feb 5, 07)

Liu Zongyuan 柳宗元 was my age when he died, after a life of exile and isolation. He wrote a four-line poem that must be one of the most translated Chinese poems of all, providing an image of solitude in just 20 characters that has inspired many paintings and evokes the kind of place I have been myself and wish to return to often. Yet strangely this poem has been translated quite poorly, even by great translators, such that it was the subject of an article in Cipher Journal entitled Liu Zongyuan & Fishing in the Snow of Translation.

I was disappointed to see that Kenneth Rexroth, whose books of Chinese poetry are among my favourites, came up with quite a flaccid rendering of this poem. Even Geoff Waters, in his splendidly opinionated but haughtily superior article Some Notes on Translating Classical Chinese Poetry, rather surprisingly misses the boat with his own translation of the poem – quite literally, there is a boat in the third line that he simply doesn’t mention. Here is my version:




River snow

A thousand mountains cut short the flight of birds,
All trace extinguished of the ten thousand tracks of man.
A solitary boat, an old man in a rush cape and a straw hat
Fishes alone on the cold river in the snow.

In the first line, I am uncertain whether Liu is saying the place is inaccessible to birds or whether he means that even the birds can get no further. My inclination is towards the latter interpretation. I might make the title ‘River in the snow’ rather than the literal though sparse ‘River snow’.