Five Translations of a Single Poem by Guànxiū

Edward Schafer (1913-1991) was one of the major figures of American Sinology in the second half of the 20th century. His researched focused primarily on microscopic issues (what certain Chinese critics might call “little studies” or xiǎoxué 小學), such as historical phonology, technical terminology, and the representation of material objects in Táng Dynasty poetry. He moved ably between a wide variety of languages, including Chinese, Japanese, French, German, Italian, Spanish, Old English, classical Greek, and classic and medieval Latin. Also, he was the teacher of the teacher (Alvin P. Cohen) of my teacher (Paul W. Kroll), and so, in a way, I am his academic great-grandson.


Schafer is also, to my knowledge, the only Western Sinologist to have dealt extensively with the Zen monk/poet Guànxiū 貫休 (832-912), a fascinating poet who has received much of my scholarly attention lately. In an article from 1963, Schafer offers translations of four of Guànxiū’s “Paradise Poems” (yóuxiánshī 遊仙詩), giving five translations for each poem. Here I reproduce his translations of the first poem:

Chinese Original


Schafer’s Translations
A. Word for Word
dream             reach              sea                  midst              mountain
enter               certain            white              silver               house
meet               see                  one                  way                 gentleman
state                he is                Li                     eight               sire

B. Plain
I came in a dream to a mountain in the sea,
Entered a certain house of white silver,
Chanced to see a Gentleman of the Way,
Who said he was Li, Eighth Sire.

C. Self-Explanatory
In a dream I visited the Isles of the Immortals in the Eastern Ocean.
There I visited a house of purest silver,
And discovered a venerable Taoist adept
Who claimed to be the ancient healer Li Pa-po!

D. Mock Heroic
Dreaming I came to Orient’s verdant Isle,
And searched in vain each silv’ry domicile
I found a learned mage from China’s shore,
Who said, “Great Laocius, I – so search no more!”

E. Beatnik
A dream: offshore rocks – out of this world!
A stranger’s hut – white-painted, glistening.
The man comes – he’s real, he feels, he knows:
“I’m Hipster Lee.”

(from Edward Schafer, “Mineral Imagery in the Paradise Poems of Kuan-hsiu,” Asia Major 10 (1963): 73-102)

It’s tempting to analyze these translations to no end. I mean, what exactly is at stake in such an exercise? It’s partially a demonstration of one’s mastery of both the original language and of English poetry. It’s also an attempt to destabilize the search for a single, “correct” meaning (a search which consumes most philologists). On top of that, Schafer is also demonstrating to translators of other languages just how difficult classical Chinese is.

But getting into the nitty-gritty of such analyses would ruin some of the fun of these translations. The shift in register from “Great Laocius” of D to “Hipster Lee” of E is enough to show you that Schafer’s trying to have some fun here. So, I say, let’s just sit back and enjoy, and let it be food for thought for all you translators out there.

One thought on “Five Translations of a Single Poem by Guànxiū

  1. Dear Mr. Mazanek:

    Thanks for this interesting entry. Professor Schafer’s poems on the mineral imagery of Guanxiu’s poems are published in an academic magazine I lack access to. I’m not sure if they appear in any of his marvelous books (this month I’ve purchased the Golden Peaches of Samarkand, and can’t wait to get my hands on some of his other volumes, republished by Floating World Editions (The Vermilion Bird: T’ang Images of the South; Pacing the Void: T’ang Approaches to the Stars; Mirages on the Sea of Time: The Taoist Poetry of Ts’ao T’ang).

    I believe that in an interview for a translation magazine, some years ago, Jerome P. Seaton stated that he was willing to dedicate a book to this poet, but it hasn’t seen yet the light of day (although some of Guanxiu’s poems I believe appear in his volume on Zen Poetry ‘Drifting Boat’).

    The different translations that Schafer offers us here are a sheer delight, a jewel with mutiple facets. From reading the first three, for example, I wouldn’t have imagined any ironical presence or tone. And they all contribute towards enriching the reading experience in a way that could continue in aeternam towards completing the eternal jigsaw puzzing of translation.

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