Poesia e traduzione

A lü shih by the 12th century Korean poet Chŏng Chisang. A commentary by Steven Grieco-Rathgeb

rubrica a cura di John Taylor



Penglai, Montagna degli Immortali, 12 ° secolo


Steven Grieco-Rathgeb*


Questo articolo narra la vicenda della traduzione in inglese di un solo lü-shih, Dalla villa di Changweong, opera di Chŏng Chisang, poeta della dinastia Koryŏ, morto nel 1135 (il lü-shih è una classica forma poetica cinese che consta di 8 versi e sette caratteri per ciascun verso). Pur vissuto in Corea e diversi secoli dopo l’era Tang – periodo in cui come sappiamo la civiltà cinese raggiunse il suo massimo splendore – Chŏng Chisang scrisse nello stile dei grandi poeti, Li Bai, Du Fu, Po Chü I, Meng Hao-Jan, Wang Wei.

In quei tempi i sovrani della dinastia Koryŏ (918-1392) intrattenevano buoni rapporti con il vicino impero Cinese, di cui avevano adottato non solo il Confucianesimo e il Buddismo, ma anche la cultura, fra cui segnatamente l’alfabeto. Ecco perché i poeti a corte, compreso il nostro Chŏng, prediligevano lo stile di poesia cinese.

Il presente articolo descrive il modo in cui il suo autore e uno studioso giapponese, allora impegnati a tradurre insieme Heian waka in inglese e in italiano, lavorarono anche su alcune delle poche composizioni poetiche ancora esistenti di Chŏng Chisang. E come in seguito la traduzione del lü-shih Dalla villa di Changweong fu invece salvata da un rigogolo giallo in un giardino toscano, e dal Dr. Gregory Evon, professore di cultura coreana e giapponese  alla University of New South Wales.



A lü shih by the 12th century Korean poet Chŏng Chisang, who wrote in the classical Tang style

In 1999, while living in Florence, I met a Japanese professor of Heian literature who invited me to join him on a translation project of waka poetry. The Heian Period (9th—13th cent.) was the age of classical poetry in Japan: it brought to fulfillment the 31-syllable waka, one of the great poetic forms of all times, and a precursor of the haiku. The plan was that we would work jointly—he the scholar and textual expert, I the poet-translator—rendering waka in English and Italian, the two languages in which I write habitually. We began our project in Florence, and continued working in Tokyo in later years.

My scholar friend also cultivated classical Chinese poetry, and once told me about Chŏng Chisang (d. 1135), a poet who lived in Korea during the Koryŏ period and wrote poetry in the classical Tang style.

Very little is known about Chŏng Chisang’s life and times. He was an aristocrat, and served as an official at court. He took part in the Myocheong uprising against the Koryŏ king, which was put down by Kim Pusik, a general and himself a poet. The rebel leaders were executed, including Chŏng Chisang. An original volume of his poems apparently survived down to the 20th century, but was lost during the 1953-56 Korean War, and to this day is thought to lie in some forgotten archive in Pyongyang.

My friend showed me his word-for-word translations of a few of Chŏng’s poems. Some are lü shih (8 lines of 7 characters each), others modern style quatrains. They record the poet’s private and official life, and reveal a restless, self-centred, brilliantly imagistic mind.

From Changweong Pavilion is one of his most striking compositions:

mountain       high          twins     door  |    pillow     river      bank

clarity          night            all          not   |      one        point      dust

wind            send           guest       sail   |     cloud     wisp       wisp

dew          condense      palace      tile   |    lovely     scale       scale

green          willow          close      door |      eight      nine      house

light (vb)     moon            raise      blind |      two       three     person

beyond         mist             pong       rea   |     exist      which     place

dream      blossoming    yellow    bird  |      sing       blue  –  spring (= youth)


I tried to give this a rough shape in English:

towering twin gates, gentle river banks
night completely clear, nowhere a speck of dust
wind speeds the Guest’s sail, dappled dappled clouds
dew condenses on Palace roof – tiles like gems scales scales
behind green willows, doors of eight-nine homes shut
under bright moon two-three persons lift curtains
beyond mist, Mount Penglai now becomes real (?)
in dream a gorgeous nightingale sings his youth (?)

Two points remained unclear: the phrasing of line 7, which refers to the Mountain of the Immortals, where some Tang poets are thought to have gone at the end of their lives; and the puzzling (to me) appearance of the nightingale in the final line. I put the translation aside, and turned to other work.

The following year, in May, I was in the small living room of my wife’s rooftop apartment in Florence. Outside the weather was clear and bright, deep silence. From the open window behind me, through all that blueness, a 25 year-old memory came secretly to me: a summer morning, I am in my Tuscan garden: from a nearby thicket I hear a bird singing: the call rises into the hot air—a full-throated, drunken warble…

The golden oriole—not a nightingale! This is what Chŏng Chisang’s lü shih was suggesting to me. I rushed an e-mail to Tokyo, asking my friend if nightingales exist at all in the Far East. He said, no, Chŏng’s bird is usually translated into Japanese as uguisu, “Japanese bush warbler”, or “Japanese nightingale”. I asked him to check in the bird books if this was the oriolus chinensis, the beautiful black-naped yellow oriole. His enthusiastic answer came back a little later: yes, it was indeed him!

Orioles sing only in the daytime. The night in the last line paled wonderfully to dawn.

Indeed, the confusion around this bird name seems to go back in part to “how the Chinese word for ‘oriole’, a staple of classical poetry, has been expanded to unrelated birds under the influence of Japanese”.[1] In more recent times, that same inaccuracy was duplicated by unaware Western translators. This teaches the translator one important lesson: don’t take the poet’s vision lightly: he sharply observes nature, catches every vibration of every leaf, every bird sound, every change of colour and light. By a mere wisp, the translator can miss that vision.

After my discovery, I went back to the lü shih, trying to extract every bit of loveliness it suggested. Yet the seventh line—the allusion to the Mountain of the Immortals—remained unresolved. Again I put the poem aside.

Some years later my collaboration with the Tokyo scholar came to an end – but not my determination to get to the bottom of Chŏng Chisang’s poem.

Recently, searching for the elusive Korean poet on the Internet, I came across Dr. Gregory Evon, an expert in the field and the author of a monograph, Tracking a Ghost: Chŏng Chisang and a Forgotten Style of Sino-Korean Poetry.

I wrote him an e-mail, attaching my translation and my doubts regarding the seventh line. His answer:

3 September, 2012

Dear Steven,

Thank you for your email … I quickly looked over your beautiful translation … and can note one obvious point to improve/change or explain in line 7.
You would be better off saying Mt. Pongnae (蓬萊山) or Mt. Penglai (this was/is a “transportable” place name/ toponym—originating in China—that was borrowed in Korea and also in Japan, as I recall. Penglai was originally the name of a mountain on an island where, in Chinese mythology, immortals were believed to live. On balance, I would use the Korean pronunciation—since it is a Korean poem—and give it as Mt. Pongnae, or even just as “the abode of immortals.” The other issue is “now becomes real” [at the close of line 7]: I sense that this may be wrong. It would seem better to have something like: “Off in the distance, Mt. Pongnae—where does it exist?” It is that sense of “unknowingness” that connects to the dreaming bird or the bird of the dream.


Dr. Gregory N. Evon, Asian Studies Program Convenor, Korean Studies & Japanese Studies, School of International Studies, The University of New South Wales, UNSW, Sydney, NSW, 2052, Australia

I thanked Greg and asked him whether I could use his suggestions in an article I wished to write on this subject. His generous reply: “Dear Steven, by all means feel free to use that seventh line I sent, and acknowledge me or quote from the emails …”

Again I thank Dr. Evon for his invaluable help, and urge all poetry-lovers to read his fascinating monograph on Chŏng Chisang and Chinese poetics.

Whatever inaccuracies there may be in this piece are of course mine.

My final translation reads:

                   FROM CHANWEONG PAVILION

the Citadel’s twin gates loom high over silken river banks
far and wide the night is clear, nowhere a speck of dust;
wind speeds the Guest’s sail to cloud-flecked horizon,
on the Palace roof myriad tiles drip dew like glistening scales;
behind green willows the doors of many houses are shut,
only two, three persons raise blinds to the transfiguring moon:
far off, the Abode of the Immortals – where does it exist?
in dream a gorgeous yellow bird is singing his blue spring

In line with Chinese aesthetics, the composition’s inner image is one with the external landscape evoked—indeed, the landscape mirrors and amplifies the poet’s inner situation.

In the 1st line, the vertical, dark stroke contrasts with the luminous horizontal feminine image of the river. The clear night of the 2nd line may possibly refer to an inner issue which the poet has resolved. 3rd line: river and clouds in Tang poetry often suggest wandering or exile. The 4th line is static, in contrast with the previous. In those times, palaces consisted of a group of smaller and larger pavilions, connected by external roofed corridors (the bright roof-tiles: possibly the members of the royal court?). 6th line: Tang poets used the moon as a symbol of “truth”, and to suggest reunion after long absence. 7th line: the Mountain of the Immortals, where Li Po and Po Chü I are said to live. After the very clear night, this line suggests uncertainty and hope, typical of the hour before dawn. 8th line: night gives way to dawn. Blue and gold, the colours of eternity.


Very little is known about Chŏng Chisang’s life and times. He was an aristocrat, and served as an official at court. He took part in the Myocheong uprising against the Koryŏ king, which was put down by Kim Pusik, a general and himself a poet. The rebel leaders were executed, including Chŏng Chisang. An original volume of his poems apparently survived down to the 20th century, but was lost during the 1953-56 Korean War, and to this day is thought to lie in some forgotten archive in Pyongyang.

Di Chŏng Chisang si sa soltanto che era discendente di una famiglia dell’aristocrazia Koryŏ, funzionario e poeta a corte. Partecipò ad una rivolta contro il re che fu soffocata nel sangue dal generale-poeta Kim Pusik, suo principale rivale a corte e in poesia. I capi ribelli, compreso Chŏng, furono giustiziati. La damnatio memoriae del poeta che seguì spiega la scarsità di notizie biografiche su di lui. Un volume originale di sue poesie, sopravvissuto fino ai nostri tempi ma divenuto introvabile dopo la fine della Guerra Coreana 1953-56, giacerebbe ancora oggi dimenticato in qualche inaccessibile archivio a Pyongyang.

[1] Quoted from the website Sibagu – Bird Names in Oriental Languages. For a detailed and enlightening discussion of this point, see: http://www.sibagu.com/index.html


steven-grieco-rathgeb*Steven Grieco-Rathgeb, multilingual American-Swiss-Italian poet, writes in English and Italian. Co-editor of the online International litmag “L’Ombra delle Parole”. Contributes poems and critical essays to Indian and Italian reviews. Entrò in una Perla (He entered a Pearl), a collection of his English poems translated by himself into Italian is due to appear in October 2016, in Roberto Bertoldo’s “Hebenon” Foreign Poets Series, published by Edizioni Mimesis, Milan and Udine.

*Steven Grieco-Rathgeb, poeta multilingue americano-svizzero-italiano, scrive in inglese e in italiano. È co-redattore della rivista letteraria internazionale online “L’Ombra delle Parole”. Scrive poesie e saggi per riviste in India e in Italia. La sua raccolta, Entrò in una Perla – Poesie inglesi autotradotte in italiano, uscirà nell’ottobre del 2016 nella collana “Hebenon”, curata da Roberto Bertoldo, per le Edizioni Mimesis, Milano-Udine.


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