Bukowski and Li Po (and translation) (1 Viewer)

Three"”With the Moon and His Shadow
by Li Po

With a jar of wine I sit by the flowering trees.
I drink alone, and where are my friends?

[etc. - ed]

I just found this poem on the net attributed to Li Po. I can see why Bukowski was fond of his work. They definitely were kindred spirits.
Can anyone familiar with the writings of Li Po, recommend any titles?
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Black Swan

Abord the Yorikke!
If you are interested in Chinese poetry, there is a great book titled 'The Anchor Book of Chinese Poetry', from ancient to contemporary,
the full 3000-year tradition, published by Anchor Books. The poems are translated in english.
Nothing of Li Po in it, but still a great buy!
From the style, I would think that Bukowski read Chinese poetry, not only Li Po. That's just a guess.
Translation is really important, as Bill says. Not that one may be inherently wrong relative to another, or better, per se, but it's important to read the poem in either, 1) a style that is authentic to the way the poem was initially written or 2) in a style that speaks to you. Given that Chinese to English is a bit like turning a Volkswagen into a player piano, all I can offer you is the title of a book I've owned for years: Grove Press/Evergreen - Anthology of Chinese Literature.

The lines cited in your initial post are translated thusly:

Four Poems on Wine
Amidst the flowers
a jug of wine
I pour alone
lacking companionship

To me, the lines you cited sound more "Americanized." The more blunt/abstract (by abstract I mean like writing a scientific abstract for a paper, not Andre Breton) lines in the version I have seem to convey more to me the style of thought of the East. What I can't tell you is whether the former or the latter truly better represent what Li Po was thinking when the work was written.

By the way, WIlliam Acker translated what's in my version.

Wine is a common theme in Chinese poetry. There are ten Li Po poems in the anthology I cited, but not all about wine, of course. But, it does show up in many others.

Lastly, I've found Kenneth Rexroth to be a very good translator of Chinese poetry. But the two volumes I have of his translations, One Hundered Poems from the Chinese and One Hundered More Poems from the Chinese, do not appear to contain any Li Po.


Founding member
Which begs the question; can poetry really be translated from one language to another while still maintaining the original and intended "vibe"? And I will always maintain that the answer is clearly 'no.' Poets play with and off language, and translation is not an exact science, so the translator (or their opinions or tendencies) is/are always going to present in the translation. It's unavoidable.

Look at the way Talmudic scholars argue over the meaning of single words for centuries.

Square peg, round hole.

Chinese poetry is for Chinese people to enjoy. When you read it in English, you are reading something else that is an approximation of the original. And I think you can apply that to any translation. We've seen enough examples here of people "translating the translation" of some Bukowski poem back to English and the seeing how changed it is.

And what are they translating anyway? Bukowski? Martin? Newborn? ;)

It's another fine mess. I don't think a non-native speaker will ever enjoy all the subtleties of poetry that's been translated to their language. To me it's like "translating" a painting or a song.

Or if you're the scientifical type, think of Heisenberg's uncertainty principle, part of which makes the case that observing something inevitably changes its behavior. Or at least introduces uncertainty into the equation.
"Did Bukowski really say, "I eat the toenails of your demise?"
"Well, in the translation he did."
Okay, so the translation may not necessarily be "wrong," but the poem has changed.

Blah, blah, blah. I always type these longwinded responses when I'm drinking coffee in the morning.

(Are they genuine responses then, or is it the coffee effect? Help!)

d gray

tried to do his best but could not
Founding member
that's what always stops me from reading translations - i can't stop thinking those ain't the words the poet chose - and considering how important each word must be to the form (and the poet) it's enough to turn me off.
The translation issue is so big of a problem that I made a choice to eliminate it as a problem. What I mean is, the only way to completely eradicate it would be to become fluent in several different languages, taking into account dialect, temporal changes in language, and "scholarly" language vs. colloquialisms. An absolutely impossible task for me. So, I had a choice: don't read anything in translation, or accept that what I'm reading is heavily filtered through the mind of an English-speaking person.

Some of my favorite writers are Camus, Dostoevski and Kafka, and the truth is, I've never actually read the words they wrote. How lame is that? Granted, translating from the French, Russian or German to English may be less of a stretch than from Chinese to English, but this doesn't even address the problem of poetry vs. novels or essays. Certainly poetry presents the biggest problem with its use of imagery, etc. So, I can still enjoy a book of Chinese poems even if I've never read them, if you follow.

I am glad that Buk wrote in English so I at least have that (no small victory there!). I can't imagine trying to render his unique mix of words into another language and getting to the point.


Founding member
It's interesting that I prefer certain translations in English now, I mean to German.

Say certain French poets, like Baudelaire or Yves Bonnefoy. I can't read it in French, don't understand enough of it. Somehow the German translations suck major ass, I don't know why. The German they use and the syntax and etc. is almost unbearable to me. I read one line and it simply will not stick in my head. So I go to the English translations and it works best for me. It's not perfect, of course, but at least I get an idea what the poem is about.

Gerard K H Love

Appreciate your friends
Words are expressions of thought or ideas and Bukowski is a master of words. He also has written many ideas and thoughts that have a universal appeal or acceptance. Look at many of his early poetry and notice how his message is still applicable today in these newer times with our advanced modern society. He still makes sense even though many of us are quite specific and narrow minded. Like right now I don't feel I am making my point as clear as I want to because I have not learned to effectively communicate while typing. Sure I may simply be an imbecile or I am trying to over explain a very simple and basic idea.
Bukowski translates very successfully to German and perhaps to all European languages but I don't know enough to comment other than to assume if he translates to Chinese or any of the several other cultures in this little world of ours. I would assume a copy of Women translated to Arabic found in my possession in Saudi Arabia would get something of mine cut off in the Soccer arena. Therefore he might not be so universally accepted but he would be understood.
Bukowski translates very successfully to German and perhaps to all European languages but I don't know enough to comment other than to assume if he translates to Chinese or any of the several other cultures in this little world of ours.

I'm not sure how you know that, other than by noting how well Buk has sold in Europe. I mean, while not nearly as popular as Buk is in Germany, for example, Dostoevski and Kafka sell fairly well here in the US. But selling well and translating well are clearly not the same bucket of haggis. I have no idea if the Dos and Kafka I've read is true to the original, or if that even exists. I have read a few of these books in different translation, and I suppose I prefer one to another, but it's almost immaterial when it comes to which is closer to the original intent and language.

My point about Buk was really centered on the inability of any translation to deliver the regional or national meaning of the colloquial, something Buk used extensively (although not in the cliche sense). I suspect the degree of annoyance, isolation, frustrated beauty, and whatever other words you want to use to describe Buk's works are conveyed, but are they really conveyed in the same way?

Notwithstanding the success of Buk in Germany, for example, only someone like roni could try to convey how well the translations come across. And that wouldn't quite get there either. A scholar in both languages might help, but there we end up with a scholar talking about Buk. Bad prescription indeed.


"The law is wrong; I am right"
I would really like to know how good or bad Weissner's translations of Buk into German are. Do the Germans think he did a great job or not?
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Founding member
We've discussed Weissner and his translations before, I think.

It is a most difficult job of course and he did it his way. Reading Bukowski in German and in original seems very different for a lot of reasons. Weissner did what he could, but he often used a kind of 60/70's German working-class-slang in his translations which nobody speaks anymore today (as far as I know). This leads to the interesting paradox that his translations seem outdated today, but not Bukowskis writing (as roni pointed out somewhere very correctly).

Also I always got the impression that Weissners translations distorted and simplified the feeling of the stories and poems to a certain point. This probably has to happen in any translation process.

I always hated those literature snobs who keep saying, "No translations! You have to read the original, man, you just have to!" but with Bukowski it's true. And he is the one writer whose language (on the surface) is not the biggest task, even if you are not a pro. In fact I think that reading Bukowski in original is the most joyful way to gain some (American) English skills. At least for me.
Buk and Li Po

Buk has a poem about Li Po titled "A.D. 701-762" in Last Night of the Earth Poems, and also a nice, brief essay about how he would like to go with Li Po to Musso and Frank's and drink wine and float poems down the river collected in Portions. He writes frequently about Li Po, and also if I remember correctly the Chinese poet Tu Fu. Remember that Bukowski read the Imagists: Pound, Richard Aldington, William Carlos Williams and probably H.D. (she was into Greek stuff, not sure about Chinese) and they were all into Chinese poetry because of its clarity and emphasis on the photographic reality of things ("no ideas but in things") and lack of bullshit. All that "petals on a wet black bough" stuff and Williams "This is just to say I ate the plums that were in the refrigerator they were so cold and delicious." In rereading Buk's poetry recently I see alot of that.

Black Swan

Abord the Yorikke!
On translation, Tony Barnstone, editor of The Anchor Book of Chinese Poetry, writes: From the early metrical and end-rhymed translations of Herbert Giles to the so-called free-verse translations of Ezra Pound, Arthur Waley, and Kenneth Rexroth, Chinese poems have been reinvented in English. The Chinese poem in English is like a stolen car sent to a chop shop to be stripped, disassembled, fitted with other parts, and presented to the consumer public with a new coat of paint. But despite its glossy exterior, it's a Chinese engine that makes it run, and fragments of the poem's old identity can be glimpsed in its lines, the purr of it's engine, the serial number, which we may still be able to read. In these thoughts of translation, i wish to discuss ways I've found of negociating between Chinese and English-language poetic paradigms, and to touch on the aspects of English that have proved compatible with the Chinese poem, which was part of Western poetic traffic since the early years of modernism.

I was thinking that if you start with a pictogram, how can you really translate a 1000 year old thing, and bring it to the present time? Sure it will become an entirely different thing. It is a mystery to solve and a free-for-all to give it a sense. I still like to read some of them, it seems that the pictogram get reconstructed in some cases on the other side. As for what the poem means, words don't mean the same for most. But to call it a translation is a bit arrogant.

Tony Barnstone co edited the book with a Chinese translator, Chou Ping, which would help. I wondered if they drive a Bently.
Hi everybody, I have stumbled upon this thread by chance while browsing. I don't know anything about Bukowski. It is your discussion about Li Po that got me interested in. I am native Chinese. I wonder what you think of Ezra Pound's translation? Do you think it's good? What image does this give you in the Mercant's Wife's Letter?
For example, this line "By the gate now, the moss is grown, the different mosses,", to me, this means 1) the husband was absent from home for too long; 2) the girl was very very lonely, she missed her husband; 3) She (maybe intentionally) led a hermitic life, she did not want to see any other men, she did not go to socialize, by which way, she maintained her loyalty to her husband.
Do you have the same feeling after reading this line? I am very curious.
Bukowski often refers to the "wine" Li Po drank and sometimes even "red wine." I always wondered if this was a translation thing as well, and if closer to what we think of as sake, or some kind of rice wine, would have been more likely.
During Li Bai's (Li Po) time, Chinese already had grape wine. In another of Li Bai's poem, he said "... A hundred years of lifetime, thirty six thoudsand days , I want to drink 300 cups each day. Looking at the green water of Han River, I can imagine it as grapes just beginning to ferment; If this whole river becomes spring harvest of wine, a platform can be built just using the wine yeast". So I think he was familiar with grape wines. There were foreigners (Arabians) who opened bars at that time. Li Bai mentioned in his poems that he flirted with those girls.
However, the prevalent drink in China was always rice wine。 So I do wander what kind of alcoholic drink did Li Bai consumed the most.
After further investigation, I found some intersting info about grape wine in ancient China.
The plant Vitis flexuosa was mentioned in the first collection of poems of China which dated back to 11 to 6 BC. But I don't know whether their fruits could be used for making wines.
In Han Dynasty, wine grapes was introduced to China. During 3rd century, somebody bribed for a governor's position with 20 liters of grape wine. An emperor of that time wrote specifically about medicinal benefits of grapes and grape wine.
A emperor of 7th century (Tang Dynasty) made wine himself.
Many of Li Bai's contemporaries talked wine making from choosing cultivar to watering to the final fermenting.

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