The River Merchant’s Wife: An Exercise in Translation (Join in!)


Ah, classic poetry…

Now, Ezra Pound was a lot of things–a poet, a translator, and an expatriate, to say nothing of his pretty busy (and rather scandalous) personal life. But aside from his personal beliefs and ideologies, Pound paved the way for a lot of Modernist poetry, and for that we must afford him some respect as readers of poetry.

ezra-pound How could he be such a bad guy?

It was about a year ago now that I worked on poems for an independent study course in poetry translation.  As part of the course, I had the good fortune to work with a very skilled professor, and one of the exercises he assigned me was to take a translator’s notes and, from only the rough translation, rewrite a work of poetry.  One of the first was Ezra Pound’s rough translation notes for “The River Merchant’s Wife.”

I spent quite a bit of time analyzing my word choices, but there’s no need to be so strict.  My version is just below, but feel free to look at the notes, translate it yourself, and take a look at how different translations can be.   It’s quite amazing to see how even tiny word changes can make a massive difference in tone or meaning.

The River Merchant’s Wife

My hair hung like a willow over my eyes,
and I was frolicking with broken flower branches
when you passed on stilts of bamboo.
Circling ‘round my seat, you crushed blue plums.                                                        We shared the same skies in Chokan —
Two children who did not distrust or redden.

I was fourteen when I became your wife.
Bashful, my smile never showed.
I hid my face in darkness, seeing none,
and though called a thousand times,
I never looked up to face the marriage light.

I was fifteen when my pupils dilated.
I desired our ashes to be one,
to eternally embrace the pillars of faith.
Why should I climb to the widow’s peak?

I was sixteen when you traveled far away,
and I was fearful of the treacherous eddies
that sought out passing ships in May.
The monkeys wail towards heaven’s realm.

Your footprints near the gate, reluctantly deep,
have one by one raised green mosses —
Mosses so deep that they cannot be wiped away,
and the winds of fall seem to adopt the leaves early.

Now, the yellow butterflies of August already arrive,
and they are awful yellow pairs in the west garden.
My heart is hollow and pained with absence.
This lament steals the hue of youth from my face.

If you pass the three narrows sometime soon,
write to me beforehand at our sacred home.
I will run to meet you, not caring how far,
and run with what speed I possess to Chofusha.


A lot of the fun lies in creating new and different dynamics and images.  For example, I added a dynamic of darkness and light to create a shift between a compartmentalized loneliness to an opening up between the married couple.  I tried to clear up some of the (what I felt to be) awkward-sounding sentences in the original to make it sound more modern and readable.

But come on, do not fear!  Write your own translation, share it below, and enjoy the process of making an established poem your own.


3 thoughts on “The River Merchant’s Wife: An Exercise in Translation (Join in!)

  1. Fascinating! I’ve always liked this poem, and it’s fascinating to see the original notes, as well as a different translation. I would love to have a go at it if I can find the time…


    1. What do you mean? I don’t see any typo. 😉

      But thank you for the comment! I find the translation process incredibly interesting. There’s actually a book called 19 Ways of Looking at Wang Wei, and it’s 19 different translations of the same poem. It’s just really interesting to see how much difference word choice can have in setting the tone, but some take greater liberties as well.

      And definitely give it a try! It’s easy to get stuck trying to make it a semblance of perfection. Almost as addictive as a Keeping Up With The Kardashian marathon.


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