25 April 2012

李紳 Li Shen: 憫農/古風 2首 其1 (1- 春種一粒粟) Pity the Peasants/Ancient Air, 1 of 2 (1- Each grain of millet sown in spring)

This is the first but the less popular of the 2 quatrains written by the late Tang dynasty poet Li Shen 李紳 on the plight of the farming peasants.  The first two lines of the poem make up a statement that a grain planted will produce many grains, hinting at an abundant harvest.  The turning point of the 起(begin)承(follow)轉(turn)結/合(conclude) is line 3 which, in the original, is simply written as another statement that there are no idle fields in the land, which may lead to a happy ending, yet here, ironically leads to grim death   In the poem, Li Shen has not made plain why peasants were still starving to death.  He does not have to.  One can well imagine: greedy, oppressive landlords, exorbitant taxes, and the fact that there can be no food before harvest.

Although my English rendition is largely iambic (daDUM) and anapestic (dadaDUM), I have rendered the 4th line trochaic (DUMda) to add weight to the grim conclusion.  The addition of "While" (not in the original) to line 3 makes reading easier and makes the turning point more discernible.  What do you say?  Enjoy the poem!  

Li Shen (772-846): Pity the Peasants/Ancient Air, 1 of 2

1  Each grain of millet sown in spring

2  Will by autumn harvest a myriad bring.
3  (While across the land no field lie vacant,)
    Across the land no fields lie vacant,  
    (revised 15.5.2012)
4  Peasants still found----starving, dying.

Translated by Andrew W.F. Wong (Huang Hongfa)  譯者: 黃宏發
8th April 2010 (revised 9.4.10; 25.4.12)
Translated from the original - 李紳: 憫農/古風 2 其1

1  春種一粒粟
2    秋收萬顆子
3    四海無閑田
4    農夫猶餓死


*  This English rendition is in tetrameter (4 metrical feet) while the original is in 5-character lines.  Though the rhyme scheme of the original is XAXA, I have changed it to the more demanding AAXA.

*  Line 1:  I had considered “One grain” and “A grain” but have decided for “Each grain”.

*  Line 2:  I had considered “Will, by autumn, ten thousand bring” but have decided for keeping “harvest” and for using “a myriad” instead of “ten thousand”.

*  Lines 1 and 2:  In other words, “Each grain … will … a myriad (grains) bring (/yield)”.

*  Line 3:  四海, meaning 四海之内 “(land) within the four seas”, is not translated literally as such, but as “across the land”.  I have taken to mean “inactive/unused” hence, “vacant/idle” and have adopted “vacant” as the most appropriate translation.  I have considered but rejected “fallow” which original and stronger sense is not land unused, but land ploughed but left unseeded for a growing season or more for weeding and fertility purposes.

*  Line 4:  I had considered “peasants still found, in hunger, dying” but have decided for “peasants still found -- starving, dying”.

*  Lines 3 and 4:  I had originally penned the 2 lines as “Across the land no fields lie vacant, /Yet peasants still found – starving, dying.” but have now decided for “While across the land no fields lie vacant, /Peasants still found – starving, dying.”


Andrew W.F. Wong 黃宏發 said...

I have amended the title to "Pity the Peasants (Two Airs of Old): I".

Hsiaoshuang said...

Dear Andrew,

Thanks for your kind comments on Yellow Crane Tower on my Bystander Website. Your reflection and translation of the various Tang poems are informative and insightful. The only problem is the screen display is very bad, making it a pain on the eyes to read the text. Hope you can improve on it. It's not just the quality of the content that draws the reader, the way it is displayed is also crucial. Drop me a line at hsiaoshuang@gmail.com.

Andrew W.F. Wong 黃宏發 said...

I have now decided to dropped the word "While" from my line 3 which now read "Across the land, no fields lie vacant". I have effected the amendment on the original post.

I will as requested write directly to Hsiaoshuang. I had always thought my screen display was alright; apparently it is not. Honestly, I know next to nothing on how to the most of my computer. Will anyone help?

Hsiaoshuang said...


Forget about iambic and other artificial conventions invented by Western critics who couldn't string a line of verse to save their life.

Translate according to meaning, insight and cadence. First, get the meaning correct. Words are not what they seem and often you have to tease the meaning out of a jumble of phrases that the sly poet throws at you. Take the word 萬. Literally it means myriad or 10,000. But is that the intended meaning of the poet? How can one grain multiply into 10,000 in just 2 seasons (spring-summer-autmn)? And why did the poet use the term 四海 (four seas). Today, to the Chinese, "within the four seas" means all the known land that the Chinese are aware of. But what does this term means to some living in the Tang era? It could be very different.

Often, reading a text written more than a millennium ago involves a fair amount of guesswork. The difficulty is compounded when you have to draw out the meaning from the orginal (a modern Chinese trying to figure out an ancient Chinese), and then transferring that meaning to a modern white man (from Chinese to English-speaking natives). We aren't whites, so how confident can we be that the whites will receive the meaning that we intended?

By the way, any one who attempts translating from Chinese to English must aim at English-speaking natives, i.e. white folks, born and brought up in England or the US, who have never seen a Chinese nor ever want to meet one. Most translated text made in English by Chinese, is incomprehensible or tedious to white folks.

So you see what the devil it is to translate anything.

Second, after you've more or less guessed the meaning that you believe is what the poet intended (and not what the words say explicitly), you then reflect and meditate until you've gleaned some insight from the meaning. The gem is the insight that you extract from the layers of assorted meanings that camouflage it.

Any verse will have meanings, lots of them (which keeps critics and Eng Lit professors happily employed); but only real poems will yield insight.

Most verses are useless, just words, words, words that offer zilch, zero, nothing. During the Tang era, almost anyone who could handle a writing brush fancied himself a poet. But their stuff is mostly doggerel, not worth a dog's fart. In modern times, the "poems" of prominent figures such as the Chien Lung Emperor and Mao Zedong are also worthless as dog's fart..

This Tang poem you're struggling to translate appears suspiciously like Mao's. All the arable lands in the country are being farmed, yet country folks are starving, an obvious truth. The poet didn't explore further to find out why this is so. His is just a bald economic statement. Today, food is produced in abudance and often left to rot while millions are starving. It's a question of an inefficient distribution system and misdirected political initiatives.

The verse is nothing more than a collection of four economic statements, of high productivity because of intensive cultivation, surrounded by a sea of starving peasants. So what? Where's the insight?

Finally, a competent translator must also catch the music (cadence) of the original text and bounce it towards an audience of a different language and time (from ancient Chinese to the modern English-speaking natives). This is most difficult, and I have not seen a single line of translation that carries the music faithfully across time and the cultural divide.


Andrew W.F. Wong 黃宏發 said...

Dear Hsiaoshuang, Now that I know you and Francis Chin are one and the same person, before I attempt to respond to your 3 points of "meaning", "insight" and "cadence", it seems to me appropriate to reproduce here my comments on the guest book of your bystander website:-

Andrew W.F. Wong Monday, 8/22/11, 8:54 AM
Dear Mr. Chin, I came across your "bystander" web page yesterday which I find most interesting, particularly your translations of Chinese poems, your comments on other translations and your views on poetry translation itself. I happen to have become very involved in the translation of classical Chinese poetry, primarily the "quatrain" 絕句 (4-line verse), and maintain 2 blogs on the web so as to solicit views and comments from all who share this same interest. My main blog (on which is a link to my 2nd blog) address is:- . I shall be most grateful if you, Mr. Chin, and your interested "guests" will visit me and give me your comments kind or otherwise. As I am new to your web page, Mr. Chin, I am not sure if this is the right place to briefly respond to your post on Li Bai's "Yellow Crane Tower" specifically on what you said about others' translations. Mr. Chin, you may be on the unkind side in your criticism of Xu Yuan-Zhong and Witter Bynner when it is well known that there exists 2 versions of line 3, one version 碧山 (blue hills)盡, the other 碧空(blue sky or emptiness)盡. X.Y.Z. has obviously chosen 碧空, so has Bynner who, therefore, cannot be critiqued as redundant to have used "sky" and "heaven" for the different words of 蝛� (here) and 憭� (in line 4), he has not repeated any word, nor any meaning which is not in the original. Just for your consideration, Mr. Chin. Yours sincerely, Andrew W.F. Wong

Andrew W.F. Wong 黃宏發 said...

Sorry, I should have been more thorough in restoring all the Chinese characters corrupted in the bystander web. The last part of my message should read:-

X.Y.Z. has obviously chosen 碧空, so has Bynner who, therefore, cannot be critiqued as redundant to have used "sky" and "heaven" for the different words of 空 (here) and 天 (in line 4), he has not repeated any word, nor any meaning which is not in the original.

Anonymous said...

Dear Mr. Wong.
Thank you for your thoughtful translation of an ancient and important poem to English. It cannot be easy, and I am the earliest beginner in Chinese language, but a master of English, and I understand the effort that you took.
Please do not let people like Hsiaoshuang discourage you. He does not speak for me, and certainly is not competent to speak for Western Civilization as a whole.
Please post more of your translations.