01 November 2012

李白 Li Bai: 怨情 Plaintful Sentiments

Following my July 2012 post of Li Bai's 玉階怨 "Sentiments on the Steps of Marble", I now present to you another beautiful little "plaint" or "complaint" by that great Tang poet Li Bai.

In my July post, I gave you Ezra Pound's rendition of 玉階怨 which he entitled "The Jewel Stairs' Grievance" for comparison with mine.  In this post of Li Bai's 怨情, I would like to give you the rendition of this poem by the great Chinese translator Prof. Xu Yuan-Zhong 許淵冲 (aka XYZ) of Peking University.  The following is found on p. 127 of a translated anthology "300 Tang Poems - A New Translation" (Commercial Press, 1987):-

Waiting in Vain    Li Bai    Tr. X.Y.Z.
1    A lady fair uprolls the screen,
2    With eyebrows knit she waits in vain.
3    Wet stains of tears can still be seen.
4    Who, heartless, has caused her the pain?

What a beautiful rendition!  XYZ is indeed a true master of the art of translation.  I do not intend to enter into a long discussion of whether his or mine or any other's is a better translation, but simply wish to bring out some of the words/phrases he and I have added or omitted, varied or explicated, so that one may begin to appreciate the very difficult choices the translator faces:- 

Line 1:  While XYZ prefers "lady fair" for 美人, I have omitted 美 "fair" as I take 美人 to simply mean a woman or lady.  XYZ has rendered 珠簾 as "screen" omitting 珠 "beads" (perhaps regarding it as inconsequential)  while I have used "beaded curtain" as I regard "beaded" to be of significance and do like the sound of "curtain" more than XYZ's "screen" or other alternatives, e.g. "drape" .
Line 2:  XYZ has altogether omitted 深坐 (my rendition "For long she sits") and has added "waits in vain" (which is also his translation of the title).  He must have taken 深坐 to mean "sitting for long, waiting" with "in vain" inferred from the next 2 lines.  I am grateful to XYZ for inspiring and inviting me to the idea of "waiting" which I have added in my own rendition.
Line 3:  但見 is hard to interpret.  XYZ has taken it to mean 仍可見 "can still be seen" while I take it to be 只見 "Seen ... are but".  While I have added "on her face" after "Seen" and have omitted translating   濕 "wet", XYZ's rendition has succeeded in not having to add "on her face" and keeping the word "wet".  This is probably due to our different interpretation of 但見.
Line 4:  This line is where XYZ and I differ the most.  XYZ's rendition of line 4 bears no resemblance to the original.  心 "her heart" is varied into "the heartless person" and 恨誰 "who ... she hates" is explicated as "Who ... has caused her the pain".  Yet, XYZ is able to retain all the ambiguities of the original.  What a great master!

With this tribute to XYZ, may I invite you to enjoy his rendition above and mine below:- 

Li Bai (701-762):  Plaintful Sentiments

1  The lady rolls up her beaded curtain;
2  For long she sits, brows knit, she waits.
3  Seen on her face are but traces of tears,
4  Know not who, in her heart, she hates.

Translated by Andrew W.F. Wong (Huang Hongfa)    譯者黃宏發
25th June 2012 (revised 26.6.12; 27.6.12; 30.10.12)
Translated from the original - 李白:  怨情

1  美人卷珠簾
2  深坐蹙()娥眉
3  但見淚痕濕
4  不知心恨誰


*    This English rendition is in tetrameter (4 metrical feet) while the original is in 5-character lines.  The rhyme scheme is XAXA as in the original.

*    Line 1:  I had considered “Fair lady” but have decided for “The lady”.  I had first penned “bead strung” but have now decided for “beaded”.

*    Line 2:  In my view, the word should be taken to mean “for a long time” and not “deep inside the room”.  I have added “waits” (not in the original) primarily for the “waits-hates” rhyme, but also to paint a picture of “a lady rolling up the curtain, sitting for long, unhappy, obviously because she is waiting without success for the return of her husband/lover”.  娥眉 refer to “eyebrows” and both  and  mean “frowning” or “knitting (the eyebrows)”.  Of these 2 words, I prefer pronounced as (Pinyin “cu”, Cantonese “tsuk”) which sounds better than pronounced as (Pinyin “pin”, Cantonese “pan).

*    Line 3:  I have translated 但見 “can only see” as “Seen … are but traces of tears” with “on her face” added “.  This, though not in the original is.  I have not literally translated “wet” but have hoped that “tears” would suffice.

*    Line 4:  I have translated the whole line rather literally, with translated simply as “hates”, thereby, retaining all the ambiguities.  She might be “hating” the husband who left home seeking fame and/or fortune or, even, for another woman, but still wanting him to come home.  She might “hate” the emperor for sending her husband to war, or even God, the gods, fate, or the heavens that her husband should be away no matter for what.  She might even “hate” herself for having been unkind, unloving to her husband no matter how few a time.  I agree with 喻守真 who said, “This poem in on the word ‘hate’.  As for whom to hate and what to hate, it is for the interpreter (reader) to interpret (read) for himself.” 此詩寫個恨字,恨誰恨甚麽?在解人自解。  This is the magic of ambiguity.  My literal translation of as “hate/hates” is, therefore, imperative.



Frank Yue said...


these are truly masterfully executed pieces. v enjoyable.

thanks, andrew.

Frank Yue said...

now, in the royal court of the masters, may the humble jester present his feeble version of this li bai poem:

怨情 李白Li Bai (701-762)


Fair Lady rolls up the beaded curtain;
She sits long in waiting with eyebrows frowned.
Her face is seen, in teary traces, drowned.
O Whom she hates, no one knows for certain.

Andrew W.F. Wong 黃宏發 said...

A beautiful rendition! Being so close to my line of thinking, may I suggest to Frank the following:-
Line 2: "Long she sit waiting", as "in waiting" is problematic.
Line 3: "Her face is seen in tears all drowned" without the commas so as to make the line run its course.
Line 4: Instead of "no one", use "none" to reduce the number of stresses.

Frank Yue said...

o, thank you v much, andrew, for your suggested amendments that are all agreed.

my rendition is "being so close" to your line of thinking: simply because you've done all the ground work, including interpretation etc., for me.

my revised rendition is now as follows, thanks to you, andrew:

39PITEOUS SENTIMENTS --Li Bai (701-762)

Fair Lady rolls up the beaded curtain;
Long she sits waiting with eyebrows frowned.
Her face is seen in tears all drowned.
O Whom she hates, none knows for certain.

Kenji Ho, a bar guy ^_^ said...

It's a beautiful art work.
I do admire it.

However, after I have read it for an hour, I find tired of my eyes.
Can the font size change bigger?

Anyway, good work and should be say, beautiful ^_^