06 October 2014

白居易 Bai Juyi: 花非花 Flower No Flower

This is a beautiful little love poem by the famed Tang dynasty poet Bai Juyi.  Inspired and encouraged by my friend Charles Huang Yong 黄用, I have rendered it into "sing-able" English.  As this is the first time I have ever attempted and posted any "sing-able" translation, I shall be most grateful for your comments kind or otherwise.


Bai Juyi (772-846):  Flower No Flower

1    Flower?  No, no flower.  Mist?  No, no mist.
2    (Mid of night, you come; daylight, away you go.)
      Mid of night, you come; daybreak, away you go. 
      (revised 14.10.14)
3    (You come like a dream of spring, brief, so brief;)
      You come like a dream of spring, oh, so brief;  
      (revised 13.10.14)
4    (Gone as the clouds at dawn to where I'll never know.)
      Gone as the morning clouds to where I'll never know.  
      (revised 14.10.14) 
Translated by Andrew W.F. Wong (Huang Hongfa)           譯者: 黃宏發
16th September 2014 (revised 20.9.14; 23.9.14; 26.9.14; 28.9.14)
Translated from the original - 白居易花非花

1    花非花    霧非霧
2    夜半來    天明去
3    來如春夢不(/)多時
4    去似朝雲無覓處


*Form, Meter and Rhyme:  This English rendition is in the form of a quatrain and is in hexameter (6 metrical feet).  The original is a 6-line poem: the first 4 being 3-character lines and the last 2, each with 7 characters.  I have re-arranged it as a 4-line poem by treating each 3-character line as a half line to go with the other as if they were linked by the addition of the word  which roughly means “oh” or “ah”, but provides a pause or caesura much longer than either word.  The rhyme scheme is XAXA as in the original.

 *Title and Meaning:  The title is simply the first 3 words of the poem itself which is close to being entitled “Untitled”.  I have translated these 3 words 花非花 literally as “Flower No Flower”.  On the face of it, the poem is a riddle, and the answer clearly is “dew” which is: like but not flower, like but not mist, comes at night, leaves in the morning, stays but briefly, and cannot be found when gone.  The ambiguity lies not in the riddle itself but in the rich imagery of the poem (“flower”, “mist”, “dream of spring”, “clouds”) and the answer to the riddle (“dew”), all subtly suggestive of sensual and sexual love.  It is, therefore, safe to say this is a love poem in which the poet expresses his yearning for a lady he loves and misses.  And from line 2 (come at midnight and gone by daylight), it is perhaps also safe to say that the lady concerned is a courtesan for officials 官妓 (one class lower than courtesans in the palace 宮女 and one class higher than the "comfort ladies" for soldiers 營妓, all in the employ of the government in the Tang dynasty), the poet being an official. Courtesans for officials were assigned to perform or accompany officials at banquets and/or to serve them at night.

*Line 1:  I had originally penned “Flower? No, you’re no flower”, then considered “Flower? No, not real flower”, “Flower? No flower” and “Flower? No, not flower”, and have decided for “Flower?  No, no flower” (meaning, and is a contracted form of, “you’re no flower”).  The same goes for “Mist”.

*Line 2:  I had originally penned “Midnight, you come (2 beats); by dawn, you’re gone (2 beats)”.  Unable to sustain the “gone” rhyme, I have re-written the second half of the line as “Daylight, away you go (3 beats)”.  For the first half, I had considered adding “here” after “Midnight” to turn the line into 6 beats but have now decided to re-write Midnight” as “Mid of night” instead, bearing in mind in Chinese 夜半 “night half” is not precisely “midnight” but may just mean “late at night”.

*Line 3:  I have translated 春夢 in 3 words as “dream of spring” rather than in 2 words as “spring dream” which can mean both “a dream in springtime” and “dreaming of the beautiful yet brief springtime”, and I have taken the latter to be the correct interpretation.

*Music:  Although this poem by 白居易 Bai Juyi could have been written to music, that music either never existed or at least no longer exists.  The current music is the work of 黃自 Huang Zhi (1904-1938), a famous Chinese composer in the Nationalist period (1911-1949).  The musical score in “numbered musical notation” (簡譜 jianpu) and the song lyrics (the poem) in both English and Chinese are given below after these notes.  Please note that I have only put down (a) the numbered musical notes with “^” or “_” added to the number to stand for a higher or lower octave, (b) the musical rest represented by “0” (in this case, none), and (c) the key and time signature (in this case, 1=D and 4/4).  Other information such as musical note and rest length, bar lines, etc. are omitted.  Here is the song.

花非花    Flower No Flower
: 白居易    Lyrics: Bai Juyi (772-846)
: 黄自    Music: Huang Zhi (1904-1938)

1=D    4/4

Flower?  No, no flower.  Mist?  No,   no mist.
5              6 5   5     3             1^   2^1^   1^   6

Mid of night, you come; day(light)break, away you go.
5      (5)   5       1^    6 5      3              (3)    (3) 2    1      2

You come like a dream of spring, (brief) oh,  so     brief;
2       (2)      3    5   6       (6)   5                     5   2^1^     6

Gone as the morning clouds (at dawn) to where I'll never know.
1^       6   1^     5   (5)    35                        6_ (6_)  (6_)  2 3      1