02 June 2015

賈島 Jia Dao: 劍客 The Swordsman

Today, I am posting my latest translation, a simple little poem by Jia Dao.  Hope you like it:-

Jia Dao (779 – 843): The Swordsman

1  (For ten long years, my sword I whetted,)
    For ten long years, a sword I whetted,  
    (revised 4.7.15)
2  Its frosty blade, as yet, untried.
3  Today, I hold it unsheathed before you;
4  Of you, to whom was justice denied?

Translated by Andrew W.F. Wong (Huang Hongfa)   譯者: 黃宏發
4th May 2015 (revised 7.5.15; 18.5.15; 22.5.15)
Translated from the original - 賈島:  劍客

1  十年磨一劍
2  霜刃未曾試
3  今日把示 ()
4  誰有() 不平事


*Form, Metre and Rhyme:  This English rendition is in tetrameter (4 beats or feet) while the original is in 5-character lines.  The rhyme scheme is XAXA as in the original.

*Line 1:  To complete the 4-beat metre, I have added an extra syllable (a word) to the first half of the line; for 十年 “ten years”, I had considered “For ten whole years” and “A full ten years”, and have decided for “For ten long years”.  For , I had considered “polished” but have decided for the more appropriate “whetted”.  I had originally translated 一劍 as “a sword” literally, but have now decided for “my sword” so as to better convey the idea that the sword is the sword of the poet, a synecdoche for his swordsmanship and, hence, a metaphor for his scholarship and abilities.

*Line 2:   is translated as “frosty” in the sense of “shiny”. is translated literally as “blade” which two words can mean both the knife/sword itself and its cutting edge(s).  I had considered adding “edge(s)” after “blade” but have found it too bothersome to work out the metrics of “blade edges” (as in Chinese usage is invariably doubled-edged) and really unnecessary for reason that and “blade” are perfect equivalents.

*Line 3:    “hold” is translated as “I hold it” and 示君 “to show you”, as “before you”, with “unsheathed” added to heighten the sense of “to show you (his metal/mettle)”.

*Line 4:  For 不平事 I had considered “wrongs”, “inequities” and “injustices”, but have decided for “justice denied” which rhymes perfectly with “untried” (line 2).

*Lines 3 and 4 (Alternative Version):  The words in brackets in the original, i.e. “give” (not in the sense of “like/similar”) in line 3, and “for” in line 4 are found in an alternative version of the poem.  If adopted, they would change the message of the poem.  Line 3 would mean: “Today (今日) I hold () it and present () it to you ()”, and line 4: “You who () will, for () the people, right their wrongs (不平事)”.

*Rendition of the Alternative Version (characters in brackets in lines 3 and 4):
1  (For ten long years, my sword I whetted,)
    For ten long years, a sword I whetted,  
    (revised 4.7.15)
2  Its frosty blade, as yet, untried.
3  Today, I present it to you, my Lord,
4  From whom, no injustice may hide.

*The Analogy:  In addition to the literal sense, the poem can (and, perhaps, should) be understood as an analogy of a man (the poet), after studying hard (whetting his sword) for ten years, is now ready to take the imperial examinations (show his sword/swordsmanship to represent scholarship and abilities), pledging that he, as an official (the “swordsman”, as in the title), will right all injustices.  The alternative version features the same analogy with lines 3 and 4 saying: the poet presents himself (the sword) to the imperial examiners and asks to be deployed to right all injustices.  Instead of the poet himself as the “swordsman” showing his sword, the one (the emperor) who is about to receive and use the sword becomes the “swordsman”.


Ray Heaton said...

Most translations of this poem I have come across are similar to Andrew's and agree with his assertion that this poem is about Jia Dao presenting himself after years of study as the official to uphold justice.

James J.Y. Liu goes a bit further stating that the poem is a summation of the knight errant (遊俠騎士), willing to sacrifice himself in the name of justice and avenge wrongs done to others.

But I find this a little challenging, especially as Jia was banished when he was caught up in a plot and could find no politically advantageous ally to assist in his attempts to qualify in the imperial examination system.

Jia seems never to have risen to the loftiness of being able to wield much power and so this poem rather overstates his position! Mike O'Connor (in "When I find you it will be in Mountains: Selected poems of Chia Tao") states that Chia's interest in politics was always weak and attempts to secure government employment lacked vigour. Chia took the examinations several times, but records do not show him passing them, indeed several of his poems refer specifically to his failure.

William H Nienhauser suggests that Chia was one of the "ten villains of the examination grounds" due to an "unpolished and eccentric talent", further stating that Chia was caught up in the Niu and Li factions; further preventing him succeeding politically or in literary terms.

I read the poem as self serving on behalf of the poet; pleading almost that after his ten years of "sacrifice" in attempting to qualify for a position his abilities as he sees them are overlooked, and so the last line is more rhetorical and suggests to me that the injustice is to him, rather than him seeking out injustice being done to others.

Ray Heaton said...

Ps...apologies for switching between Jia and Chia above; spell checker gone wild!

Andrew W.F. Wong 黃宏發 said...

Sorry for this late response to Ray Heaton's learned and well-said comment. Jia Dao was born to a poor family and was a Buddhist monk (together with his brother). He met Han Yu 韓愈 who was impressed by Jia's literary prowess and persuaded Jia to try the Imperial Examinations. Jia never succeeded, but legend has it that he was given a minor official position by the Emperor. He also befriended Meng Jiao 孟郊 (whose 遊子吟 "Song of the Travelling Son" I posted here in December 2014) and shared the fame of 苦吟詩人 (which I loosely translate as "poets of well-studied diction").

I agree with Ray Heaton that the poem is on Jia Dao the poet himself, perhaps even primarily of his unsuccessful attempts to qualify. Stretching one's imagination a bit, these 4 lines may well have been incorporated into his examination answer, hence, the ambiguity in 誰有不平事 in which, 誰 "who" includes himself" and which I have, for flow, rendered as "Of you, to whom was justice denied". I suppose my "you" can also be taken to include "him" and "me".

On re-reading my rendition, I have come to the view that in line 1 "my sword" is an over-translation of 一劍 and have decided to revise it to "a sword". I have effected the revision in the post.

Thank you, Ray Heaton.