02 August 2015

李益 Li Yi: 江南曲 Jiang Nan Qu (Song of the Land South of the River)

This poem depicts the feelings of the wife of a merchant who time after time fails to return home as promised.  The word 潮 "tides" which appears in both lines 3 and 4 may mislead us to think that Qutang (which is the uppermost gorge of the Three Gorges of the Yangzi River) is by seaside.  I have, therefore, rendered it as "Qutang Gorge".  My note on line 3 explains 潮 not as 潮汐 "tides" but as 潮汎 "high/flood waters" which make the gorge navigable, hence my rendering 潮有信 in line 3 as "as ever floods on time" and 弄潮兒 in line 4 as "river-boat sailor".  Here we go!

Li Yi (748 – 829): Jiangnan Qu (Song of the Land South of the River)

1  I’m married to a merchant, we live in Qutang Gorge, yet
2  Time after time he fails me: to return by the day he’d said.        
3  O had I known this River, as ever, floods on time,  
4  I might have had married a river-boat sailor instead.  

Translated by Andrew W.F. Wong (Huang Hongfa)   譯者: 黃宏發
18th June 2015 (revised 19.6.15; 26.6.15; 30.6.15; 3.7.15; 10.7.15; 15.7.15)
Translated from the original - 李益: 江南曲



*Form, Metre and Rhyme:  This English rendition is in hexameter (6 beats or feet) while the original is in 5-character lines.  The rhyme scheme is XAXA as in the original.

*Line 1:  嫁得 is rendered as “I’m married to” after considering “Married am I/I am to”.  瞿塘 “Qutang” refers to 瞿塘峽 “Qutang Gorge” (the name of the first and uppermost of “The Three Gorges” 三峽 of the “Changjiang or Long River” 長江 or 大江 “Grand River” or simply “River”), and is translated as such to clearly identify the place.  Instead of translating 瞿塘賈 literally as “merchant of Qutang” which may mean “merchant from Qutang”, I have added the idea of “live” to better indicate that the merchant (who may well be from Qutang) indeed lives in Qutang, hence, “(since marriage) we live in Qutang Gorge”.

*Line 2:  朝朝 “every morning/day” or 每一朝 (pronounced “zhao”) is interpreted to mean 每一遭 (pronounced “zao”) “every time”, and is translated as “time after time” (rather than “time and again”) to replicate the repetition.  is a word used by a female to refer to herself (“me” or “my”) and does not mean “concubine”.  誤妾期 is, therefore, rendered as “he fails me: to return by the day he’d said” after considering “he’s ‘failed me:/failed’ to be ‘home/back’ by the day ‘as he’d/as’ said”.  The word “said” which rhymes with “instead” in line 4, is used in the sense of “promised”.

*Line 3:  早知 does not mean “I had earlier/always known” but “if I had earlier/sooner known” and is simply translated   as “O had I known”.  Here, in the context of a river gorge, the word “tide/high waters” refers not to潮汐 “morning and evening tides”, but to 潮汎 or simply “flood/high waters” which occur on rivers in spring (hence春汎 “spring flood/high waters”) after the dry autumn and winter months (although also in summer and autumn after heavy rains).  The flood waters make the River and the Gorge navigable and for the sailor (in line 4) and the merchant (in line 2) to come home if he chooses to.   有信is rendered here as “as ever … on time” with “as ever” to translate the literal meaning of “faithfully, trustily, unfailingly”, and “on time”, the implied meaning of “regularly, punctually”.  I have dropped the most poetic word “timely” as it, unfortunately, does not mean seasonally but seasonably.  As the line refers to flood waters, 潮有信 is rendered as “this River, as ever, floods on time”.  I had considered but dropped the alternative formulation of “how trustily, flood waters fill the banks (or River or Gorge”.
*Line 4:  弄潮兒 “one who plays in the water (river, lake or sea)” is interpreted as “one who braves the water as a sailor or as a lover of watersports”, hence, in this context, “a river-boat sailor”.  I had considered “man” and “hand” but have decided for “sailor”.  嫁與 … reads like a statement, but as I see it, the poem is a wife’s plaint for being left alone at home and not a serious statement that she would rather marry a river-boat sailor.  I had, therefore, considered turning the statement of “I would have had married …” into a rhetorical question of “Would I have had married …”, but have decided to adhere to the statement formulation with “might” replacing “would” and other alternatives such as “may” and “could”, hence, “I might have had married a river-boat sailor instead”. 


1 comment:

Ray Heaton said...

This poem has no pair of butterflies flying away together, as told by Liu Bai in his Ballad of Changgan, a rather longer poem concerning the longing and desire of a devoted lover for the return of a merchant who too has travelled beyond the Qutang Gorge; rather, Li Yi's poem has an entirely different story to tell. The disappointment in her husband's apparent desertion leaves the wife wondering if a better life would have been achieved by marrying a simple sailor boy is depicted with devastating effect in this poem of just four lines.

I think the brevity of the poem adds to the feeling of resentment experienced by the wife, this merchant is worth just those four lines. But equally, an important element within the poem is the humiliating comparison of the merchant to what Andrew translates as the river-boat sailor; not only in the likely regularity of the river-boat sailor's homecoming as judged by the similarly regular seasonal floods of the river, but in the assumed simple life of the river-boat sailor (or perhaps a river boy) in contrast to the riches of the merchant (possibly emulating the social ranking of ancient China - "scholars, farmers, artisans and merchants" - and placing her husband below the sailor in her esteem).

Andrew has though given himself a real challenge by keeping the translated poem to four lines, developing an associated though dissimilar rhythm and maintaining the rhyme scheme.

Andrew must be applauded for revealing the regular floods of the river rather than the use of "tide" - the river at the Qutang Gorge is after all rather unlikely to be tidal, and hence Andrew has dealt with the reality in a very clever way (and unlike other translations I have seen, that refer to a twice daily tide bringing the sailor boy home). Andrew has also exaggerated the feeling of isolation of the wife; despite the river flooding only at certain times of the year, her husband still doesn't return - if the river was navigable twice a day, there would be much less an anticipation or expectation of return on the allotted date, he could always come home the next day; but missing the floods means months before another opportunity arises.

Keeping the poem to four lines and matching the rhyme (qī with ní; said with instead) in English had the potential of establishing an unintended levity in the poem detracting from the true feelings of the wife; she feels only hurt and disappointment in her husbands continued absences and broken promises, expressed well in the compact Chinese verse, difficult to match in English.

Andrew manages to avoid this levity, but only just I think. In my mind, to help reduce the potential of the poem becoming limerick-like would be to break each line in two, to make the poem eight short lines though as it stands that's not so easy with the final line.

Andrew sets up a "past possibility" in the the fourth line but the line reads a tad strained; "I might have had married...", and I do prefer Andrew's unused rhetorical option "Should I have married...".