07 September 2016

王梵志 Wang Fanzhi: 無題/世無百年人 Untitled/No man lives to a hundred years


This Wang Fanzhi poem which features the image of "an iron wrought threshold" (which outlives its owner and is of no use to the owner on his death) is a corollary to another poem, also by Wang, which features the image of "an earthy steamed bun" (the grave, the earthy mound in the shape of a steamed bun, to which one must go, posted here in July 2016).

These 2 images have been immortalized some 5 centuries later by the Sung dynasty poet 范成大 Fan Chengda (1126-1193) in lines 3 and 4 of his poem (a 7-character 8-line regulated verse 七言律詩 or octet 七律) entitled 重九日行營壽藏之地 which runs thus:-

1  家山隨處可行楸
2  荷鍤攜壺似醉劉
3  縱有千年鐵門限
4  終須一箇土饅頭

5  三輪世界猶灰劫  
6  四大形骸強首丘
7  螻蟻鳥鳶何厚薄
8  臨風拊掌菊花秋  

Although I have not translated this poem (nor may ever do so), I will here attempt a rough rendition of the 2 lines concerned:-

縱有千年鐵門限   Though your iron wrought threshold may stand a thousand years,
終須一箇土饅頭   Yet, to your mound, your earthy steamed bun, you're bound to go.

Now, back to the iron wrought threshold.  I hope you will enjoy my rendition:-

      
Wang Fanzhi (592? – 670?): Untitled/No man lives to a hundred years

1  No man lives to a hundred years;
2  Write songs to sing for a thousand, what for?
3  The dead, on seeing an iron wrought threshold, 
4  Clap hands and laugh: “We did it before!”

Translated by Andrew W.F. Wong (Huang Hongfa)   譯者: 黃宏發
27th April 2015 (revised 29.4.15; 30.4.15; 1.5.15; 26.5.15)
Translated from the original - 王梵志: 無題/世無百年人

1  世無百年人
2  強作千年調
3  打鐵作門限
4  鬼見拍手笑

Notes:-

*Form, Metre and Rhyme:  This English rendition is a tetrameter (4 beats or feet) while the original is a 5-character lines.  The rhyme scheme is XAXA as in the original.  An alternative rendition in ballad form is given at the end of the notes.

*Line 1:  I had originally translated as “In life” and omitted translating “years”, but have now decided to drop “In life” as it is covered by “lives” and to re-instate “years” in line 1 to pave the way for its omission in line 2 after “thousand”.
 
*Line 2:  Following the line 1 message of “life is short”, line 2 should mean 無謂強作千年調 “it is futile to (or why should one) force oneself to or strive to (or just) write songs to be sung for a long, long time (a thousand years)”, hence, my rendition of this line as a rhetorical question of “… what for?”  For I had considered “Script”, “Pen” and “Make”, and have decided for “Write”.  For 調 I had considered “verses”, “lyrics” “poems” and “tunes”, and have decided for “songs”.   For 千年 “thousand years”, I had considered but rejected words and expressions such as “everlasting”, “millennium”, “lasting forever”, “long, long lasting” and have decided for the literal “a thousand (years)”.  After considering “to be sung for/to live to/lasting for/to last for a thousand”, I have now decided for “to sing for a thousand”.

*Lines 3 and 4:  門限 in line 3 means 門檻 “threshold” usually made of wood which can be covered with “iron” for durability but can be made of stone or iron.  For such an iron threshold, I had considered “iron clad” and “iron made”, but have decided for “iron wrought” which also covers the translation of the verbs “forge” and “make” in line 3 which creates space for “ghost” “see” in line 4 of the original to be moved up to line 3, making it possible for the addition of a few words, in line 4, to explain why ghosts would “clap hands and laugh”.  There is nothing very ghostly about the “ghosts” in the original line 4 which simply means “the dead”.  I had considered “ghosts”, “dead souls”, “dead men”, “dead ones” and “dead folks”, and have decided for “the dead”.  Line 3 of my rendition now reads “The dead, on seeing an iron wrought threshold”, followed by “Clap hands and laugh” in line 4 to which I have added “We did it before” to complete the rhyme with “what for” in line 2 and to explain, according to my interpretation, why the ghosts clap hands and laugh----because they did the same silly thing when they were alive.

*Alternative Rendition in Ballad Form:-
      
1  No man lives to a hundred years,
2  Write songs everlasting, what folly!
3  The dead, on seeing an iron threshold,
4  Clap hands and laugh: “By golly!”


3 comments:

Ray Heaton said...

Thanks to Andrew's translation and commentary, the meaning of the poem has been clarified for me.  My previous exposure to this poem in translation is in Sunflower Splendor, translated by Eugene Eoyang and reads as follows


No one lives past a hundred:

Why not write immortal rhymes.

Forge iron to fence off evil - 

Demons just watch: clap hands and laugh.


from which I couldn't quite understand what the poet meant!


I tried to relate the meaning towards the poet proselytising us towards Buddhism, assuming he means us to address issues within one's lifetime in what we could call a rather didactic poem...is Wang telling us "don't worry about leaving a legacy"?  Well if he did mean this, then I wonder how he'd react to us still analysing his poetry 1500 years later!

P.s. hello again Andrew! Although I haven't commented for a few months I have still been entertained by your translations.

Anonymous said...

Good morning Mr. Heaton!

Wang Fangzhi was a down to earth poet. He was a realist and a pragmatist. He questioned and in fact disdained abstract, lofty yet often trendy intellectual fads prevalent among the literati. His writings were replete with such sentiments. He went so far as to question the reason for our being (If life were so rough, why did my parents brought me to this world?).

Eugene Eoyang should have written instead: Since no one lives past a hundred, WHY write immortal rhymes?

Door thresholds served a practical purpose for older Chinese construction. They helped keep drafts, dust, and most importantly street water from entering the housing complex. Ordinary folks used wood threshold; well to do households might wrap them with a malleable metallic compound for durability. You can still find them in some older villages and in temples everywhere.

I am not a great fan of a poem translation to drift so far as Andrew's in this case from the original wordings (characters and phrases), especially in the last two lines, but credit is certainly due for the authenticity of meaning brought vividly to mind by his play on the ghosts "speaking" their minds.

Indeed, why waste time, effort, and money on things which have little bearing on what is real? The poem is truly as simple as it reads. The simplest truths, however, still seem to be the most difficult to comprehend (and confront) in our educated minds even as we speak today.

Have a good day!

John, a fellow traveler on the blog



Andrew W.F. Wong 黃宏發 said...

I thank Ray (Heaton) and John (Anonymous?) for their comments. I am glad Ray can now see the true meaning of the poem. As John rightly points out, Eugene Eoyang should have understood and penned line 2 as "Why write immortal rhymes/" (or my "Write songs to sing for a thousand, what for/") and certainly not his "Why not write immortal rhymes?" which had led Ray astray to think of the poem as rather didactic. Fan Chenda's poem referred to in my introduction makes it clear that Wang's images of the "iron threshold" and earthy steamed bun" speak of the simple truth that life is not long lasting. a truth we must face accept and embrace. I have now added to my introduction the complete poem (in Chinese) by Fan and hope it is of uase to Ray.

As for John's comments on my drifting away from the characters and phrases of the original especially in the last two lines, I freely admit I might have overdone line 4 by adding "we did it before" which is neither in the original nor implied anywhere. I have done that so as to create a rhyme for "what for" in line 2. However, in my ballad form rendition at the end of my notes, I have used "what folly" instead of "what for" making it possible for me to drop "We did it before" and use "By golly" (which is implied in the word 笑 "laugh". I am wondering if I should revise my rendition along these lines as follows:-

No man lives to a hundred years;
Write songs to sing for a thousand, [what for?] what folly!
The dead, on seeing an iron wrought threshold,
Clap hands and laugh: ["We did it before!] "How silly! By golly!"