01 November 2017

白居易 Bai Juyi: 賦得古原草送別 Grass of the Ancient Prairie Bidding Farewell: Written to a Prescribed Title

This is my most recent translation.  It is a poem by the great late Tang dynasty poet Bai Juyi which has recently been selected as #7 of the 10 most popular Tang dynasty poems in Hong Kong and is the only "octet" in the list.  Here we go:-

Bai Juyi (772-846):  Grass of the Ancient Prairie Bidding Farewell: Written to a Prescribed Title

1  Lushly, O lushly, you grass of the prairie thrive;
(You demise to arise, each year, gloriously so!)
    You die to arise, O each year, gloriously so! (revised 14.11.17)
3  Wild fires do burn: they blaze in vain to purge you;
4  As spring winds blow: come alive, again you grow.
5  Your sweet scent spreads far, suffusing the old highway;
6  Your green blades, sun bathed, to the citadel ruins go.
7  Once more, I’m seeing my noble friend away --
8  Cheers, O cheerio! Our parting feelings o’erflow.

Translated by Andrew W.F. Wong (Huang Hongfa)        譯者: 黃宏發
5th October 2017 (revised 14.10.17; 16.10.17; 26.10.17; 28.10.17)
Translated from the original - 白居易: 賦得古原草送別

離離原上草    一歲一枯榮
野火燒不盡    春風吹又生
遠芳侵古道    晴翠接荒城
又送王孫去    萋萋滿別情


*Form, Metre and Rhyme:  The original is a 5-character octet (8 lines of 5 characters each) in the category known as 律詩 “regulated verse” which requires the middle 4 lines (lines 3 and 4, and 5 and 6) to be 2 couplets of parallel matching lines.  This English rendition is in pentameter (5 beats or feet) to emulate the 5-syllable lines of the original.  I have also succeeded in rendering lines 3 to 6 as 2 parallel matching couplets, perhaps, somewhat less than perfectly.  The rhyme scheme is XAXA XAXA as in the original, the rhyme group being 平聲庚韻 “level tone ‘geng’ rhyme” according to Tang dynasty pronunciation.

*Title and line 1:  (plain) in the title and in line 1 is taken to refer to草原 (grass plain) and is rendered as “prairie”.   (old) (plain) (grass) in the title is rendered as “Grass of the Ancient Prairie”.   (on/upon) in line 1 is simply, and more appropriately, rendered as “of” rather than “on/upon”; (plain) (on/upon) (grass) in line 1 is, therefore, rendered as “grass of the prairie” in line with the title.  送別 in the title is translated quite literally as “Bidding Farewell”.  賦得, which begins the title of the poem, means versified/written to a prescribed title in the Imperial Examinations.  This is rendered here as “Written to a Prescribed Title” and moved from the front to the rear as a sub-title.

*Line 1:  離離 (leave, depart) here should mean “lush, luxuriant” which can be rendered as such, but is rendered as “Lushly, O lushly” to emulate the sound “li, li” as pronounced in Standard Chinese Pinyin.  The word “thrive” is added to end the line to make it possible for the adverb “lushly” to be used rather than the adjectives of ”lush” or “ luxuriant.”
*Line 2:  一歲一 (one year once) is rendered as “each year”.  (wither) (thrive luxuriantly) is rendered as “demise to airse” (after considering “wither to thrive”, “perish to flourish”, “die to arise”, “demise to thrive”, and more) with “gloriously so” added to end the line for reason of rhyme, but also to complete the translation of the word as “arise … (so) gloriously.”

*Lines 3 and 4:  野火燒 in line 3 is rendered as “Wild fires do burn” to parallel 春風吹 in line 4 which is rendered as “As spring winds blow.”  不盡 in line 3 is rendered as “they blaze in vain to purge you” (after considering “yet can never burn to rid you) to parallel 又生 in line 4, rendered as “come alive, again you grow” (after considering “revived/alive, again you grow”.)

*Lines 5 and 6:  遠芳 (from afar, fragrance) in line 5 should be taken to mean 芳遠 (fragrance goes far) and is rendered as “Your sweet scent spreads far” (after considering “Your sweet scent goes far”) to parallel 晴翠 (sunny green) in line 6, rendered as 翠晴 (green in sunlight), hence, “Your green blades, sun bathed” (after considering “Your green shoots, sunlit/in sunlight.”)  侵古道 in line 5 is rendered as “suffusing the old highway” to parallel 接荒城 in line 6, rendered as “to the citadel ruins go” (after considering “to the ruined citadel go.”)

*Line 7:  王孫 is taken to mean simply a nobleman (and not the grandson of a king) and is rendered as “my noble friend.”

*Line 8:   萋萋 here also means “lush, luxuriant”, but instead of emulating both the sound and the meaning as I had done for 離離 in line 1, I have decided to emulate only the sound “chi” with the words “cheers” and “cheerio” which best suit the farewell situation, hence, “Cheers, O cheerio!”  I hope this succeeds in creating an image of the luxuriant prairie grass rustling in the wind to also say goodbye to the poet’s noble friend.


Ray Heaton said...

There are perhaps hidden depths to this poem which I don't pick up from the translation, but are hinted at in Andrew's glossies.

I think the first 6 lines lead us towards and reveal meanings about the last two lines, the departure of a friend (lover perhaps, though suggestions elsewhere that the poet was aged just 16 makes friend more likely, although 王孫 may also reference an earlier poem and if the poet was writing for the examinations would reveal the poet's literary learning).

Andrew mentions 離 as suggesting "parting", but I think this meaning is then too easily dismissed.  If we look at the final line,  萋萋, qiqi, has the same sound as 戚戚, sorrowful. Therefore we can assume the whole poem is an expression of sadness at a parting, his 王孫's departure.

Though the wildfires occur, and each year brings destruction, nature prevails, the grasses grow luxuriant once again.   Are lines 5 and 6 referring to the grasses or to the poet and his "prince", just as though the poet and his "prince" are separated, their feelings will cross the distances, a love undying. 

王孫 also occurs in the well known lines 王孫遊兮不歸 春草生兮萋萋, roughly, "(while my) prince wanders away from home, the spring grasses are grown lush". Is this an inspiration for this poem?

Andrew W.F. Wong 黃宏發 said...

Dear Ray, Thank you for sharing your learned thoughts.

There indeed may be hidden depths such as (1) "grass alluding to villains", and (2) "grass alluding to Bai's family history": one version of the poem begins with 咸陽原上草 (i.e. "You grass of the Xianyang prairie thrive") instead of 離離, and 咸陽 near Si-an 西安 is where Bai's kingly fore-forefathers used to live. But these depths I have never suggested, nor even hinted at in my notes.

I have simply interpreted the poem to be a song in praise of the grass, its vitality and its resilience, which interpretation is the most natural and apparent. I hope I have succeeded in putting this across in my rendition. [Sorry, to be continued.]

Andrew W.F. Wong 黃宏發 said...

Dear Ray, Sorry for breaking up my response to your kind comment. I had a dinner appointment last evening.

I said yesterday that the poem is about the vitality and resilience of the grass of the prairie. Lines 1 to 4 are obviously about the grass. Lines 5 and 6 should be read as a continuation of the first 4 lines, and not the beginning of the second 4 lines about separation/farewell. I have rendered all 6 lines as the poet addressing the grass in the second person. So, given line 5 refers to the sweet grass scent and line 6 refers to green grass shoots, there is no question of these lines being lines about the poet and his princely friend; and even if the grass in these 6 lines were rendered in the third person, it would be far fetched to stretch the meaning to your idea of "as though the poet and his "prince" are separated, their feelings will cross the distances, a love undying."

I have indeed in my notes mentioned 離 as suggesting "parting" but have hastened to add that 離離 should mean "lush, luxuriant". I could have, and regret I have not, added that this comes from 彼黍離離 in the poem 王風 黍離 (of the old "Book of Odes" 詩經) which is a lament of the demise of the Western Zhou dynasty and its capital becoming millet fields growing well, in which, the sense of "grow luxuriantly" far outweighs "parting", in this case, the passing of a dynasty.

I do agree 萋萋 "qi qi" has the same sound as other words meaning "sorrowful" and I, if I may, suggest 凄凄 "bleak, desolate" instead of your 戚戚 "sorrow, woe" (as in Cantonese, your 戚戚 is pronounced "tsik tsik" in the entering tone which is radically different from "tsai tsai" for the other 2.) However, in my view, this play on the sound is deployed to display some sadness. The poet is not saying he is overwhelmed by sadness, in which case, he should have said 凄凄(rather than 萋萋)滿別情 which would make the last 2 lines completely disjointed. [More on the sources of 草 萋萋 tomorrow.]

Andrew W.F. Wong 黃宏發 said...

Dear Ray, When I said last night (rather, early this morning) "凄凄(rather than 萋萋)滿別情 ... would make the last 2 lines completely disjointed," I meant "disjointed from the rest of the poem" which is, in my view, a poem about "grass of the ancient prairie" 古原草 (not 古草原), about its vitality and resilience, about it (together with the poet or on the poet's suggestion) "bidding farewell" 送別 to the poet's noble friend; as such, the "parting feelings" 別情 cannot be feelings of sadness but should be parting wishes, wishing the poet's friend: "All the best! Be full of life! Be like me (and) the prairie grass!"

The source closest to Bai's time (772-846) I can find that contains a tinge sadness in the use of 萋萋 is 芳草萋萋鸚鵡洲 in 崔顥 (704?-754) Cui Hao's 黃鶴樓. But Cui's sadness is homesickness, not parting; and the sadness is not apparent in the line but in the word 愁 "sad" in the last line 煙波江上使人愁.

Your quote 王孫遊兮不歸 春草生兮萋萋 is from an age Before the Common Era. It is from a poem entitled 招隱士 "Invitation to a Hermit" purportedly written by 淮南王 Lord of Huinan 劉安 Liu An (179-122 BCE), probably written by his courtiers collectively known as 淮南小山 Huinan Little Hill. 萋萋 here can only mean "lush/luxuriant" as the whole poem is an invitation to one or more who have left to return to the court, the ending 2 lines being 王孫兮歸來 山中兮不可久留.

The earliest source is the Book of Odes 詩經, a compilation of earlier works by 孔子 Confucius (551-479 BCE), in which is the poem 周南 葛覃 which runs: 葛之覃兮 施于中谷 維葉萋萋 ... "How the cloth-plant spreads/ Across the midst of the valley!/ Thick grows its leaves." [Arthur Waley] Here, the only meaning possible is "thick/luxuriant".

Dear Ray, Best wishes, Andrew.

Shahzaib Khan said...

These are very nice collection of poetry. Do you have Urdu Poetry or Hindi Poetry.

Andrew W.F. Wong 黃宏發 said...

Dear Shahzaib Khan, I am afraid not. Thank you for visiting my blog. Andrew Wong.

Walter said...

Dear Andrew, Thank you for introducing Chinese poetry to those of us who can't read Chinese or are not very good in Chinese. In reading your explanation and translation of this poem, I am moved to try rendering it into English also. I simply put into English the imagery and mood that are evoked in my mind, in free verse. I welcome your comments, thank you.

"Bidding farewell at the ancient grassland"

Grass so luscious on the grassland,
Yearly it wilts yet thrives again;
Wild fires it cannot destroy,
In the breeze of spring revives;
Ancient highways its fragrance invades,
Ruins of ramparts its glistening hue hugs;
Again I bid farewell to my good friend,
Good bye, good bye! at the verdant grassland.

Andrew W.F. Wong 黃宏發 said...

Dear Walter, Thank you for visiting my blog and for your free verse rendition. If I am not mistaken, by free verse you mean un-rhymed lines, as you seem to be attempting 4-foot/beat lines throughout. Accordingly, may I suggest the following (largely based on your rendition) for your consideration:-

1 The grass so luscious on the grassland; ("on" read stressed)
2 Yearly it wilts yet thrives again.
3 Wild fires that burn cannot destroy it;
4 In the breezy spring, again it grows.
5 Its fragrance permeates the ancient highway; (or your invades)
6 Its verdure reaches the ramparts in ruins. (or your hugs)
7 Once more, my friend, I bid you farewell,
8 Ample like the grass, O my parting sorrows!

Your line 3 reads like "it (grass) cannot destroy wild fires". Your line 4 is one foot (or beat) short. For lines 5 and 6, I have reversed the order to a more natural order. I have put in a new line 8.

For your consideration, please. Best wishes, Andrew Wong.

Walter said...

Dear Andrew, Wow, much appreciate your time and effort in editing my translation. Thank you. I thought it was free verse because I did not attempt to structure it in any particular form other than try to have each pair of lines roughly about the same length, and also for the lines of the whole poem, and mainly just trying to keep the original imagery and mood. I learnt about poetry from my "Eng Lit" teachers in the 60's, so, much of it I have 'returned' to them since :)