06 December 2017

王梵志 Wang Fanzhi: 無題五言古詩(八行詩)/我昔未生時 Untitled 5-Character Octet/At a time before I came into being

Today I am posting another poem by Wang Fanzhi, most probably a precursor to the oft translated famed Buddhist poet monk 寒山 Hanshan or Cold Mountain.  Most of Wang's poem are 4-line quatrains..  This is a rare 8-line octet.  It is not in regulated verse, hence it can be classified as an ancient air 古風.  Here it is:-

Wang Fanzhi (592?-670?): Untitled 5-Character Octet/At a time before I came into being

1   At a time before I came into being,
2   I was in the dark and knew of nothing.
3   The heavenly lord just gave me life --
4   A life of what, for what, I’m asking!  

5   With nothing to wear, I feel so cold,
6   Nothing to eat, I'm hungry, starving.
7   Heavenly lord, repay what you owe me,
8   Revert and restore: my unborn being!

Translated by Andrew W.F. Wong (Huang Hongfa)      譯者: 黃宏發
23rd February 2017
Translated from the original- 王梵志: 無題五言古詩(八行詩)/我昔未生時

1   我昔未生時
2   冥冥無所知
3   天公強生我
4   生我復何為

5   無衣使我寒
6   無食使我饑
7   還你天公我
8   還我未生時


*Form, Meter and Rhyme:  The original is a 5-character old style verse 五言古詩 which happens to be in 8 lines, and is not a 5-character regulated verse 五言律詩 (a new style verse近體詩) also of 8 lines by definition.  As I have said in the note to my rendition of Du Fu’s “Beholding the Mountain” (posted on 3 January 2107), I will in my renditions refer to both as “octets”.  This English rendition is in tetrameter (4 beats or feet) while the original is in 5-syllable lines.  The rhyme scheme is AAXA XAXA as in the original, although the “-ing”  half rhyme is less than satisfactory.

*Line 1:  I had originally penned “Some time ago, before my birth”, but have now decided for “At a time before I came into being” to fit the rhyme scheme.

*Line 2:  冥冥 is rendered as “in the dark”.

*Line 3:  天公 is rendered as “heavenly lord”.  (strong) in 強生 is understood as is used in 強加 (impose), 強令 (arbitrary order) and 強蠻 (arbitrary and arrogant, unreasoning) and is here rendered simply as “just”, while (born, birth) is rendered as “life” (thus, “just gave me life” for強生我) rather than “birth” to provide a link to line 4 which begins with 生我 “A life”.

*Line 4:  何為 is rendered as “for what”.  (again, also) is understood as equivalent to the more colloquial (again, also) which, in this context, is interpreted as a word “used for emphasis in negative sentences or rhetorical questions” (p. 1886, “New Age Chinese-English Dictionary”, Beijing: Commercial Press, 2004) and is, therefore, rendered as “I’m asking” to bring out the emphasis in this rhetorical question.  I have also added “of what” (not in the original) before “for what” to add to the emphasis.

*Line 7:  還你天公我 should be properly understood as 你天公還我 (you, heavenly lord, repay me) or better天公你還我 (heavenly lord, you repay me) and is rendered as “Heavenly lord, repay what you owe me” with “what you owe” added to fully convey the sense of 還債 (repay a debt = you owe me, you repay me).

*Line 8:  To translate the word repeated from line 7, I have used 2 words “revert” and “restore”, neither of which repeats the word “repay” used in line 7, but all 3 words begin with “re“.  This, I hope, adds to the urgency of the poet’s call.



Boobris said...

Dear Andrew,

With regards to the following lines:
5 With nothing to wear, I feel so cold,
6 Nothing to eat, I'm hungry, starving.
5 無衣使我寒
6 無食使我饑

Wouldn't it be more congruent and tidier if you put it as such:
5 With nothing to wear, I feel coldness;
6 With noting to eat, I feel hunger.

Some might say it adds a tad bit of desperation to the poor author.

Best wishes,

Ray Heaton said...

I think this poem's meaning is revealed in lines 7 and 8, but I differ to your translation here slightly, Andrew.

I havent read (line 7) 還你天公我 as天公你還我, where the heavenly Lord is repaying the poet, rather as 還你 (repay you) and 天公我 (my heavenly Lord) to be read more "to repay you my Lord".

This is followed by a plea to be restored to the poet's unborn state, (line 8) 還我未生時 as 還我 "give me back", 未生時, "(my) unborn time".

I read the whole poem as if the poet has unknowingly committed some transgression, but he knows not what, as before his birth he recalls nothing of the "darkness",  冥冥無所知. And so, as punishement, he is born into human form, with its coldness and hunger.  The poet pleads to be "unborn" again so that he may repay the Lord for his transgression.

Walter Lo said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Walter Lo said...

Regarding Ray Heaton's interpretation of 還 as "repay", it doesn't appear to me to be the meaning intended by the poet. As a Buddhist monk, the meaning would most likely follow Buddhist thought as in "rebirth". Hence it is more likely to be the meaning of 還 as in 還乡,還俗, 返老還童, which means returning or reverting to some previous condition or state. And regarding 還我未生時, the 時 means a point of time. So the phrase does not mean "give me back (my) unborn time" which implies that "time" is like a commodity. Regards.