Today, I am posting my latest rendition of a quatrain by the great Late Tang dynasty poet Wen Tingyun. I suggest reading it out loud to begin to appreciate this subtle and restrained plaint of a lady whose husband is away. The lady is sleepless and rises to play the zither to vent her plaint, hence, zither (not lute) in the title.
Wen Tingyun (812-870): A Plaint on the Jade Zither
1 An ice-cool mat, my silvery bedding, O sleepless, dreamless tonight;
2 The deep blue sky, supple like water, the night clouds, scanty and light.
3 Crying wild geese fly far to the south, to the Rivers of Xiao and Xiang,
4 Here in the land of Twelve Mansions, of itself the moon shines bright.
Translated by Andrew W.F. Wong (Huang Hongfa) 譯者: 黃宏發
24 July 2019 (revised 29.7.19; 30.7.19)
Translated from the original - 温庭筠: 瑶瑟怨
*Title: This is the plaint of a lady whose husband is away from home. In the poem, her grief is restrained and subtle, with the word 怨 “Plaint” appearing only in the title, and with only a hint of her grief in 夢不成 “sleepless, dreamless” in line 1 of the poem itself. 瑟 “se” is a 16 or 25 stringed musical instrument. It has been translated by one and many as “lute”. I am afraid this is incorrect as “lute” is shaped and played like a guitar while 瑟 (and similarly the 7 stringed 琴 “qin” or 古琴 “guqin”) is shaped and played like a zither placed horizontally in front of the player. 瑟 is, therefore, rendered here as “Zither”. You may wish to visit the web for an article written by John Thompson on the origins and popularity of translating 琴 and 瑟 as “lute”, http://www.silkqin.com/11misc/lute.htm. 瑶 refers to fine jade decorating the zither, and is simply rendered as “Jade”.
*Form, Metre and Rhyme: The original is a 7-character 七言 quatrain or”jueju” 絕句. This
English rendition is a quatrain in heptameter (7 feet or beats) to emulate the original. The
rhyme scheme is AAXA as in the original.
*Line 1: 冰 (ice) 簟 (mat) is translated as “An ice-cool mat” after rejecting “ An icy mat” as the word 冰 is used here to describe the coolness, or even coldness, and not the iciness. 銀 in 銀床 (silver, bed) can be taken literally as “silver” (made of or decorated with silver) and metaphorically as “moonlit” in the adjective “silvery” (appear silvery in the moonlight). It is, therefore, rendered as “my silvery bedding” to cover both meanings, after considering “my moonlit bedding”. 夢 (dream) 不 (not) 成 is rendered as “O sleepless, dreamless tonight” with “sleepless” and “tonight” added to account for what she does on that insomnious night (tonight): playing the zither, looking up the sky, listening to the wild geese, and thinking of her husband who must be looking at the same moon.
*Line 2: 碧 (blue) 天 (sky) is translated as “The deep blue sky”; 如 (like) 水 (water) is rendered as “supple like water” with “supple” added after considering “soft” and “gentle”. 夜 (night) 雲 (clouds) 輕 (light) is rendered as “the night clouds, scanty and light”.
*Line 3: 雁 (wild geese) 聲 (cries) is rendered as “Crying wild geese” as I have taken “the cries of the wild geese” as a synecdoche for “the wild geese, flying and crying”. 瀟 (Xiao) and 湘 (Xiang) refer to the Rivers Xiao and Xiang (in present day Hunan 湖南 Province) which flow into 洞庭湖 Lake Dongting, then 長江 River Yangzi, all to the south of the capital city 長安 Chang’an. 瀟湘 is, therefore, transliterated and rendered as “the Rivers of Xiao and Xiang” 遠 (far) 過 (go, cross) … 去 (to) is rendered as ‘fly far to the south, to …” with “the south” added to indicate the direction of flight (south) and, hence, the season (autumn).
*Line 4: 十二 (ten-and-two, twelve) 樓 (towers, mansions) refers to a place where the immortals or nobles live. It should not be taken to mean a 12-storeyed tower or mansion or house as the ancient Chinese never built residential structures of more than a few storeys high. 十二樓 is, therefore, reasonably taken to mean a land named after its having 12 rather tall buildings, and is, hence, rendered as “land of Twelve Mansions” after considering “land of Towers Twelve” and “land of Towers Dodeca (Greek for twelve, 2 and 10)”. 中 (middle, in) is rendered as “Here in the …..” 月 (moon) 自 (self) 明 (bright) is translated literally as “of itself the moon shines bright”.