Today, I am posting a beautiful quatrain on the subject of a night in spring written by 劉方平 Liu Fangping, which I translated last (2021) September to October. I hope you will find my rendition faithful to the original in terms of both sense and sound. My notes on lines 1 and 2 are particularly informative. Let's first have a go on the poem in English:-
Liu Fangping (circa 758): A Night in Moonlight
1 Deep in the night, the whitening moonlight, on our houses’ moonlit side;
2 The Dipper-stars North, a sky-high railing: the Dipper-stars South, subside.
3 O tonight, ‘tis a night, I am pleased to find, so warm, the breath of spring,
4 As crickets rise a-chirping anew, through my window’s green gauze divide.
Translated by Andrew W.F. Wong (Huang Hongfa) 譯者: 黃宏發
7 September 2021 (revised 10.9.2021; 14.9.21; 20.9.2021; 24.9.2021; 30.9.2021; 5.10.2021; 8.10.2021; 14.10.2021)
*Form, Metre, and Rhyme: The original is a 7-character quatrain 七言絕句 with a caesura after the fourth character. This English rendition is in heptameter (7 beats or feet) also with a caesura after the fourth beat. The original’s rhyme scheme is AAxA which is followed in this English rendition.
*Line 1: 更 does not mean “more”, and 更深 does not mean “more deep = deeper”. 更 is a two-hour night watch period based on the Chinese system of dividing the whole day into 12 two-hour periods (which, incidentally, are also called 時 = hours). Thus, we have for the “night watches”: 一更 (First Watch) to cover 7 p.m. to 9 p.m., 二更 (Second Watch), 9 p.m. to 11 p.m., 三更 (Third Watch), 11 p.m. to 1 a.m. (with midnight in the middle), 四更 (Fourth Watch), 1 a.m. to 3 a.m., and 五更 (Fifth Watch), 3 a.m. to 5 a.m. There is no 六更 (Sixth Watch) as past 5 a.m., it is already dawn and morning. Thus, 更深 means “deep into the night watches or hours” and is translated literally as “Deep in the night”. To make sure it is much further on in the night than just the Third Watch, I had considered rendering it as “Well/ Long past midnight” but have rejected it for being less than faithful to the original. 月色 (moon; colour) is rendered as “the whitening moonlight” to give moonlight a colour to cover the word 色, which word can just mean “beautiful view/ scenery/ scene” as in 湖光山色 (= beautiful view of the lake and hills). 人家 (men; homes) is rendered literally as “our houses”. 半人家 is taken to depict a moon, before or after passing the meridian, shining on one side of the houses facing the moon and is, thus, rendered as “on our houses’ moonlit side” with the word “side” to translate 半 (half).
*Line 2: 北斗 (north; dipper or scoop) refers to an asterism 星群 of 7 stars (not planets) in the constellation 星座 of Ursa Major 大熊座in the northern sky. It features a crooked line of 7 stars in the shape of a dipper (or scoop or ladle or plough or wain) and is, therefore, known as the Big Dipper or just Dipper. Here, I have rendered it as “the Dipper-stars North”, with “-stars” added to make plain that this is a line about stars (while line 1 is about the moon), and with “North” and “Dipper-stars” inverted for a better rhythm. I have done the same to 南斗 (south; dipper) in the same line which is rendered as “the Dipper-stars South”. In ancient Chinese astronomy, 南斗 refers to an asterism of 6 stars in the southern sky which also features the shape of a dipper. These south stars are in the constellation of Sagittarius 人馬座 but is not referred to as an asterism in Western astronomy. (It may be of interest to note there exists another asterism of 7 stars in the northern sky in the constellation of Ursa Minor 小熊座 which is also shaped like a dipper and known as the Little Dipper, which is not of our concern.) 闌干 is translated literally as “railing” (= a crooked “line” of 7 stars). I have not adopted the “horizontal” interpretation as these north stars are circumpolar stars circling the North Star (Polaris) and would appear as either largely horizontal or largely vertical (in fact, always slanting) depending on the time of the day and the season of the year. They are never seen as rising and setting. To the word “railing”, I have added “sky-high” to suggest the omni-presence of the Dipper-stars North in contrast to the Dipper-stars South which are not omni-present, rising from south-south-east and setting at south-south-west in the southern sky owing to earth’s self-rotation. I have used “subside” to translate 斜 (slanting), as these south stars and other stars of the Sagittarius constellation, which are located near the southern horizon and moving west, would appear to the viewer in the mid-latitudes of the northern hemisphere (which is where China was and is) to be subsiding westwards.
*Line 3: 今夜 (tonight) is rendered as “O tonight, ‘tis a night” to create 2 beats for the 7-beat line. 偏知 (inclined or prejudiced; know or aware) can reasonably be interpreted to mean either (i) 偏巧知道 “I happen to know”, or (ii) 才(纔)知道 “only now I know”, or (iii) 傾向於 知道 “prone to knowing”, but all of these interpretations miss the subtleties of the partiality of the word 偏 particularly in 偏心/愛/寵/疼 which are all expressions of favouritism. I suspect and I speculate that, in this context, the poet has chosen the word 偏 to say he “takes special pleasure (in that spring has come)”. I have, therefore, rendered 偏知 as “I am pleased to find”. 春氣暖 (spring; air; warm) is rendered as “so warm, the breath of spring”, with 氣 rendered as “breath” rather than “air” or “wind”.
*Line 4: 蟲聲 is rendered as “As crickets rise a-chirping”, with the much more appealing word “crickets” to translate 蟲 (insects), and with the onomatopoeic word “a-chirping” to render 聲 (sound). The words 新透 (new; through) are covered by “anew” followed by “through”. 綠窗紗 (green; window; gauze) is rendered as “my window’s green gauze divide” with the word “divide” (understood as the “screen” made of green gauze mounted on the window) deployed to complete the “-ide” rhyme for lines 1, 2, and 4.