02 July 2009

劉禹錫 Liu Yuxi: 烏衣巷 Lane of Black-Gown Mansions

What follows is my latest translation in which I can be accused of trying to "naturalized" Chinese poetry into English by the omision of 2 Chinese surnames (Wang and Xie) and the addition of 2 English surnames (Jones and Smith). Grateful for your comments.

Liu Yuxi (772-842): Lane of Black-Gown Mansions

1 By the Bridge of the Heavenly Red-Bird, rank weeds over grow;
2 At the Lane of Black-Gown Mansions, the dying sun sinks low.
3 ‘Neath the eaves of the high and mighty, swallows used to nest, but
4 Now, to homes of the commoners, of the Joneses and Smiths they go.

Translated by Andrew W.F. Wong (Huang Hongfa)       譯者: 黄宏發
29th June 2009 (revised 30.6.09; 1.7.09)
Translated from the original - 劉禹鍚: 烏衣巷

1 朱雀橋邊野草花
2 烏衣巷口夕陽斜
3 舊時王謝堂前燕
4 飛入尋常百姓家


* This English rendition is in hexameter (6 metrical feet) while the original is in 7-character lines. The rhyme scheme is AABA as in the original.

* Title and lines 2 and 3: 烏衣巷 literally Black Gown Lane was, in the Eastern Jin Dynasty (317-420), a lane in the capital Jiankang 建康 (present day Nanjing) to the south the River Qinhuai 秦淮, exclusive to the rich and powerful including Wang 王(導)and Xie 謝(安) families (the two surnames versified in line 3) whose members wore black gowns, hence, that name; and to make that name readily understandable in English, I have added the word “Mansions” to “the Lane of the Black-Gown” in the title and line 2 and omitted Wang and Xie in line 3.

* Line 1: 朱雀 (red bird) is a Chinese geomancy (fengshui 風水) position which is to the front (South) of the centre, with 玄武 (black tortoise-snake) to the back (North), 青龍 (blue dragon) to the left (East) and 白虎 (white tiger) to the right (West), all being references to cluster of stars. I have, therefore, translated it not by the names of birds as either “rose-finch” or “red-finch” but simply “Bridge of the Red-Bird” which bridge leads to the nearby “Lane of Black-Gown Mansions”. The Bridge, then a pontoon or floating bridge, was named after a Gate of the same name 朱雀門 on which must have exhibited some sign, statue or, at least, an inscription signifying its noble heavenly status, hence, I have included the word “Heavenly” before “Red-Bird”. I am grateful to Xu Yuan-zhong 許淵沖 for the word “rank” to translate 野 (p.283 of his, et alias (eds.), “300 Tang Poems -- A New Translation”) which sounds much better than “wild” or “unwieldy”. Like him, I have omitted 花 “flowers” in my translation as such an inclusion would, in English, paint a beautiful and not a picture of decay.

* Lines 3 and 4: I have used “the high and mighty” to translate 王謝 Wang and Xie (see note on Title) as these two surnames make no sense in English to one who does not know the allusion.. I take the 2 lines to mean swallows nesting, and not flying/skimming/skipping/dipping. I have, therefore, used the more habitually correct “’Neath the eaves” instead of the more literal “In the forecourts” in line 3 and “go” instead of “fly into” in line 4. Emboldened by my dropping the two Chinese surnames in line 3, I have decided to add two English surnames (Jones and Smith) to translate 百姓, meaning “the people”, literally “hundred surnames” in line 4. Incidentally, the “Smiths” top the rank, with the “Joneses” coming second, in the “Top 100 English Surnames” in www.genealogy.about.com. I have decided against using the 2 top Chinese surnames of 陳李 “Chan’s and Lee’s” (Cantonese pronunciation) or “Chen’s and Li’s” (Putonghua) according to one version of the 百家姓 “Top 100 Chinese Surnames” and of 趙錢 “Chiu’s and Tsin’s” (Cantonese) or “Zhao’s and Qian’s” (Putonghua) according to another, for the same reason for dropping 王謝 “Wang and Xie”. If one still insist to have the line to sound more exotic/oriental, the line can read: “Now, to homes of the commoners, of the Parks (a Korean surname) and Singhs (an Indian surname) they go”.


Classical Chinese Poems in English


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