02 July 2013

王之渙 Wang Zhihuan: 涼州詞/ 出塞 Song of Liangzhou/ Out to the Frontier

Looking through my old files, I found this 7-character quatrain by Wang Zhihuan which I translated in early 2009 and which I now wish to share with you.  I hope you will read the bleakness and desolateness of the landscape into the heart of the soldier stationed at the frontier.  The word 春 (spring) which metaphorically stands for "youth", "health" and "life" as in 回春 (return to health) is most telling which subtly suggests that line 4 means "there is no life beyond Yumen Pass" 

You may remember I posted here my rendition of another 7-character quatrain of the same title "Song of Liangzhou" by Wang Han.  It was in October 2009.  In this other poem, the imminence of battle and the approach of death are much more obvious in 醉卧沙場 "in battle drunk I lie" and 幾人回 "how many ... ever came home alright".  回 which should be "came home alive" had been rendered as "came home alright" just for the rhyme.  Could this be a perfect example of sacrificing (or, at least, jeopardizing) the meaning for the rhyme?  Mea culpa!   

Wang Zhihuan (688-742): Song of Liangzhou/ Out to the Frontier

1  Ascends the Yellow River, to afar where white clouds amass;
2  Forlorn, here lies a fortress, by the towering mountain mass.
3  O why, to the Tune of the Willow, must pipers ever bemoan?
4  Ah the genial winds of springtime cross not the Yumen Pass.

Translated by Andrew W.F. Wong (Huang Hongfa)  譯者: 黃宏發
16th January 2009 (revised 19.1.09; 18.2.09; 4.7.11; polished 2.7.13)
Translated from the original - 王之渙:  涼州詞/ 出塞

1  黃河()遠上白雲間
2  一片孤城萬仞山
3  羌笛何須怨楊柳
4  春風不度玉門關

*  The original is in 7-character lines.  This English rendition is in hexameter (6 metrical feet).  The rhyme scheme is AAXA as in the original.
*  Line 1:  I have adopted the 黃河 (river) version instead of the 黃沙 (sand) one, and had originally penned the opening as “Hails the Yellow River, from afar” as I thought it more natural to speak of a river coming down than going up.  I have now decided for “Ascends the Yellow River, to afar” to literally correspond with 黃河遠上.  I had originally used “cumulus” to translate 白雲 but have now decided for “white clouds” for being more literal.  For “in the middle of”, I have used “where … amass” which opens the rhyme. 
*  Line 2:  I had considered “Here lies a city solitary/a solitary citadel” and “Here lies a forlorn fortress”, but have decided for “Forlorn, here lies a fortress”.  I have simply used “towering” to describe how tall the mountains are instead of the unrealistic hyperbole of 萬仞 10,000 “yin” (a Chinese unit of measurement of about 2 metres).  I had considered “massif” to translate , but have decided for “mountain mass” to continue the rhyme.
*  Line 3:  楊柳 “willow” here means both the lack (or a scarcity) of willows and a tune entitled “The Willow”, and I have chosen the latter which would (together with the lack of genial spring winds in the next line) also include the former meaning (of bemoaning the lack of willows).  羌笛 means the pipe (more appropriate than flute) of the Qiang tribe (a north-western people), known for the melancholic quality of its sound.  I had originally used “the tribal pipes/pipers”, then considered the literal “Qiang tribe pipe/pipers” and the explanatory “sad/woeful pipes/pipers”, but have decided to drop them altogether in favour of the formulation “must pipers ever bemoan”.
*  Line 4:  I have added the word “genial” to highlight the geniality of spring and the harshness of the frontier.  “Ah, the genial winds of springtime cross not the Yumen Pass” is obviously an exaggeration but is, in fact, the hyperbole of the original. 



you are what you read said...

Nicely done!
I too think that Wang Zhihuan imagines the Yellow River forming in the distant clouds. Far to the west, there in the high mountains on the Tibetan frontier, at the wall in the desert valley at Yumen Pass, a lonely figure blows on a Qiang flute. It is an instrument that mimics the human emotion of solace and regret - why does not spring blow through Yumen Pass?

Anonymous said...

This is one of my favorite Chinese poems. Its evocative power was made apparent during a visit I made to Yumen Guan in 1982.

Paul R. Goldin said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Paul R. Goldin said...

I enjoyed the translation and annotations, but I think it was a mistake to decide against conveying in the translation that the 羌 of 羌笛 is an ethnonym. The key to the whole poem is that someone is playing a Chinese tune on a foreign instrument.


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