04 December 2014

孟郊 Meng Jiao: 遊子吟 [*慈母手中線] Song of the Travelling Son [*Sewing thread in hand...]

Today I am posting my latest translation----"Song of the Travelling Son" by Mid Tang poet Meng Jiao.  Because of its subject matter, mother's love, it is most famous and popular and is known to practically all literate Chinese. As this is also a much translated poem, I must record my disagreement with all translators who have rendered 遊子 in the title (and line 2) in a less than neutral way, e.g. “wayward”, “wanderer”, “wandering son”, “roving son”, “son out to roam the land”, “rover”, “roaming/wanderlust son", etc.

This is simply a poem about a son who is about to travel, his mother’s love for him, and his feelings of filial piety towards his mother.  The reason for his travel is not given, nor is the character of the son known.  It is, therefore, imperative to be neutral and to speak of the son as "wayfaring" or "journeying", and I have picked “travelling” for both the title and line 2.

I have also done a shorter version which appears at the end of my notes. Please let me know which version you like better.  Here is the original version of my rendition:-

Meng Jiao (751-814): Song of the Travelling Son, Written at Liyang on Mother's Arrival (sub-title added 13.12.14) [*Sewing thread in hand...] 

1  Sewing-thread in hand, the loving mother;
2  Clothes for the son to wear, her travelling son.
3  On and on she sews, his leaving now nears;
4  Stitch on stitch, she fears -- a delayed reunion.
5  (Oh! How shall the heart of a mere grass seedling)
    (Oh! How shall my heart of a mere grass seedling) (revised 10.12.14)
    How shall my heart of a mere grass seedling, ever (revised 9.11.17) 
(Ever repay the embrace of spring’s warm sun!)
    (Repay the embracing rays of her springtime sun!) (revised 9.11.17) 
    Repay the embracing rays of her ever spring sun! (revised 14.11. 17)

Translated by Andrew W.F. Wong (Huang Hongfa)     譯者黃宏發
25th November 2014 (revised 26.11.14; 28.11.14; 1.12.14; 2.12.14; 4.12.14)
Translated from the original - 孟郊: 遊子吟  迎母溧上作 (sub-title added 13.12.14) [*慈母手中線]    



*Meter and rhyme:  This English rendition is in iambic pentameter (5 metrical feet) while the original is in 5-character lines.  The original rhyme scheme is XAXAXA.  This rendition can only claim to have achieved it in a loose sense as “reunion” in line 4 does not perfectly rhyme with “son” and “sun” in lines 2 and 6 respectively, and the latter two are not rhymes at all since they sound the same. I said the meter is iambic (a weaker syllable followed by a stronger one: daDUM) for scansion purposes.  In this connection, please note all 6 lines are “beheaded” (initial truncation/catalexis, i.e. weaker syllable(s) in the beginning omitted) in that they all begin with a stronger syllable (DUM) which alone constitute one foot with the weaker (da) regarded as omitted on purpose.  I will stop here without going into other substitutions and variations.
*Line 1:  “Sewing” is added to make clear the meaning of “thread” and to, so to speak, sew into “she sews” in line 3.  I had considered “Threaded needle” but decided against it.

*Line 2:  I had considered “Clothes to keep him warm” but decided “Clothes … to wear” is closer to 身上衣 “clothes on his body/back”.  I had originally penned “Clothes for him to wear, the travelling son” but have decided for “Clothes for the son to wear, her travelling son” to heighten the sense of the mother’s love for the son.

*Line 3:  I have taken 密密縫 not to mean “sewing closer and closer stitches” but to mean “more and more frequently she sews” on the basis that means, inter alia, 不疏 which can mean “not infrequent, i.e. frequent” in addition to “not far apart, i.e. closer”.  I could have penned “More and more she sews” with the repetition of “more” to translate the repetition of but have decided that “On and on she sews” serves the meaning better.

*Line 4:  遲遲 “late, late” is translated as “delayed” to make clear that the son is just a “traveler” and is no “wanderer/rover/roamer”.  The repetition of , in parallel with in line 3,  is represented by the repetition of an added word “stitch” in “Stitch on stitch” which, so to speak, sews into “Sewing” in line 1, “Clothes” in line 2, and “she sews” in line 3.  I have dropped the most natural and proper translation of as “return” and chosen “reunion” not because of rhyme (in any case, not a satisfactory rhyme as pointed out above).  It is because the word “to sew/stitch” in line 3 is a case of double entendre in Chinese as it sounds the same as “to meet”, hence “be together”, which meaning cannot be covered in line 3.  I have, therefore, decided for “reunion” over “return”.  I had originally penned: “Every stitch a wish, of a sooner reunion” but have decided to stay closer to the original, hence “Stitch on stitch, she fears----a delayed reunion.”

*Lines 5 and 6:  These 2 lines are a metaphor of the magnanimity of mother’s love (in line 6: 三春暉 “embrace of spring’s warm sun” and the incapacity of the son with a pious heart (in line 5: 寸草心 “heart of a mere grass seedling”).  The formulation of 誰言 “Who says” in line 5 and 報得 “Can repay in full/Can ever repay” in line 6 make up a question, in my view, a rhetorical one, hopefully, not leading to the bland, though cynical, yet true statement that “the son/seedling can never repay the mother/sun”, but to an exhortation to repay, requite mother's love.

*Line 5:  For the reason I have given in the note above, I have chosen to use “Oh!” and “How shall” to begin the line and translate 誰知 instead of “Who knows”.  For 寸草, I had considered variously: an inch of grass, a blade of grass, the sprouting grass, the budding grass, the inch-long grass, the inch-tall grass, a grass inch-ling, a grass seedling, etc. and have decided for “a mere grass seedling”.  For “heart”, I had considered qualifying “heart” with grateful, ardent, fervent, pious, etc. but have decided that “heart” alone suffices.  I had considered amending “the heart” to read “my heart” but have decided to stay with the third person.

*Line 6:  三春 can mean (a) 3 springs, i.e. 3 years, (b) the 3 months of spring, and (c) the third month of spring.  It is obvious (a) is out of the question.  It is, however, not certain whether (b) or (c) was meant by the poet.  I have, therefore, decided to blur over it and rendered it, together with “rays/warmth” as “the embrace of spring’s warm sun”.

*Shorter alternative version:  An alternative version of my rendition is set out below:-
Meng Jiao (751-814):  Song of the Travelling Son
1  Thread in hand, the loving mother;
2  Clothes on his back, her travelling son.
3  She sews and sews, his leaving nears;
4  She fears and fears, a delayed reunion.
5  Who says my heart of a grass seedling,
6  Can ever repay her warm spring sun?


Classical Chinese Poems in English


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