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?


Ray Heaton said...

A famous, oft translated poem, but one that I have previously struggled with! I could never quite relate the final two lines, much because, as Andrew says regarding lines 5/6, that there's possibly a hint of cynicism.

I understand the poem was written when Meng Jiao was in his 50s and so I posited to myself that Meng felt that he was an unfilial son and had failed to repay his mother's kindness, likening himself to a mere blade of grass in the face of the sun, inconsequential in the scheme of things, possibly reflecting his struggle to achieve success in the imperial examinations and achieve a respected career. After pressure from his mother, he made an attempt to change the life he was leading as a reclusive impoverished poet by passing the Jinshi, but even then only achieved a low ranking official position which he seems to have paid scant attention to, rather concentrating on his poetry.

Meng's other poetry largely relates a scholar's indignation at his own plight and at social injustice, he uses rarely used words, obscure imagery inclined to the somber, dreary and lonely (see "A Concise History of Chinese Literature"), and so this particular poem seems a contradiction, it's almost too simple, certainly most interpretations and commentary about the poem emphasise the obvious message.

So how does Andrew deal with this apparent contradiction?

The poem has become one of two unequal parts. The first four lines read as despair, the loving mother desperately sewing to ensure her son has enough warm clothes for his journey, as she stitches on she fears never seeing her son again, at least not for some considerable time, a delayed reunion.

The first line merely draws us in to the simple actions of the mother, line two very deftly shows her devotion to the son, the repetition of "son", in this line achieving exactly what Andrew suggests, elevating the motherly love for her departing son. Andrew doesn't read line two's 身上衣 as 身 and 上衣, (that is, not interpreting the meaning as jacket, leading to "The thread from a fond mother's hand Is now in the jacket of her absent son") rather it's 身上 and 衣 (on the body, clothes) which makes the line read much more desperate, the mother almost clinging to her son, the clothes on his back representing her wanting, her desire almost, to keep hold of him. Lines three and four so effectively heightening the mothers fears, on and on she sews as the time of her son's departure draws nearer, and then her greatest fear is revealed, a delayed reunion. As Andrew says, not merely when will they meet again, but when will this union of mother and son ever come to pass?

My reading of the poem, implicitly supported by this translation, is that the last two lines are the poet looking back in time to his response to his mother's longing to see her son again.

Is line five, with what to me is the rather strange expression 寸草心, the heart of a seedling (or commonly "an inch of grass, which is even stranger), an example of Meng's use of the obscure imagery? Whether or not, Andrew resolves this quite simply. Andrew's addition of "mere", a "mere grass seedling", intentionally or otherwise, is perfect in showing Meng's thoughts here; he is revealing his feeling of being inconsequential, despite his mothers unrelating love and devotion, his is like a stalk of grass before the sun. Leaving the line in the third person (in contrast to the short form of the poem, shown at the end of Andrew's comments) detracts slightly from this, and would be better I think as first person.

Line 6, I think raises the question within the poet's mind; how can he ever repay his mother's kindness and become a good and filial son? Is he too weak to do so, has the reunion been delayed too long? The question isn't resolved, but leaves the reader questioning his or her own relationship with their mother.

Andrew W.F. Wong 黃宏發 said...

I heartily thank Ray Heaton for his most informative and insightful comment to which I respond as follows:-

Cynicism: Although I did, in my note, use the words "bland, though cynical yet true statement", I used them to dismiss translating lines 5 and 6 as "Who says...can ever repay" and even "Who dare say...can ever repay". That hint of cynicism which might have troubled Ray had never bothered me not because I had all along been submerged in the conventional interpretation, but because the poem is sub-titled by the poet himself as 迎母溧上作 "Written at Liyang on Mother's Arrival", 溧 being 溧陽 "Liyang" (on 溧水 "River Li") where he was a junior official. From this, we may infer he felt inadequate as a son, remorse for being so late to repay his mother, at most indignation at his own plight (not made plain in the poem) but certainly no cynicism on filial piety.

Mother's Despair: If Ray reads despair on the part of the mother into the first 4 lines of my rendition,I must have failed to convey my true message which is, of course, the magnanimity of mother's love. The repetition of "son" in line 2 is not for reason of desperation. I penned it as such so as to bring "son" to the forefront to be nearer to "mother". I can consider revising the line to read "Clothes for the son to wear, the travelling one" which will result in a true rhyme with "sun" in line 6. There is no question of desperation either in my translating 身上衣 as 身上 and 衣 instead of 身 and 上衣. In this context, 上衣 "jacket" is clearly wrong as the poem is written in 3 perfectly parallel couplets with 身上 in line 2 in parallel with 手中 in line 1.

Mere Grass Seedling: It has taken me a long time to come to this solution. I thank Ray for appreciation of my adding the word "mere" which, though not in the original, is the essence of the meaning of the original, the "lowliness of an inch of grass".

My Heart: I thank Ray most heartily for suggesting that I should have penned "my heart" in the first person instead of "the heart" in the third person". I humbly agree and will effect the revision in the post.

Thank you, Ray.

Ray Heaton said...

I think your translation, Andrew, completely resolved my issue with cynicism. It is other translations that gave rise to this view, which I subsequently struggled with. There is no cynicism implied within your translation.

I don't think my view regarding the mother's desperation counteracts or negates the motherly love which is also quite explicit within your translation. I think the expression of love is elevated by the desperation of the mother to want to see her son again, how much longing is expressed in her simple sewing, a love that the poet struggles to repay and waits too long.

I agree entirely with you not translating 上衣 to be "jacket"; the parallelism being something missed by many other translators.

The thing I appreciate most about your translations, Andrew, is your deconstruction of the poem, your desire to get to the true meaning of the poet's works; your influences obviously stem from the poem and knowledge of the poet not as in so many other cases from other translations.

Ray Heaton said...

I don't agree that you should change line two! "Clothes for the son to wear, her travelling son" says several thinks to me.

It strikes me as a very personal line, the mother being so proud of her son. Using "the son" in the first part of the line followed by "her son" in the second part makes the line become the mother's thought, this is my son, the traveller. You can feel her glow at the thought, feel her love and feel her devotion.

There's my view of the desperation of the mother; does she want him to go? I don't think she does, she fears the delayed reunion revealed in line four. She knows her son well, better than he knows himself, when will she see him again?

Yet she sits quietly sewing his clothes, supporting him in such a simple way, enabling him to travel, again this shows her love for him, her travelling son.

And this line becomes universal, every mother's son. All our children must leave to lead their own lives, to face their challenges and to make their own mistakes. Whatever they do, they will be loved unconditionally by their mother. They will be missed, often desperately so, but still they go.

I think the line, as it is, is essential in delivering the message of the poem. The use of "son" in "travelling son" as important as the word "mere" in line five.

Andrew W.F. Wong 黃宏發 said...

I agree with Ray a hundred percent. I only said "I can consider..." which I already did when I decided for a repetition of the word "son" at the expense of the true rhyme "one". Thank you, Ray.

Unknown said...

Thanks for the Chinese Literature, but I'll leave the comments for Chinese people to see how low The Great Native Speakers can go just to talk about a language they acquired in natural circumstances instead of studying.English to Chinese translation service

Jonathan Babcock 白 宗 杰 said...

Loving mother thread in hand
Journeysome son coat a-darning
Fine so fine last stitches fly
Fretting long long returning
Pray tell, how this grassling's heart
E'er honor thy sunrich spring nurture?

Unknown said...


Jon Kwong said...

A thread in the doting mother's hand,
Clothes on the body of the roving son.
On departing, she quickly, quickly stitches,
But dreadful of a belated, belated homecoming.

Who says in the heart of an inch long blade of grass,
It can repay the sunshine of three springs?

Jon Kwong said...

A thread in the doting mother's hand,
Clothes on the body of the roving son.
On departing, she quickly and more quickly stitches,
But dreadful of a delayed and more delayed homecoming.

Who says in the heart of an inch long blade of grass,
It can repay the sunshine of three springs?

Andrew W.F. Wong 黃宏發 said...

Dear Jon, Thank you for your well-considered rather literal rendition. May I humbly suggest for your further consideration the following:
*Line 1: "doting" is rather negative while "loving" is positive;
*Lines 3 and 4: consider coining hyphenated words like "quick-quickly" for line 3, and "late-
late" for line 4;
*Lines 5 and 6: please refer to my discussion with Mr. Ray Heaton in the Comments above.
Thank you, again. Best wishes, Andrew Wong.

chinaphil said...

Once again, comments from Ray are very enlightening! I hadn't known about the more cynical reading of this poem, so I've revised my translation

Song of a Son Far from Home

A mother's thread that sews
The traveler's warm clothes,
Stitched tight his leaving day,
In fear of years away.
The springtime sun gave more warm rays
Than any sprout's proud growth repays.

A Midwest Collegiate said...

Hi great reading youur blog


Classical Chinese Poems in English


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