03 April 2015

陳子昂 Chen Zi'ang: 登幽州臺歌 Song on Ascending the Youzhou Tower

Today is Good Friday 2015.  Some 2000 years ago, when Jesus Christ was crucified on the cross, He cried out, "Eloi. eloi (My God or Father), why have you forsaken me?" Here, I am not attempting to compare Chen Zi'ang to Jesus, even less, to explain why Jesus said what he said in his last words.  But on Jesus' human side, He must have felt lonely, desolate and forsaken, particularly because, on His divine side, He was to, through His death, bear the sins of humankind for our salvation and had to do it alone.

Chen Zi'ang was no divinity; he was all human.  He wanted to serve his country and the people.  Whether or not this poem is to be regarded as sentimental and, hence, inferior should best be judged in his being a gifted patriot relegated to a junior post in Youzhou.

Chen Zi-ang (661-702): Song on Ascending the Youzhou Tower

1       Ahead, I see no ancient sages,  
2      (Nor behind, the sages yet unborn.)  
    Nor behind, those sages yet unborn.  
    (revised 14.4.15)
3    (So, on and on, heaven and earth shall roll,)  
      While, on and on, heaven and earth shall roll,  
      (revised 14.4.15)
4    (Left all alone, in tears I stand, forlorn.)
      Alone I stand, tears a-falling, forlorn.  
      (revised 14.4.15)

Translated by Andrew W.F. Wong (Huang Hongfa)   譯者: 黃宏發
25th March 2015 (revised 26.3.15; 28.3.15; 30.3.15; 31.3.15)
Translated from the original - 陳子昂: 登幽州臺歌

1        前不見古人
2        後不見來者
3        念天地之悠悠
4        獨愴然而涕下


*Form, Meter and Rhyme:  This poem is classified as a “七言古詩 7-Character Old-Style Verse”, a fairly loose classification which admits lines of 2, 3, 4, 5, 6 or even 10 characters in poems whose lines are predominantly of  7 characters.  This poem is rare in that no line is in 7 characters.  It is a quatrain of two 5-character lines followed by two of 7 characters.  This English rendition uses the tetrameter (4 beats) for the 5-character lines and the pentameter (5 beats) for the 6-character ones.  The rhyme scheme is XAXA as in the original where  and rhyme (上聲馬韻 rising tone “ma” rhyme) although they do not sound like rhymes in current Chinese.

*Lines 1 and 2 re. 前後 (in front/behind, before/behind, past/future, ahead/aback, before/after): I had considered Witter Bynner’s “before me/behind me” (p. 10 of his “Three Hundred Poems of the Tang Dynasty 618-906” 2005, first published as “The Jade Mountain: A Chinese Anthology, Being (as stated above)” 1929) but have decided for the simpler “ahead/behind” for which, I am grateful to Innes Herdan (p. 120 of her “300 Tang Poems” 1973, 2000) and 施穎洲 (p. 27 of his “中英對照讀唐詩宋詞 Tang and Song Poetry: Chinese—English” 2006, 2007).

*Lines 1 and 2 re. 古人 (men of the past):  I have interpreted “men of the past” to refer to “great men” or ”men good and wise” or “sages” of the past (in line 1), of the future (in line 2) and of the present (the poet counting himself as one from the way the 2 lines are written).  This allusion to sages is apparent in the title.  Youzhou Tower, near present-day Beijing, was the 黃金臺 Golden Tower built by the Lord of the State of Yan in the Warring States 戰國 Period in China (475-221 BCE) to recruit the good and wise to serve Yan.

*Line 2:  I had considered “yet to come” to translate (to come) (men to come), but have decided for “yet unborn” to create a rhyme for “forlorn” in line 4.

*Line 3:  To translate and to capture the repetition of in 悠悠 (long, remote, infinite), I had considered such repetitions as “long, long lasting” (the word “long” and the “l” sound), “vast and everlasting” (the “-ast-” sound), “lasting, everlasting” (the word “lasting”), and ”immense, immortal” (the “im-” sound), and have decided for “So on and on, heaven and earth shall roll” with the word “on” repeated in “(roll) on and on”.  I had originally penned “go (on and on)” but have decided for “roll on and on” to convey the passage of time and the ups and downs in the world and in life.  To translate (think, muse, brood) I have used the less than literal “So” which, I hope, is adequate in the context of the line.  The inversion of ending the line with “shall roll” instead of “on and on” is intended to avoid, in line 3, the “on” sound which is too close to the rhyme of “unborn” in line 2 and “forlorn” in line 4. 

*Line 4:  I had originally penned “Steeped in tears, alone I stand, forlorn”, then considered “Tears a-dripping, alone I stand, forlorn” and “While all alone, in tears I stand, forlorn”, and have now decided for “Left all alone, in tears I stand, forlorn” which is less sentimental and better echoes the situation of the poet given in the first 2 lines.  

Classical Chinese Poems in English


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