02 August 2015

李益 Li Yi: 江南曲 Jiang Nan Qu (Song of the Land South of the River)

This poem depicts the feelings of the wife of a merchant who time after time fails to return home as promised.  The word 潮 "tides" which appears in both lines 3 and 4 may mislead us to think that Qutang (which is the uppermost gorge of the Three Gorges of the Yangzi River) is by seaside.  I have, therefore, rendered it as "Qutang Gorge".  My note on line 3 explains 潮 not as 潮汐 "tides" but as 潮汎 "high/flood waters" which make the gorge navigable, hence my rendering 潮有信 in line 3 as "as ever floods on time" and 弄潮兒 in line 4 as "river-boat sailor".  Here we go!

Li Yi (748 – 829): Jiangnan Qu (Song of the Land South of the River)

1  I’m married to a merchant, we live in Qutang Gorge, yet
2  Time after time he fails me: to return by the day he’d said.        
3  O had I known this River, as ever, floods on time,  
4  I might have had married a river-boat sailor instead.  

Translated by Andrew W.F. Wong (Huang Hongfa)   譯者: 黃宏發
18th June 2015 (revised 19.6.15; 26.6.15; 30.6.15; 3.7.15; 10.7.15; 15.7.15)
Translated from the original - 李益: 江南曲



*Form, Metre and Rhyme:  This English rendition is in hexameter (6 beats or feet) while the original is in 5-character lines.  The rhyme scheme is XAXA as in the original.

*Line 1:  嫁得 is rendered as “I’m married to” after considering “Married am I/I am to”.  瞿塘 “Qutang” refers to 瞿塘峽 “Qutang Gorge” (the name of the first and uppermost of “The Three Gorges” 三峽 of the “Changjiang or Long River” 長江 or 大江 “Grand River” or simply “River”), and is translated as such to clearly identify the place.  Instead of translating 瞿塘賈 literally as “merchant of Qutang” which may mean “merchant from Qutang”, I have added the idea of “live” to better indicate that the merchant (who may well be from Qutang) indeed lives in Qutang, hence, “(since marriage) we live in Qutang Gorge”.

*Line 2:  朝朝 “every morning/day” or 每一朝 (pronounced “zhao”) is interpreted to mean 每一遭 (pronounced “zao”) “every time”, and is translated as “time after time” (rather than “time and again”) to replicate the repetition.  is a word used by a female to refer to herself (“me” or “my”) and does not mean “concubine”.  誤妾期 is, therefore, rendered as “he fails me: to return by the day he’d said” after considering “he’s ‘failed me:/failed’ to be ‘home/back’ by the day ‘as he’d/as’ said”.  The word “said” which rhymes with “instead” in line 4, is used in the sense of “promised”.

*Line 3:  早知 does not mean “I had earlier/always known” but “if I had earlier/sooner known” and is simply translated   as “O had I known”.  Here, in the context of a river gorge, the word “tide/high waters” refers not to潮汐 “morning and evening tides”, but to 潮汎 or simply “flood/high waters” which occur on rivers in spring (hence春汎 “spring flood/high waters”) after the dry autumn and winter months (although also in summer and autumn after heavy rains).  The flood waters make the River and the Gorge navigable and for the sailor (in line 4) and the merchant (in line 2) to come home if he chooses to.   有信is rendered here as “as ever … on time” with “as ever” to translate the literal meaning of “faithfully, trustily, unfailingly”, and “on time”, the implied meaning of “regularly, punctually”.  I have dropped the most poetic word “timely” as it, unfortunately, does not mean seasonally but seasonably.  As the line refers to flood waters, 潮有信 is rendered as “this River, as ever, floods on time”.  I had considered but dropped the alternative formulation of “how trustily, flood waters fill the banks (or River or Gorge”.
*Line 4:  弄潮兒 “one who plays in the water (river, lake or sea)” is interpreted as “one who braves the water as a sailor or as a lover of watersports”, hence, in this context, “a river-boat sailor”.  I had considered “man” and “hand” but have decided for “sailor”.  嫁與 … reads like a statement, but as I see it, the poem is a wife’s plaint for being left alone at home and not a serious statement that she would rather marry a river-boat sailor.  I had, therefore, considered turning the statement of “I would have had married …” into a rhetorical question of “Would I have had married …”, but have decided to adhere to the statement formulation with “might” replacing “would” and other alternatives such as “may” and “could”, hence, “I might have had married a river-boat sailor instead”. 


Classical Chinese Poems in English


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