03 July 2017

西鄙人 Xi Bi Ren (Western Frontiersman): 哥舒歌 Song of Geshu

Below is a folk rhyme of the Tang dynasty which I have recently translated into English.  Though anonymous, it is collected in the famed anthology of "300 Tang Poems"; and mind you, there are over 50,000 Tang poems extant.  You will wish to note (a) the beauty of the original's 高刀洮 (gao-dao-tao, rendered as sight-night-might) rhyme, (b) the brilliance of the imagery of the Dipper as Geshu's Sword, and (c) the sheer simplicity of the poem.

Here we go:- 

Xi Bi Ren (Western Frontiersman) (?Tang Dynasty): Song of Geshu

1   The seven starred Big Dipper, due north up high in sight:
2   ‘Tis the sword of General Geshu, in vigilance all night.
3   To date, them herders on horseback, espy yet do not dare
4   To cross our Lintao border, in awe of Geshu Han’s might.

Translated by Andrew W.F. Wong (Huang Hongfa)      譯者: 黃宏發
27th May 2017 (revised 28.5.17; 31.5.17; 1.6.17; 6.6.17; 7.6.17; 8.6.17)
Translated from the original – 西鄙人: 哥舒歌

1   北斗七星高
2   哥舒夜帶刀
3   至今窺牧馬
4   不敢過臨洮


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

*Author and Title:  On the face of it, the poem was written by some poet who wished to be anonymous so named himself 西鄙人 Xi Bi Ren (Western Frontiersman).  More likely, it was a folk rhyme among the people of the western frontier of Tang dynasty China, polished by one and many in the process of circulation.  Author being untraceable, it was attributed to “Western Frontiersman”, whether as one such person or as such persons collectively.  “Geshu” in the title and line 2 (and also line 4 in my English rendition) refers to a Tang dynasty general surname “Geshu” 哥舒 (name “Han” ) in the High Tang 盛唐 period (the period of Li Bai, Du Fu and Wang Wei) who was victorious against a Tubo 吐蕃 (Tibetan) incursion.  This poem is about the peace that ensued.

*Line 1:  北斗七星 (north, dipper, seven stars) is an asterism in the constellation Ursa Major 大熊座in the northern sky.  It consists of seven bright stars in the shape of a dipper or scoop or ladle or plough or wain, with four stars defining the scoop or bowl or body, and three stars, the handle or head.  In English, it is known as the Wain or Plough or Big Dipper or just Dipper (beware, there exist another asterism of seven stars with the same shape in the constellation Ursa Minor 小熊座 also in the northern sky).  北斗七星 is here rendered as “The seven starred Big Dipper”, Dipper being a literal translation of which Wain and Plough cannot claim, and Big Dipper being the proper name of the said asterism.  I have been able to retain the idea of the northern sky in 北斗 by adding “due north” after “Big Dipper”.  is rendered as “up high in sight” with “in sight” added to create a scheme of “-ight” end rhymes.  This is superior to “shines high and bright” I originally penned as the addition of “bright” is quite artificial while “in sight” (= all can see) is implied in the original.

*Line 2:  I have not taken夜帶刀 literally as “(at) night carries (his) sword”, but as “vigilant at night”.  Further, the whole line should not be understood as a statement that “Geshu is vigilant at night” but should be read as a continuation of line 1 saying these 7 northern stars, shaped like a sword (or dipper, scoop, ladle, plough, wain), represent “the sword of Geshu (a metonymy for Geshu himself) keeping vigilance at night”.  The line is, therefore, rendered as “’Tis the sword of General Geshu, in vigilance all night”, with “all night” used rather than the proper “at night” as the stars are there all night.

*Line 3:  至今 (until, now) is rendered as “To date”.  For the word (see or peep or eye or espy or spy), the problem lies in whether “… 窺牧馬 (in line 3) and 不敢過 (in line 4)” should be interpreted as (a) “(= 看見)牧馬()不敢過”, in English, “we see their horses dare not cross” or (b) “牧馬窺(= 窺看)()不敢過”, in English, “their horses just spy and dare not cross”.  I prefer the latter for the following reasons.  First, the inversion of the order of 牧馬窺 as 窺牧馬 in the original is meant to move 牧馬 closer to不敢過.  Second, the choice of the word is indicative of the sense of eyeing-spying, not just seeing for which will suffice.  Third, when placed before 牧馬, can be regarded as the adjectival “spying” qualifying their horses and their men.  On the term 牧馬 (herd, horse), it is a metonymy in the original, using “horses being herded” and/or “horses used for herding” to represent the men on horses herding cattle (and even horses).  It therefore refers to the men and not the horses.  I had hoped to retain the metonymy in my rendition, but after considering “herdsmen’s horses”, “tribesmen’s horses”, “nomads’ horses”, “nomadic horses”, I dropped the idea and decided to render it as “herders on horseback”.  It may be of interest to note the famed translator 許渊冲 Xu Yuan Zhong has been able to retain the metonymy in his translation of 胡馬 “Tartars’/Jurchens’ 女真 horses/steeds” in 姜夔 Jiang Kui 揚州慢 自胡馬窺江去後” as “Since northern shore was overrun by Jurchen steeds”, but this is a different story, in a very different context.  (Just mark the word there features the transferred meaning of “overrun” and “ransacked”.)  The line is now rendered as “To date, them herders on horseback, espy yet do not dare” with “espy” to translate and with 不敢 in the original line 4 moved up to line 3 in the English rendition as “do not dare”.  I have also added “them” to “herders” to contrast with “our … border” to be added in line 4.  (Please see note below.)

*Line 4:  不敢 is rendered as “do not dare” and moved up to line3.  臨洮 is the name of a place in present day Kansu 甘肅 Province (between Tibet to the south and Inner Mongolia to the north) so named for being “on/by ” “the River Tao ” which is a tributary of the Yellow River 黃河.  (A note on pronunciation: in洮水(the river in Kansu) and 臨洮 is pronounced “tao” while the same word in 洮湖 (a lake in present Jiangsu 江蘇 Province) is pronounced “yao”.)  過臨洮 is rendered as “to cross our Lintao border” with the words “our” and “border” added to make clear the nature and significance of the said place.  I have further added “in awe of Geshu Han’s might” to reiterate they “do not dare” and explain why so, which is the sense of the poem.  The addition of “might” completes the rhyme. 


Classical Chinese Poems in English


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