13 November 2018

杜牧 Du Mu: 赤壁 Red Cliff

Today, I am posting my rendition of a 7-character quatrain by the late Tang dynasty poet Du Mu 杜牧 entitled "Red Cliff".  I do hope you will find it interesting.  Here we go:-

Du Mu (803-852): Red Cliff

1  Sunken in sand a snapped halberd, its blade of iron remains;
2  I scrape, I scour to find it made in the warring Tri-Kingdom reigns.
3  Had the East Winds not risen, that Spring, to lend Zhou Yu a hand,
4  His wife Er-Qiao would have gone to Bronze Bird Tower in chains.

Translated by Andrew W.F. Wong (Huang Hongfa)  譯者: 黄宏發
17 November 2017 (revised 6.11.2018)
Translated from the original - 杜牧: 赤壁

1  折戟沈沙鐵未銷
2  自將磨洗認前朝
3  東風不與周郎便
4  銅雀春深鎖二喬


*Form. Metre and Rhyme:  This English is in heptameter (7 feet or beats) to emulate the 7-character lines of the original.  The rhyme scheme is AAXA as in the original.

*Title and Background:  The title 赤壁 “Red Cliff” refers to a river battle on the 長江 “Long River” or “Yangzi River” between “Wei” (220-265) on the one side and (or蜀漢) “Shu” (221-263 CE) and (or東吳) “Wu” (222-280) on the other, in the last days of the Eastern Han dynasty (25-220) when the 3 said kingdoms emerged vying for supremacy over the whole of China.  Thanks to gusts of east winds, the Wu-Shu alliance led by the Wu commander 周瑜 Zhou Yu downstream on the east, launched a fire attack on the Wei fleet upstream on the west, and won the battle.    

*Line 1:  is translated literally as “snapped” after considering “broken”.  未銷 (not wasted) is rendered in the positive as “remains”.

*Line 2:  自將磨洗 is translated as “I scrape, I scour”, and as “to find it (was) made”.  I have chosen to translate 前朝 (a former dynasty) by adding words which explain e.g. which dynasty, and why and what war.  I have considered “the last of Han dynasty days” which although is closer to the original’s “former dynasty, is still wanting in explanatory power.  I have now rendered it as “in the warring Tri-Kingdom reigns”.

*Line 3:  For 東風 (east winds), I had considered “the Easterlies” but have decided for the literal “the East Winds”.  不與周郎便 is rendered as “Had … not risen … to lend Zhou Yu a hand” with the name of 周郎 (Minister Zhou) properly spelt out as 周瑜 “Zhou Yu”.  I have moved 深春 (deep spring) from the original’s line 4 to the middle of line 3 of my English rendition with “, that Spring,” inserted.  This may not be entirely proper, but it tells us in no uncertain terms that this crucial battle happened in Spring, and there is no space for any reference to Spring in my line 4 in English.

*Line 4:  I have not interpreted 二喬 (two ladies of the Qiao family) to refer to both of the Qiao family's 2 daughters: 大喬 (elder sister) who married 吳王 the Lord of Wu 孫策 Sun  Ce, and /二喬 (younger sister/second daughter) who married 周瑜 Zhou Yu.  I have taken the poem to refer only to the second daughter who, I surmise, accompanied her husband Zhou in the Battle of Red Cliff.  二喬 is therefore rendered as Er-Qiao with “His wife” added for.  This interpretation heightens the immediacy of the situation, although both sisters were much admired and coveted by 魏王 the Lord of Wei 曹操 Cao Cao whose palace was 銅雀樓 the Bronze Bird Tower.    


Classical Chinese Poems in English


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