15 July 2019

李清照 Li Qingzhao: 南歌子 Nan Ge Zi -- 悼亡 Mourning the Dead

Today, I am posting my latest rendition of yet another tune lyric poem 詞 by the great Song 宋 dynasty lady poet Li Qingzhao 李清照.  The poem was probably written some time after the death of the poet's husband Zhao Mingcheng 趙明誠.  The poem is a superb example of a plain and personal yet subtle and restrained elegy mourning the loss of her husband.

Li Qingzhao (1084-1151): Nan Ge Zi (A Southern Song) – Mourning the Dead

1   Up in the heavens, the starry river turns;
2   Down here on earth, curtains, drapes hang low.
3   The air chilling, my tears dripping, dousing my mat and pillow;
4   I rise to disrobe my silken o'erclothes, and idly wonder
4a How old the night has grown.

5   ‘Tis a robe of small lotus-pods, patched on in green,
6   And a few leaves of the lotus, gilt-threaded, yellowed.
7   The same seasonal clime of old time, the selfsame old-time robe;
8   Only my sentiments aren't quite the same, as those I'd known    
8a In our days in time of old.

Translated by Andrew W.F. Wong (Huang Hongfa)    譯者: 黃宏發
26 June 2019 (revised 3.7.19; 4.7.19; 5.7.19; 9.7.19; 12.7.19; 14.7.19; 20.7.19; 31.7.19)
Translated from the original - 李清照: 南歌子 -- 悼亡

1   天上星河轉
2   人間簾幕垂
3   涼生枕簟淚痕滋
4   起解羅衣聊問
4a 夜何其

5   翠貼蓮蓬小
6   金銷藕葉稀
7   舊時天氣舊時衣
8   只有情懷不似
8a 舊家時


*Form, Metre and Rhyme:  The original is a tune lyric poem or “ci” to the tune of Nan Ge Zi 南歌子 (A Southern Song), entitled 悼亡 “Mourning the Dead”, which is in 2 stanzas of 26 characters (=single syllable words) each with a line length pattern of 5-5/ 7-9 (or 4-5)// 5-5/ 7-9 (or 4-5)//. This English rendition follows the same pattern, counting feet or beats (not words nor syllables) for the line length.  This English rendition also follows strictly the rhyme scheme of the original: xA/ AA (or AxA)// xA/ AA (or AxA).  Unable to find perfect rhyme words (as there are far fewer such words in the English language than the Chinese), I have used the assonance of the “ou” sound as rhyme: “low -2”, “pillow -3”, “grown -4a”, “yellowed -6”, “robe -7”, and “old -8a”.

*Line 1:  (sky) (above) is rendered as “Up in the heavens”.  (stars) (river) refers to the Milky Way and is translated literally as “the starry river”, and (turn), also literally as “turns”.

*Line 2:  (human beings) (amid, world) is rendered as “Down here on earth”.  I suggest reading “here” unstressed.  簾幕 (screen, curtain) (drop closed) is translated as “curtains, drapes hang low”.

*Line 3: (coolness) (emanating) is rendered as “The air chilling”.  (pillow) (mat) is translated literally as “my mat and pillow” and moved to the end of the line.  (tears) (stain) (thrive) is rendered as “my tears dripping, dousing …” and moved to the middle of the line.

*Lines 4 and 4a:  (rise) (untie) (silk) (clothes) in line 4 is rendered as “I rise to disrobe my silken o’erclothes”.  (casually) (ask) in line 4 is rendered as "and idly wonder, and  (night) 何其 (how so) in line 4a, as “How old the night has grown”.  I am grateful to the famed Chinese poetry translator 許淵冲 Xu Yuanchong from whom I have borrowed his rendition of the same as “Wondering how old night has grown” (p. 403 in his “Bilingual Edition 300 Song Lyrics”, Higher Education Press, Beijing, 2004).

*Lines 5 and 6:  In the original, these 2 lines describe the embroidery on a piece of clothing without saying it is a piece of clothing and without indicating whether it is being changed into or changed out of.  These lines follow from “I disrobe …” in line 4.  To make sense of them, I have added “’Tis a robe of” to begin the lines.  The very specific word “robe” is chosen as it makes better sense for an embroidered piece of clothing, after having considered the less specific words of “gown” and “dress” which can refer to nightclothes.  

*Line 5:  (green) (patched) is rendered as “patched on in green”.  (lotus) (pods) (small) is literally translated as “small lotus-pods”.  These reveal that the pattern of the embroidery on the dress is primarily that of many new and young, therefore, “small” and “green” lotus-pods which would eventually bear a myriad of lotus seeds.  I take this pattern to be a wish for plentiful off-springs, or 百子千孫 (hundred sons, thousand grandsons).

*Line 6:  For (gold, gilt) (melt metal), I had originally considered “embroidered in gold” but have decided for “gilt-threaded, yellowed”, using “gilt-threaded” to render the meaning of the original which, in my view, means “stitched with gold thread”.  To follow “gilt-threaded”, I have added “yellowed” (after considering “, yellow” or “in yellow”, or even with “embroidered” replacing “gilt-threaded”) to spell out the colour to complete the picture of a few withered, hence, yellowed lotus leaves in the background of many green lotus-pods.  (lotus) (leave) (sparse) is translated literally as “And a few leaves of the lotus”.

*Line 7:  天氣 (climate, weather) is rendered as “seasonal clime” which is autumn as implied but not specified (“air chilling” and “mat” in line 3) in the poem, and is translated specifically as “robe” to refer back to “disrobe” in line 3 and “robe” in line 5.   (old) (time) which appears twice in the line is rendered as: “The same (seasonal clime) of old time” in the first half line, and “the selfsame old-time (robe)” in the second half line.  舊時衣 should be taken to refer to "the very robe/ clothes she used to wear".  The second half line was originally rendered as "the very same old robe".  I have now revised it to "the selfsame old-time robe" (the selfsame = the very).  With this: the 3 words of "same", "old" and "time" are all replicated not only in these 2 half lines but also in the 舊(家)時 in line 8a.

*Lines 8 and 8a:  Line 8, 只有 (only) 情懷 (sentiment, feeling)  (not)  (like, similar, same) is translated rather literally as “Only my sentiments aren't quite the same as those I'd known” with "as those I'd known" added.  I suggest reading the line as 2 dactyls (Dumdada) followed by 1 trochee Dumda) and 3 iambs (daDum).  (home, family) in 舊家時 is taken by most critics to be just an auxiliary word to stress the oldness and passing of the “old time”.  With that, I could have ended my rendition of the line and poem with “in the days in time of old”.  However, the poet could have used the word (home, family) substantively or, at least, used this ostensibly auxiliary word to hint at the idea of 家, her home and family with her now dead husband.  I have, therefore, decided to render 不似舊家時 as “… aren't quite the same as those I’d known/ In our days in time of old”, with the word “our” (the poet and her husband) brought in to somehow bring out in the rendition the idea of the loss of her husband, her family and home.  I just wish to add I can also settle for “at home in our time of old” to satisfy those who insist on giving 家 (home) a substantive meaning.


Classical Chinese Poems in English


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