06 March 2020

李端 Li Duan: 聽箏 Listening to the Zither

In these novel coronavirus days, when we should best remain secluded, poetry and music should prove to be our best company.

Today, I am posting my English rendition of a beautiful little poem by the Tang dynasty poet Li Duan on a string musical instrument called 箏 "zheng" or 古箏 "Guzheng".  I have translated it as "Zither" which is a similar European (Austrian, Tyrolese, Bavarian) instrument.  If you wish to know a bit more about this musical instrument, please consult my notes on the title and lines 1 and 2 of my English rendition of the poem.

As the Chinese Zither or Guzheng 古箏 has spread to other countries and peoples in East Asia, you may also wish to "google search" the following 7 items to seek more information and to listen to the music made by instruments of the Zither family via the videos provided:

(1) Zither
(2) Chinese Guzheng
(3) Japanese Koto
(4) Korean Gayageum
(5) Vietnamese Dan Tranh
(6) Mongolian Yatga
(7) Sundanese Kacapi

Please enjoy yourselves!!! 

Li Duan (738?-786?):  Listening to the Zither

1   Its strings on their golden bridges, the zither in tune arises;
2   At her fair hands’ fingertips, its resonance chamber in chime.
3   Desiring the caring attention of the man dear to her heart,
4   (Coyly, she plucks and plays a wrong note from time to time.)
     She plays and plucks, coyly, a wrong note from time to time.  (revised 20.4.2022)

Translated by Andrew W.F. Wong (Huang Hongfa)    譯者: 黃宏發
26 February 2020
Translated from the original – 李端: 聽箏

1   鳴箏金粟柱    
2   素手玉房前    
3   欲得周郎顧    
4   時時誤拂絃    


*Form, Metre and Rhyme:  The original is a 5-character quatrain (of 4 lines of equal length).  As Chinese is a mono-syllabic language while English is accentual, stressed syllables (or beats or feet) in the English language are used to determine the line length of the English rendition.  While the original is in penta-syllabic lines (of 5 syllables), this English rendition, also a quatrain, is in hexameter (6 feet or beats), which is less than perfect than the pentameter (5 feet or beats).  There is, in the original, a caesura in every line after the second foot or beat.  To further emulate the original, I have invariably provided a mid-line caesura between the third and fourth beats.  As for the rhyme scheme, although (line 1) and (line 3) rhyme perfectly under current Modern Chinese pronunciation, apparently constituting a rhyme scheme of ABAB, the two words were in fact pronounced rather differently and did not rhyme in Tang dynasty (618-907) Medieval Chinese.  Without venturing into any research on their true pronunciation, I will simply say: (1) they do not rhyme under current Cantonese Chinese pronunciation, and (2) they were classified into different rhyme sections in the classical Chinese rhyme book 佩文韻府 with in 上聲七  (Rising Tone Section 7: ) and in 去聲七遇 (Falling Tone Section 7: ).  The poet’s rhyme scheme must, therefore, be XAXA and this is what I have used.

* Title, and the Zither:  The title (hear) (zither) has been criticized by some as improper as the poem is about the zither in play, not about hearing or listening to it.  I am of the view that the poet is gently asking us readers of the poem and the man represented by 周郎 in the poem to listen to “the sound beyond the strings” 絃外之音 and have, therefore, decided for the literal translation of 聽箏 as “Listening to the Zither”.  (zheng) or 古箏 (guzheng, i.e. ancient zheng) is a rectangular string musical instrument of many strings (13 strings in Tang dynasty days, 26 nowadays, and there had been changes throughout the ages), with each string supported by a moveable bridge.  It is placed horizontally before the player and played with the fingertips with or without a plectrum. It dates from 400 BCE or earlier, probably preceded by the Chinese “qin” or guqin” without the moveable bridges and the Chinese “se” with moveable bridges and with even more strings (now rarely played).  Related instruments (with moveable bridges) can be found in East Asia in (1) the Japanese “koto”, (2) the Korean “gayageum”, (3) the Vietnamese “dan tranh”, (4) the Mongolian “yatga”, and (5) the Sundanese (of West Java, Indonesia) “kacapi”, all probably derived from the Chinese instruments).   On the basis that the European (Austrian,Tyrolese, Bavarian) zither is the only rectangular plucked string musical instrument placed and played horizontally in the West, I have decided to name all these instruments (whether with or without moveable bridges) “zithers” in English, much like naming all string instruments in Chinese.   Depending on the context and the choice of the translator, can either be transliterated as “zheng” (like the “pipa” 琵琶) if one wishes to foreignize it, or be translated as “zither” and nothing else if one wishes to domesticate it.  This is because a “harp” (Witter Bynner) stands, and other plucked instruments such as the “lute” (Tang Li-chang), the “cittern or cithern” (Betty Tsang), and others are all guitar like with a pear shape or round or triangular body.  A possible third option is to use “strings” as a synecdoche for the instrument which, in the case of the title, is of little help.

*Line 1:  (sound) (zither) is rendered as “the zither in tune arises” and moved to end the line.  (pillar) in金粟柱 refers to “bridges” which, in string musical instruments, hold the strings between the two ends.  In the case of the Chinese “zither” (please look up 古箏 “guzheng” on the web), each bridge holds only one string, and are moveable along the string for fine tuning.   They are not “frets”, nor “pegs”.  is therefore rendered as “Its strings on their … bridges” with the addition of (1) “strings” to make clear these are bridges to hold strings, (2) “Its” to say these are the zither’s strings, and (3) “on their (… bridges)” to mean there are as many bridges as strings.  (gold) (millet) is used to describe the bridges and can be interpreted as a gold inlaid or gold colour engraving (of a pattern of either the ripe, hence, yellow millet grains or the yellow 桂花  osmanthus flowers) decorating the bridges.  For brevity, it is simply rendered as “golden” after considering “gilded” and “gilden” without specifying the pattern.

*Line 2:  (white) (hands, or arms, or fingers) is rendered as “At her fair hands’ fingertips” (originally penned as “… arms’ …”) with “her fair hands’ finger(tip)s” used as its literal translation and with “At … (finger)tips” added to pave the way for my rendition of (jade) (room, or chamber) (front) which follows.   The term玉房 is taken by most to mean a luxurious chamber or a lady’s bowers, and the word is understood as in front of such places.  I am of the view that 玉房 refers to the sounding box or resonant cavity (or chamber) of the zither, a term used in the original as a synecdoche for the zither, which has nothing to do with “jade” except to mean the zither is very precious with “golden bridges” (see note on line 1 above) and a “jade-like (to mean ornate) body”.  I have decided for rendering it as “its resonance chamber” after considering and rejecting “its jade-like chamber”.  This interpretation turns the whole line to literally mean “Her fair hands’ fingers in front of the precious zither”, however, to do what and with what result?   I have, therefore, decided to render as “At her (fair hands’) fingertips” to cover both the front position and the fingering action, and to even cover she is in command of and playing the zither.  The result of her action is given through the addition of “in chime” to end the line.  This “chime” is implied in 玉房 as the zither’s “resonance chamber”, and is a resounding complement to “the zither in tune arises” that ends line 1.

*Line 3:  (desire) (obtain) is translated literally as “Desiring” after considering “Wishing”, “Seeking” and “Craving”.  (surname Zhou) (noble young man) refers to the young General Zhou Yu 周瑜 of the Kingdom of Wu (and of Red Cliff 赤壁 Battle fame) in China’s Three Kingdoms Period (220-280), who was also a great musician.  Here, 周郎 is rendered as “the man dear to her heart” which is what it means in this context, after considering “… prince …”.  (glance; care, or attention) is rendered as “the caring attention of”, after considering “a caring glance from”.

*Line 4:  時時 (time and time), which should be understood as “time and again” and not as “always”, is rendered as “from time to time” and moved to end the line, with the reduplication of “time” to emulate the reduplication of in the original.  (mistake) (pluck) (string) is rendered as “Coyly, she plucks and plays a wrong note (from time to time)” with (1) translated as “wrong”,  (2) covered by “she plucks and plays”, and (3) rendered as “a (wrong) note” rather than “… string”, and with the addition of “Coyly”, a word so rich in meaning (from shyly, bashfully to coquettishly, flirtatiously), which gives life to the line and the poem.                                                                                                                                                                                                                                            


Classical Chinese Poems in English


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