10 September 2020

岑参 Cen Shen: 磧中作 Written in the Desert

Here is another old rendition of mine which had not been posted on this blog.  (It was posted on the "Forum" website of the "Hong Kong Economic Journal" 信報論壇 on 25 February 2011.)  This is Cen Shen's "Written in the Desert" which, in plain and simple language, gives one a picture of the west as sky-high (line 1), as 2 months' distance away (line 2), as resting in tents if not the open air (line 3), and as a vast, uninhabited desert.  Here we go: 

Cen Shen (715-770): Written in the Desert

1      To the west I’ve come on horseback, to this a sky-high terrene;

2      E’er since I left my homestead, the moon, twice full, has been.

3      I know not where, tonight, shall we camp and rest for the night;

4      ‘Tis a land of sands so boundless, no human dwellings be seen.

Translated by Andrew W.F. Wong (Huang Hongfa)  譯者: 黄宏發

21 January 2009 (revised 22.1.09; 23.1.09; 18.2.09; 23.2.11; 11.6.12; 27.3.13; polished 10.9.2020)

Translated from the original - 岑参: 磧中作

1      走馬西來欲到天

2      辭家見月兩回圓

3      今夜未知何處宿

4      平沙萬里絕人煙


*  The original is a quatrain in 7-character lines.  This English rendition is in hexameter (6 metrical feet).  The rhyme scheme is AAXA as in the original.  The English rhyme of “terrene”, “been” and “seen” is fortuitously close to the Putonghua pronunciation of the Chinese rhyme of , and .

*  Line 1:  I have added “terrene” not just for the rhyme, but also to meet common sense. I had originally penned “to find this/a sky-high terrene”.  But the word , in this context, does not mean “wish to” but “about to”, e.g. 搖搖欲墜 “so precarious that it is about to fall”, hence, 欲到天 actually means “to reach a land which is about to reach the sky” or simply “sky-high” .

*  Line 2:  To begin the line, I had considered “From when”, “Since when” and “O since” but have now decided for “E’er since”.  For the word, please note (see) and (appear) have the same root in Chinese and are often used rather interchangeably.  Although the original line reads 見月 “I’ve seen the moon” and not 月見 “the moon has appeared”, I have changed the literally correct “I’ve seen” to “has been” meaning “has appeared”, for not wishing to repeat “seen” which I need to end line 4. 

*  Line 3:  I have used two words “camp” and “rest” to translate 宿 in order to complete the hexameter and to make clear in the English rendition the fact that the poet was on an army expedition to the west.

*  Line 4:   The word “sands” (in plural) here means “sandy or desert wastes” (Shorter Oxford).  I have used “boundless” to translate the hyperbole 萬里 “10,000 li (or 3,000 miles)”.  I had originally used “sign” or “trace” to loosely translate (literally “smoke”, but in this context, smoke from cooking and/or heating in human homes), but have now come to consider these 2 words inferior to “homes” or “dwellings”.  Instead of “no sign/ trace of man be seen”, 無人煙 is now rendered as “no human dwellings be seen”.     

Classical Chinese Poems in English


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