The Beauty Yu


The Beauty Yu

Translating poems without knowing the background and the circumstances why it was written can result in inaccuracies and worse still, lose the original intent.  Take the following poem, as an example. The translation is reasonably good but misses the subtle references and emotions it attempts to convey.

The first translation is a literal one.  Where there are multiple meanings, the most appropriate to the context is chosen.  For example, 中.  It can mean “central”, “middle”, “inside”, “medium” and even “Sino”.  However, “middle” is chosen for its appropriateness due to context.

虞 美            人           – 李煜
Yu beautiful person   – Li Yu

春        花       秋         月       何     時   了
Spring flower autumn moon what time finish?

往     事        知      多       少
Past events know many  few

小      樓       昨  夜      又      東    風
Small tower last night again east wind

故   國         不   堪         回        首      月     明        中
Old country not endure return  head moon bright  inside

雕        欄              玉         砌      應      猶  在
Carve balustrade marble steps ought still remain

只   是 朱  顏      改
only is red face change

問   君                      能   有      幾      多      愁
ask gentleman/lord can have some many sorrow?

恰                 似    一   江    春       水      向        東    流
Just/exactly like one river spring water facing east flow.

One polished translation is as follows,

The Beautiful Lady Yu

Oh when will autumn moon and spring flowers end?
How many past events I’ve known.
The east wind buffeted my room again last night,
I cannot bear to remember the bright moon of the old country.
The marble steps and carved balustrades must still be there,
The people’s rosy cheeks are all that’s changed.
How much sorrow can one man have to bear?
As much as a river of spring water flowing east.

On the surface, without comparing to the original, this translation does not look shabby at all.  However, upon closer inspection, especially to those who are not only bilingual but who are also history or literature buffs, errors due to misinterpretations and misunderstandings begin to surface.

You can see the enormous difference between this and my translation below.

Beauty Yu

Oh when did the spring flowers leave?
When did the autumn moon fade away?
Of events past, I knew too much.
Again, once more the east wind haunted my small tower abode last night.
My country of old, no longer can I endure,
I yearn for the brightness in the moon of yore.
Carved balustrades and steps of jade ought to remain the same.
Only the erubescence had changed.
My Lord, I asked thee how much sorrow can you have?
Exactly as much as thawed waters of a spring river flowing east.

A short history first…

Li Yu was the last ruler of the Southern Tang.  Like King Louis XVI, who was more interested in clock-making than in running the country, Li Yu is more famous for his poetry and the arts than as a failed ruler.  He should not have born as a prince.

To appease the northern powerful Sung Dynasty, his empire was reduced in status to that of a subordinate state and his title lowered from emperor to overlord.  However, in the end, the Sungs came and took everything.  Even he could not prevent his second wife from being raped by the second Sung emperor openly.  The royal family was moved forcibly from their capital at Jingling (Nanking) to the Sung capital in the north.  Though he lived in luxury, he was in fact a prisoner, a bird in a gilded cage.

This is his last poem, for within the lines were four characters that ultimately caused his death at the age of 42. Li Yu had been drinking heavily ever since his exile.  Even the first Sung Emperor became alarmed for the fear that Li Yu may die from alcohol poisoning.  He did not want his name to be tainted.  However, the second Sung Emperor had no such qualm given the past drinking pattern of Li Yu.

For more information please refer to

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Li_Houzhu

The English lines in black are a polished version from one translator. My translation is in blue while commentaries are in brown.

虞美人 “A Beautiful Lady Yu” Beauty Yu

This is not entirely inappropriate.  However, the term can also mean a title in the imperial court.  So it is better to translate it as, “Beauty Yu” instead.  Yu was the favourite of Xiang Yu (項羽) the hegemon who was defeated by the founder of the Han Dynasty.  She performed a sword dance before her Lord, only to commit suicide at the end of the dance to urge him to forget about her and continue fighting for the country.  Yes, this was the portrayed role of the opera character performing the sword dance the movie, “Farewell My Concubine”.

春花秋月何時了 Oh when will autumn moon and spring flowers end?

“Oh” is a nice touch.  However the English version is wrong given the background information.  The crux lies with the huge difference in meaning of “will” and “did”. Given his lament in his exile, this is a rhetorical question.  It is not as if he did not know when his pleasures had ended.  He knew exactly when they had ended.  It is only now that the full impact had hit him.

Here spring flowers and the autumn moon are metaphors of leisure, pastimes enjoyed by the upper classes.  The meaning of the line is nothing more than “Oh, when did these joys end?” Translating in this way the local flavour of the poem is lost.  To emphasize the emotion felt in the original, I translate it as,

Oh when did the spring flowers leave? When did the autumn moon fade away?

往事知多少 How many past events I’ve known.

This line reminds me of a famous Tang poem, Spring Morning (春曉) by Meng Hao Ran(孟浩然)

春曉不覺眠,  I feel no sleep on this spring morning,
處處聞啼鳥.  Everywhere, birds are singing.
夜來風雨聲   Last night were the sounds of the wind and rain,
花落知多少  Wondering how many flowers had fallen.

The problem is in translating the phrase, “多少” (many few). Usually it means “how many”, “how much” as in多少錢 (how much money).  The translation in this Tang poem is correct given the context.  However, the phrase can also mean “a bit here and there” as a sort of humility speak.  For Li Yu, he was merely saying that he knew too much.  This reasoning is based on the next line.  Thus, I translate it as,

Of events past, I knew too much.

小樓昨夜又東風 The east wind buffeted my room again last night,

Li Yu was an emperor, a sovereign in his own right.  He has his own imperial palace.  In ancient China, how high one’s abode depends on his status or rank.  Common people are not allowed to have such luxury.  There were strict laws governing the height and color of personal buildings.  A modern example is Chinese restaurants having the connotation of prestige of the character appended to its name, say, 醉花大酒樓 (Great Tower Restaurant of Drunken Flowers).

Now Liu Yu was demoted to a duke.  Hence the size and height of his abode cannot be bigger or higher than that of the Sung imperial palace.  Using “small/low tower” is most appropriate.  Another translation was “turret”.  However, this was a western concept in castle building.  Very inappropriate.  It is like Shakespeare uttering in Harlem speech! Li Yu could have used the character for “room” instead.  What went in the mind of that translator, I do not know.  An educated guess would be that he did not know of the circumstances and used “room” to please the thinking of the English audience.

Here the east wind denotes the grandeur and pleasures of the past.  In the Chinese version, the entire line hinges on the word, 又 (again) to convey his emotional state.  They came back, haunting him because he knew too much.  Hence, I repeat this word, albeit differently, for this emphasis.  There are many words to fill the gap left out in the original version to make sense in English.  “Visited”, “Intruded”, “Invaded” are all appropriate words but I opted “Haunted” as the best.  This is poetic license of a translator.

Again, once more the east wind haunted my small tower last night.

故國不堪回首月明中 I cannot bear to remember the bright moon of the old country.

故國不堪 . These are the very four words that caused Li Yu’s demise from one enraged Sung emperor.  It reads, “My old country, I cannot bear”.  This shows treachery from the view point of the emperor.  Yet as his “guest” of his departed brother, the first Sung Emperor, he cannot overtly kill him for a highly veiled poem.  Hence he had to resort to clandestine methods.

If Li Yu had used “home” instead, perhaps he may not have so enraged his captor to this extent. Also the order in the English translation deemphasizes the original emotion.

回首, “turning one’s head back” is to look at things behind you.  Chinese way of expressing recall and to return to those times.  The brightness in the moon stands for the former glories of the past.  Li Yu is lamenting the shambles of his country under the rule of the Sungs.  It was the glories of his ancestors he was yearning for, not the physical structures of his palace signified by the moon.

My country of old, no longer can I endure,
I yearn for the brightness in the moon of yore.

雕欄玉砌應猶在 The marble steps and carved balustrades must still be there,

應 means “should” or “ought”;  猶 means “nevertheless”, “even now”, “in spite of everything”,  “yet” and “still”.  These were not conveyed in the translation.  Also I do not understand why the translator changed the order of words when there is no particular order that English  imposes on.

The description is of his former palace. So the translation of 在 (at, exists) as “there” is appropriate since the former line suggests reminiscence of past glories.  Jade is just exaggeration for marble.

Carved balustrades and steps of jade ought to remain the same.

只是朱顏改 The people’s rosy cheeks are all that’s changed.

There are two interpretations for this line: Li Yu’s people remaining at the old palace had grown old.  The other plausible meaning is that there are new faces guarding his old palace.

Here we don’t know exactly which one is the poet’s intent.  So it is best to translate it as ambiguously as the original.  Also the translation did not take account the two keywords, 只是 – “only”.

Here any translator can have a field day with his vocabulary.

Only the rubescence/ruddiness/erubescence had changed.
Only the rubicund glow had changed.
Only the red complexions had changed

問君能有幾多愁 How much sorrow can one man have to bear?

君 can mean a gentleman or a ruler.  Given the context both in the poem and the former status of the poet, “ruler” is more apt than the more general term “man”.  Here, the poet is asking himself the rhetorical question in the form of the third person.

My Lord, I asked thee how much sorrow can you have?

恰似一江春水向東流 As much as a river of spring water flowing east.

Again the keywords, 恰似, “exactly like” in the self reply is not translated.  Some claimed that 春水 denotes his sorrows.  This may be true but it means more than that.  Li Yu’s sorrows were frozen in his heart as he endured and suffered humiliations at the hands of the second Sung Emperor, a mean person compared to his more gracious brother who conquered Li Yu’s lands.  From withholding household expenses to the rape of his wife, Li Yu’s sorrows are like the thawing of the ice in spring, his sorrows finally were let out like the flows of an unstoppable river.

Exactly as much as thawed waters of a spring river flowing east.

This example serves as an excellent reminder to those trying to translate poetry.  The language employed is often couched in hidden metaphors and speaks not of what it seems on the surface. Research the reasons behind why the poem was composed in the first place before attempting to translate.

Thursday, February 14, 2013
Final version 20 Feb 2013

Image
Holding my pen in the traditional way.Image
A freer form holding the pen in a western way.
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In my western hand.