Heavenly Pure Sand – A Translation Process

 天淨沙 – Heavenly Pure Sand

This is the introduction of a nine-part Yuan Dynasty miscellaneous lyrical poem-song (散曲) by Ma Chi Yuan (馬致遠). The majority of his plays are dealt in Taoism and the title may have something to do with Taoist mysticism. The “sand” in the title may mean the masses of the populace.  Since I am no expert on this, I shall refrain from conjecturing how this title may be translated figuratively.

This essay offers a glimpse how translation takes place in my mind.  Whether right or wrong, this is how it went in my head.

枯          藤   老  樹   昏          鴉。
withered vine old tree evening crow

小       橋       流     水       人    家。
small bridge flowing water man house/dwelling

古           道    西  風     瘦      馬。
ancient  way west wind skinny horse.

夕         陽   西    下,
evening sun west down

斷        腸         人    在 天   涯。
broken intestine man on sky edge.

Can’t find a better picture than this.

 On the surface, an English translation would be a breeze for anyone with a good command of both languages. The characters used are common and there is no allusion referenced.  Indeed, one translation might be,

A withered vine, an ancient tree, crows at dusk

Upon closer inspection,  questions begin to arise.  Stripped of its adjectives the first line merely lists three different objects, a vine, a tree and a crow.  Is this really the intent of the author?  Chinese, unlike English, does not have plural indicators.  Neither it is wrong to translate it as,

Withered vines, ancient trees and crows at dusk

Hence various permutations can be used.  However, the picture painted becomes subtly different.

This essay focuses on what goes into my mind when I attempt an English translation.  Different people may have different interpretations.  This is what makes poetry so interesting.

The first tool in my translation arsenal is common sense.  In real life, there is usually more than one vine growing.  So translating it into a plural form makes more sense.  However, neither common sense nor cultural background nor experience can determine the singularity for the rest.  Before going further, I have an issue on translating the Chinese character, 老.  This character means old, ancient etc.  The choice of word used is very important for different cultures have different shades of the meaning.  For example, “ancient trees” may conjure up scenes of horror to the western mind.  Therefore for a more colorful translation, even the word “gnarly” can be used since old trees are as such.  However, this would run afoul of cultural experience.  What is valid in one culture may not be valid in the other.  We have to look for clues in the poem as a whole.

The next line again follows a same pattern of listing three objects, a bridge, a river and human dwelling.  Again the question of singularity or plurality comes into play.  Again common sense comes to rescue.  One bridge is enough for one river.  Why the need for more than one?  Unless there are many rivers to begin with. One dwelling or many abodes, we still cannot decide.  Keeping this in mind, we move on to the next line.

In the third line, the same pattern of three objects ensued. A road, wind, and a horse.  By now we have a feeling of singularity of the road and horse.  Wind cannot be counted in daily life but poetically it can do so.

In the fourth line, there is no ambiguity.  There is only one sun.  Finally we now have arrived at the last sentence.  It does not talk about the masses but one singular person’s emotions.  With this all the ambiguity of singularity or plurality is resolved according to my reasoning and interpretation.

In my version, I used the neutral word, “aged” instead of “old” or “ancient”.  I purposely avoided the use of  “ancient” because in the third line the word 古 (ancient) is used. I do not like words repeated, if they are not for emphasis.  Also, I have added extra words not found in the original poem to give it more color and feel in the target language.  Classical Chinese poems tend to be concise and ambiguous.  Many words are left out to let the reader fill in the blanks.  For example, I used the word “perched”.  Common sense will dictate that the crow’s first action would be to perch rather than any other action.   One can certainly argue that the crow might be flying instead.  However, in filling this imagery, the entire scene will not tie up nicely with the last image of a broken-hearted man standing alone.

I used the word “brooklet” instead of a river.  This is because of the explicit adjective used to describe the smallness of the bridge.  At first I too translated 人家 (human abode) as “a few mere huts”.  On second thought, I decided it would be more appropriate to do so in the singular form (“one mere hut”) to tie up with the rest of the poem to emphasize loneliness. After all, hermits do exist in Chinese culture. However, this kept nagging me.  The use of人家 as singular does not conform to the usage of the term.  Indeed, in Cantonese, it can also mean “they”, “them” or “others”.  Perhaps I am falling into the trap of reading between the lines and conjecturing too much.  In the end, I reverted to my original decision.  On looking at it, the ends of the first two lines matched in plural forms.

I chose “brooklet” over other synonyms such as “stream”, “riverlet” or even “rivulet”  because  I like it better over others.

“Sighing” is another additional word I used in the translation to emphasize the melancholy of the poem.  “Blowing” does not pack the same punch.  Considering the title of the entire song is Autumn Thoughts (秋思), the words “withered”, “aged”, “twilight”, “ancient”, “west” and “skinny” all describe how ancient Chinese view the season.

瘦馬 is easily translated as “skinny horse”.  However, somehow it does not quite fit poetically in the target language.  One translator uses “emaciated” which describes the situation very well with the imagery of starvation.  However, I believe that the intended meaning was through old age.  On an interesting note, the last name of the author means horse.  I cannot conjecture if he placed himself in the poem.  This is something only he would know.

天涯  (Heaven’s Edge) should not be translated literally as the “horizon”. It is short for 天涯海角 (corner of the ocean) to mean a faraway land, a place of fantasy, the ends of the earth, or worlds separated apart.  I prefer to translate it as the edge of the world, to mean that he is one step away from his grave.  “on the edge of the world” is more precarious than “at the edge of the world”.

The astute will notice that I did not add the word, “stand” in the last line which can be inferred from the poem.  It is analogous to adding “perched” for the first line.  I did not because “standing” may then be construed that at any moment he may jump off the edge.  For all we may know that he was sitting at the edge to reflect upon his past in his twilight years.  Perhaps filled with regrets; but he could be clinging onto life as long as possible.  This kind of conjecturing is totally subjective for there is no more information after this line upon to draw.

Withered vines, an aged tree and a crow perched in twilight,
One little bridge over a brooklet, some mere huts.
An ancient road, the west wind sighs upon a scrawny horse.
The sun is setting,
One broken-hearted man on the edge of the world.
Tuesday, February 28, 2013

Some other English translations: