This is yet another well-known great long-short-lined poem by Li Yu 李煜 or Li Houzhu 李後主, the last Emperor of the Southern Tang dynasty. Just for information, although there is a claim that this was written by Meng Chang 孟昶 (919-965) the last Emperor of the Later Su dynasty 後蜀後主, most believe Li Yu to be the author.
You may also be interested to read Li Yu's other poem of the same 調 tune title, (first line: Flower groves have shed their spring red halo 首行: 林花謝了春紅) which I posted here in May 2011 http://chinesepoemsinenglish.blogspot.hk/2011_05_01_archive.html. You may wish to note that the 6-character lines were there rendered in tetrameter (4 beats/feet), they are here in pentameter (5 bests/feet) while the 3-character lines are in trimeter in both poems.
Li Yu (937-978): Xiang Jian Huan/Wu Ye Ti (Happy Together/Crows Caw at Night) Autumn Sentiments (1- Alone, in silence, up the west tower I go)
1 Alone, in silence, up the west tower I go:
2 The moon is like a bow,
3a The autumn leaves of that desolate tree, the phoenix,
3b locked deep in the courtyard below.
4 O threads I can’t cut through,
5 In a tangle I can’t undo!
6 Such is my parting sorrow---
7a A taste that tastes so odd, so strange that my heart
7b nev’r ever before did know.
Translated by Andrew W.F. Wong (Huang Hongfa) 譯者: 黃宏發
Translated from the original - 李煜: 相見歡/烏夜啼 秋懷 (1- 無言獨上西樓)
* The original poem is in 2 stanzas of long and short lines with two rhymes, thus:
“6A/ 3A/ 9A(or 6X+3A)// 3B/ 3B/ 3A/ 9A(or 6X+3A)//” with numerals standing for the number of characters, and alphabets for the rhymes (X meaning unrhymed). This English rendition follows a similar length pattern and the same rhyme scheme, thus:
“5A/ 3A/ 8A(or 5X+3A)// 3B/ 3B/ 3A/ 8A(or 5X+3A)//” with numerals standing for the number of beats/feet, and alphabets for the rhymes. I am greatly indebted to David Hawkes for his rendition of this poem which the editor has entitled “To ‘Crows Cry in the Night’ No. 2” in
W. Cheang (ed.) “A Silver
Treasury of Chinese Lyrics” Hong Kong: The Chinese University 2003, p. 28. From him I have borrowed the rhymes of “bow, below”
and “cut through, undo”. Alice
* Line 2: Instead of using the literal “hook” for 鉤, I have borrowed “bow” from David Hawkes (supra) to describe the shape of the moon. I was very much tempted to add “waned” (as it is unlikely that the poet is referring to a new “waxing” moon), but have decided against it.
* Lines 3a and 3b: For 寂寞, instead of the literal “lonely”, I have used “desolate” to produce the image of one bald and bare tree, the tree 梧桐 being deciduous. The Chinese 梧桐 (which is not the same as the “plane” tree known in Chinese as 法國 French 梧桐) is taller and is known as the “parasol” or “phoenix” tree and I have picked the latter which symbolizes royalty. 清秋 is hard to interpret as 清 can have a lot of different meanings. Instead of “cold, chilly, cool”, “clear, lucid, bright”, “pure, clean”, “quiet, peaceful”, etc., I have chosen to interpret it along the lines of 清瘦 or 清癯 being “thin, lean” and have used “autumn leaves” (which have fallen, balding the tree) to create the image of a thin and lean (not luscious) autumn. I have moved 清秋 “The autumn leaves” up to 3a and 深院 “deep in the courtyard” down to 3b, as I have interpreted line 3 (a and b) to mean “the desolate tree, its falling/fallen leaves and autumn (and the poet himself), all locked deep in the courtyard”. The word “below” borrowed from David Hawkes is added for the rhyme.
* Lines 4 and 5: This metaphor of 剪不斷 理還亂 is difficult to translate. I have here adapted David Hawkes’ formulation of “A knot I can’t cut through,/ A tangle that I can’t undo” (supra) to form my “Threads I can’t cut through/ In a tangle I can’t undo”.
For reference, I cite below some solutions by other translators:-
(1) John A. Turner (my mentor, my high school English Literature master) (p. 87 “A Golden Treasury of Chinese Poetry” HK: The Chinese University 1989): “Shearing will not sever, no,/ Nor sorting disentwine their woe”;
(2) Xu Yuanzhong 許淵冲 (pp. 181-2 “譯筆生花” 鄭州: 文心 2005); “Cut, it won’t break;/ Ordered, a mess ‘twill make”;
(3) Ditto: “Cut, it won’t sever;/ Be ruled, ‘twill never”;
(4) Ditto: “Cut, it won’t break;/ Ruled, it will make/ A mess and wake”;
(5) Tony Barnstone (p. 228 “The Anchor Book of Chinese Poetry” New York: Anchor Books 2005): “Cut, it won’t break,/ straightened, it stays tangled”.
* Lines 7a and 7b: In order to fill out the length of 8 beats/feet to translate the 9- character line, I have in line 7a, used “a taste that tastes” to translate 滋味 and two similar (if not synonymous) words “odd” and “strange” for 別是一般. I had consider using “bitter” instead of “odd”, but have decided against it as the “bitter taste” is only implied in the original poem. Line 7b bears no correspondence to the original and is added to complete the rhyme and the poem. I had considered adding “finds hard to ever swallow” but have decided for a formulation along the lines of “never before did know” which can be taken to be just an elaboration of 別是一般 without adding too much to the meaning. I had considered penning the line as simply “never before did know” or “not ever before did know”, but have in the end decided for “nev’r ever before did know”.