01 December 2016

王梵志 Wang Fanzhi: 無題/我見那漢死 Untitled/A man drops dead before me

Today I am posting yet another of Wang Fanzhi's untitled 5-character quatrains on the subject of death.  On the face of it, the poem is on the fear of dying, and even my rendition lends support to this reading of fear of death: fear of dropping dead all of a sudden, fear of being the next to die.  But is this a correct reading?

In my view, the poem should be read as a reminder of the impermanence of life and inevitability of death, and that these truths are to be accepted and lived with and not feared.  I have, therefore, attempted to build in an ambiguity in line 4.  I have used the word "afraid" rather than "scared", "frightened" or "fearful" to tone down the "fear" to the extent that it can be read as "unhappiness" much like toning 恐畏 from 恐懼 down to 恐怕, and have narrowed down that it is the death next in turn that the poet is unhappy, uneasy about.  Acceptance, with reluctance?  Added 15.12.16:  I have, today, undertaken a simple (yet, in my view, major) revision of my rendition.  In my original rendition, I had added the idea of "next" which is not in the original Chinese version.  I did that so as to augment the urgency and, hence, the fear.  I now consider this addition as working against the ambiguity I was trying to build.  I have, therefore, revised line 4 from "But afraid me be next in turn" to"But afraid that it be my turn" with "-fraid", "be" and "turn"read stressed.  The "it be" formulation makes it possible to understand the line ambiguously as "shall", "would", "could", etc., and "my turn" is a more faithful rendition.  I have also taken the opportunity to effect some minor amendments which are shown on my revised version which follows the original version below.  I will, in due course, revise my notes on this post.

I hope you will enjoy this simple poem:-        

Wang Fanzhi (592?-670?): Untitled/A man drops dead before me

Original version (1.12.2016):
1  A man drops dead before me;
2  Like on fire, my bowels burn.
3  Not "cos I feel for that man,1   
4  But afraid me be next in turn.

Revised version (15.12.2916)
1  A man drops dead before me,
2  Like on fire my bowels burn; 
3  Not 'cos I feel for the man,
4  But afraid that it be my turn.

Translated by Andrew W.F. Wong (Huang Hongfa)    譯者: 黄宏發
23rd November 2016 (revised 24.11.16; 30.11.16; 15.12.16)
Translated from the original - 王梵志: 無題/我見那漢死

1     我見那漢死
2     肚裏熱如火
3     不是惜那漢
4     恐畏還到我


*Form, Metre and Rhyme:  The original is a 5-character quatrain in language which is less than elegant.  This English rendition is in trimester (3 beats or feet) which shortens the original 5-character lines.  The rhyme scheme is XAXA as in the original.

*Line 1:  我見 (I see) is rendered as “before me” and (dies, dying, dead) rendered as “drops dead” so as to make the death more abrupt and closer to the poet.  那漢 (that man) is rendered as “A man” here , which is a normal opening but which subtly brings out the message of the poem (according to my interpretation) that this man is every man. 

*Line 2:  is rendered as “bowels” and (in/the inside) is omitted as its meaning is included in “bowels”.  熱如火 is rendered as “Like on fire … burn”.  The juxtaposition of “bowels” and “burn” evokes the ailment called “heartburn”.

*Line 3:  For 不是, I had originally penned “Not that” but have decided for “Not ‘cos (because)”.  is rendered as “I feel for” after considering ”pity, love, care about”.  那漢 is translated  as “the man”.

*Line 4:  恐畏 is rendered as “But afraid” (after considering “scared”, “frightened” and “fear”) with “But” added to complete the “Not ‘cos” rendition of 不是 (not) in line 3.  in 還到我 should be pronounced “hai” to mean “also” (= , 也要/), in contrast to the same character or word pronounced “huan” which means “return” (e.g. 還書) , “repay” (e.g. 還錢), “retribute” ( e.g. 以牙還牙).  到我 means literally “happens/occurs to me” or idiomatically “my turn comes”.  For 還到我, I had originally penned “I’m to follow in turn” but have now decided for “I’d be next in turn” and, ultimately, the rather colloquial “me be next in turn”.  Added 22.12.2016:    I have further revised this on 15.12.2016 to restore the original literal meaning of 到我 as "my turn" rather than the very specific and less literal rendering as "next in turn".  Line 4 now reads "But afraid that it be my turn" with "-fraid", "be" and "turn" read stressed. 



Ray Heaton said...

Hi Andrew,

I thought you may like to see my translation from so easy months ago...

Before me a man died

My stomach burned in fear

I did not know the man

But my death may soon be near

Andrew W.F. Wong 黃宏發 said...

Bravo, Ray, you have so skilfully moved "fear" from line 4 to line 2 to make the fear-near rhyme.

Andrew W.F. Wong 黃宏發 said...

I have had this conversation with Mr. Molina late last year:-

Marvin Calero

to me
Good evening, my name is Marvin Salvador Calero Molina,
I want first of all to congratulate you for your beautiful blog
And for showing Chinese poetry to the world.

I wanted to ask you a couple of questions:

1. Wang Fan-chih (c. 618) is the same poet Wang Fanzhi?
2. Do you have the biography of the poet and if you can facilitate it, please?


I know a poem of him that speaks of the fear of dying,

I witness the death of a man.

My bowels burn, not out of pity

For the dead. I'm scared! How

I'll know if I'm not next?

Wang Fan-chih (c. 618)

You can tell me what a tragedy happened in your life, if you had a love,
I thank you beforehand.

Greetings from Nicaragua, in Central America.


Buenas noches, mi nombre es Marvin Salvador Calero Molina,
quiero primero que todo felicitarle por su hermoso blog
y por mostrar la poesía china al mundo.

Queria hacerle un par de preguntas:

1. Wang Fan-chih (c. 618) es el mismo poeta Wang Fanzhi?
2. Tiene usted la biografia del poeta y si me la puede facilitar, por favor?


Conozco un poema de él que habla del temor a morir,

Presencio la muerte de un hombre.

Mis entrañas arden, no por piedad

por el muerto. ¡Tengo miedo! ¿Cómo

voy a saber si yo no soy el siguiente?

Wang Fan-chih (c. 618)

Me puede decir que tragedia ocurrio en su vida, si tuvo un amor,
le agradezco de ante mano.

saludos desde Nicaragua, en centro américa.

Marvin Salvador Calero Molina.

Andrew W.F. Wong

to Marvin
Dear Mr. Molina,

Am I right to take Molina to be your surname? Thank you for your email and your kind words of compliment. Wang Fan-chih and Wang Fanzhi are indeed the same poet, the difference lies not in the person but in 2 different systems of transcription of Chinese words (characters) into roman alphabets, the first (the hyphenated Fan-chih) being the Wade-Giles system and the second (the run-on Fanzhi), the Hanyu Pinyin system. You can learn more by looking up the 2 systems on the web. I am afraid I cannot be of help with regard to Wang Fanzhi's biography as little is known about his life except that he was, in his later life (and he lived to 80), a lay Buddhist (not monk/bronze), an "upasaka". I am glad you have translated this poem by Wang Fanzhi which rendition is both faithful and beautiful. I have done an alternative rendition which I will post on my blog in the near future. Here it is for you to share beforehand:-

Wang Fanzhi (592?-670?): Untitled/A man drops dead before me

1 A man drops dead before me;
2 Like on fire, my bowels burn.
3 No that I feel for the man,
4 Just fear I'll be next in turn.

Is this really on "the fear of dying" as ypou suggested, or is there room for the ambiguity in words like "fear", "afraid" to suggest that the moral or message is on "the inevitability and acceptance of death"?

Best wishes, Andrew Wong.

Andrew W.F. Wong 黃宏發 said...

Cintinuation of the same conversation
Marvin Calero

to me
hank you very much Mr. Andrew Wong.
you are very kind.

Really my language is spanish
I write a little poetry

Do you think I can write poems inspired by the poem of the fear of death?
To think of this great Tang Dynasty poet as a captive being whose beloved awaits him at home, in the absence of biography, it will be a problem that a poet like me humbly imagines a Wang Fanzhi in love and a prisoner, writing verses to his beloved Which awaits him in a city, and likewise his beloved writes verses to him. It will be a problem to imagine this life for the poet.

Write a poem to the death of Wang Fanzhi?
How did this poet die? Would it be an old man? Or was he murdered?

I send you my best regards

Marvin Salvador Calero Molina

muchas gracias señor Andrew Wong.
es usted muy amable.

realmente mi idioma es el español,
escribo un poco de poesía

cree usted que puedo escribir poemas inspirados en el poema del temor a la muerte?
pensar en este grandioso poeta de la dinastia Tang, como un ser cautivo que su amada lo espera en su casa, a falta de biografia, será problema que un poeta como yo humildmente imagina a un Wang Fanzhi enamorado y prisionero, escribiendole versos a su amada que le aguarda en un ciudad, e igualmente su amada le escribe versos. Será problema imaginar esta vida para el poeta.

Escribir un poema a la muerte de Wang Fanzhi?
cómo murio este poeta? seria de anciano? o lo asesinaron?

le saludos con mucho cariño

Marvin Salvador Calero Molina

De: Andrew W.F. Wong
Enviado: miércoles, 23 de noviembre de 2016 03:48 a.m.
Para: Marvin Calero
Asunto: Re: I wanted to ask you a couple of questions of Wang Fanzhi

Andrew W.F. Wong

to Marvin
Dear Mr. Molina, Of course, inspired by his lines, you can always write from an imagined situation of Wang as a prisoner writing to his lover about his fear of death. But that would not be translation. I have now revised my last line to read "Just fear the next be my turn.". Best wishes, Andrew Wong.

Andrew W.F. Wong

to Marvin
Dear Mr. Molina, I have further revised my line 4 to read "Just afraid I'll be next in turn." Best wishes, Andrew Wong.

Andrew W.F. Wong

to Marvin
Dear Mr. Molina, I have posted my rendition of the Wang Fanzhi poem on my blog on 1 December 2016 and have further revised my line 4 (together with some minor amendments) on 15 December 2016 which now reads "But afraid that it be my turn". Best wishes, Andrew Wong. with Mr. Molina:-