01 February 2017

鄭燮 (鄭板橋) Zheng Xie (Zheng Banqiao): 詠雪 On Snowflakes

Last month, I posted here my first ever octet (or 8-line verse) rendition, that of Du Fu's "Beholding the Mountain" 望嶽, but was disappointed to find there had only been about 100 viewers.  Today, I am reverting to quatrains and am posting one by a Qing 清 dynasty poet/painter 鄭燮 Zheng Xie, more popularly known as 鄭板橋 Zheng Banqiao.

This quatrain is not of the traditional type.  All 4 lines rhyme and the language sounds colloquial. Some claim this may be the beginning of modern colloquial verse in Chinese which I doubt as the language used by his Tang dynasty predecessor Wang Fanzhi is even more colloquial.

This poem "On Snowflakes" is a fun poem which plays on numbers (from 1 to 10, then to 10,000, delightfully written and, I hope, equally delightfully rendered into English.  The beauty of it lies in snowflakes transforming into plum-flowers, particularly beautiful in this Chinese Lunar New Year season of plum flowers and snow.

I hope you will enjoy this.  Here we go:-

Zheng Xie (Zheng Banqiao) (1693-1765): On Snowflakes

1   One, and two flakes, snowflakes three and four;
2   Five six, sev’n eight, nine flakes, ten and more;
3   A thousand, ten thousand, myriad flakes galore,
4   Glide into plum-flow’rs, snowflakes seen no more.
Translated by Andrew W.F. Wong (Huang Hongfa)        譯者: 黃宏發
19th January 2017 (revised 20.1.17)
Translated from the original - 鄭燮 (鄭板橋): 詠雪

1   一片兩片三四片
2   五六七八九十片
3   千片萬片無數片
4   飛入梅花都不見


*Form, Metre and Rhyme:  The original is a 7-character quatrain but not of the traditional kind with (a) the word (piece or flake) appearing 7 times, (b) the use of the same word for rhyme in 3 lines, and (c) all 4 lines have the same end rhyme in violation of the rule that line 3 should never rhyme, and all in addition to the language being colloquial.  This English rendition is in pentameter (5 beats or feet) while the original is in 7-syllable lines.  My rhyme scheme follows the original’s unorthodox AAAA.

*Title:  is literally “to sing” or “to versify” or, as the product, “a verse” or “an ode”.  I have left it out as being superfluous.  is literally “snow”.  As the poem is not about “snow”, but about flakes of snow, I have decided to entitle it “On Snowflakes” or just “Snowflakes” without seriously suggesting to change the original name to 詠雪花 or just 雪花.

*Line 1:  In this line, I have reduced the number of times or flakes appear from 3 to 2.  One of these two appear in the word “snowflakes” which brings in the theme early.

*Line 2:  The word “seven” is shortened to “sev’n” so as to make “sev’n eight” disyllabic with “sev’n” read stressed.

*Line 3:  I suggest reading “A thousand” and “ten thousand” as amphibrachs (da-DUM-da). 

*Line 4:  (fly) is rendered as “Glide” which means to fly gracefully downwards. To translate都不見 (all, not, see), I had originally penned “to remain in sight no more” which is faithful, if not entirely literal, but have found it wanting as it makes no sense at all.  The snow of the snowflakes is still in sight, not flying but staying on the plum-trees’ branches and twigs.  I then considered adding to this last half-line the word “snow” (not in the original) which makes it possible for me to say to the effect “snow not seen as snow”.  After considering “not seen as snow at all” and “seen as snow no more”, I have decided for “snowflakes seen no more” which is a rather literal translation of 都不見 but with “snowflakes” added.  The line now reads: “Glide into plum-flow’rs, snowflakes seen no more”.  Snow is still in sight, not seen as snowflakes but as plum-flowers: a beautiful picture of the transformation of snowflakes into plum-flowers.