Recently one of my friends suggested that I translate some foreign language poems into Chinese. I wish I had spent as much time on my Chinese as on my English. It’s a rather daunting prospect. I speak from experience. I translated some 300 poems of a Spanish poet from Spanish into Chinese. It was a harrowing experience. I still remember vividly how for a period of close to three months, all my lunch hours and Saturday afternoons disappeared. They vanished amidst the silence and the occasional mechanical "musical" tones of cell phones which ought to have been switched off belonging to careless or reckless students at some desk or other on the ground floor of the HKU main library. I remember how I hated the pre-recorded theme song which started to play quietly to announce that the library would be closing in 15 minutes, at 7 p.m. and how those who wanted to continue to use the library could use instead the study room at the rear and which entrance we ought to use to gain access thereto. For the entire period, my lunch and dinner would be indifferent canteen fare on the third floor of the next building . In the canteen, I was flooded in mandarin, spoken with different local accents. They emerged from the mouths of students or visiting scholars, young and not so young. I had the feeling that it was no longer the HKU that I knew. I sensed strongly Hong Kong being overtaken, literally by the PRC. Mainland Chinese are already everywhere, eager, hardworking, silently or vociferously preparing to take over our economy and our academies. If we are not careful, we would soon become a backwater of the Chinese economy and Chinese culture. A tiny David can survive against the strength of a Goliath only through his wits. I cannot see that the majority of Hong Kong people are showing any nor even the need to.
Do I want to undergo that experience again? Not yet. But there is something I can do: the reverse of what my friend is suggesting. It seems much easier. So I’m taking the easy way out and will start translating such Chinese poems as I may chance to read and which I regard good, into English. I hope that in the process, I can also improve my Chinese and perhaps learn a trick or two which might well prove useful if I were to do more Chinese translation of French or Spanish poems. So this is my beginner’s piece.
短歌行 李白 Song of Brevity Li Bai
白日何短短 Why’s daytime so brief
百年苦易滿。 It hurts that a century’s so easily filled.
蒼穹浩茫茫 The blue sky’s so vast and boundless
萬劫太極長。 Ten thousand years and as long as Tai Chi.
麻姑垂兩鬢 The sideburns of Lady Hemp already fallen
一半已成霜。 Half o’ them already frost white
天公見玉女 It’s already a trillion guffaws
大笑億千場。 Since the Lord of Heaven saw Lady Jade
吾欲攬六龍 I long to embrace the six dragons
回牟挂扶桑。 With a backward glance tie ’em to the Fu Song tree
北斗酌美酒 The North Ladle to serve fine wine
勸龍各一觴。 To urge the dragons a measure each .
富貴非所願 What care I about Fame ‘n Fortune
為人駐流光。 Had I the might to hold for Man the flight of light.
This is a completely different kind of poem from those one is accustomed to in Western poetry. For one thing, it follows a definite form in terms of line length and the rules of tonality and meter of successive words, rather like Alexandrines in Western classical poetry. Chinese poets have to work within particular formats in terms of the number of words of each different line. Here it’s five words each line. As in any ancient language, there are mountains of ready made images which the later poets may allude to, if they so wish. That really saves them the trouble of having to explain those "familiar" words, images and symbols again. The names of certain mythical characters thus serve as a kind of shorthand for those who are acquainted with them. But literary allusions may not be an unmitigated boon. For those unfamiliar with the relevant classical allusions, they mean absolutely nothing and seem merely balffing and incomprehensible! In this poem, e.g. there are references to a number of such mythical figures e.g the God of Heaven’s encounter with the Jade Lady, a beautiful young lady during which he laughed long and loud. There was another reference to the beautiful mythical figure Lady Hemp (麻姑) ( a reference to the mythical heroine in 撫州南城縣麻姑山仙壇記 who was a a legendary beauty at 18 with silky long hair falling to her waist. The 6 dragons in the third line are supposed to refer to the mythical animals believed to be engaged in driving the chariot which drags the sun across the sky every day. The dragons are the Chinese equivalent of the Greek steeds in the Chariot of Fire. There is thus in Chinese poetry an extremely rich "inter-textuality", as the post modernist literary critic may call it now..
The "song of brevity" is a kind of poetic format which all poets who fancy doing so can adopt. This one is written by Li Bai. Here he is lamenting the passing of time. He starts off with the standard lament of how short time is. He amplifies it by contrasting the vastness and limitlessness of the sky with the speed of time. Vastness of space is contrasted with the brevity of time. The Tai Chi is the furthest point in time that man can imagine. It goes back to the origin of the universe, where everything was unformed, hazy, fuzzy and uncertain. It is the beginning of all life, waiting to be born. Then he makes a reference to the legend of the Lady Hemp whose hair has grown long and turned snow white. Then he alludes to another incident which shows how long it has been since the King of Heaven or the Old Man in the Sky met the Lady Jade: The King of Heaven had already laughed 億千 times! One 億 in the Chinese system of counting is equivalent to 100 million and one 千 is a thousand. He had run out of numbers! Then he says he wants to tie the dragons to stop the running of time to another mythical tree Fu Song or 扶桑 in Chinese which legends says is at the furthest point east of China known to the ancients, in the land of the rising sun, the point where the sun is supposeed to begin its daily trek across the sky. In Chinese cosmology, the Great Bear is called the North Ladle. To compensate the dragons for stopping them short in their path, the poet gives them what he likes best, wine! Li Bai is known to be the greatest lover of wine amongst Chinese poets. He has been called a god of wine! To feed the dragons, the poet would like to use the Great Bear or North Ladle as the serving wine goblet.
I like this poem because I like the utter freedom of the poet’s imagination. In the short space of 7 5-word couplets, he has managed to cover the entire universe in space, in time and history and all in a spirit of delight in the here and now, which he wishes to prolong and to collpase by chaining the 6 dragons of Time the better to savour the taste of his favourite drink of the moment! To the poet’s mind, the heavens and history are no match for the moment of joy, encapsulated in the wine goblet!