Tuesday, November 9, 2010

Reply to "Phoenix Hairpin" (to the tune of) - Tang Wan

This is the only translation I could find (from The Anchor Book of Chinese Poetry) of Tang Wan's poem in reply to her ex-husband Lu You's poem.  (See two postings below.)  There is something unsatisfying about it: I can't tell whether it's the poem or the translation.  Somehow, given how she must have felt, the fullness of her feelings doesn't come across.  There is flame but little heat and I can't believe that is how it was for her.  The sorrow of a love torn asunder, a love big enough to kill her less than a year after that meeting: it just doesn't come through strongly enough.  We know his broken heart lasted the rest of his life, another forty years, but that's what a great love will do. I wonder, if given the option of a short or long life after a loss like that, which would be the easier.  But we are not given that choice.  I know.

Addendum: Jan. 22, 2011.  Since no longer being able to add more poems after the fire of Dec. 21., I have been "visiting" poems whose physical copies burned.  I feel that I have done Tang Wan a disservice with my original remarks.  I see her sorrow now as so deep, so profound that it's past the stage of torrents of tears and words.  She is now at a place where what remains is the bleakness of the loss and a vocabulary of images as stark and limited as her life.  I remember reading somewhere that the purest truths are said in the shortest sentences and with the simplest of words.  (No, not Hemingway.)  Read with that in mind, I can feel her devastation in my marrow.  Contrast it with his, forty years after that chance encounter... and leave me a comment.)

 Reply to “Phoenix Hairpin”  (to the tune of)  -  Tang Wan

Human relationships are short.
Human intentions are evil.
When rain accompanies evening, flowers fall easily,
but morning wind is dry.
Tearstains remain.
I want to write you my feelings
but I only whisper to myself, leaning against banister.
Hard!  Hard!  Hard!

We are separate.
Today is not yesterday.
My sick soul moves like a swing between us.
A cold blast from a horn.
The night is late.
Afraid of questions,
I swallow my tears and smile.
Hide!  Hide!  Hide!

                                                             Tang Wan - dates unknown, Song Dynasty ,


  1. Translated poems can be so far away from the original meaning. The beauty of the nuances are in the original classical Chinese text.

  2. Exactly! And it applies to all translations. There is an Italian saying: "Tradutore traitore" (translator traitor). Classical Chinese texts are an even bigger challenge.


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