Lyou Yung: Stilling Windblown Waves

An illustration for: Nine Maxims On Translation
E Bruce Brooks / University of Massachusetts / 5 Dec 2002

This is the first of two poems which together make up an example of translation difficulties. The difficulties of rendering the first poem adequately are great. They will be greatly exceeded when we come to the second poem.

The chief contribution of the Sung dynasty to Chinese poetry was the verse (tsz), a poem written not in one of the previous standard forms, but closely following the meter and mood of a pre-existing song tune. Among Sung tsz poets, Lyou Yung has a special position as a musically sensitive poet, who was also on closer terms with the ladies of the demimonde than was acceptable in his day. Affairs with courtesans were normal; domestic acknowledgement of those courtesans as life partners and cultural sharers was not.

Here is Lyou Yung's most scandalous poem in this vein. In the first stanza, it shows the courtesan, left behind by her aristocratic lover, too lovesick to get up and make herself properly beautiful for other lovers. He has ridden away, and she regrets that she did not hide his saddle, so as to keep him with her longer. Then comes the scandalous part: she imagines living with him, helping him with the arduous studies (some of them involved mastering the poetry of previous dynasties; see the Du Mu page), and being his sweet and helpful helpmeet through the long years of his apprenticeship for the state exams, and beyond the exams - official position, wealth, power, and, for her, status as a wife and not a diversion.

They would be together, and they would be happy. Revolutionary stuff! Lyou Yung's senior colleague Yen Shu was himself the author of some conventional poems of courtesan love. But he was utterly scandalized (or so says a favorite if perhaps apocryphal anecdote) at the last part of the second stanza of Lyou's poem, which portrays the lovers living publicly, as equals, in polite society.

So here is the poem. Prosodically, note the prefixed phrases of 1 or 3 metrical beats that jut angularly into the already polymetric verseform. These incipits are coded as parenthesized numbers in the formula as given below. Note also, in the formula, that the two stanzas diverge subtly at the beginning, and coincide forcefully at the end. In the words written to the form, this comes out as initial languor and imagination ending in greater definiteness and affirmation. Rhyming lines are shown by red numerals in the formula; they mark sections. The "greens" of the opening line are the leaves which open after the flower "reds" have shed their petals, as spring (and the singer's own youth) come to an end.

To "Stilling Windblown Waves"
Lyou Yung
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A single rhyme-sound unifies the poem. The recurrences of that thematic sound signal major divisions on the content level. The translator who has successfully reproduced this meandering groundform, with its languor of expression and its ardor of imagination, and with its formal layout underscored by rhyme, might be pardoned for calling it a good hour's work. But more is to come. It turns out that, like the scattered "cloudlike" tresses of the speaker in the poem, it is all to do over again.

Click on the arrow below to see how that comes to pass.


From Other Mountains, Copyright © 1995 by E Bruce Brooks.

To Gwan Han-ching

5 Dec 2002 / Contact The Project / Exit to Lectures Page