Thursday, October 14, 2010
Copyright © 2010 - Jeff Loh. All rights reserved
Eyes glaring with light into four corners – truly a fearsome sight!
Everywhere silenced by his prestige – for this is the White Tiger God2-9.
“Lord Chou! You belittle me. So now you have added four more vicious Gods to stab me in the back. Too bad your work is in vain. What harm can you do to me?”
With those words, she returned to her sewing room immediately. Inside her prepared brocade pouch, she took out a peach tree sprig and returned to the backyard. Muttering an incantation, she blew into the sprig and shouted,
“As-you-wish-master, return to your true form!”
Suddenly the peach sprig lengthened and in no time turned into a seven foot long halberd-like weapon. Wielding it in her hand, she took out an azure silk veil and covered her powdered face. With another hand she held a formula, recited an incantation, pointed the halberd into the air and she ordered,
“Where art thou is the Red God of Malignancy4 ? Descend quickly!”
Peach Blossom’s magical skills are greater than Lord Chou’s. This is because not only had she been trained long in the Jade Pools of Western Paradise but her heavenly book was bestowed by the Immortal of Malignancy who is the Lord overseeing all other malignant Gods. Peach Blossom’s incantation was the direct command used by Immortal of Malignancy himself to summon the Gods of Malignancy. Hence burning paper charms or casting the Big Dipper configuration was not needed. After a gust of wind died, down came a God donned in golden armor. Standing in the peach garden he bellowed,
“Conjurer, why thou dost call upon me?”
When Peach Blossom saw the Marshal of the Red Malignancy, she quickly closed both eyes and answered,
“Lord Chou performs services by making predictions thus violating Heaven’s Will. I invalidated his predictions. Still befuddled, he has no regret nor sees the need to pacify the anger of Heaven. From his venomous heart comes a marriage ruse, and a bidding to the Marshal of Black Malignancy to be his cohort and to guard the main gate entrance. He will strike me dead as I enter the bridal sedan! I have no choice but to borrow thy divine prowess for covert protection. As the God of Black Malignancy strikes me with his steel lash, I beg thee to use thy golden mace to parry it. After this small fairy enters the bridal sedan safely, you may return to your proper place. To disobey me is to be punished accordingly to the infractions proscribed in the Book!”
As Peach Blossom ended her incantation, the Red God of Malignancy left on a gust of wind.
Slowly she tidied up her hair and blew a fairy breath onto the halberd which transformed back to its original form of a peach sprig. Breaking off three tender peach shoots and a peach branch she returned to her room. There she began to make them into a long bow and three arrows. After putting them aside, she took out some cotton threads and began to weave a cross5 here and a cross there. Soon a sieve-like basket was formed. When the woof and weft were set snuggly she put everything away. Looking up at the sky, her ears were shaken with the drum beat sounds for the hour of Si.
In came Ren Tai Kung and wife, clad in auspicious clothing who in a hurried manner exclaimed,
“My dear, the carriage from Lord Chou has arrived. What are you going to do now?”
Peach Blossom wept as she heard the words,
“Father, mother! For sixteen autumns, you reared your daughter in vain. Today she’s to enter the Chou’s family. This I cannot avoid, there’ll be a fearsome life and death struggle whose outcome is unknown. I have a few words for you two. Please listen carefully my august ones!”
Through their sobs, Ren Tai Kung and wife replied,
“Worry not my daughter, please go with ease. We’re sure that the magic of Lord Chou will achieve no victory over you. If you have anything to say, just go ahead and say it. Nothing’s inappropriate. We two old biddies shall heed your words!”
The little miss then recited,
No Ying no Yang will approach,
Be charitable and there’s no regret.
No descendants now but later there will be,
When life ends on that day you’ll fly!
On streaks of clouds high over imperial towers6,
That day is the hours of Zi, Wu, Jia and Mao.
Think not the destinies of Heaven and Earth,
But the Peach Gardens waiting long for their gardeners7
A shining example to show the world the joys of being charitable!
These words are meant for Ren Tai Kung and wife that when their lives on this earth end, they shall ascend to heaven to become guardian Gods of the Peach Garden8. This happens after the story so no need for further elaboration. Peach Blossom then continued,
“The hour of Si is approaching, your daughter has to prepare. Parents, please don’t be sad!”
How can Ren Tai Kung and wife not bear their parting? The two old biddies tried holding on to their daughter while sobbing out loudly. Just at this moment in their inextricable embrace, servant girls came reporting,
“Master Pang has arrived!”
On hearing the news, Ren Tai Kung and wife stopped their sobs and looked up. Pang Jian came in and greeted the couple,
“Uncle and auntie and my virtuous sister, please don’t cry. Your nephew has something to say.”
Ren Tai Kung gazed at Pang Jian and his anger grew, shouting at him,
“Pang Jian! What a good fellow you have been! My daughter had warned you several times not to let the cat out of the bag and yet you leaked everything out. Lord Chou is now our mortal enemy. This marriage is an excuse to harm my daughter! He has no son, intending to do away with our daughter once she is in his place. I’m warning you that if anything happens to her, this old life shall fight the two of you till kingdom come!”
Pang Jian turned green and then red in angst. Quickly he knelt down begging,
“Your insignificant nephew did not admit to anything even after several interrogations had taken place and even after suffering a few hundred strokes of flogging ordered by Lord Chou. Only when his sword was out threatening to cut me into two that I had no choice but to tell the truth. I was punished and not allowed to leave the house. I could not come to report. I know my fault piles up to heaven. I really didn’t know that he’s using this marriage as a ruse…”
Before Pang Jian could finish his sentence, Peach Blossom cut in and said,
“Father, mother, please don’t put the blame on him.”
And she continued,
“Brother, today you’re here on orders of Lord Chou, tis not the time for idle talk. I’ve very important and serious matters to deal with. You must heed every word I tell you. Right now, here’s something for you to do.”
With that, she took out the bow and arrows and continued instructing,
“Keep these on you. When my bridal sedan enters the main gate, you must do this and this.”
As Pang Jian nodded his head continuously, Peach Blossom took out the thread sieve she made and gave him detailed instructions on what to do. Taking the sieve, he secretly went outside and placed it in the bridal sedan.
Peach Blossom took a few more articles with her as she prepared herself for the wedding. An Eight Treasure Pearl Coronet was placed on her head. Red robes of court officials befitting her station became her wedding gown. A Taoist symbol design was embroidered on yellow satin shoes. She stood on her brick bed9 so that her feet did not touch the ground. Finally as she added a belt studded with blue jade, matchmaker Chiang came into the inner hall with a three foot long red silk and a pair of precious vases filled with five grains. Peach Blossom held onto the pair of vases as she taught matchmaker Chiang how to veil it over the bride’s head. Then thinking to herself,
“This woman is a schemer, why don’t I make use of her!”
With that in mind, she casually called out,
“Mother Chiang, at all times you must stay at my side. You shall be rewarded with twenty taels of silver when I return home tomorrow.”
When matchmaker Chiang heard these words, in glee and joy she exclaimed,
“Miss, today this old crone is here to carry you over the threshold, how could I take more of Tai Kung’s boon?”
Ren Tai Kung said,
“Just take care of my daughter, carry her over the threshold safely and a boon of twenty taels of silver shall be yours. This I promise you.”
The miss then bade her father to help her into the bridal sedan. All articles used by Peach Blossom today are no trifle things but as protection to thwart the Gods of Malignancy. Who knew that such actions would become the custom and a ritual must for all later weddings.
Ren Tai Kung quickly helped to carry Peach Blossom into the bridal sedan10 and wailed loudly,
“My daughter! You asked for your father’s aid in carrying you into the bridal sedan, you who have been with your parents for so long… Today you’ve grown up. I wish that you and your husband shall live to a hundred in harmony and prosper with numerous grandchildren. To thee, great happiness, longevity and nothing to fear.”
Mrs. Ren came along, crying - a real separation between mother and daughter where each could not contain their feelings. No son for this couple, just only a daughter. Today’s separation drenched in sorrow without knowing what portends in the future. Even Pang Jian was shaken by their weeping and sobbed as well. Just as Peach Blossom was about to sit down, a strange gust of wind blew towards the bridal sedan. Then a steel mace appeared, poised to strike - the action of the Lord of Black Malignancy on Lord Chou’s orders to strike Peach Blossom as she entered the bridal sedan. Then suddenly out of nowhere, a golden mace came forth and parried the steel mace as it fell on the bridal sedan. The Lord of Red Malignancy appeared. On seeing his steel mace unable to strike further down, the Lord of Black Malignancy thundered wryly,
“By the orders of Conjurer Chou’s Bigger Dipper formation, I am to strike Ren Peach Blossom dead. Honorable Lord, why thou dost parry my blows to save her? No longer can I fulfill the conjurer’s orders, what now then?”
The Lord of Red Malignancy laughed along,
“I too am under the orders of Ren Peach Blossom. She used the summoning commands of the Immortal of Malignancy. Both conjurers are the Ying and the Yang elements battling wits. Ren Peach Blossom is of the orthodox path and under orders of the Jade Edict to be born on this earth. She is to annoy and provoke Lord Chou into a battle so that both can return to their proper places in Heaven and not remain on earth. Soon it is, their date of return. Must we obey their summons and destroy our harmonious relation?”
When the Lord of Black Malignancy heard the answer he replied,
“Ye words are most wise and most compatible with the mysterious will of Heaven. Let’s return to our proper places.”
With that both Gods left for heaven. To know what happens next please read the next chapter.
1. In the original text, white color was understood from the words ‘face powder’. However the words lack power to describe the white face of the God. Hence I used the silvery white color of arsenic to achieve the desired descriptive effect.
2. An ancient weapon of warfare. In later times, it was used for ceremonial purposes.
4. So far I have avoided the translation of the character, 煞, ‘Sa’. Terms such as煞神 were translated Gods of Catastrophe or Gods of Malignancy. However this word denotes a Chinese concept unknown to western cultures other than auras of evil. ‘Sa’ is a Feng Shui term denoting objects or spirits containing too much negative energy that can cause bodily harm by contact. According to Yin and Yang principles, life is positive energy while dead things are negative. Sickness is caused when a person has too much negative energy and eventually death results if all positive energy is drained away.
Contact with unclean things such as ghosts and demons are termed as the ‘collision of evil’, 撞煞. When someone destroys too many living things, he is tainted with an aura of ‘Sa’, often translated as an aura of Malignancy, 煞氣. This does not mean that the aura is evil. Black and Red ‘Sa’ belong to this kind of malignant auras. Black Malignancy refers to the auras emanating from the dead which can be seen by ‘sensitive people’(people ‘born with a veil’ or psychic) (Black is the color of mourning in China).Red 'Sa' is the result from either exposure to excessive accumulation of bones of corpses or from extremely deep grievances of spirits and ghosts. The Red ‘Sa’ is the final evolutionary form of Black ‘Sa’. It is most injurious to life but luckily one does not encounter it often.
5. The Chinese character for the numeral ten, ’十' is shaped like a cross.
6. Imperial towers were the tallest structures in those days hence denoting great heights.
7. 大椿 is a legendary tree of great longevity. Later it meant one’s father. Here the poem’s intention was that the garden needed their father to take care of it.
8. Most probably the peach gardens of the Queen Mother of Western Heaven, 西王母.
9. 炕 is a brick bed that can be heated from within. Northern Chinese sleep on ‘Kangs’ while southern Chinese sleep on beds.
Traditional kangs of the rich
This is how the bed is being heated up.
This ultra modern one is electrically heated!
10. I personally witnessed as a kid such a wedding ritual in my aunt’s wedding. A middle aged woman was needed to carry my 4th aunt into the car (reflecting the times of the late 1950s).
Tuesday, October 12, 2010
Copyright © 2010 - Jeff Loh. All rights reserved
Requesting Dowry Articles For A Vexing Marriage,
Seeking Demonic Gods For An Evil Scheme.
On hearing the Lord Chou’s marriage proposal, Peach Blossom did not let her parents finish and with great fury bursting out of her that she slipped from the chair. This is really:
Delicate is the flower hapless under the rain,
Weak is the willow dancing in the wind.
Ren Tai Kung and wife were greatly alarmed as their daughter fell from her seat. Quickly they helped her up and consoled,
“My darling daughter! Why be like this?”
Whereupon they started to cry. Steadily Peach Blossom sat down and complained moodily,
“My parents dido not think thrice before acting and are now ensnared in someone’s ploy! Now we are in the hands of Lord Chou! Your daughter has divined that Lord Chou has no son and his wife had died a long time ago. Only a daughter he has, sixteen years of age1. Such suddenness he wanted me to be his daughter-in-law in three days’ time. Your daughter is reasonably sure that in breaking his prediction by saving Brother Pang, Lord Chou’s embarrassment hasd turned into anger. Today’s marriage proposal is a ruseploy to destroy your daughter. I’m afraid your daughter has to bid her parents goodbye forever a goodbye, never to reunite again!”
Ren Tai Kung and wife were thoroughly vexed on hearing her words,
“Why such inauspicious words so suddenly?”
Peach Blossom was no ordinary mortal being; being able to grasp situations easily, she quickly kneaded her fingers and already knew what was going on,
“Nineteenth of the month is when the Lords of Catastrophe are descending from heaven. It is extremely inauspicious. Lord Chou selected this date so that your daughter clashes with the Gods and die!”
Tai Kung raged angrily and shouted,
“Vile is this Lord Chou in planning such a venomous ploy. This old man will fight with him to death! I shall not be cowed by him in the courts!”
With that he tore the red flowers2 from his head, rending them to pieces before stomping on them.
Peach Blossom thought secretly to herself,
“By the orders of the Jade Edict I descended upon this earth to break Lord Chou’s predications. This I cannot avoid. Better to comfort the hearts of these aged parents.”
“Father, mother, please don’t worry! T’is the will of Heaven. Your daughter will not be intimidatedcowed by him! It is because you two have brought me up and I still haven’t repaid the debt to you bothtwo. It’s my greatest regret that I failed my filial duty to you.”
Ren Tai Kung and wife wept as they heard her words,
“Such an inauspicious date, how can we let him do it?”
Peach Blossom replied,
“For others, there shall be harm. However, your daughter knows how to break his schemes. When others needed saving, I had saved them. Now that disaster is upon me, how could I not know of a way to save myself? Please be at ease my parents. Your daughter is not afraid! It would only be three days before your daughter returns. However Lord Chou must assent to a few things before I acquiesce to that date of going over his threshold.”
Ren Tai Kung was delighted on hearing his daughter’s words,
“Whatever you wanted from Lord Chou, I shall call upon matchmaker Chiang to fulfill your needs.”
Peach Blossom replied,
“What is needed are not rare or difficult to find. A two foot long piece of red silk, Immortals from the Eighteen Caves3 made from assorted colors of silken knots are to be embroidered on the bridal sedan, a pair of empty vases, and a Five Grains clothes Iron4. By the time the bridal sedan reaches the threshold, sandalwood and cedar leaves must be burning both in the vases and the clothes iron. A servant from his household must walk around the sedan three times with the clothes iron before I am to enter the threshold. A horse saddle and a square bucket shall be placed at the main and inner gates. Upon leaving the sedan, the bride must cross over the saddles without touching the earth before she can kowtow to Heaven and Earth10-6. Finally, a servant from his household must be nearby at all times to take orders from us. If Lord Chou does not adhere to any of the conditions set forth, either his son comes to fetch me or I shall not be married into their household. Father please quickly prepare and make no mistake to all I that I’ve asked!”
Ren Tai Kung remembered all the instructions and quickly took the Four Treasures of the Literary Studio2-2 to record meticulously all that was asked without error. Knowing their daughter’s capability and her fearless attitude towards Lord Chou, their worries gradually gave way to joy,
“Your parents are now much at ease on hearing how you are able to break his magic. When the matchmaker is here, we shall demand your instructions be met byfrom Lord Chou.”
With that the two old biddies left the backyard garden at peacein ease. Peach Blossom remained in the garden mulling over her strategy to thwart Lord Chou’s scheme. This we shall not elaborate further.
Let’s talk aboutof matchmaker Chiang and Hsu Cheng’s return to report to Lord Chou about what had transpiredhow Ren-Tai-Kung had agreed to the marriage proposal and the bride will be crossing the threshold on the nineteenth of the month as stipulated. Lord Chou was immensely delighted and gave matchmaker Chiang a boon of some silver, and ten taels of silver to Hsu Cheng. Fearing that Ren Tai Kung and wife might renege, he ordered matchmaker Chiang and Hsu Cheng to prepare for the dowry gifts of wine and other articles immediately. A few female servants were ordered to follow the procession bearingof leading goats and wine kegs carrying to Ren Tai Kung’s home.
On reaching their destination, Ren Tai Kung ordered his inner servants to serve tea at the outer hall for the men whileand the female guests were invited into the inner apartments. All gifts were then let into the kitchen area without checks and tallies. When matchmaker Chiang and the female servants entered the inner apartments, she kowtowed,
“Ren Tai Kung, Mrs. Ren, congratulations!”
This time the old peacemaker admonished loudly,
“Matchmaker Chiang let me ask you, how can you be so befuddled in your dealings? I’m not vexeding at this marriage proposal, but at the date you selected for the nineteenth of the month. Such an extremely inauspicious date. Lord Chou is a scholar of knowledge. Why did he not consult his books? Bringing me a paper coffin instead? Is he trying to befuddle and deceive me? I shan’t go into this further but let his Lordship know this: If he does not adhere to all stipulations we demanded for the preparation of the marriage, then don’t blame us for reneging. I don’t care if he goes to court and sues us. I shall be most willing to entertain the process!”
Matchmaker Chiang quickly apologized and explained,
“Old peacemaker, please calm yourself! Only if these things are unobtainable in this world. If they are available, I personally will guarantee that you will be thoroughly satisfied. I shan’t eat my words.”
Ren Tai Kung chimed in,
“These are not unobtainable treasures, just some daily articles of use. All that is needed are written clearly on this slip of red paper5. Go back and tell Lord Chou to act accordingly to what’s written on the list.”
As the red list was handed over to matchmaker Chiang, she feigned illiteracy6 and asked,
“Tai Kung, could you please read over what’s on the list so that I know what they are?”
When Ren Tai Kung finished reading, matchmaker Chiang smiled broadly and said,
“All this while, I was thinking that what you requested are lacking in Heaven and none found on Earth. Such ordinary things, not difficult, not difficult at all! All guarantees on this little woman’s back. None shall be lacking!”
Ren Tai Kung then said,
“I have to bother you in relaying to Lord Chou about all that was stipulated today. We were cautioned by a Ying-Yang master7 who explained that the date was too inauspicious. Perhaps these articles may offer some protection. Without them my daughter may die; hence all these inconveniences. Though I’m of the vulgar masses, I’ll not renege on this marriage. Lord Chou is of the nobility, I’m sure he won’t be stingy on such trifle matters. You may leave!”
Matchmaker Chiang agreed most readily and she bade Tai Kung farewell and returned with her retinue. She gave Lord Chou him the red slip as she reported to Lord Chou,
“How sharp the Ren family is! As if they have some God of the Ears for a messenger. They seemed to know all of your Lordship’s moves.”
Lord Chou took a look and said,
“No problem… Just follow the instructions. Go and tell them quickly that I’ve agreed to all requests. Send Pang Jiang over to them on that day and let them do whatever with him.”
Again matchmaker went back and reported to Ren Tai Kung that Lord Chou had agreed to everything.
Actually Lord Chou’s “Heavenly Dipper Divine Book” teaches only how to make predictions but not solving obstacles. Because of this, Lord Chou did not take Peach Blossom’s requests seriously. Soon the eve of the eighteenth day of the month arrived. Lord Chou sat alone in his study and was kneading his fingers to predict the precise location where the Lords of Catastrophe would be descending. The Star Lord of the Four Ends8 and the Four Destroyers9 would be descending in the north east, the Wailing Death in the north. The Heavenly Gauze and the Earthly Nets would be in the east; the Well Wood Dingo, the Demon Metal Ram, the Mao Hour Day Rabbit and the Day Star Horse10 would be at the north east corner.
With great satisfaction, Lord Chou exclaimed,
“Such Viciousness all gathered and luck that my house is in perfect alignment. No further need of manipulations. For other people, only one direction is needed to finish them off. Methinks that Peach Blossom must have some capability. I wondered about the myriad things she needed. Are these used to ward off any calamity? If this is the case, her capability will be greatly enhanced. How am I to factor in this fact? Let me adopt an ‘Easy to dodge a spear in the open and difficult to evade an arrow in the dark’ strategy. I’m sure she won’t be able to predict all the directions these vicious gods are descending. Just to be on the safe side, why don’t I secretly summon more gods to deal with this female? The moment her bridal sedan is in sight, these deities will take the bitch’s life for sure! Even if with great magic, she would not be able to withstand so many at the same time!”
Once his mind was made up, he quickly purified himself through a bathing ritual and changed into new clean clothes. With the “Heavenly Dipper Divine Book” in his robes next to his chest and the Heavenly Dipper Sword in hand, he strolled into his backyard garden ordering boy servants to prepare a table with fragrant flowers, candles, new sheets of paper, a brush and sheets of yellow paper. Everyone was ordered out and warned not to peek. H, he locked the doors himself and waited until it the third drum beat was heard. He took off his golden cap and let loose his hair as he approached the table. Taking out the Heavenly Dipper Divine Book out, he copied strange- looking charms from the book onto the yellow slips of paper with a clean brush dipped in vermillion. With the sword in his left hand and burning the copied charms in his right, he began to recite the sacred formulae. When he was done, he pointed the sword at the sky and suddenly a gust of wind began to howl strangely. When it died down, a heavenly marshal descended from the sky. How fearsome he looked:
Golden helmet in head spewing air of viciousness,
Face dyed in black, thick eyebrows a standing,
Eyes bright as lanterns and huge like Mt. Ao11.
Bristling beard hard as needles,
A bamboo culm shaped mace he wielded,
Fully a marshal ordained by Heaven,
Just two words, his name “Black Malignancy” cowering both Gods and demons!
Standing not far from the table, a voice was heard booming suddenly after a bow was made by this form,
“Conjurer, what need thee has for us?
Lord Chou quickly closed his eyes and said,
“Sacrilegious it is to disturb ye Lords if there’s no purpose. Tomorrow’s hour of Si is the marriage hour of Peach Blossom. Aid me and wait at Ren Tai Kung’s residence. The moment Peach Blossom enters the bridal sedan, strike her with your mace and let her die in her sedan. Take leave and resume your proper place.”
“By ye orders!”
And with that, the form disappeared. The second amulet was then burnt and down from the heavens a disheveled form wearing mourning clothes came. In his right hand was, a yellow porcelain container was held and on his left, a Cudgel of Mourning was wielded. This is the God of Funeral Affairs and is responsible in overseeing the deaths of mortals. Lord Chou felt an aura of intimidation emanating from this Lord and quickly closed his eyes. The God bowed and asked for his responsibilities. Again Lord Chou commanded,
“Sacrilegious it is to disturb ye Gods if there’s none in purpose. Tomorrow’s hour of Si is the hour when Peach Blossom’s sedan approaches the main door. Bother thy Holiness to wait at the left side of the main door. When the bride leaves the bridal sedan, let your greatness strike her to death. Resume to your proper place when done.”
“By thy orders!”
With that replying the form turned into a gust of wind and disappeared. Once more after a third paper charm was burnt the Gods of Condolences appeared and was ordered to wait at the right side of the door and only to resume their former places after striking Peach Blossom dead.
Please read the next chapter to see which God was summoned by the fourth paper charm burning.
1. It is strange that a daughter of Lord Chou is now suddenly mentioned!
2. A traditional gift to celebrate weddings etc
3. It is believed that the Penglai Isles of Blessed, 蓬莱島 has 18 caves where immortals lived. These Isles are believed to be situated in the Eastern Ocean.
4. Most probably a clothes iron in which motifs of the five grains are etched on the sides.
10. These are the names of various stars in Chinese named constellations.
犴 is a kind of wild dog in North China used as a totem for a minority tribe. It looks like a fox with a
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熙陵幸小周后圖 (Sung Tai Tsu Pleasuring Empress Small Chou)
The Barbaric Goddess Or Finer Points In Translation.
Mechanical translators exist on the Internet to help in translations, but they are only good for certain narrow categories such as business, technical and law where terms are precise and have unambiguous meanings that the industry has agreed on. Even then human polishing is needed for clean ups. Although this essay is on translating Chinese to English, its principles apply to translation between any two languages. To any modern Chinese reader ‘手提’ is short for ‘手提電話' meaning cell or mobile phone. Mechanical translators are unable to take into this into account. It is incorrect to translate it as ‘cell phone’ for a piece that was written before the invention of portable phones. The phrase can also mean ‘to carry’, ‘to wield’, ‘handheld’ or ‘portable’ depending on different nouns that come after those 2 characters, ‘手提算機' is a handheld calculator, ‘手提利劍' means ‘to wield a sharp sword’ while ‘手提花籃' becomes ‘ (someone) carrying a flower basket’. Such mechanical translators become utterly useless when used on literary works that I shall be discussing mostly in this article. Until such a day when there is enough computer memory to store and process at faster speeds contextual experiences like the human brain, a human translator’s job stays most secure!
With different human translators, results differ vastly in the tone and/or the original intention it was trying to convey. Translating poems and stories is extremely difficult and highly subjective. It depends on how the original text appeals to the translator’s mood at the time of translation, and his/her depth of subject matter knowledge. Even with set translation guidelines one has decided upon, there is almost an exception to every rule that was made. In my opinion, the resulting translation must appeal to the target audience. Sometimes, even for the most trivial cases, an exact literal translation is useless. For example, in translating, ‘兵變' – ‘soldier change’ or ‘military transform’, the correct translation is ‘mutiny’. Then there are different concepts in the two languages especially for such disparate languages as Chinese and English. The word for ‘Love’, as in two people falling in love is 戀 whereas the character 愛 is the more general term and at the same time it may also mean ‘to like’ as in ‘I like you’. In Cantonese it has the additional meaning of ‘to want’ or ‘in need’. Of course using ’愛' as in, ‘She loves her cat’ is acceptable in modern usage. However there is a word in Chinese ‘惜' whose nuance falls somewhere between more than just a liking and much less than love. Therefore to translate ‘惜貓' as ‘love the cat’ would mean losing that degree of love in the translation. Another example of interest is the phrase ‘替死鬼'. It is commonly translated as scapegoat. However it may also mean ‘to take the place of the condemned by someone else to ensure the return of the guilty like in the plot of the Disney animation movie - “Sinbad”. Actually the term has a specific meaning in Chinese superstition. When someone dies tragically such as a suicide, his/her spirit cannot rest and is condemned to wander on Earth until someone dies in his/her place. As kids we were warned never to be curious or even think of trying to save someone who seemed to be drowning. This is because the drowning ‘person’ could be a drowned spirit trying to lure and drown someone else to take its place! Hence the character ‘鬼' (ghost, spirit) used in the phrase really means a spirit and not just a derogatory word for a bloke. Therefore lots of footnotes are required in any serious translation.
Some translators insist on having the source and translation for line-by-line comparison. For very short sentences employed in most poems this is possible. However this is not always feasible for longer sentences found in prose or novels etc due to technical differences in the lexical and structural order of the two languages. It would simply ruin the reading enjoyment of the target audience. For example, formal arguments are presented in a simple linear form in English. However in classical Chinese it is presented in an almost zigzag manner found in eight-legged essays1 (八股文) of imperial China. Therefore depending on how a piece is translated for the specific audience, the target audience may find the arguments presented too convoluted and incoherent to follow in a convincing manner.
How much flavour of the original should be retained in a translation? As more flavours are retained, more footnotes would have to be given. Would the audience be receptive to phrases such as ‘my heart and liver’ when a simple ‘my darling’ suffices? This is a difficult choice to make. In the argument to retain such flavours the question raised would be “Why bother with translations in the first place?” Wouldn’t it be simpler and easier just to lift the idea or plot and write anew in the target language? A translator must make educated guesses to suit the target audience. This is what I mean in saying that for each and every guideline established there is always an exception to break it. Even then, within each exception there is exception! Translating the word ‘mutiny’ as ‘soldier change’ or even ‘as change of soldiers’ would be unacceptable in all cases! Consider a situation where an arrow was shot mistakenly at the wrong person who then uttered an expression. Should the words in the original text, ‘不好!’ be translated as ‘No good!’ or ‘Oh shit!’ In this case I opt for the later as it adds more value to a reader’s mind as an expletive in his native language to truly appreciate the scene whereas in retaining ‘my heart and liver’ in the former case brings quaintness and an insight to cultural differences that tickle the fancies of the reader.Equally important are the shades of meaning in the cultural context of the target language. Take the following innocuous phrase, ‘花香噴噴, 芳草清' – ‘flowers spurting/spewing in fragrance, aromatic grasses pure and clean’ to mean beauty can come from drab sources. Unless the phrase is used to describe a scene in a brothel, the words spurting and spewing though accurate are most inappropriate in general cases. The better translation but less accurate would be, ‘flowers drenching in fragrance/perfume’ or ‘flowers wafting in fragrance/perfume’.
When there is a number of equivalent words available to choose from, the question then is “which one is the best choice?” How would one translate the phrase, ‘sharing the peach’? Should the choice be ‘homosexual love’, ‘gay love’ or the ‘love of the Greeks’? Again the answer depends on the situation or the period in which the term was expressed. I would use the word ‘homosexual’ in a technical piece, ‘gay’ in a contemporary setting, and ‘love of the Greeks’ in a Victorian setting. When translating from English to Chinese, ‘断袖分桃' (cutting the sleeve and sharing the peach) is appropriate for a classical piece, ‘同性戀' (same sex love, a term not in existence until the modern times) for technical pieces and the current Hong Kong slang ‘機' 2 for contemporary stories. If the source is written in slang, the translation at least should be also written in slang of the target language to set the tone and intent. Regardless how a piece is written, the main aspect of the translation is to titillate and capture the interest and imagination of the audience. A translator must be able to anticipate the needs of the target audience which involves being rigid and flexible at the same time, knowing when to follow and when to disregard guidelines.
Consider this guideline that I have set for myself: never to substitute an equivalent allusion in the target language for one in the source language even though it entails tons of footnotes. In most cases the imagery and expectation conjured by the reader is totally different from the source language allusion. However this iron clad rule is broken when translating subtitles! For a very simple reason - not enough real estate on the screen to display all the extraneous information before the next line of dialog is uttered. Subtitling is truly an art form presenting its own set of problems found nowhere else. To translate to the allusion, ‘the Butterfly Dream’ in a dialogue, I simply use Romeo and Juliet. I can also use ‘Thisbe and Pyramus’ or even ‘Hero and Leander’ but not too many people know them even though the Bard himself lifted the plot of the former for his play. The closest western allusion would be the movie ‘Yentl’ starring Barbra Streisand. She may have lifted the plot from this classical Chinese tragic love story but again it is still not as well known as Romeo & Juliet.
Sometimes it is impossible to translate with such limited screen space. In the movie, Kung Fu Hustle, there was a dialogue between the antagonists. They introduced themselves as Yang Guo and Dragon Girl (楊過 小龍女). Most westerners and to an extent, Chinese who have no interest in reading martial arts stories, are clueless to these names.. They are the hero and heroine of a very famous martial arts story that had been depicted in many Kung Fu movies. It was hilarious to me that the subtitle translation was ‘Paris and Helen of Troy’! To the uninitiated such translation makes no sense and simply shrugged off as comedic effect. However the original allusion was very appropriate to the Chinese audience as some kind of satirical reference. The only common trait shared in these two allusions is the tumultuous relationship experienced by the two sets of heroes and heroines. When in doubt, just go with your translator gut feeling.
Similar problems but of different goal arise in translating book and movie titles. Their goal is not of technical accuracy but of selling. A totally different set of translating rules apply in this arena. Due their extremely short and terse nature an inaccurate or something totally different from the original is more effective. Let’s take an easy example: A ‘樓 is a tall building where the rich can afford to build for their pleasure. In Imperial China, the height of the building is regulated by law according to the station of the owner. Thus ‘The Dream of The Red Tall Building’ is a rather bland but correct translation for the classic Chinese novel, ‘紅樓夢. Even the more colorful and poetic rendering of it as ‘The Dream of the Red Mansion’ pales in comparison to the inaccurate but highly seductive version - ‘The Dream of the Red Chamber’. This translation is the best: it achieves the goals of marketing and selling. The title of a lesser known Chinese novel '鏡花緣' - 'Flowers in the mirror' has a better romantic imagery than the more correct but long winded treatise sounding title of 'The Destined Love of the Mirror Flowers' - a story about the etherealness and tragedies of love. Another deceptively easy example is to try translating, ‘The Grapes of Wrath’. Literal translations of ‘The Battle Hymn of the Republic’ or ‘Of Mice and Men’ are meaningless to Chinese audience not familiar with them. It is better to translate the idea or the message it is trying to convey; an approach the movie and book industry wisely take. Thus the Chinese title of the movie, ‘妲己 would be best suited as ‘The Vixen’ or ‘The Seductress’ for non speaking Chinese audience in order to reel that population segment in. Sometimes the correct translation would be completely wrong! No justice is done in rendering Lillian Hellman's 'Little Foxes' into a mere title of '小狐狸' or even ‘小狐精' (little vixen). It gives the wrong impression to the audience when the central theme of the plot is about a biblical reference.
Appropriate archaic terms from the target language should be used to set the mood and pace of when the source is set in days gone by. Sometimes, it is better to change things around in dialogues so that speech patterns approximate to the way the audience speaks or expects to hear. Examples include translating a question in the source into a statement in the target language; using direct words rather than double negatives and vice versa e.g. ‘Not a loser’ for ‘a victor’. Then there are times when extra words are needed in the target language to achieve a clearer picture of what is going on. Pronouns are not prominently used in Chinese as the meaning can be inferred from the context but it may not be clear to English readers. Even whole sentences are ignored from translation when circumstances demand for their removal. It may be a proper thing in classical Chinese to repeat and reinforce what was said. However in English too much of such reinforcing would be construed as pedantic. This decision rests on the hands of the translator to achieve better readings. An advice - simply do not extrapolate when there is no clue to do so or to try to second guess the author unless research indicates otherwise.
Poetic licence is nothing more than deliberate mistranslation. This happens when the meaning of the original term changes or the conjured image does not fit in the target language. Here is an example, a poem/song from an old classic Chinese movie, 江山美人, ‘Kingdom and the Beauty’ (a better sounding title than the more literal translation of ‘Beauty of the Empire’) about a lusty Ming Emperor and a wine seller girl. Its literal translation,
一瞥驚鴻影, One glance frightened goose shadow.
相逢似夢中. Meeting is like in a dream.
廣寒身未到, Broad cold, body not yet reached,
分手太匆匆. Parting too fast.
Two terms needed explanation: the easier one first, ‘Broad Cold’ or ‘Great Cold’ is the poetic name for the moon. It is the name given to the palace in the moon where the fairy Chang-O lived. As for the second term, the main focus of this paragraph is the word鴻, a flying goose. Ancient Chinese compared the grace and beauty of geese in flight to that of a beauty. However a goose is not a thing of beauty in English culture for it has a connotation of foolishness or silliness. Taking poetic licence and mistranslating it as a swan would be more palatable to the English mindset.
One glance startled the shadow of the swan,
Our chance meeting is like a dream.
To the moon I had yet to reach,
Too hurriedly we had to part.
There is a salacious meaning behind the third line. Every Chinese girl wants to be compared to the beautiful fairy Chang-O. However this fairy is inaccessible to all as she lived in the moon. (Some ribaldry here – a frigid beauty!) Hence to be able to reach the moon is to have her compromised.
Here’s another example in the same vein,
今宵酒壺滿, Tonight, a jug full of wine,
献恩解君寒. I offer my love to dispel the cold air from my Lord.
曲舞宴未盡, My feast, my song, my dance has yet to end,
東曉驚鴻裙. The sudden dawn startled my pleated skirt.
The mistranslation occurs in the last line. In English, ‘morning in the east’ is redundant since the sun always rise in the east. Western readers have difficulty in understanding the term goose skirt. Even with explanation and footnotes, the translation had marred their mindset. It is better to take liberty and mistranslate it as a pleated skirt. This does not compromise the meaning and intent of the poem. In the original language there is no indication if the poem was commented by the first, second or third person. I used the first person as a preference to let the reader become the central character. It could be translated using a third person and be translated to,
Tonight, a jug full of wine,
The Beauty offers her love to dispel the cold air from her Lord.
Her feast, her song her dance has yet to end,
The sudden dawn startled her skirt.
On the subject of taking poetic liberties, I think it is best to leave it to language lawyers! This is a very controversial subject with so many differing opinions that it is best to examine it on a case-by-case basis. My advice is: Do it only to satisfy some technical aspect of the target language and with the original intent still intact. One final recommendation – always use a good editor fluent in the target language to go through your work! Your mindset is already totally immersed in the source language and your judgment is highly biased towards it.
The following three poems serve as concrete examples to illustrate some of finer points discussed earlier. One is written in the 10th century. An anonymous translation which can be found at http://www.chinese-poems.com/y4t.html is provided with my own for comparison. The second one is written about a century earlier by Li Po, considered to be China’s greatest poet, and the final one is from a story written during the late Ch’ing Dynasty.
Here is the first poem with its literal translation, which to me is totally useless.
蓓蕯蠻 Bodhisattva barbarian
花明月黯籠輕霧， flowers bright moon dim cage light mist
今霄好向郎邊去！ now night good towards male side go
衩襪步香階， slits-on-the-side-robes socks step fragrant step/ramp (imperial)
手提金縷鞋。 hand hold gold thread shoe
畫堂南畔見， painted hall south bank see
一向偎人顫。 One towards afraid man tremble
奴為出來難， slave because out come difficult
教君恣意憐。 Teach lord reckless pity.
Anonymous translation My translation
Light mist envelops the dim moon ; bright flowers. Flowers bright, hazy moon gauzed in mist, 1
A perfect night to go to her darling’s side. Tonight is the time to be at my lover’s side. 2
In stocking soles, she treaded the fragrant steps, In my socks, tiptoeing hurriedly up the fragrant imperial stairs, 3
And carries in one hand her gold threaded shoes. With golden threaded slippers in my hand. 4
They meet by the south side of the painted hall, Meeting you at the southern end of the painted hall, 5
And tremble as they fall into each other’s arms. Trembling in fear that others may see me. 6
“It’s hard for me to creep out like a servant, How difficult it is for this maid to come. 7
To teach my darling, the recklessness of love.” Milord pity me in how reckless I had become. 8
Before comparing the differences, let’s discuss how the title is translated since none was given in the anonymous version.
蓓蕯 is a Bodhisattva, an enlightened existence or an enlightened being that out of compassion has postponed his entry into Nirvana to become a Buddha in order to further his salvation for the vulgar masses still in their unenlightened states. The most well known Bodhisattva is Kuan Yin (觀音) generally translated as the Goddess of Mercy. The actual translation is ‘(She) who sees and hears all’. In the beginning Kuan Yin was a man but somehow when Buddhism reached China, he was changed into female. During persecutions of Christians in feudal Japan, the image of Kuan Yin was used as a cover for the Virgin Mary.
A female Bodhisattva (女蓓蕯) is a colloquial flattery for a girl or woman akin to complimenting a pretty lady as a goddess in English. In following my rule to retain as much flavour in the source language as possible, Bodhisattva is used instead of Goddess. The character 蠻 means either a barbarian or someone unruly or recalcitrant. An accurate translation would be the ‘Unruly Bodhisattva’ rather than ‘Barbaric Bodhisattva’ because of the meaning of the poem. By the extension of the meaning of the word, barbarian and the context of the poem, alternate acceptable translations are ‘The Unreasonable Goddess’ or ‘The Wild Goddess’ (Note: Barbarians are supposed to be unreasonable since they possess no logic, 蠻人無理. You just can’t argue in logic with barbarians!). For personal stylistic taste, I rather translate it as ‘reckless’ instead. Thus my preference is ‘The Reckless Bodhisattva’ rather than the clearer title, ‘The Reckless Goddess’.
In line 1, both our translations are similar. Mine has a more suggestive descriptive of the mist as a silk gauze covering the moon to make it hazy and dim whereas in the anonymous version the moon was made dim by the enveloping mist. Both of us took the liberty in the translation. The original word used was ‘cage’.
In line 2 both versions show a different way to express the same sentiment. I like the anonymous version use of the word ‘darling’ to convey playfulness rather than my use of the more staid word of ‘lover’. However I prefer whenever possible to never use the same term twice unless it is used for a refrain effect.
In line 3 our versions start to differ both in tone and presentation of the imagery. I used personal pronouns to achieve the immediate effect of a common experience shared by all while the anonymous version used the 3rd person instead. I feel this is quite misleading as I shall explain later. Vital information was left out in the anonymous translation – imperial steps and the choice of words. Clandestine goings-on were hinted at in my version while the other offers none to the reader’s mind. “Who is this person creeping around the palace in the dead of night?” Translating the character, 衩 is easy but putting it in the poem is messy. These are the side slits of the robe to facilitate easier movement, hence my addition of the word “hurriedly”.
Line 4 expresses different translators’ flair for words. Shoe is the more correct translation but a shoe in those days looked more like slippers woven in cloth rather than leather. Leather was more suited for boots in battle rather than use for comfort in the palace.
Again line 5 we express the same sentiment differently. Only the rich and powerful were able to have their walls plastered. Of course in the palace, drawings and decorations are expected.
Line 6 shows the greatest difference in interpretation. The anonymous version suggests the lovers were trembling because of the excitement they generated while in each other’s arms. Mine indicates they were trembling because their tryst may be discovered.
I love the translated lines of 7 and 8 in the anonymous version immensely as it strongly suggests that the lady was the instigator and teacher in the arts of seduction whereas the man was merely the hapless victim. Mine denotes the exact opposite. At the same time, in the anonymous version the character, ‘奴' was translated wrongly as slave or servant even though it is one of the word’s meanings. I translated it as ‘maid’ to mean more of a girl rather than some servant. The meaning of ‘奴' in this context is an archaic self-deprecating term for one’s wife or darling. The character ’君' was translated as darling as in the phrase ’郎君'. However I translated it to mean the Lord as in the lord and master. ‘Milord’ was used to indicate the time period when this tryst occurred.
At first glance, the anonymous version is a very sophisticated translation of the poem. Very well polished indeed to convey the meaning of the original poem. However astute readers who know the identity of the poet and the surrounding historical context when it was composed, will see the subtle flaws. This is another rule in my guidelines not discussed earlier because it pertains more to poetry - research deeply into the background of the poet and the circumstances in which the composition was composed to retrieve information from elsewhere so as to give the translation its best shine.
This poem was written by the later Tang dynasty ruler, Li Yu (李煜). The poem is not about the celebration of two persons in love. It was a bragging to the world of his illicit conquest of his young sister-in-law. In 955 AD at the age of 19, Li Yu married Lady Chou. It was a match made in heaven as both husband and wife were accomplished artists, poets and musicians. He played the zither while she played the pipa to the accompaniment of each other. Six years later, Li Yu became emperor and Lady Chou was known in history from that time as Empress ‘Big Chou’. On July 7, 973, a grand banquet was given to celebrate the emperor’s 37th birthday. Empress Big Chou fell seriously ill after that. The emperor allowed her family members a visit. However when the visit came to an end, everyone left except for the younger sister of Empress Big Chou. A clandestine love affair was born while the older sister was in her sickbed. At that time the younger sister was only 15 years old. When the older sister found out, she was angry and soon died at the age of 29. A really great opportunity presented itself to Li Yu! However he did not marry her immediately but waited 4 years to avoid suspicion. She became Empress ‘Small Chou’. Thus my translation is more appropriate because of the additional information which required me to reflect more accurately the intent of the poet. It is the man and not his lady love who is the instigator! Also since this poem was written by the culprit himself and not by someone else, the translation should be using 1st person pronouns and not written in the 3rd person.
Li Yu demoted himself from emperor to lord to pacify the growing might of the powerful northern Sung Dynasty. In the end, it did not matter as the Later Tang was subjugated and they were further demoted to mere duke and duchess to the Sung Court and forced to live in the Sung capital. The founder of the Sung Dynasty was a great admirer of Li Yu’s literary talent and respected him. Therefore he did not lust after the ex-Empress Small Chou. The Sung founder had taken the empress of the Later Shu emperor to be his imperial concubine after he had subjugated that country. However when the Sung Founder died, his brother became the next emperor and he was no gentleman or admirer of Li Yu. The Chou sisters were famed beauties of their time. Court records indicated how the new Sung Emperor had raped3 Small Chou, on the pretext of having the custom of noble women enter the palace to pay their respects. Each time she came back a few days later from the palace, only her voice was heard loudly berating Li Yu. So loud and vile were the words that all within hearing range had to flee far away to avoid embarrassment. Finally Li Yu was poisoned by the Sung Emperor using a poem the former had written as an excuse. Ex-empress Small Chou committed suicide soon afterwards by hanging herself. She died at the same age as her older sister. Call it retribution or not.
Just for curiosity and for fun, I ran the poem through Google and Yahoo translators back and forth a few times and this is the result:
花明月黯籠輕霧， Flower moon dim mist the cage,
今霄好向郎邊去！ Xiao Lang side to this good to go!
衩襪步香階， Step socks panties Hong order,
手提金縷鞋。 Mobile Hamamelidaceae shoes.
畫堂南畔見， Painting of the Southern Han,
一向偎人顫。 Always cuddle people quiver.
奴為出來難， Slave to come out hard,
教君恣意憐. JJ arbitrary pity.
花明月暗籠霧， Flower moon dark cage fog,
衩襪步香秩序， Small waves to the good side!
小浪方這個好去！ Step socks panties Hong order
移動金縷梅科鞋。 Mobile Hamamelidaceae shoes.
繪畫南漢， Painting South Han,
人們總是擁抱顫抖。 People always hug trembling.
奴隸出來難， Slaves out of difficult
林俊傑任意可惜. Unfortunately, any JJ
Note: See how 'handheld' or ‘portable’ was translated as 'mobile' as in mobile phone. Manual translators are not aware that this poem was written eons ago. Until there is enough computer memory to store context like the human brain can, a human is always needed at hand to amend such mistakes.
花明月黯籠輕霧， Colored bright moonlight gloomy cage light fog,
今霄好向郎邊去！ now clouds good to court attendant nearby!
衩襪步香階， Vent sock step fragrant step,
手提金縷鞋。 portable Jin Lvxie.
畫堂南畔見, Draws south the hall the bank to see,
一向偎人顫。 always snuggles up to the human to tremble.
奴為出來難， The slave to come out difficultly,
教君恣意憐. teaches Mr. to pity willfully.
色的明亮的月光陰沉的籠子光霧， The color bright moonlight cloudy basket light fog,
現在覆蓋好給附近法院的乘務員! covers the train attendant who now gives the nearby court!
放氣襪子步芬芳步， Deflates the sock fragrantly step step,
便攜式的金Lvxie。 portable golden Lvxie.
畫南部大廳銀行看， The picture south hall bank looked that always
总是偎依由人決定打顫。 snuggles up to by the human decides to tremble.
困難地出來的奴隸， Comes out difficultly the slave,
教先生恣意地可憐。 teaches gentleman pitifully willfully
Sometimes such translators offer an endless stream of humour. Take the following classic translations: ‘The spirit is strong but the flesh is weak’ when translated into Russian and back to English, it becomes ‘The vodka is strong but the meat is rotten’. This one was translated from Chinese and back into English, ‘The Grapes of Wrath’ becomes ‘The Angry Grapes’! (Google translator corrected it but not Yahoo). How about 'Furious Raisins'? Can you guess what ‘hydro drops’ are? Definitely not ‘water drops’! Why, it is just plain ol' rain drops!
The second poem is an example when inaccuracies and poetic liberties work in their favour. The side-by-side translation is mine, reflecting a more accurate picture and is closer in structure to the original poem. The words, mostly pronouns in parenthesis are added to make things clearer, for a smoother reading and to satisfy the constraints of the target language.
問餘何事棲碧山， Asked why I dwell in the green hills,
笑而不答心自開。 (I) smile without reply as (my) heart is at ease.
桃花流水杳然去， Peach blossoms (sailed) quietly on flowing waters,
別有天地非人間。 To another land not of this mortal realm.
The following translation is done by a translator whose identity I never discovered. A vastly superior translation in my opinion. The reason is the rhyming qualities in the target language as well as a richer and a more vivid imagery it provokes. Inaccuracies, not being closer to the structure of the original poem and poetic liberties taken matter little since the original intent is expressed most faithfully and beautifully.
I dwell amongst the green hills: You ask me why,
My soul at ease I smile without reply.
Peach petals flowed along the stream,
To other lands beyond this mortal dream.
This last example further illustrates translation liberties being taken when warranted. Remember the guideline to titillate and excite the interest of the reader? The poem describes the fearsome attributes of the dreaded White Tiger God being summoned in Chapter 12 of “Peach Blossom Girl Dueling Magic” (桃花女鬥法),
潔白銀盔生殺氣， Pure silvery helmet birthing in aura of death, 1
素披甲上砌龍鱗。 Donned in white armour layered with dragon scales. 2
腰中繫寶磨珍玉， A belt studded with polished jade so precious, 3
戰靴五彩起祥雲。 With war boots exhaling five colored auspicious clouds. 4
面如傅粉神眉豎， A Face powdered in arsenic, divine eyebrows a standing, 5
眼光四射好驚人！ Eyes glaring with light into four corners – truly a fearsome sight! 6
法體金身高一丈， A heavenly body that is ten foot tall, 7
畫戟方天手內擎。 With a raised Square Heaven halberd held in hand. 8
若問此尊神名字， Ask what thy name that this Lord may be, 9
威鎮四方白虎神。 Everywhere silenced by his prestige – for this is the White Tiger God. 10
In line 1, a more faithful translation would be, ‘Pure white helmet emanating forth a murderous aura’. However the character ‘生' also means to give birth. Therefore by translating the character ‘刹' (to kill) to mean death evokes more contradictory excitement to the line.
In line 4, ‘Five colored auspicious clouds rising from the war boots’ seems lacking in punch. By turning the boots into a living creature snorting clouds brings more exciting and lively imagery.
In line 5, there is no word for arsenic found anywhere in the line. ‘Surface like layered powder with divine eyebrows erect’ would be an accurate translation. However it sounds more like a Kabuki actor applying makeup instead of describing the fearsome look of the White Tiger God. Also the word ‘erect’ has a ribald connotation so I used ‘standing’ instead. As face powder hints of a deathly pallor in the source, the word ‘white’ does not pack as much emotion as ‘arsenic’ does in the target language. Arsenic is silvery white and more importantly the first thought to a reader’s mind is its toxicity, an extremely dangerous substance to be handled with the greatest care. Therefore ‘A face powdered in arsenic, divine eyebrows a standing’ is a very appropriate description for the powerful and deadly God.
In line 9, ‘Ask what thy name that this Lord may be’ sounds more poetic than just the plainer but more accurate translation of ‘If (I) may ask who this August God is’.
Finally on line 10, the character, ‘鎮' means to secure, subdue or quell a disturbance hence conveying a sense of stability and quietness. The intent of the description of the White Tiger God is that with just one look from him, his fearsome prestige will silence any chattering in his presence, just like an eminent or famous person entering a noisy party.
Accuracy in translation does not always mean that it is the ‘correct’ or the best way to translate. It is always a trade off to achieve the goal in which a reader’s enjoyment, interest, the mood or the original intent conveyed are of paramount importance. It is up to the human translator to decide when guidelines are to be followed or to be broken to ensure a translated piece comes to life.
For another example of do's and don'ts of poetry translation.
An interesting article about the Eight Legged Essay and a cause of the downfall of an empire,
2. The word means machine or opportunity but because the Cantonese pronunciation sounds almost like the English pronunciation for the word gay that it is now widely used in mainland China and Taiwan.
The picture is a Ch’ing Dynasty depiction of the painting bearing the same title. The original was rumoured to be commissioned by the Sung emperor to brag about his conquest. The 3rd Sung Emperor, 真宗 named the painting as熙陵幸小周后圖 (Splendiferous Mausoleum (where Emperor Sung Tai Tsung was buried) Pleasing Empress Small Chou, a more polite way of saying, ‘The Rape of Empress Small Chou by Sung Tai Tsung’). The Prime Minister 文彦博to the 4th Sung Emperor 仁宗 stated in his writings that he personally saw the painting. The mention of the painting was during the early days of the Ch'ing Court. After that it was rumoured to be destroyed or was part of the 1949 shipment of imperial treasures to Taiwan during the communist takeover of the mainland.
During the Yuan Dynasty, Feng Hai Su (馮海粟) composed the following poem to mock the Sung Emperor for raping someone’s wife.
江南剩得李花開， Left only in bloom are plum blossoms south of the Yangtze River,
也被君王强折来； Still they were forcefully plucked by the Emperor;
怪底金風冲地起， No wonder when golden winds blew,
御園紅紫满龍堆。 In the imperial gardens, a few more royal dragons grew.
The later Tang Dynasty capital was located near Nanking, south of the Yangtze River hence plum blossoms refer to Empress Small Chou. The golden winds represent the Jin (Gold) Dynasty which destroyed the Northern Sung Dynasty. Not only the two Sung Emperors were made captives but their harems as well. When the mother of the emperor of the Southern Song Dynasty was allowed to return, the emperor had a few brothers of mixed blood brought home as well! Indeed this is retribution borne by his descendants.
A number of such lessons can be learnt from the Sung Dynasty and its predecessors (the Five Dynasties and Ten Kingdoms period) for a karma class on retribution. The way the founder of the Sung Dynasty became emperor was interesting and unique in Chinese history. He was a general of the later Chou Dynasty. On his way to quell a purported alliance formed by the Northern Han and Liao Dynasties when his lord and master, the emperor of the Later Chou Dynasty died. A story spread that while the Sung founder was drunk in his tent; his subordinates secretly placed upon the sleeping general the yellow imperial robes. Such an act meant only death. Therefore he had no choice but to rise up and rebel against the widow and young son of his former master (who had heard of such a taboo object can be found so easily while on a war campaign unless there was premeditation already!). His former master was too a general for the Southern Tang Dynasty and rebelled against his master, who in turn overthrew his Later Liao Dynasty master and he in turn forced the last emperor of the Tang Dynasty to abdicate to become emperor himself! When the Mongol invasion came sweeping down from the north and pushed the Sungs all the way to the south that this chain of retribution ended. When the final sea battle was lost, the Sung dowager empress and the infant emperor committed suicide by flinging themselves into the ocean rather than be captured by the barbarians.
One of the major reasons that the Sung Dynasty fell was because able generals were put to death when they showed great promise on the battle field. The most famous one was Yueh Fei (岳飛) who was considered to be the national hero while the Prime Minister Chen Kuei (秦檜) who said to have forged the imperial edict was labeled in later times as the traitor for the execution of the General. Perhaps it was because later Sung Emperors’ awareness of their ancestor’s past that able generals were put to death on trumped up charges that made the Sung Dynasty so militarily weak.