Tymnes: Epitaph For a Loved One (From Greek)

Epitaph For a Loved One
By Tymnes (c. 3rd-2nd cent. B.C.)
Translated by A.Z. Foreman

Here lies the white dog from Malta, alone. 
Loyal guard of Eumelus' house, in life 
They called him Bullyboy. Now lost and gone
His bark is silenced on the roads of night. 

Audio of me reading this poem in Greek



The Original:

τῇδε τὸν ἐκ Μελίτης ἀργὸν κύνα φησὶν ὁ πέτρος
ἴσχειν, Εὐμήλου πιστότατον φύλακα.
ταῦρόν μιν καλέεσκον, ὅτ᾽ ἦν ἔτι: νῦν δὲ τὸ κείνου
φθέγμα σιωπηραὶ νυκτὸς ἔχουσιν ὁδοί.

Quevedo: How All Things Warn of Death (From Spanish)

How All Things Warn Of Death
By Francisco de Quevedo y Villegas
Translated by A.Z. Foreman

     I looked upon the walls of my old land,
so strong once, and now moldering away,
worn out by Time's long march, day after day,
which had already sapped their will to stand.
 
     I went out to the country, saw the sun 
drink up the streams unfettered from the frost,
and cattle groan how light of day was lost
to woodland, with its shadows overrun.
 
     I went into my home, but saw the crude 
and rotted ruins of an agèd room;
my cane gone weak and crooked in the grime.
     I felt my sword surrendering to Time
and nothing of the many things I viewed
reminded me of anything but Doom.


Audio of me reading this poem in Spanish


The Original:

Enseña Cómo Todas Las Cosas Avisan de la Muerte

     Miré los muros de la patria mía,
si un tiempo fuertes, ya desmoronados,
de la carrera de la edad cansados,
por quien caduca ya su valentía.
     Salíme al campo; vi que el sol bebía
los arroyos del yelo desatados,
y del monte quejosos los ganados,
que con sombras hurtó su luz al día.
     Entré en mi casa; vi que, amancillada,
de anciana habitación era despojos;
mi báculo, más corvo y menos fuerte.
     Vencida de la edad sentí mi espada,
y no hallé cosa en que poner los ojos
que no fuese recuerdo de la muerte.

Borges: Ewigkeit (From Spanish)


Ewigkeit
Jorge Luis Borges
Translated by A.Z. Foreman

Let Spanish verse turn on my tongue, affirm
Once more in me what it has always said
Since Seneca in Latin: that true dread
Sentence that all is fodder for the worm.
Let it turn back with song to hail pale ash,
The calends of death, and the victory
Of that word-ruler queen whose footfalls smash       
The banners of our empty vanity.

Not that. I'll cravenly deny not one

Thing that has blessed my clay. I know of all
Things, one does not exist: oblivion.
That in eternity beyond recall 
The precious things I've lost stay burning on:
That forge, that risen moon, that evening-fall.

Audio of me reading this poem in Spanish


The Original:

Ewigkeit
Jorge Luis Borges

Torne en mi boca el verso castellano
a decir lo que siempre está diciendo
desde el latín de Séneca: el horrendo
dictamen de que todo es del gusano.
Torne a cantar la pálida ceniza,
los fastos de la muerte y la victoria
de esa reina retórica que pisa
los estandartes de la vanagloria.

No así. Lo que mi barro ha bendecido
no lo voy a negar como un cobarde.
Sé que una cosa no hay. Es el olvido;
sé que en la eternidad perdura y arde
lo mucho y lo precioso que he perdido:
esa fragua, esa luna y esa tarde.


Jules Boissière: The Buddha (From Occitan)

Born in 1863, Jules Boissière (Juli Boïssièra) spent his early years as a journalist, hobnobbing with the likes of Amouretti and Murras, and writing anemic verse with great virtuosity in two languages. In 1886 he changed careers, and headed for Hanoi, part of the recently consolidated territory of French Indo-China. He served in the 11th Alpine Infantry Battalion, and saw combat in some of the last few battles to conquer the Tonkinese countryside, before beginning his tenure in the French administrative corps in Saigon and Huế where he learned the language today known as Vietnamese, acquired at least a basic knowledge of Classical Chinese, and cultivated the fondness for opium for which he was to become notorious. He served a long post in Bình Định before returning to France to marry Thérèse Roumanille (Terèsa Romanilha), daughter of Joseph Roumanille the reactionary patriarch of the Provençal Félibre movement. Boissière returned to Tonkin with his wife in 1892, taking stewardship of the Revue Indochinoise. After another leave of absence in 1895, he was promoted to Vice-Resident 1st Class and died a painful intestinal death two years later.
Boissière wrote prolifically, but published little during his life. He is now best remembered for his collection of French Indo-Chinese short stories titled Fumeurs d'Opium "Opium Smokers". He also produced a sizable amount of poetry, both in French and in Occitan, a lot of which — particularly that from his later years — is extremely good. It is likely that some of his poetry remains unpublished. A posthumous collection of his Occitan verse Li Gabian "The Seagulls" was published in 1899 by his wife, who extracted the poems from among his manuscripts. Reading it, I have come across quite a few interesting pieces, the more so because generally "colonial exotic" themes are rare in Occitan literature of this period, which preoccupied itself mostly with its own soil. Like the stories in Fumeurs d'Opium, some of the poems deal with Chinese and Indo-Chinese themes. Interwoven with long odes of nostalgic yearning for his native country and rhapsodies to his fellow félibres, one finds things like an imaginative sonnet depicting a Chinese Princess reading Li Bai, or some lusciously lilting lines about stargazing from a boat gliding down the Mekong. Some are of a piece with some of the best of his French "oriental" poems such as Pays Perdu or Sumatra. And then there are three or four poems where he goes Next Level, as in the one translated here, which caught me completely by surprise. It is like nothing at all that he wrote in French that I've seen. I was not expecting this. Not even a little bit.

The Buddha
By Jules Boissière
Translated by A.Z. Foreman

Our soldiers won then torched a domicile. 
The owner with his sons ran half a mile
Under gunfire. On the ancestors' altar
Not guarding the old creeds or their old shelter,
The Buddha gave the wolfish men a smile.

How many hours has it been since! Where now
Is that house? Where's the pudgy god whose brow
And smile are sign of fate's indifferent law?
When man beneath mute Heaven prays or cries
I see again that Buddha's ruddy jaw,
His moonlike face and his two tranquil eyes.

Audio of me reading this poem in Occitan


The Original:

Though Boissière was a native speaker of Lengadocian Occitan, he like the rest of his generation wrote in Provençal Occitan, specifically the variety of Rhodanian Provençal which had been raised to literary status by Mistral and others among the Félibrige movement. I give the poem in original Roumanille-Mistralian orthography, copied directly from Li Gabian, and in the more recent  classicizing orthography. For all future Provençal texts in Roumanille-Mistralian orthography, I plan to include a parallel version in classical orthography.

Classical Orthography
Lo Boddha
Juli Boïssièra

Brulavan un ostau, nòstei sodards vincèires;
— Lo mèstre ambé sei fius peralin fugissiá
Sota la fusilhada; e sus l'autar dei rèires,
Luènh d'aparar l'ostau, l'autar e lei vièlhs crèires,
Ais òme' alobatits lo Boddha sorrisiá

Quant d'ora' an debanat desempèi! Monte es ara
L'ostau? Monte es lo Dièu poput de quau la cara
Sorrisenta retrais lo Sòrt indifferent?
— E sota lo cèu mut, quand l'òme prèga e crida,
Revese dau Boddha lei gauta' acoloridas
E sa fàcia de luna, e sei vistóns serens.
Original Orthography
Lou Bouddha
Juli Bouissiero

Brulavon un oustau nòsti soudard vincèire;
Lou mèstre emé si fiéu peralin fugissié
Souto la fusihado; e sus l’autar di rèire,
Liuen d’apara l’oustau, l’autar e li vièi crèire,
Is ome aloubati lou Bouddha sourrisié.

Quant d’ouro an debana desempèi! Mounte es aro
L’oustau? Mount es lou diéu poupu de quau la caro
Sourrisènto retrais lou sort indiferènt?
E souto lou cèu mut, quand l’ome prègo e crido,
Revese dóu Bouddha li gauto acoulourido,
E sa fàci de luno, e si vistoun seren.

Antonin Perbòsc: Death of the Vine (From Occitan)

During the Great French Wine Blight of the 19th century, an epidemic of phylloxera, a sap-sucking aphid that feeds on the root of grapevines, destroyed most vineyards and vintners' livelihoods throughout French wine-country, which included large parts of rural Occitania. Phylloxera was commonly referred to as La Bèstia "The Beast" by Lengadocian vintners. The following poem, part of a cycle about wine and phylloxera in Languedoc, is taken from Lo Gòt Occitan "The Occitan Goblet" originally published in serial installments in Le Feu Follet in 1902. The title given to this poem in that serialization is Lo Comba-Négrat "The Combnegran." Combanegra "Blackdell" is the name of a place north of Toulouse and west of Montauban. (It also leads the imagination to a dell sucked black and sparse by the pestilence of phylloxera.) When Lo Gòt Occitan was printed as a complete collection in 1903, the poem bore the title given here.
The poem's final passage evokes Cathar martyrs killed in the Occitan War, the plight of the vintner standing as symbol of a crushed and drained nation.

Death of the Vine
By Antonin Perbòsc
Translated by A.Z. Foreman

And that was that. The vine was really dead.
Last year in pangs the poor old shoots had spread
to ripen the last bunch each branch could yield;
but now the Beast, brawling through every field,
— unspeakable! — with all its mouths had struck,
and sucked the last sap drop from the bled stock.

The old Combnegran, blistered by the sun
and beaten by the wind since he was young,
for fifty years had cut and picked each vine.
Now with legs shackled and a twisted spine,
for these three seasons past, a crippled man
with feet by the andirons too weak to stand,
—His whole life an outdoorsman to the core —
he somberly sat pondering by the door.

Endlessly pondering the disastrous blight,
not wanting to believe his house's plight.
Oh what he wouldn't give now just to run
to Peyralade where vines sipped ancient sun,
to see with his own eyes — and die, maybe —
the root-gnawed crop that naught could remedy.
Oh, heaven had left this godforesaken earth. 

"Papa, today has really been the worst" 
A summer ago, one evening, he had heard
those words and couldn't speak. Head bowed down toward
his cup where red wine sparkled at his face,
he asked no more. Said nothing. Sat in place. 

What had they done? Just ripped out every root
of Peyralade stock, the hillside's prize shoot
back when the bounteous harvests were still turning.
Still a good stock these days? Well, good for burning!
Whole ranks of them now, jumbled and bent double,
were heaped and shucked like sheathes in fields of stubble;
Then row on row were piled up and piled higher
until they made for an amazing pyre.
The sun had finished drying up last 
those stumps on which, in summers now long past, 
its beams bid bloom such luscious leafy layers. 

Winter had come. One evening during prayers
the old man on his stool, head bowed with bile,
chewed over bitter dreams of horror, while
outside the North Wind brawled with skreaking maw.
"Won't we be warm!" said his sister-in-law
"We won't have wine, but we've got logs galore"
and gathered stumps into her pinafore. 

Oh, flames like battle-torches, log by log,
lit the hearth from pot-hanger to fire-dog!
The old man watched the smoking sizzling brands
tossed on the fireplace twist like human hands,
akin to martyrs grasping in the air
for God's aid with the fingers of despair;
eyes wide, pupils dilated hideously,
mouths gaping up to scream their agony,
blood pouring purply from the melting skin
salvos of golden sparks crazed up to spin
toward pitch night in the fire's devouring violence.
And then the house was still with deathly silence. 

The old man saw pass in this hellish shine
all the joy squeezed out of the wounded vine.
What misery now would canker in his head?
He stooped. And stooped a bit more. And was dead.


The Original:

La Mòrt de la Vinha
Antonin Perbòsc

Tot èra plan finit, la vinha èra plan mòrta.
De migra, l'an passat, la paura cambatòrta
Suls rams avià vairat sos darrièrs rasinòls;
Ara, La Bèstia avià, sus totes los planòls,
— desparaulanta orror — amb sas milanta bocas
chucat duscas al còr la saba de las socas.

Lo vièlh Combanegrat, dempuèi sa joventut,
usclat pel solelhàs o pel ventàs batut,
las avià cincanta ans podadas, vendimiadas;
ara, esquinal plegat e cambas enferriadas,
agut, despoderat, dempuèi tres calendrièrs,
a poder pas levar los pèds de suls landièrs,
— el que tota sa vida avià rotlat per òrta —
soscava sornament sul soquet de la pòrta.

Soscava sens sadol al malastre infernal,
sens voler creire al dòl tombat sus son ostal.
Qu'airia donat per corre amont, a Peiralada,
ont sa vinha mila ans beguèt la solelhada,
per veire de sos èls, — benlèu per ne morir!—
aquel mal rosegant que res podià garir!
A! La tèrra èra donc del cèl abandonada!...

"Paire, avèm fach, auèi, plan marrida jornada!..."
Aqui çò qu'ausiguèt un ser, l'estiu passat.
Demorèt atupit, son agach abaissat
sus son gòt, ont lo vin lusissià, sus la taula,
sens ne mai demandar, sense dire una paraula.

Çò qu'aviàn fach? Aviàn arrancat a bèl talh
las vits de Peiralada, ondradas del costal
al temps ont se fasià bèla vendemiadura,
ara bonas, ailas! Res qu'a la cramadura.
Las socas pels vidats, forra-borra, a redòls,
s'amontairèron tals los quintèls pels rastòls;
apèi, a tombarèls comols, tièra per tièra,
anguèron s'apilar pel sòl en fagotièra
espectaclosa; aqui lo solelh finiguèt
de secar aquels socs ont, tant d'estius, fasquèt
espandir amb son flam rama tant pampolada.

L'ivèrn èra vengut. Un ser, a la velhada,
l'aujòl, sus son banquet, lo cap clin, al confin,
romiava son amar sosc de malcòr, ensin
qu'a grand buf la sisampa idolava defòra.
"Podèm plan nos calfar, ongan" diguèt la nòra,
"que s'avèm plus de vin, avèm pron de busquets!"
E pel sòl anguèt quèrre un faudal de soquets.

A! La flamba qu'alara esclairèt, batalhèra,
Tot l'ostal, del carmal duscas a l'endalièra!
L'aujòl vejèt los socs abrandats e fumants
se torsent suls landiers tals de braces umans,
retiplant de martirs que tenon ennairadas
cap al secors diusenc lors mans desesperadas.
Avian d'èls als perpels dubèrts orrescament,
de bocas s'alandant per clamar lor torment;
un sang porpral sortià de lors ruscas ascladas,
e de belugas d'òr en folescas voladas
montavan dins la nèch del devorant brandal.
E l'ostal èra siaud d'un silénci mortal.

L'aujòl vejèt passar dins l'òrra flambuscada
tot lo gauch avalit de la vinha atucada.
D'ara-enlà qual malcòr en el podià florir?
Se clinant un pauc mai, acabèt de morir.

Peire Cardenal: Advice to Frederick of Sicily (From Occitan)

After Marcabru's Crusade song, let us head to the lavador of an anti-war Troubadour. Here we have Peire's solemn reaction to a boast-poem by Bertran de Born.

First let me say a bit about Bertran's poem, which I'm not translating because I don't hate myself enough to do that. Bertran de Born was lord of Autafòrt which he held jointly with his brother Constantin. In 1182 he joined King Enric II's revolt against his brother Ricard Còr de Leon, Count of Poitou and Duke of Aquitania. Constantin took Ricard's side, and Bertran drove him out of Autafòrt. In 1183 in the aftermath of the revolt, Ricard besieged Autafòrt, captured it and gave it to Bertran's brother Constantin who had sided with him. Enric II however returned it to Bertran, and Ricard confirmed his father's grant. Bertran gloated and boasted in his poem of having snatched Autafort back by legal chicanery from his brother, and expressed gratitude for Enric II's willingness to suspend Ricard's law to this end. Bertran — as was his way — also beautified war in the poem, and its implements, saying things like "Qu'amb aiço·m conòrt / e·m tenh a depòrt / guèrra e tornei" (I take comfort and have a lot of fun in war and tourneying) and "patz no·m fai conòrt./ Amb guèrra m'acòrt/ qu'ièu non tenh ni crei/ neguna autra lei."  (Peace doesn't put me at peace. I'm in synch with war, for I do not keep or hold to any other law.) It ends with the words "No·m cal d'Autafòrt/ mais far drech ni tòrt / que·l jutgament crei / mon senhor lo rei." (I don't give a hoot any more about doing right or wrong over Autafort, for I believe in the judgment of Milord the king.)

In 1212 Pèire Cardenal wrote the song translated here, in the same meter and rhyme pattern as Bertran's, as an appeal to Frederick the Great of Sicily (candidate for, and soon to be, Holy Roman Emperor) in which he rejected Bertran's bellicosity, and took France to task on several counts — even roping in the heroes of French epic legend like Roland, and old Frankish kings like Charles the Hammer (grandfather of Charlemagne), as well as the Burgundian Chief Girard of Roussillon.

I've known for a while that, at some point in my series of translations from Occitan, I was going to have to discuss the Occitan War (also badly and commonly known as the Albigensian Crusade). Since this poem was written during that war by a man probably privy to details of the front line as they reached the Tolosan court, it looks like that point is here and now.

Like the Battle of Roncesvaux, a minor skirmish between one of Charlemagne's vassals and some Basque guerrillas which was magnified to literally epic proportions in French and Italian literature, the Occitan War is far more important in retrospect and as a memory than anything else. Understanding the Occitan War is a bit like understanding Michael Jackson in his later years. It is best to forget everything you thought you knew.

Here are a few things the Occitan War was not.

The Occitan War was not the the main (or even a secondary) cause for the decline of Troubadour literature, contrary to popular belief and defunct scholarly opinion. Then as now, the Midi was a big place. Toulouse actually witnessed a population boom afterward, and troubadour culture if anything grew more vibrant and varied than it had been before, perhaps precisely because the status of the troubadours as a social class was much changed.

The Occitan War was also not remarkably brutal. Though terrible and destructive, as war is almost by definition, it was not unusually so. In fact as Medieval European wars go, it was more or less par for the course.

Nor was the Occitan War at all genocidal. Comparisons by modern Occitan nationalists to what was done to American Indians are a misleading fantasy.

So much the Occitan War was not. Here is what it was. It was a major blow to the political autonomy of Occitanian lords and barons, and thus may be seen in retrospect as the first stage of a long process which made a nation of France and a region of Occitania. Before the French Revolution, that process was largely unplanned. Nobody, not even the French King, in the 1200s had any idea or intent that Occitania would become culturally French, let alone linguistically.

The Occitan War was also unprecedented from the perspective of Occitanians. While similar (and indeed far worse) wars had been, and would be, waged throughout the European Middle Ages, the people of Occitania had neither seen nor possessed any historical memory of this scale of violence on their own soil. For well over a century, the Midi had been relatively placid, all told, compared to the wars that had raged to its north and south. The sort of war-making hymned by Bertran de Born in the 12th century over Autafort, though more destructive than war had been in the previous century, was relatively mild, compared to much medieval warfare. (And to a time-traveler who had seen the technologized mass-combat of the 19th, 20th and 21st centuries, it might not even feel like "real" war at all so much as a glorified gangfight.) The worst of war that Occitanians had then seen was when they traveled elsewhere, whether on crusade or for some other reason. And commoners seldom traveled.

It is not unlike how Americans perceive 9/11 which was, all told, not especially remarkable either in its tactics or in its body-count. The world had seen, and some parts of it were seeing, far worse than that. But 9/11 was unexpected and unprecedented and shocking for Americans, who had not seen large-scale organized terrorism, nor in fact any act of war, on mainland soil for almost a century and a half. I can say that it completely changed the trajectory of my life, as an American. (For one, were it not for 9/11, I would probably not know Arabic.) The Occitan War had a similar psychological effect on Occitanians, both while it happened and in its aftermath.

In this poem, mention of Simon de Montfort and Picards evokes Montfort's army (containing quite a lot of peasant soldiers from Picardy) which had massacred men at Béziers three years earlier, followed by a number of other acts of cruelty as part of what may have been a deliberate policy of terrorism. Peire was present at Count Raimón's court in Toulouse during the Occitan war, and would have been privy to developments on the front line as they reached the court. At the time of this song's writing, in late 1212, Count Raimón had lost control over most of his former territory. When Peire says "The Count of Montfort" in this poem, one must understand that he was talking about someone he had reason to be terrified of.

The impression I get is that Peire has in mind a takeaway something like this: "Fuck the French. No, seriously. Don't look to the damn Frogs as an example to follow. They're a barbaric, bellicose people who just like singing of war and making war. Believe me, I know. Those Frenches just love to sing war-epics about people like Roland on campaigns in the Midi. And then they come at Milord Raimón with people like Simon. And what was that asshole Bertran de Born thinking, glorifying war like that? This shit is not glorious. He didn't know what the hell he was talking about back then."

Peire, in rejecting Frenchmen as lords, is also obliquely advising Frederick not to become a pawn of Philip Augustus of France, on whose support Frederick was depending. Longobards and Lombards are here to be taken as northern and southern Italians. Sicilians are mentioned in reference to Frederick's home kingdom.

He ends with the common warning of what the hereafter entails for one who puts all their effort into worldly acquisition and none into kindness. Given that Frederick II seems to have cared for religion scarcely more than I do, I can't imagine this played as well with Frederick as Peire's trashing of the French as cheese-eating murdermonkeys.

Fear the Gallos 
By Peire Cardenal 
Translated by A.Z. Foreman

I take for fools the Longobards 
Sicilians, Germans and Lombards  
If they want Frenchmen or Picards  
For lords or friends or bodyguards. 
  They murder and they maim 
  And take it as a game.
  And I will praise no liege
  Who does not keep the peace.

A liege would need good men to start, 
A harder strike than Roland's hand, 
Have cunning to outfox Reynart 
And gold to outbid Corbaran,  
  And fear death less in war
  Than Simon de Monfort,
  Before all acquiesce
  To him in sheer duress.

And know you what will be his share 
Of plundering war and bloody rain?  
The danger, anguish and the fear 
He causes. Torment, grief and pain 
  Will be his destiny.
  I warn His Majesty
  That in the tourney lies
  Only that heavy prize.

Man, small worth are your wit and skills  
If you lose your soul for an heir,  
Or burn in frying someone else   
When their deathrest is your despair, 
  Thus you reach a threshold
  Where all who pass must hold
  The weight of their intrigues
  And lies and heinous deeds.

Not Charles the Hammer nor Girart 
Not Agolant nor Marsilen  
Not King Gormond nor Isembart 
Managed to kill so many men  
  On earth that what they got
  Was worth a garden-spot
  I truly envy none
  Of all that wealth they won.

  I believe everyone
  After his death holds none
  Of all the wealth he's won,
  Only what he has done.
Per Fols Tenc Polhes 
Peire Cardenal 



Per fòls tenc Polhes e Lombarts 
E Longobarts et Alamands 
Si volon Francés ni Picarts 
A senhors ni a drogomans, 
 Car murtrir a tòrt
 Tenon a depòrt,
 E ièu non lau rei
 Qui non garda lei.

Et aura·lh òps bos estendarts 
E que fèra mièlhs que Rolans 
E que sapcha mais que Rainarts  
Et aia mais que Corbarans 
 E tema mens mòrt 
 Que·l coms de Monfòrt, 
 Si vòl qu'amb barrei
 Lo mons li soplei.

E sabetz qual sera sa parts 
De las guèrras e dels masans 
Lo cels e·l paors e·l regarts 
Qu'el aura fach e·l dòls e·l dans 
 Seran sieu per sòrt!
 D'aitant lo conòrt
 Qu'amb aital charrei
 Vendra del tornei.

Om, petit val tos sens ni t'arts 
Si perts t'arma per tos enfans, 
Per l'autrui carbonada t'arts 
E l'autrui repaus t'es afans: 
 Pois vas a tal pòrt
 Ont cre qu'us quecs pòrt
 L'engan e·l trafei
 E·ls tòrts fachs que fei.

Anc Carles Martèls ni Girartz  
Ni Marsilis ni Agolants 
Ni·l reis Gormons ni Isembartz  
Non aussisèron d'omes tants 
 Que n'aion estòrt
 Lo valen d'un òrt,
 Ni non lor en vei
 Aver ni arnei.

 Non cre qu'a la mòrt
 Neguns plus en pòrt
 Aver ni arnei
 Mas los fachs que fei.





Du Fu: The Defeat at Greenslope: A Lament (From Chinese)

The Defeat at Greenslope: A Lament
By Dù Fŭ
Translated by A.Z. Foreman 

(Winter of 765. Dù Fŭ writes as though he was present at the battle, although he was actually a captive behind enemy lines in Cháng'ān.)
  
At Greenslope by the East Gate the last
of our troops were camped together  
  By the black pits on Mount White we watered  
  our horses in bone-cold weather  
The blondhead brutes were advancing westward
pressing daily ahead 
  Their crackshot horsemen dared to rush    
  our men and shot them dead
The mountain in snow, the river in ice, 
the wind-bleak wildland groans
 
  That black is smoldering beacon smoke   
  and the white is soldiers' bones 
If only a message had made it through 
telling our boys to hold on
 
  Until next year and not be rash 
  they rushed and now they are gone 

Audio of me reading this poem in Chinese:
(Modern Mandarin Pronunciation)

(Reconstructed Medieval Chang'anese Pronunciation)




 Commentary

悲青坂  Pi tshiengpẹ́n  Grieve Green-slope 

Grieving over Greenslope

In the winter of 765, government troops took a wrecking defeat from rebel forces east of Cháng'ān. Two days later, the other two divisions of the same army were defeated again nearby at an unknown location that is presumably the Greenslope of this poem.


我軍青坂 ngáa kün tshiengpẹ́n   I/we army/bivouac Green-slope 
在東門   dzài tongmon     be-at east gate
天寒飲馬 thian ghaan ìm mbạ́   heaven/weather/nature be-cold give-drink horse
太白窟   thàibẹk khot     Great-white pit/pool/grotto/cave

Our encamped soldiers' were at Greenslope (Qīngbǎn) right at the eastern gate. (At a time when) weather was cold, we watered our horses in the pits of mount Greatwhite (Tàibó). 
 
The actual Mount Greatwhite is too far west for this to be geographically accurate. Possibly it is merely the white mountains, or poetic license.   


黃頭奚兒 ghuangdǝu gheinji    Yellow-head Xi son
日向西   njit hiàng siei     daily advance west
數騎彎弓 srú gì uạn kung     Several horseman bend bow
敢馳突   káam dri-dot      dare gallop rush

Blondhead men and northland lads daily pressed on westward. Several of their horsemen with bended bows dared gallop and burst (through our lines, or into our bivouac, or out of nowhere)


L3: The rebels are portrayed as non-Han, in terms typically used for barbarian peoples. The leader of the rebels, General Ān Lùshān, was of Sogdian and Turkic descent. In some societies, such as in Western Europe and the Middle East, descriptive terms for ethnic others often highlight skin-color. But the analogous terms in Chinese tend to refer to hair color, eye-color, hirsuteness or nose-shape. The "blondheads" are Khitans. The 奚 ghei (modern pronunciation Xī) were a northern tribe in the area where Ān Lùshān had originally been stationed. 

L4: 突 dot "burst through, bust in" or "rush" has a strong sense of sudden ambush as used here. (This graph is also used to write the related word thot "suddenly, without warning.")    

山雪河冰 sran süat ghaa ping    Mountain snow river ice
野蕭瑟   iá siausrit      plain moan-bleakly
青是烽煙 tshieng zyì pfung'ian   Grue beacon smoke
白是骨   bẹk zyì kot      
White be bone

The mountain: snowy. The stream: iced. The (uncultivated) plain soughs windy-bleak. The grue there is beacon smoke, and the white is (men's) bones.

L5: Qiu's edition gives 晚 mván "evening" for 野 "uncultivated plain, waste" on the authority of Fan Huang.

L6: Use of tshieng "grue" (see here on what I mean by "grue") and 白 bẹk "white" repeats the color words from the place names of the first verse (Greenslope and Greatwhite Mountain.) In so doing Du Fu perhaps also draws the Táng listener's attention to the fact that 骨 khot"pits, grottoes" of Mount Greatwhite are pronounced nearly identically to 窟 kot "bones." As the colors mentioned in the first verses come to be reinterpreted in terms of war and death, so too the "pits of mount greatwhite" 太白窟 thàibẹk khot prefigure in retrospect the "enormous white bones" 大白骨 tài bẹkkot of the dead. A further point: in Chinese literature, 青 tshieng is the color of spring and growth, whereas 白 bẹk is the color of autumn and death. Use of 青 tshieng to refer to the color of smoke is not unheard-of, but I detect also the sense that the war-beacon smoke is still "fresh" since the beacons are still smouldering. Everything around is dead.

There are two possible variants of this line. One with 是 zyì "be" as the seventh character, and one with 人 njin "man". All the Song editions have 人. The only warrant for 是 lies in Qiu's edition of 1703, based on the fact that Fan Huang's anthology contained it. I think I just have to take his word for it. Looking at the two possibilities, my instant gut feeling was that 是 was original and that the version with 人 was a later "correction." The repeated use of 是 as a copula would have had a colloquial flavor. (The more classical sense of 是 is as a demonstrative "this"). While it is easy to imagine how the text might have been changed in transmission to 人, it is much harder for me to imagine how the reverse might have happened. 

焉得附書  antǝk bvù syü    How-can send letter
與我軍   iǘ ngáa kün     give our army
忍待明年 njín dài mengnian   Endure wait next year
莫倉卒   mbaak tshaangtshot  not rush

Would that a message could have been (or: might be) sent to our troops, telling them to bear the wait until next year, and not be rash in rushing.

L8: 倉卒 tshaangtshot means "be hasty, go off half-cocked, go harum scarum" and is spelled phonetically with loan-graphs from (etymologically) unrelated words. 倉  tshaang means "granary" on its own and is used here (as in many other disyllabic words that begin with tshaang-) purely to spell the sound of the first syllable of the word. The last graph 卒 is also a phonetic loan-speller for the morpheme -tshot. (When used as an independent unbound word, tshot "abruptly" would normally be spelled 猝.) But the fact that 卒 is normally used to spell the words tsot "group of people, soldiery, army" and tsut "finish, die" is hard to ignore in this context. Perhaps it was equally hard to ignore when this poem was read (though when chanted or recited this wouldn't necessarily come through.)   


The Original:


悲青坂
 
我軍青坂在東門,
天寒飲馬太白窟。
黃頭奚兒日向西,

數騎彎弓敢馳突。
山雪河冰野蕭瑟,

青是烽煙白是骨。
焉得附書與我軍,

忍待明年莫倉卒。
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