Bian Zhilin: Road (From Chinese)

By Biàn Zhīlín
Translated by A.Z. Foreman

Ah roads oh prolongations of my foot prints
Like tunes composed of print notes to a song
That, soundless or resounding, I play over
As if counting a rosary — threading my way along

Past the pavilion-stop, the bridge and — stop!
This is the place where I lost something back then:
A tiny little notebook that contained
The addresses of how many real friends?

I can remember somewhere grasping my own
Handful of worldly life at fullest flower;
Some ten or twenty paces on, it turned
Out to be nothing but one pretty flower.

Alright then. Bury it amid the weeds
With the silk sash. For all is vanity.  
In the sky stars fall, becoming falling stars;
The white ship's trail reverts into blue sea.


L8: 故舊 really means "old friend, friend of long standing" but I translate this as "real friend" because the implication is that these would be friends who stuck with him. Not ex-friends. How many friends remained of old times? The implication is not many.

L14: in Chinese this line reads literally "tired of 'holding a silk sash in vain'" and contains a classical quotation from a poem by Li Yu, the last ruler of the southern Tang, more competent as a poet than as a ruler. The lines being quoted, in their entirety, are 空持羅帶,回首恨依依 "holding a silk sash pointlessly, I look back with lingering regret." Li when he wrote this had been recently dethroned, and was surveying Nanking, depopulated after a year of siege, and now fallen to Taizong. Along with the passing of spring he has been lamenting the desolation of the town, still treasuring a time when he was possessed of a kingdom. The silk sash was a status symbol in Imperial China. One's station and success in life were displayed in the color and patterning of the sash, and in the sorts of ornaments and accessories one would wear on it. Li Yu's old sash would have been distinctively regal.

An expanded paraphrase of the sentiment behind the passage being quoted might be: "I cling to the trappings in which I continue to invest my identity, even though I intellectually know that it is all ephemeral, that I've lost what I once had, that things like this kingly sash are meaningless outside of a context now forever gone. Yet I go on obsessing over the past, plagued by nostalgia and regret, because that is the only way I am capable of existing. I understand all of this and still I do it. That is how hard it is to let go of the way things were. I keep this sash because of what it still means to me, reminding me of a time when it still meant something to others. I cannot fully reconcile myself to this change even as I know that, like the change of seasons, it is simply the way of things."

Ideas (drawn from Buddhism and Taoism) concerning self-alienation, and the fragmentation and illusory nature of a coherent self, inform quite a few of Biàn's poems.

The Original:

卞之琳        Biàn Zhīlín

路啊,足印的延長,  lù wa, zú yìnde yáncháng,
如音調成於音符,   rú yīndiào chéng yú yīnfú,
無聲有聲我重弄,   wúshēng yǒushēng wǒ zhòng nòng,
像細數一串念珠。   xiàng xì shǔ yī huàn niànzhū.

穿過亭,穿過橋,停! Chuānguò tíng, chuānguò qiáo, tíng!
這裡我丟過東西:   Zhèlǐ wǒ diūguò dōngxī:
一本小小的手冊,   Yīběn xiǎoxiǎode shǒucè,
多少故舊的住址。   duōshǎo gùjiùde zhùzhǐ.

記得在什麼地方    Jìdé zài shénme dìfāng
我掏過一掬繁華,   wǒ tāoguò yījū fánhuá,
走了十步,二十步:  zǒule shí bù, èrshí bù:
原來是一朵好花!   Yuánlái shì yī duǒhǎo huā!……

也罷,給埋在草里,  Yěbà, gěimái zài cǎo lǐ,
既厭了空持羅帶。   jì yànle kōng chí luōdài.
天上星流為流星,   Tiānshàng xīng liú wèi liúxīng,
白船跡還諸藍海。   bái chuánjī huán zhū lánhǎi.

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