Lyrics from the Song Dynasty
October 2011 ~ January 2012
Accentual-syllabic English translations of Classic Chinese poetry.
Keywords: poetry, translation, prosody
The Song Dynasty of ancient China (AD 960 ~ AD 1279) saw the height of ci poetry, which started life as lyrics set to popular tunes of the day. (That the name of the dynasty matches the form is a happy coincidence!) Though not as popular as its more rigid and formal cousin jintishi (regulated verse), its irregular line lengths and musicality eventually helped establish ci as a poetic form in its own right. While jintishi was the language of scholarly and political aspirations, ci became the voice of the personal sphere: longings, fears, delights, sorrows, and everything in between.
There have been many attempts to convey the exact meaning of ci poems, but I have yet to come across an anthology that focuses on their prosody - the metre, rhyme and flow of sounds that make reading ci so enjoyable. In an attempt to right this, I have developed a way of translating ci as accentual-syllabic verse: I scan the original for natural stress patterns, transcribe them into a metre suitable for English, then translate the piece using this new metre. As Chinese characters carry much more meaning per syllable than English words, I prefer reconstructing imagery to translating literally word-for-word. The resulting poems read very much like their Chinese counterparts in terms of rhythm and images evoked.
The cipai for each poem – the name of the tune/metre to which the lyrics were set – have been preserved in square brackets for easy cross-reference.
All background photos by me.