Wednesday, March 08, 2017

國際婦女節: 薛濤的"春望詞四首" / International Women's Day: Xue Tao's "Four Ways of Looking at Spring"

If I'd thought it through, I would've been better prepared to commemorate International Women's Day, which is to say I would have started work on these poems by Xue Tao a lot earlier. I hope my hasty translation does her a modicum of justice.

薛濤 Xue Tao was a Tang dynasty poet, courtesan, and, later in life, Daoist nun. Wikipedia uses the term "adept," which is probably more accurate since "nun" implies her taking on a monastic life, which doesn't seem to have been the case. A collection of her poetry, the 錦江集 or Brocade River Collection, was published in her lifetime, but apparently only part of it has survived. Her work has been translated by an inevitably more skilled hand than mine: Jeanne Larsen's Brocade River Poems: Selected Works of the Tang Dynasty Courtesan Xue Tao can be purchased here.

Xue Tao's Daoist phase strikes me as particularly interesting, and informs my translation, insofar as I opted to refrain from personalizing the poems. I think this makes for an aesthetically useful juxtaposition of the wistful romance of the poems' subject matter and the featureless nature of the Dao.

Of course, that's just me. I've included her original for anyone who reads Chinese, and I consulted Tony Barnstone and Chou Ping's version of these poems, if readers want another take on these 1200-year-old examples of poetry written by Chinese women. Enjoy!








Xue Tao
"Four Ways of Looking at Spring"

Flowers blossom, but can't be enjoyed together
Flowers fall, but grief can't be shared
If you want to ask where love dwells
It's when flowers blossom and flowers fall

Gather grass and tie heart-shaped knots
Pass them on to the dearly departed
Spring sadness has just broken
Spring birds sing mournfully again

Blossoms on the wind, the day wanes
It's as if good times are ever more distant
If people can't bind their hearts together
It's pointless to knot grass hearts

How does one endure branches full of flowers?
Write a couple of love songs.
Tears fall onto the mirror
But does the spring wind know?

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