06 October 2014

白居易 Bai Juyi: 花非花 Flower No Flower

This is a beautiful little love poem by the famed Tang dynasty poet Bai Juyi.  Inspired and encouraged by my friend Charles Huang Yong 黄用, I have rendered it into "sing-able" English.  As this is the first time I have ever attempted and posted any "sing-able" translation, I shall be most grateful for your comments kind or otherwise.


Bai Juyi (772-846):  Flower No Flower

1    Flower? No! No flower.  Mist? No! No mist.
2    (Mid of night, you come; daylight, away you go.)
      Mid of night, you come; daybreak, away you go. 
      (revised 14.10.14)
3    (You come like a dream of spring, brief, so brief;)
      (You come like a dream of spring, oh, so brief;)  
      (revised 13.10.14)
      You come like a dream of spring, O brief, so brief;
      (revised 10.1.2018)
4    (Gone as the clouds at dawn to where I'll never know.)
      Gone as the morning clouds to where I'll never know.  
      (revised 14.10.14) 
Translated by Andrew W.F. Wong (Huang Hongfa)           譯者: 黃宏發
16th September 2014 (revised 20.9.14; 23.9.14; 26.9.14; 28.9.14)
Translated from the original - 白居易花非花

1    花非花    霧非霧
2    夜半來    天明去
3    來如春夢不(/)多時
4    去似朝雲無覓處


*Form, Meter and Rhyme:  This English rendition is in the form of a quatrain and is in hexameter (6 metrical feet).  The original is a 6-line poem: the first 4 being 3-character lines and the last 2, each with 7 characters.  I have re-arranged it as a 4-line poem by treating each 3-character line as a half line to go with the other as if they were linked by the addition of the word  which roughly means “oh” or “ah”, but provides a pause or caesura much longer than either word.  The rhyme scheme is XAXA as in the original.

 *Title and Meaning:  The title is simply the first 3 words of the poem itself which is close to being entitled “Untitled”.  I have translated these 3 words 花非花 literally as “Flower No Flower”.  On the face of it, the poem is a riddle, and the answer clearly is “dew” which is: like but not flower, like but not mist, comes at night, leaves in the morning, stays but briefly, and cannot be found when gone.  The ambiguity lies not in the riddle itself but in the rich imagery of the poem (“flower”, “mist”, “dream of spring”, “clouds”) and the answer to the riddle (“dew”), all subtly suggestive of sensual and sexual love.  It is, therefore, safe to say this is a love poem in which the poet expresses his yearning for a lady he loves and misses.  And from line 2 (come at midnight and gone by daylight), it is perhaps also safe to say that the lady concerned is a courtesan for officials 官妓 (one class lower than courtesans in the palace 宮女 and one class higher than the "comfort ladies" for soldiers 營妓, all in the employ of the government in the Tang dynasty), the poet being an official. Courtesans for officials were assigned to perform or accompany officials at banquets and/or to serve them at night.

*Line 1:  I had originally penned “Flower? No, you’re no flower”, then considered “Flower? No, not real flower”, “Flower? No flower” and “Flower? No, not flower”, and have decided for “Flower?  No! No flower” (meaning, and is a contracted form of, “you’re no flower”).  The same goes for “Mist”.

*Line 2:  I had originally penned “Midnight, you come (2 beats); by dawn, you’re gone (2 beats)”.  Unable to sustain the “gone” rhyme, I have re-written the second half of the line as “Daylight, away you go (3 beats)”.  For the first half, I had considered adding “here” after “Midnight” to turn the line into 6 beats but have now decided to re-write Midnight” as “Mid of night” instead, bearing in mind in Chinese 夜半 “night half” is not precisely “midnight” but may just mean “late at night”.

*Line 3:  I have translated 春夢   in 3 words as “dream of spring” rather than in 2 words as “spring dream” which can mean both “a dream in springtime” and “dreaming of the beautiful yet brief springtime”, and I have taken the latter to be the correct interpretation.

*Music:  Although this poem by 白居易 Bai Juyi could have been written to music, that music either never existed or at least no longer exists.  The current music is the work of 黃自 Huang Zhi (1904-1938), a famous Chinese composer in the Nationalist period (1911-1949).  The musical score in “numbered musical notation” (簡譜 jianpu) and the song lyrics (the poem) in both English and Chinese are given below after these notes.  Please note that I have only put down the numbered musical notes with “^” or “\” added to the number to stand for a higher or lower octave, bar lines, and the key and time signatures (in this case, 1=D and 4/4).  Other information such as note lengths and slurs, etc. are omitted as I do not have the software to effect them.  Here is the song.

Flower No Flower 花非花    
 Lyrics 詞:  Bai Juyi (772-846) 白居易    
Music 曲:  Huang Zhi (1904-1938) 黄自

1=D    4/4

Flower? No! No flower.  Mist? No! No mist.
5             65    5     3  |          1^   2^1^ 1^   6  |

Mid of night, you come; daybreak, away you go.
5       5   5        1^     65    |   3    3         3  2   1     2 -- |

You come like my dream of spring, O brief, so brief;
2       2         3   5      6         6    5     |    5    5    2^1^  6 -- |

Gone as the morning clouds to where I'll never know.
1^       6   1^     5    5      3 5   |  6\    6\      6\   2 3      1 -- ||                         


Ray Heaton said...

I'll need to check out the music , but as a poem there are perhaps two changes I would consider. Firstly, I prefer Daybreak to Daylight, as to me this would then give a better impression of leaving at first light. Secondly, I'd consider using "so, so brief" rather than "brief, so brief" as this then ties in to the repetition of "no" in lines one.

I looked at a number of other translations of this poem, all of which are very similar to each other, whereas you Andrew have managed a new and more interesting interpretation!

Andrew W.F. Wong 黃宏發 said...

Thank you, Ray, for your 2 very well considered suggestions. Allow me to lay bare my thoughts before I make a final decision.
(1) I picked "daylight" for an internal rhyme with "night". I must now consider if the unrhymed "daybreak" is preferable, the original being unrhymed.
(2) I was in a hurry to point out the "dream of spring" was "brief" and "so brief", hoping a repetition of the word "brief" enhances the sense. I must now considered if "so, so brief" is preferable in terms of both sound and meaning.

Ray Heaton said...

Yes, I did appreciate the internal rhyme daylight/night however "daylight" didn't infer to me that someone was leaving at first light, sneaking away before being seen almost; whereas, to me, daybreak gave that sense more convincingly.

Andrew W.F. Wong 黃宏發 said...

I have now made up my mind on (2). I had originally penned it as "O brief, so brief", then shortened it to "brief, so brief". Thank to Ray's suggestion of "so, so brief", I have now decided to revise it to read "oh, so brief" as I don't think it necessary to echo the repetition of "no" in line 1.

As for (1), will Ray kindly comment on my original alternative of "By midnight, you come; by dawn, away you go" for line 2 and ""Gone as the morning clouds" for line 4?

Ray Heaton said...

I do like your modification to "oh, so brief". This works for me on a number of levels; it emphasises the briefness more effectively than "brief, so brief", it makes the line into a lament, regretting that the visit was so short, providing a feeling of longing for another visit. Very interesting how profound an impact such a small change has had on the entire poem in translation.

Introducing "dawn" into line two has, for me, the same effect as my suggested "daybreak" and so emphasises the fleeting moment of togetherness which the "oh, so brief" in line 3 then reinforces. You rightly change line 4 to remove "dawn" to become "morning" (and hence avoid repetition of this word) and I think works better as a phrase "gone as the morning clouds" rather than "gone as the clouds at dawn". Using "morning clouds" provides for me a means to show the transient nature of the coming together of the two people in the poem, and establishes a very nice image in my mind of the poet knowing his love has gone, he looks longingly into the skies and sees the early morning clouds dissipating, just as his love made only the briefest of visits.

I think you are right not to try to force a more complicated rhyme at line 2 and 4 ("go" and "know" being quite natural), changing "go" to "gone" or some other word would mean an almost contrived rhyming word at line 4 would be needed, which would be much less satisfactory.

I read through the poem several times and found myself wondering about the repetition of "you come" (lines 2 and 3), I thought about both "you arrive" or "you appear" for line 3, though these add an extra syllable which may be challenging to resolve.

Andrew W.F. Wong 黃宏發 said...

Dear Ray,
I am glad you like my "oh, so brief" for line 3 and "morning clouds" (instead of "clouds at dawn") for line 4. As for line 2, I have decided to simply follow your first suggestion to use "daybreak" instead of my original "daylight". These revisions are now effected on my post.

I am most grateful to you for your well considered analyses, comments and suggestions which are immensely helpful. I thank you for endorsing my "go, know" rhyme which, though over-used (like my "trees, breeze" rhyme for Li Bai's "A Summer Day in the Mountains", is "natural" (your word) and "perhaps perfect for the occasion" (my words). As for your last point on my repetition of "come", I must say it is done on purpose as the original repeats 來 "come" in lines 2 and 3. My only regret is I have been unable to repeat the 去 "go" in line 2 as "go" but as "gone" in line 4.
Thank you, Ray.

Bruce Patterson said...

My version:

The bloom no longer a bloom
the mist no longer mist -
she came at midnight
& went at dawn
a spring dream of uncertain length
gone like morning cloud
without any trace.