A BEAUTIFUL WOMAN (Author: Du Fu)

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佳人 A Beautiful Woman

杜甫 (Author: Du Fu, 8th century)

绝代有佳人,absolutely/by all means generation have beautiful person
幽居在空谷。tranquil reside at empty valley
自云良家子,herself say good family daughter
零落依草木。remnant fall lean on grass trees
关中昔丧乱,strategic pass middle past mourning chaos
兄弟遭杀戮。elder brother younger brother suffer kill slay
官高何足论,official rank high how sufficient talk
不得收骨肉。no be able to collect bone fleshes
世情恶衰歇,world feeling evil decline come to an end
万事随转烛。ten thousand things follow rotate candles
夫婿轻薄儿,husband look down upon thin person
新人美如玉。new person beautiful similar to jade
合昏尚知时,close dusk still know time
鸳鸯不独宿。mandarin duck no alone sleep
但见新人笑,only see new person smile
那闻旧人哭。how (question word) hear old person cry
在山泉水清,exist mountain spring water clean
出山泉水浊。go out mountain spring water turbid/muddy
侍婢卖珠回,serve female slave sell jewel return
牵萝补茅屋。lead along rattan repair thatched cottage
摘花不插发,pick flower no insert hair
采柏动盈掬。pick cypress leaf move (here means usually) full bunch
天寒翠袖薄,sky cold green sleeve thin/flimsy
日暮倚修竹. sun sunset lean on tall bamboo

Translation:

The most beautiful woman of our time,
Lives alone in a deserted valley.
She told me about her noble birth.
Driven into the wilderness, she had no support but the grass and trees.

When Chang An was invaded,
Both her older and younger brothers were slaughtered.
Their high rank could not protect them.
No one could retrieve their flesh and their bones.

And her whole world fell into ruins.
All of life is as unsubstantial as a flickering candle flame.
Her husband began to despise his fallen wife,
And found a new woman as beautiful as jade.

Even the flowers know to close their petals at dusk,
And the mandarin ducks will not sleep alone.
But her husband can only see his new love smiling.
How can he hear his old wife cry?

Spring water is clean when it’s in the mountain,
It gets muddy when it runs downhill.
When the maid returned from selling her lady’s jewels,
She found the lady using straw to repair the cottage.

The flowers she gathers are not for her hair.
Her arms are filled with cypress leaves.
The sky is cold, and her fine blue gown is flimsy.
The sun sets, and she leans on the tall bamboo.

Translation notes:

This poem is a portrait of a beautiful upper class woman whose birth family was destroyed during the An Lushan rebellion. After the downfall of her family, she was also despised and discarded by her husband, and was driven out to live in the mountain/wilderness. During the Tang Dynasty, it was usually not easy for an upper class man to divorce a wife who belonged to the same social rank. Therefore, what was described in Du Fu’s poem was a reflection of a complete destruction of social order during the An Lushan rebellion.

The poem is not easy to translate, and we had to take a couple liberties. The fourth line, if translated literally, will be something along the line of “lost and fallen, she could only lean on the grass and trees”. Some other translations have translated this line more literally. We felt that the literal translation could be pretty confusing to American readers, and therefore chose to translate it as “she has no support but the grass and trees”. The geographical location in the fifth line, if translated literally, will be “the middle of the strategic pass”. Here, since Du Fu is referring to the capital region, we chose to translate it directly as “Chang An”.


Translated by Jean Yuan

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