PAINTED ZITHER (Author: Li Shangying)

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作者:李商隐 (Author: Li Shangying, 9th century)

锦瑟无端五十弦,Painted zither without reason 50 strings
一弦一柱思华年。one string one bridge feel flowering year
庄生晓梦迷蝴蝶,Master Zhuang dawn dream confuse butterfly
望帝春心托杜鹃。Emperor Wang spring heart entrust cuckoo
沧海月明珠有泪,Blue sea moon bright pearl has tears
蓝田日暖玉生烟。Indigo field sun warm jade emit smoke
此情可待成追忆,this feeling can wait become recall
只是当时已惘然。only is this time already lost

Translation:

There’s no reason for me to have this mournful zither,
with all its fifty strings.
And yet, each string, each post reminds me of my youth.

Still dreaming in the morning, the Taoist thought he might be a butterfly.
The ruined king gave his springtime heart away to a cuckoo bird.

The moon shone on the dark blue sea, and mermaids’ tears turned into pearls.
The sun warmed the blue-field mountain, and the jade gave rise to its misty spirit.

One day all these feelings could turn into memories,
But already I’m confused, lost in the passage of time.

Translation Notes

This is another poem that can yield many different translations. We chose to emphasize its personal nature by using the first person, particularly in the first two lines which many scholars believe refer to the death of the poet’s wife. By not explaining the stories behind many of the allusions, we also kept the focus on the poem’s mood. We did, however, substitute the general term “Taoist” for the specifically named Taoist “Master Zhuang Zhou” because we believed that this small change would be enough to remind most American readers of the story of the monk who woke from a dream about being a butterfly. We also substituted “Ruined king” for Emperor Wang, again because we assumed that most American readers would not know who Wang was but would get the idea being conveyed with the words “Ruined king.”

Choosing the word “ruined” meant that we chose what we thought was the legend that Li Shang-yin most likely wanted to associate with Wang. Wang was replaced by his prime minister, and some people believe the story that the throne was awarded to the prime minister in gratitude for his good works. The more probable and more widely believed version is that the king was overthrown and the usurper invented the face-saving story to cover his treason. Legend has it that the king did transform himself into a cuckoo bird at death and that he can still be heard calling. Since the cuckoo bird’s cries are associated with blood in a very negative metaphor, the reference to the cuckoo bird makes our negative interpretation of the reference to Wang more likely.

The title of this poem is also translated as “Brocade Zither.” It is a very famous and highly regarded work; and we encourage readers to compare this translation with others.

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