SPRING VIEW (Author: Du Fu)

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作者:杜甫 (Author: Du Fu, 8th Century)

国破山河在 nation ruined mountain river exist
城春草木深 city springtime grass tree deep
感时花溅泪 feel time flower splash tear
恨别鸟惊心 hate goodbye bird startle heart
烽火连三月 beacon fire last three months
家书抵万金 home letter worth 10000 gold
白头搔更短 white hair scratch more short
浑欲不胜簪 hardly can hold hairpin

Translation

Spring View

Our nation is defeated; the mountains and rivers remain.
In spring, the city lies deep in grass and trees.
Feeling the times, I cry at the sight of flowers.
Grieving over separation, my heart is startled by birds.

The signal fires have burned for three months now,
And a letter from home is worth a thousand pieces of gold.
I scratch my thinning white hair.
It can barely hold a hairpin anymore.

Translation Notes

This is one of the most famous of the Tang dynasty poems, and perhaps the most widely translated. Our translation differs from many others in two significant ways. In the first line, we say that the nation is “defeated” while most of the translations we’ve seen have described China as “ruined” or “broken.” We prefer “defeated” because the words guo po in the original are generally used to refer to military defeat, and we try to be as true to the original as possible. We also just like the word better. “Ruined” has been described as more poetic, but we believe that the specificity of a military defeat rather than the amorphous “ruined” is the stronger image and more in keeping with the Tang poets’ use of clear, concrete terms.

We have also seen a number of translations that have the flowers crying and the birds being startled. We think these translations may have come about through a misunderstanding of the grammatical structure of the poems. Poets frequently wrote in the first person, omitting the word “I” which the readers were expected to understand. Because most lines follow a subject/verb format, “feel time” is best understood as “I, feeling the time,” followed by what I do (cry at the sight of flowers). Similarly, “hate goodbye” is best understood as the subject “I, hating goodbye,” also followed by what I do (feel startled by birds). The result of the more grammatically correct translation is a poem that describes a man so undone by grief that even the sight of flowers and birds causes him pain. The alternate translations yields the awkward images of weeping flowers and birds who don’t like saying goodbye.

And here is a little bit of a historical background of this poem: This poem was written by Du Fu in the late spring of 757 AD during the An Lushan Rebellion. An Lushan was a regional military commander in the northern part of the then Tang Dynasty, and he rebelled against the Tang Dynasty at the end of 755. In July of 756, An’s rebel forces captured Chang’an, the capital of the Tang Dynasty. The city was looted and burned by the rebel forces. Du Fu arranged for his wife to stay at the Lu Province, a place north of Chang’an, while Du Fu himself continued his journey north to Ling Wu to join the new emperor Su Zong. However, he was caught by the rebel forces during his journey north, and was taken back to Chang’an as a prisoner. It is said that Du Fu wrote this poem when staying in Chang’an as a prisoner of the rebel forces.

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