Friday, December 01, 2017

Withert vines, auld trees, derknin crows

I bought this book at the recent Small Publishers Fair: a selection of classical Chinese verse translated into Scots, with English versions provided as well to help non-Scots speakers.  It was hard to resist this purchase once I had read on the back of it W. N. Herbert's description of the way China's great writers appear in Brian Holton's Scots.  'His roistering Li Bai comes with more than a hint of Burns, while his Qiao Ji seems as rooted in landscape as Hogg is in Holton's beloved Borders.  The oldest named Chinese poet, Qu Yuan, comes across here as one of the aureate makars, Dunbar or Douglas, crossed with something of the shaman.  But it is with the subtle master Du Fu that a deep authentic note of melancholy emerges.'  Here is the first stanza of one of those Qiao Ji poems 'rooted in landscape'.  It is on the theme of scholarly retreat - 'Contented in Idleness', or, in Holton's Scots, 'Fine in Idleset':

Awa in the hills, ablow the wuids
there's a theikit shed wi rashie windaes,
bieldit, lown an bonnie;
green bamboo, emerant pines -
it's fair a pictur.

Reading this book made me wonder whether there is Chinese poetry translated into Welsh, Gaelic, Cornish...  Holton writes that he is currently the only Chinese-Scots translator and would welcome some company.  However, on the St. Andrews University website I came across a cross-cultural translation project that also involved making Scots versions of old Chinese poems.  The participants came up with a version of 'Autumn Thoughts', the most famous short poem by Ma Zhiyuan (c. 1250–1321), a contemporary of Qiao Ji who lived in what is now Beijing.  I have included their translation and a video clip below. 

An auld sauch, an corbies in the mirk
that haps the burn, the brig, the loan,
traivelled by a shilpit cuddie, gaun
efter the sun that fa's intae the dark
further and further fae hame.

Ma Zhiyuan is a true poet of autumn - his best known play, 'Autumn in the Han Palace', expresses the emperor's sorrow through autumnal imagery.  His poem 'Autumn Thoughts' is a condensed landscape in nine parts - withered vines, old trees, twilight crows, a small bridge, flowing water, people's homes, an ancient road, the west wind and a gaunt horse.  These are followed by an image of the sun sinking, and of a broken-hearted figure on a distant horizon.  Brian Holton includes some of Ma Zhiyuan's autumn poetry in Staunin Ma Lane.  His version of 'Autumn Thoughts' has each element on a line by itself: 'withert vines / auld trees / derknin crows...'  Then the 'gloamin sun / gaun westlins doun' and the man stands alone. 'Hairt sair, hairt sair / she's hauf the warld awa.'

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