Lost in Translation
Beware of translations. They often miss the meaning of the words. But the greater sorrow is that they do they convey the sense of rhyme and meter. So too with this poem by poet Du Mu, which is often translated as Dispelling Sorrow, but whose literal meaning is The Awakening.
What little we know here is that an older Du Mu (遣 怀) is recalling his heavenly days with the girls of Chu in Yangzhou. Ten years later he awakes to these thoughts with a bottle of wine and little else to show.
|Down on my luck, wine in hand…|
Oh, those slim girls of Chu,
So tiny they could dance in the my palm of my hand.
Ten years later and I waken from a dream of Yangzhou,
among the corteseans, I was capricious.
Yangzhou (扬 州), which lies on the north side of the Yangtze, was one of the wealthiest cities in China, famous for its merchants, poets, beautiful women, and scholars. During the An Lushan Rebellion, it was the scene of a massacre of foreign merchants.
These two characters are usually translated as “dispelling sorrow”. Literally, the letters translate as waking up. Other translations include, My lament and My confession. I suppose any of them work. The author is after all a Rip Van Winkle character, awaking from a dream with only a memory and a sorry reputation. So, with that in mind I give it the title, Life’s Illusion.
Courtesans in China
I refer to a Chinese house of prostitution as a “blue” house. 青 is the Chinese character and may mean blue or green, or bluish green. 青楼 is a greenish-blue house. I suspect, without certainty, that Du Mu is referencing “nature’s color” along with “youth” and “passion”.
“Prostitute” is not an accurate translation, “courtesan” is closer to the mark.
One should be mindful that a Tang prostitute was often held in high regard. This is not a brothel as we understand it. Living quarters contained spacious halls with exquisite furnishings, and grounds with artificial hills and ponds. Therefore, a young man might consider himself as being in paradise.
Why, there were even Tang poets who were courtesans.
it is easier to find the rarest treasure
than to love for our own pleasure
by day, we weep our secret tears
among the flowers, we hide our breaking hearts
and if we can have great poets for friends
should we also long for handsome lovers?
Yu Xuan Ji
Note. I will come back to this poem a month from now. The meaning will in all likelihood be entirely different. This is not a comment on the finality of poetry, but rather its ephemeral nature, and beauty.