These simple songs are numbers 158, 159 and 160 from the 詩經 Shijing, or “Book of Odes”; I have added the pinyin romanizations and some literal word-for-word translations. They happen to be the last three songs from the first section of the collection, known as 國風 (Guofeng) or “Airs of the States,” and are said to come from the feudal state of Bin, dating from some time between 1000 and 600 BCE. During much of this period the Zhou kings were maintaining a somewhat shaky control from their capital near present-day Xi’an (moved later to Luoyang) over a widely-spread collection of feudal states, each presided over by a hereditary lord. It is traditionally believed that a king sent scholars out to collect these songs in order to gauge the degree of his support among the common people. Another (discredited) belief was that Confucius himself had a hand in compiling them. What is beyond doubt is that the guofeng songs are from an oral tradition and reflect the lives of ordinary people in a way that few collections of poetry from this era anywhere else in the world can claim. Their nature as folk-songs is borne out by their typical structure, in which lines are repeated in subsequent stanzas, often with just a few end-rhyming word changed, characteristic of improvisation and repetition. Most frequently there are four characters per line, although irregular lines do occur, as in one of these examples.
The scholars who compiled the anthology originally recorded the verses on bamboo strips, only to have them later consigned to the flames by Shi Huang Di, the notorious First Emperor of Qin. Fortunately, by this time, because the collection was held to exemplify Confucian ethical principles, it had become required learning for all would-be officials; it could therefore be reconstructed from collective memory. In this process, there’s no knowing how much conscious or unconscious editing took place. By the time of the Han Dynasty, (206 BCE – 220 ADE) there were four versions of the anthology, each complete with commentaries and interpretations. Ironically, the only version to have survived is the unofficial one, known as the Mao text. Today’s versions of this text generally adopt Master Mao’s classification and numbering system.
What is so astonishing is that, in spite of all the acquired Confucian baggage and the editorial tidying, these poems still have a remarkably fresh and spontaneous impact. Here are people going about their everyday tasks, celebrating the joy of love or lamenting its loss; suffering the exploitation of a landlord, the injustices of corvée, the agonies of war service, lavishing praise or blame on their leaders. Once I came across these songs in translations by Legge, Waley and Pound, I found it hard to resist attempting my own very different versions, and have ended up translating all the Guofeng and a selection from the Xiaoya (Minor Odes) some two hundred from the total of three hundred and five in the anthology. For this purpose I gratefully used the original texts provided online by the University of Virginia Chinese text Initiative.
I believe that the huge contrast between these songs and the later “literary” poetry of the Classical periods mandates a very different approach to their translation. For example, I have never come across what I consider to be a successful rhyming translation of Tang or Song Dynasty poetry. Perhaps one or two exist somewhere, but I have yet to discover them. The examples I have seen apply painful distortion to the originals in order to force them into an alien literary straight-jacket. I have translated many lüshi (regulated verse) and ci (song lyrics) and never felt they would benefit from being rendered as conventional rhyming verse. But the Shijing songs are a different enchilada. Their structure advertises their nature as folk poems; some are even akin to nursery rhymes, relying heavily on rhyme and meter (and sometimes wordplay) for full effect. My response was to let the ones that gravitate towards rhyme in English do so, but only when I felt that the meaning and form of the originals was not too heavily compromised. For the others I employed a less formal structure, but always sought to pay attention to rhythm. This mixed approach I hope reflects in some way the wide regional and chronological diversity of the originals. I also felt that too much uniformity in a collection of this size could bore the reader.
As far as I know, attempts to reconstruct the spoken language of the time from the existing texts have yielded interesting insights but have not given us the ability to speak it. It was surely very different from modern Mandarin or Cantonese, but surprisingly, a large number of end rhymes are still present in Mandarin, as can be seen from the pinyin versions of these three songs. This could indicate that the language has changed less than we might expect, or more likely, that there has been comparatively recent revision of the texts. Whatever the true reason, the presence of the rhymes strongly influenced the way I translated the texts.
I saw no reason to use archaistic language in my versions. This, for me, would be like translating in parentheses, emphasizing the remoteness and otherness of the originals. I wanted the opposite, to highlight their immediacy. No doubt the lives of the people who first made these songs were unimaginably harder than our lives today, but the emotions expressed are completely familiar to us; for me they ask to be communicated using today’s idioms.
As one might expect, the terseness of the four-characters-per-line format and the various possible meanings that can be assigned to each character, taken together, give an unusually wide scope for the translator to interpret the meanings. Is this a blessing or a curse? Without the philological background to determine which meanings were current at the time of composition, the translator must try and make as intelligent a guess as possible from the context. A comparison of the various translations out there would illustrate the widely different versions possible, but I would prefer to leave this to a later essay and for now simply offer my own translations of the above three songs: