I continue my academic work in retirement: almost a third of the titles listed on my Books page were published since I became a prof emeritus, for instance. But my main current activity is a bit different from most of the things I was doing as a salaried academic. It relates to what may be the earliest work of literature in any still-living language, the Chinese Book of Odes (in Chinese, 詩經), which is a collection of several hundred poems written in the centuries immediately after 1000 BC — that is, approaching three thousand years ago. (Not having an encyclopaedic knowledge of world literature, I am not quite sure whether any other living language possesses an older literary monument — I don’t know of one.)
In 2006 I published a little book containing translations of a few dozen of the shorter poems in this work: delightfully human songs about various aspects of love, many or most by women poets. My publication was organized in a parallel format: on the left-hand pages were renderings into modern, unstuffy English, and on the right the Chinese originals spelled out as they sounded when they were written — full of rhyme and alliteration which vanishes when the poems are read in modern Chinese pronunciation, because three millennia of sound-changes have largely eliminated them. (This second aspect of the book has only been possible to produce in recent years, as our knowledge of the history of the language has deepened.) One Chinese reviewer of my book was kind enough to write (his bold-face):
After 3,000 years the Shijing is at last readable in English. This is the only readable translation I have found, certainly the only one that makes these ancient poems enjoyable to read.
To me there is a magic about hearing meaningful, human messages from such a distant past, a time when the city of Rome had scarcely or not yet been founded. And the magic is all the greater when we can not only understand what the poets were saying but hear the sound-music with which they said it. So now I am working on a complete translation of all 305 poems. If I am spared, this is not going to take much less than four or five years (some of the poems are much longer than any in my 2006 book), so it is the kind of work I could only undertake in retirement. Modern universities require quicker results out of their employees, alas.
To give you a flavour, here is Ode 155, one of the shortest of the “new” poems not included in my earlier book. I cannot easily fit left- and right-hand pages onto a computer screen, so I show one above the other. I have modified the format in a couple of ways since 2006: most importantly, I now include the original in Chinese script as well as spelled alphabetically. (Leaving out the Chinese script was a mistake in the earlier publication, making it less appealing than it could be to Chinese readers.) And even over the past decade our knowledge of Old Chinese pronunciation has advanced, so my spelling system is now a little different.
|1||Tu-whoo, tu-whoo! You have taken my chicks,|
|don’t destroy my nest!|
|I cared for them, I devoted myself to them: my brood, you should have pity for them.|
|2||While the weather was still fair I tugged those mulberry roots free,|
|twining them to make window and door;|
|now, you base folk, do any of you dare look down on me?|
|3||It was my claws that grasped the sow-thistles I pulled up;|
|the straw bedding I gathered has left me with a poorly beak.|
|Are you telling me that I have not earned the right to my own nest?|
|4||My feathers are worn, my tail is frayed.|
|My high perch is perilous, shaken by wind and rain.|
|All that is left for me is to make alarm calls.|
|Thi-waw, thi-waw! Kuts tsoc ngáyc tzuc.||鴟鴞鴟鴞、既取我子、|
|ma mhayc ngáyc lhit.||無毀我室。|
|Ún se, gun se; louk tzuc tu mrunt se.||恩斯勤斯、育子之閔斯。|
|Lúc thín tu muts um wac, trhet payc sáng dác,||迨天之未陰雨、撤彼桑土、|
|driw-miws louc gác.||綢繆牖戶。|
|Kum nac grác min, wúk kámp moc lac?||今汝下民、或敢侮予。|
|Lac nhout kit ka, lac shac rót lá;||予手拮据、予所捋荼、|
|lac shac rhouks tzá, lac khóc tzout dá.||予所蓄蒩、予口卒瘏、|
|Wat lac muts wuc lhit krá?||曰予未有室家。|
|Lac wac dzaw-dzaw, lac muyc syaw-syaw.||予羽譙譙、予尾消消、|
|Lac lhit gyaw-gyaw, pum wac shac phyaw yaw.||予室翹翹、風雨所飄搖、|
|Lac wi um hyáw-hyáw.||予維音嘵嘵。|
In the guise of an owl, a wife complains about her husband throwing her out while keeping their children.
Among the Chinese commentators there has historically been disagreement about whether the metaphorical bird was an owl or some other, unknown species. But the Old Chinese thi-waw seems so close to tu-whoo, the standard English rendering of the call of the female tawny owl (tu-whit is the male’s call), that the identification is hard to doubt. Why the bird metaphor, which might seem frivolous in the context of the woman’s tragic human situation? Could she have been reminding the man of a carefree, fluffy nickname from courting days?
Lá refers to a leaf used to make a health-giving tea drink, but not the tea-bush we know today. It was probably a plant related to the dandelion; sow-thistle is a likely guess.
last changed 25 Jun 2018