Saturday, May 11, 2019

The word jedebule

In Resigning as Prime Minister I wondered if Jakdan inserted a specifically Manchu cultural reference into his translation by adding the word takan, “mustard greens.”

In his translation of The Lament of Jiéyú by Huángfǔ Rǎn he seems to have done it again with the word jedebule.

花枝出建章,  giyan jang gurung-ni ilhai gesengge tucike,
鳳管發昭陽。  jao yang deyen-i garudangga sihakū jedebule,
借問承恩者,  bai dacilaki doshon be aliha gegese,
雙蛾幾許長。  juru faitan antaka šuwar seme yangse.

The flowery ones of Jiànzhāng palace have come out,
The phoenix flutes of Zhāoyáng hall are [jedebule].
May I ask you, young ladies who receive favor,
How is it your eyebrows are so [šuwar seme] beautiful?
Jakdan uses the word jedebule to translate Chinese  [發], but what does it actually mean? It is not inflected, and its placement suggests either a noun or an adjective.

The Qianlong dictionary explains jedebule as follows: kukji haijan be uculere de deribure mudan, “a starting tune when singing kukji and haijan.” The word haijan is further explained: ucun-i mudan kukji de adali, “the tune of a song, like kukji,̦” and kukji is explained as maksire de uculere ucun-i mudan, “the tune of a song where one jumps when one sings.”

From this, it seems jedebule refers to a type of tune that starts a type of dancing song. Amyot adds a bit of detail here in his definition of haijan: “Contenance des chantres mantchoux, qui imitent en chantant les plis et replis des serpents. On dit aussi kouktchi” – “a capacity of Manchu singers, who imitate in song the bending and folding of snakes. One also says kukji.” It is possible that Amyot witnessed this type of singing first-hand, so we can credit him on this.

Amyot’s definition is interesting for two reasons. The first reason is that it works well with the later šuwar seme used to describe the eyebrows of the young ladies. This onomatopoetic phrase refers to the sound of swords being drawn from their sheaths or of snakes slithering, but obviously eyebrows don’t make a sound, so it apparently refers to the shape or movement of the eyebrows.

The other reason that Amyot’s definition is interesting is that it was apparently misunderstood at some point by later lexicographers, and this misunderstanding has gained a life of its own. At some point Amyot’s replis were taken to mean “replies,” creating a set of definitions (including the best dictionaries in the field) which take either kukji or haijan to mean a call-and-response type of song.

By using jedebule and šuwar seme, Jakdan has anachronistically inserted Manchu cultural performance into a Tang dynasty poem, with the effect of decorating the entire poem with a lively and sinuous movement that was not at all present in the original. I try to reflect this as follows in my translation:
The flowery ones of Jiànzhāng palace have come out,
The phoenix flutes of Zhāoyáng hall strike up a snake-dancing tune.
May I ask you, young ladies who receive favor,
How is it your eyebrows are so sinuously beautiful?

Friday, April 26, 2019

Jakdan the Decoder

Jakdan often translates literary and historical allusions into plain language, giving his readings an earthy, plainspun feel. Sometimes his translations reveal a new side to literary allusions, such as his handling of "the home of Jù Mèng" in the following poem by Qián Qǐ (錢起).


  Faršatai yabure niyalma be ucarahangge

燕趙悲歌士,  amargi bai usacukai uculere haha,
相逢劇孟家。  weilere antahai boode lakdari ucarabuha,
寸心言不盡,  mujilen-i gisun gisureme wajire undede,
前路日將斜。  julergi jugūn-i šun dabsire hamika.

On Meeting a Knight Errant

A man from the north singing sorrowfully,
I encountered by chance at a roadside canteen serving parlour.
The sun on the road before us had nearly set,
But he was still not yet finished saying all the words in his heart,

The subject of the poem is a knight errant (also known as 遊俠), a kind of wandering warrior known in stories for defending the weak and fighting the wicked. In the original poem, the author meets him in a certain "home of Jù Mèng" (劇孟家), an allusion to a famous knight errant of the Western Hàn, who lived around nine centuries before the poet was born. The two continue on together, walking into the sunset, as the 'knight errant' pours his heart out to the poet.

Some interpretations take the "home of Jù Mèng" to mean the city of Luòyáng, but Jakdan interprets it differently, using the phrase weilere antahai boo. This term does not appear in my dictionaries, so it needs some decipherment.

Norman has antahai boo meaning "a room for receiving guests," and in spoken Sibe we have antⱨey bo, with the same meaning. But what do we do with the modifying weilere? Literally this seems like it ought to mean "a room for receiving working guests," but what kind of place is that?

The similar Sibe term antⱨey kuren means a hotel, in which the "guest" is actually more of a customer than an acquaintance. It seems possible that a weilere antahai boo then could be a place that welcomes laborers as customers, presumably for a brief rest and refreshment. This could also be the type of place that a lonely traveler might stop to take a break before continuing on his long journey into the west.

Wednesday, April 17, 2019

Mustard Greens and Friendship

Jakdan's translations of Chinese poetry are very often close in literal meaning to the original Chinese, within the constraints he imposed on himself of matching the rhyme scheme and word-count of the Chinese poem.

In some cases, though, Jakdan departs from the original in interesting ways, and one of these is in his translation of Resigning as Prime Minister (罷相作) by Lǐ Shìzhī (李適之).

This poem runs as follows in Chinese:


There are a number of interpretations of the meaning of the original poem. It is certainly clear that Lǐ has resigned from his post as prime minister, and is drinking, and asks how many guests are (or will be) at the door. Looking over interpretations and discussions on the internet, some people believe Lǐ is depressed, and now that he is no longer important no one comes to his door. Others believe that retiring from his formal position frees him up to drink, and he hopes to have visitors to drink with.

Jakdan has a different take on it, which should not necessarily be considered more authoritative, but is interesting in its own right:

saisa anabufi saisiyang ci nakanggala,
bolgo nure hojo takan omicina,
fonjime tuwa dukai juleri antahasa,
tetele isinjirengge giyanakū udu niyalma.

Below is my translation from Jakdan. When I first posted this, I used the second person in the first couplet is based on the optative -cina, which Verbiest says is used when making a request to a superior. However, after encountering -cina in another poem where it clearly refers to the first person, I have come back to amend this translation.

Before I resign in defeat from the post of Prime Minister,
I hope to drink clear wine with satisfying mustard greens;
Ask and see, of guests before the gate,
How many have arrived so far?

Jakdan's version of the second line is quite different from Chinese, and is really the inspiration for this post. Where the Chinese might be understood as something like "for the time being, the happy sage takes a cup", Jakdan has dropped the happy sage, turned the cup into wine, and added hojo takan, which I translate as "satisfying wild mustard greens."

The greens are not entirely out of place, since pickled or salted vegetables were served with wine. But they are not present in the Chinese at all, and since Jakdan adheres to five words per line in these translations something had to be sacrificed if the wild greens were to be added. Apparently it was more important to fit the greens in than to keep some version of the "happy sage." What was his motivation for doing this?

The motivation may lie in a double entendre around the word takan. This word looks like it could be a nominal form of takambi, "to know someone" (the same way gūnin is a nominal form of gūnimbi). Is it possible that one might serve wild mustard greens with wine in order to evoke the idea of familiarity, in the same way that you might serve fish (魚) to evoke the idea of plenty (餘)?

If so, this would be a uniquely Manchu custom, because the homonym only works in Manchu, not in Chinese. Perhaps what Jakdan has done here is to inject something characteristic of Manchu literati culture to amuse and entertain his audience.

Friday, April 5, 2019

Why We Need to Read Chinese Poetry in Manchu

I've been trying to improve my understanding of Manchu poetry by reading Manchu translations of Chinese verse. One of the surprises that has come out of this is that English translators of Chinese poetry often miss important points that are captured in Manchu translations.

As an example, this morning I have been looking at a poem titled Light Rain in Early Spring (初春小雨) by Han Yu (韓愈). Here is the Chinese text, and Jakdan's translation:

天街小雨潤如酥,  alban giyai imenggi-i gesei aga busu busu,
草色遙看近卻無;  orhoi boco gorokici sabucibe cincilaci dule akū;
最是一年春好處,  emu aniyai niyengniyeri saikan ba jing ere,
絕勝煙柳滿皇都.  gubci hecen-i burgašara fodoho ci cingkai fulu.

Jakdan's translation is relatively easy to understand:

The rain, like [a sheen of] oil on Government Service street, falls lightly,
though one sees the color of grass from afar, if one looks closely it is not really there.

Where the Chinese has "Heaven Street" (天街), Jakdan has rendered this as the more prosaic "Government Service Street." Jakdan apparently takes this to be a street in the capital where court officials worked. This goes well with the second line about the color of grass, because in the imperial palace in Beijing green tiles appear on buildings used by court officials, as opposed to yellow tiles on buildings used by the imperial family.

Here we see a quarter of the city where government workers toil away, a place that is probably normally quite dull, but the rain falling on it makes it shine, and from a distance the green tiles look like grass.

This sets us up for the second half:

The most beautiful spring scene of the whole year is this very one,
far better than the willows that hang everywhere over the city.

The conclusion of the poem is that the soft spring rain has transformed an otherwise dreary place into the most beautiful scene to be found anywhere.

Having read Jakdan first, the Chinese is relatively easy to understand. But if I only had access to the Chinese, I doubt I would fare so well, and I'm not alone. Most of the translations and interpretations that I have found of this poem miss the important point that the spring rain has transformed a mundane scene to one of beauty, and focus instead on the concrete imagery of the grass and the willows.

Here are four English translations, all of which treat the grass as literal grass, and take the willows to be the main subject of the second couplet:

Lest we think that these failures are unique to English translators, there is also Baidu article on this poem with a modern Mandarin translation, here:

The Baidu translation takes 酥 to mean "yogurt" (酥酪), which comes across as a little strange. It also takes the grass to be literally present, though "sparse" (稀疏零星) on closer examination, despite the fact that in the original poem the grass is not there at all (無).

The Baidu translator also takes the willows to be the main subject of the last couplet, rendering the last line as 最美不过杨柳满城的长安, "The most beautiful, but for the willow-filled city of Chang'an."

I think it's fair to say we could learn a lot from reading the Manchu translations of Chinese poetry. These were, after all, made by people who were usually closer to the subject than we are.

Tuesday, December 11, 2018

G45.25: A Translation from Chinese

It is generally held that most Manchus (at least urban ones) could speak Chinese in the 19th century, and many could no longer speak Manchu at all.

If that is true, it is all the more interesting that some apparently enjoyed reading Chinese poetry in Manchu, when they could presumably have read it equally well or better in Chinese. Jakdan’s own translations of Chinese poetry are an example of this, as is the poem below from Grebenshchikov 45. I think this type of translation must have been appreciated as an art form of its own.

As I have been reading through G45 I have been struck by the fact that the poetry does not conform to the metrical and rhythmic conventions of Jakdan and the Staatsbibliothek poet(s), and that had caused me some angst. I have previously used syllabic meter and the unique Manchu rhyme scheme as a way to tell autochthonous poetry apart from translated poetry, but in G45 this distinction seemed to break down, since the poetry did not appear to be metrical, and yet I could not find Chinese originals.

In the case of the poem below, since it listed a tune (sumozhe 蘇莫遮), I was able to track down the original Ming poem and confirm that it is indeed a translation.

This is both heartening and disheartening. On the one hand, I don’t feel like I know enough about Manchu intellectual culture to understand how a translation “works” as an art form. On the other hand, it underscores the value of using syllabic meter and Manchu rhyme categories to identify autochthonous poetry.

Here are the G45 poem and the Ming original, side-by-side.

šanggiyan tugi-i alin,    白云山,
fulgiyan abdaha-i moo,    红叶树,
mukdehe gukuhe be akūmbume,    阅尽兴亡、
duwali tede ofi geli yamjire adali,    一似朝还暮。
tuhere šun amtangga orho
    wajihangge ai ton,

furgin hekceme, furgin cilciname    潮落潮生,
niyalma be amasi julesi fudembi,


žuwan gung-ni jugūn,
yang dzy-i tala,
honin duha-i gese
    uyun mudan-i bade,

sejen-i muheren be tookabume
    kemuni ejehengge singgiyan,


šunehe morin incara bade    记得寒芜嘶马处,
saikan ficako, menggun-i yatuhan,    翠管银筝
dobori dari uculeme
    taktu de gerembumbihe,


    su mo je mudan,    to the tune Sumozhe

Tuesday, December 4, 2018

Where did Grebenshchikov 45 come from?

Studying Manchu poetry requires a great deal of detective work. Certainly much of this poetry did not survive to modern times, and the scraps that have survived are somewhat enigmatic. Jakdan is the exception among Manchu poets in that we know his name and details of his life, but no authors are named for the Staatsbibliothek and Grebenshchikov poems, and it’s difficult to see how the different stylistic traditions relate to each other chronologically.

Grebenshchikov 45 (G45) is stylistically quite different from Jakdan and the Staatsbibliothek poetry. The rules of meter and rhyme that reign in most of the SBJ poems do not seem to apply to G45, nor do we see the Mongolian-style head rhyme that we see in many early Sibe poems. If we could establish the provenance of the manuscript, it might help fit this piece into the larger puzzle.

G45 was written in a European-style notebook, so dates to the early 20th century. It seems most likely that it was written by someone that Grebenshchikov visited on one of his research trips to Northeast China. Indeed, the handwriting looks similar to that which appears on some of pages of the Yasen sama-i bithe manuscript that he acquired near Aigun in 1909, particularly the pages toward the end of that manuscript. Given that the end pages of a manuscript are easily damaged by handling, it seems quite possible that the end pages of Yasen sama-i bithe are replacements, copied out from damaged originals by the owner.

If my handwriting comparison is valid, then perhaps G45 was written out for Grebenshchikov in Aigun in 1909. However, it was not necessarily composed in Aigun, because a note at the beginning suggests it is a copy of another text which was becoming damaged by Grebenshchikov’s handling of it:

wesihun-i beye ere bithe be tuwara hūlara oci, usihin eici derbehun gala-i afaha be neici bithe mafulabumbi.    When your honorable self looks at and reads this book, if you open the pages with moist or damp hands, the book is being [warped?]
geli sahaliyan icebumbi.    And it is also being stained with black.
uttu ofi donjibume arahabi.    So I had it written out through dictation.

It may be that this text was composed in Aigun, even by the person who gave it to Grebenshchikov, or it may be that it was collected from somewhere else. So far most of the pieces I have read are not strongly connected to a particular place or time, though I will soon share a poem describing scenes of Hénán province. Ultimately the content of the works in this manuscript may be the best clues to its origin.

Saturday, December 1, 2018

Jug of Mystery

This poem looks like a riddle. If you didn’t have the title and the explanatory note, it might be quite difficult to figure out that this is talking about a piggy bank. Over time you put money into it until it won’t fit more, then you break it open and relish the reward of having a heap of cash.

butu tamse,    Dark Jug
擈滿俗名悶葫芦罐兒    A vernacular name for a piggy bank is “covered gourd bottle”
Staatsbibliothek 11.42 (View Online)
jiha-i aha,    Money servant:
tebuci,    If you put some in,
jing fita,    and it’s on the point of being tight,
yondorakū ainara,    what do you do when it won’t fit more?
5hen tan jaluka,    With difficulty it was filled,
ne je hūwalaha,    in an instant broken open.
funcehengge geli ya,    What is still left over?
hafu tuwa,    Look through it,
fulu akū —    there is nothing better —
10 kesi dabala.    except for generosity.

Translation Whatnots

fulu akū — kesi dabala. It seems like this is saying “there is nothing left over — except kindness,” but since we have just cracked open the piggy bank that doesn’t quite make sense. Instead, I think the fulu must have the meaning of “excelling, surpassing, better, superior” (Norman), so the last two lines mean that there is nothing better than opening up the piggy bank — except for generosity itself.