Translation of a Family Heirloom Poem, by Jeannette Tien-Wei Law
For Those Who Flee
Swift horse, flee horde, swords wax war
Winged ride, comb cliffs, Fate’s moon door
Strange walls, shred nest, home ways weep
Dawn mist, jade swells, ships reach shore
Dawn to dusk, chant rhymes of Wong
Dawn to dusk, charred flames glow long
Heirs to Hope, your luck—our song!
In its original Chinese version, this seven-line poem was transcribed from memory by my grandmother, Nora Wong, who had learned it by heart as a child. After many years of motherhood and even grandmotherhood, she handed it down to my father, sometime during the 1990s. The story goes that my family’s oral history had been preserved through the Wong clan of the Jiang Xi province, having been passed down orally through the generations, after our forebears fled the terrors of war during the Great Chaos of the Sung Dynasty (960-1276).
What an astounding revelation! I only learned of this poem and its mind-boggling significance decades later, when it resurfaced from my father’s files in October 2021, in the midst of the pandemic. With the help of a childhood friend, I began to translate the poem’s literal meanings from the original Chinese, using the principles of English poetry that I’d studied at Cambridge, including such fundamentals as iambic pentameter, alliteration and blank verse. My goal was to translate the literal meaning of the Chinese lines with a poetic elegance that would honor the arduous journey of the Wong-Law family heirloom poem through history and across the continents.
Swift stallions gallop row-on-row afar,
Seeking sacred spaces to forge true bonds--
From strange terrain, I pine for my birthplace,
In far country, your life begins anew.
Dawn to dusk, forget not our family’s fate,
Dawn to dusk, incense honors ancestors,
Youth, your devotion brings prosperity!
Yet this initial translation felt misplaced, far less than it could be. I was uneasy that the translation itself had erased the unique poetic sensibilities of the original Mandarin, converting them through the English language into a culturally displaced, Anglo-Saxon form.
Consequently, I began to research more culturally faithful forms of poetry, motivated by a deep desire to venerate both our family legacy and the poetry of the original Chinese verse. By Internet miracle, I stumbled across the “English jueju,” a hybrid poetic form that is directly inspired by Chinese poetry. Written in monosyllabic English, this innovative form mirrors the remarkable structure, phonics, prosody, rhyme, and other qualities of classical Chinese lyricism. Merging the English language with Sino-literary sensibilities, the English jueju exemplifies many poetic conventions that were characteristic of the Tang Dynasty (618-907), the golden age of Chinese art and culture.
As a literary form, the Mandarin word juéjù means “quatrain,” a stanza of four lines that is the building block of classical Chinese poetry. These four lines often end with the traditional rhyme scheme of AABA. Each line is composed of 5-7 words, or syllables, arranged in groups of 2+2+3. It’s fascinating that the Chinese juéjù is, in fact, the literary antecedent to the Japanese haiku, which is similarly composed of 5-7 syllables per line.
Having studied phonetics during my days as a classical singer, I was mesmerized by the intricate sound patterns that are utilized in classical Chinese poetry. Embodying yin-yang philosophy, Chinese verses generate phonic harmonies through a delicate dance of long and short sounds.
Thus, my translation of our family heirloom poem sustains similar harmonies in its opening English jueju. Classical Chinese poetry incorporates prescribed sound patterns like a puzzle. In every line, each word ends with either a percussive, unvoiced consonant sound (Ze); or alternatively, with a vowel or voiced consonant sound (Ping). The following pattern is simply one example:
I was deeply humbled and honored when my English jueju, that is, the opening quatrain of my family’s heirloom poem in translation, was recognized in a biannual poetry contest. With great elation, “For Those Who Flee” was judged to be an international winner of the 2022 Newman Prize for English Jueju. A virtual awards ceremony was hosted in August 2022 by Chinese literature scholar Prof. Jonathan Stalling, College of International Studies at the University of Oklahoma.
As a testament to my ancestors’ enterprising spirits, our Wong-Law family heirloom poem–in its seven humble lines of Chinese verse–nonetheless maintains an idiosyncratic identity, beyond its opening juéjù. Three quirky lines follow the initial quatrain, as if our ancestors, facing territorial invasions during the Great Chaos, were too frenzied to finish the second quatrain. To me, this juncture represented a fitting moment to integrate Anglo-Saxon sensibilities, so that the last three lines of my translation are realized in the iambic pentameter of classic English poetics.
Dawn to dusk, chant rhymes of Wong Dawn to dusk, charred flames glow long Heirs to Hope, blaze luck—our song!
The closing lines of this translation aspire to lyrical and intercultural symmetries; the loosely iambic lines mirror in reverse the conventional Chinese prosody, from the traditional 2+2+3 pattern to an inverted 3+2+2 scansion. May these and other balanced harmonies in this labor of love hail fresh revelations, returning full circle with invigorated vision for future generations.
With much hope for 2023, the Year of the Rabbit,
Jeannette Tien-Wei Law