Today’s translation is basically a first draft. It’s not poetic, not within any kind of metrical constraints, and really not all that good. Ah well – there’s a long weekend coming up, and I’ll have more time to not suck then.
Du Fu: The Fine Lady
Unmatched in beauty, there is a fine lady *
Who lives secluded in an empty valley.
She says she comes from a good family,
Now faded and fallen like a dying plant. +
In the skirmishes at the passses,
Her brothers met untimely deaths.
What good did high rank do them then?
She couldn’t even beg their bodies back.
The way of the world is to hate what has had its day;
All things are as fickle as a candle-flame in the wind.
Her husband is not faithful to her —
His new woman is as beautiful as a jewel.
Even the vetch-tree knows time; #
Even mandarin-ducks do not desert their lovers.
Yet he only has eyes for his new woman’s smiles.
He has no ears for his old woman’s weeping.
In mountain springs, the water is clear.
When it leaves the mountains, the water is muddied.
When her maidservant returns from selling pearls,
She drags vines to mend their cottage’s thatched roof.
The lady picks flowers, but not to adorn her hair.
She picks cypress, enough to fill her grasp.
It’s cold, and her embroidered shirt is thin.
Dusk comes, and she leans against the bamboos.
* The word order is weird in the original as a reference to a poem by Han dynasty poet Li Yannian which begins with the words “北方有佳人” – “in the north, there is a fine lady.” Thanks to zhwj for pointing this out.
+ The difficulty in translating this sentence comes from the word 依, which can mean both “in accord with” and “to depend on.” (I couldn’t think of a way of preserving the ambiguity of the line in English.) Combined with the reference to the lady “picking flowers, but not to adorn her hair” later in the poem, the suggestion is that she’s forced to sell flowers to get by — but of course, as David Hawkes notes in his Little Primer of Du Fu, the poet is far too much of a gentleman to come out and say that. 零落 means “to wither and fall,” and can be used of leaves and of fortunes alike.
# “Vetch-tree” — 合昏. I’m going here from David Hawkes’ explication of the poem in his Little Primer, where he identifies the he-hun – “close-dusk” – with “albizzia julibrissia, a tree whose vetch-like leaves fold up at night time” (Hawkes, 1967: 84). The next line is literally “mandarin ducks do not sleep alone,” mandarin ducks being a symbol of faithful love.