Forbes and Fifth

A Night in Firenze


Love is never easy to translate. My sense of writing about love starts from reading the poems of Xu Zhimo, who is regarded as a crucial gure in reshaping the form of modern Chinese poetry.

At the beginning of the 20th century, Xu began his studies in the U.S. and then left for Cambridge University, intending to become Bertrand Russell’s student. He changed his pen name to “Zhimo” after arriving in England, and there he composed his most famous poem “On Leaving Cambridge Again”. According to the Chinese scholar Hu Shi, Xu Zhimo’s life could be fully described with three words: love, freedom and aesthetic. And Xu’s love poems, in his own words, are “like syrup that is too dense to dissolve” (Xu, 1928). I think “A Night in Firenze” reflects this feature strongly, and I really appreciate how he demonstrates it in the poem. Narrating from the perspective of a young woman whose lover will leave her before the next daybreak, Xu divides the monologue poem into a progressive structure of three parts: the speaker’s anxiety about tomorrow, her argument on dying together with her lover, and her compromise of this miserable separation. Through the gurative lines, we can sympathetically feel the speaker’s hesitation and ambiguous affection.

The translating process was a huge challenge for me. Literary translation is an extreme within the art of translation, and poetry is an extreme within literature. A translator must evoke the emotion of the original poem in the target language, trying at once to balance its charm and conciseness. Moreover, the cultural gap between two languages is considerable. Quite often, an idiom in Chinese cannot nd its English counterpart. And when this happens, the translator needs to create a brand-new expression to complete the translation. I put much effort into these issues just for the translation to make sense. For example, the expression “the iron tree in blossom” in this poem comes from the idiom “铁树开花” (pinyin: tiě shù kāi huā) of the original text, which rhetorically stands for something that cannot come true.

I learned in my poetry writing course that a signifcant poem should have its own profound effect on its readers, no matter the language in which it was written. So, I hope there are parts of the piece, being either intense or smooth, that can touch something vulnerable in your heart.

A Night in Firenze

You are really going? Tomorrow? Then what about me, what about me...
No need to mind me, I knew this day would come sooner or later;
remember me, if you are willing to,
otherwise please forget me living
in this world as early as possible, rather than thinking of me
     and suffering in vain;
let it be a dream, a fantasy;
let it be just like the fading rose we saw yesterday,
shivering cravenly in the wind, its petals falling to the ground,
one after another, being trampled on, and turning into mud...
Alas, being trampled on, and turning into mud—but mud is cleaner
than this living death, a true agony, where I am sneered at
as shabby and cumbrous—

God! Why did you come, why did you come...?
Yet I can never forget you: The day you came
was like the advent of glory from darkness;
you were my teacher, my love, my benefactor,
and from you I learned what life is and what love is.
You woke up my slumber and returned my innocence.
How would I know that sky is high and grass is green without you?
Touch my heart to see how fast it is beating now,
and touch my cheek, how badly it is scorching,
which is luckily covered by the black night, thank God;
my love, you are taking my breath away;
stop kissing me; I cannot stand living as a raging ame.
At present, my soul is like a forging iron on the firebrick
under the hammer of love, being tamped, tamped, the sparks
scattering around... I faint; hold me.

My love, please allow me in this quiet garden,
with my eyes closing, to die in your arms—how beautiful!
The sound of wind rustling in the white poplar overhead
will be my funeral dirge, and the refreshing breeze
from the olive grove, bringing the fragrance
of the pomegranate flowers,
then will take my soul away, with those fireflies,
the amorous complaisant fireflies, who will lighten the path.
I will stop my pace on that three-arches bridge
and listen to you there holding my cooling body,
yelling my name in despair, kissing me, shaking me, nibbling me...
I will yet smile and follow the breeze,
to wherever it leads me, to wherever in heaven or hell.
Anyway, I will have lost this weary life, and made death come true
in love—isn’t this death in love better
than ve hundred reincarnations? ... Selfsh I am,
but I don’t care anymore... Are you going to die with me?
What, dying for love is not complete unless we do it together?
It requires two pairs of wings to ascend as companions.
Should we get to heaven, we couldn’t help taking care of each other,
because I need you and you too need me;
should it be to hell, you would be more anxious about my going alone,
for you said that hell might be less hospitable
than this world (although I doubt it);
being like a delicate rose, I am not protected
from exposure to the rain storms,
and should I scream to you, you would hear nothing.
—Isn’t this seeking for release but dropping into a wallow instead,
which invites the cold-eyed ghosts and the cold-hearted humans
to laugh at my miserable fate, to laugh at your timid negligence?
What you say makes sense, so what shall I do?
It’s too hard to stay alive, but even death fails to free us,
and I don’t want you to sacirfice your future for me...

Alas! You say to stay alive and wait, wait for the day you come back!
Is that day real? — your presence is my confidence,
but you have to go at daybreak. Are you so hardhearted
to leave me alone? Still, I cannot keep you here, this is my fate,
but the ower, without sunshine or dew, will perish,
or at best its petal tips will wither, how poor!
You must not forget me; my love, I have no life
unless in your heart; well, I’ll take your word; I’ll wait,
and keep waiting for the iron tree in blossom;
my love, you are a bright star over me forever:
Should I die of misfortune, I would turn into a firefly,
staying in this garden, close to the grass roots, flying mopishly,
flying from twilight till midnight, flying from midnight till dawn,
and I would wish it cloudless, so that the sky could be visible to me,
where the eternal star is you,
shining on me, through the night,
through the sky, my heart vibrating as long as yours twinkles...

Written in the mountains of Firenze, June 11, 1925.

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Volume 11, Fall 2017