lyrics to the tune of “Fairy Grotto”
(translated by William P. Coleman)
She has ice flesh, jade bones:
pure of themselves, cool, with no perspiration.
When wind comes, her water palace fills with hidden fragrance
and the embroidered curtains flutter.
One bit of bright moon peeks at her —
at her who’s not yet sleeping,
leaning on her elbow, hairpin sideways and hair ruffled.
She arises, I take her white hand;
and we pass the courtyard doors without a sound.
At times a shooting star crosses the Milky Way.
Tentative, I ask, “How late has the night gotten?
Night is already at the third watch.
The moonlight pales;
The jade stars near the Dipper roll low.
I can count out hours until the west wind returns,
not to mention the years flowing by —
inside the darkness, stealing, exchanging .
I found the Chinese text and an English translation of this poem — along a with word-by-word literal translation I used to create this one — on pp. 124-8 of Greg Whincup’s book The Heart of Chinese Poetry, Anchor Books, 1987; ISBN 0-385-23967-X.
Whincup explains that “the word FAIRY refers to those who have refined themselves by diet, exercise, and meditation to the point that they are almost immortal. Such ‘immortals’ live hidden in the mountains, sometimes in caves, and can ride the clouds and command cranes and dragons to carry them.”
The grammar of Chinese allows poets to leave interpretive choices open, and it’s an unattainable ideal of translating to bring out possibilities without closing others. I try to use my sense of English to at least intrigue you. If I’ve succeeded, it’s best — even if you don’t know Chinese, which I don’t either — to follow up at the source I cite above and see the original word-by-word translation from which I worked. It’ll be richer than what I’ve given you. To understand the poem best, try to construct your own translation.