“Song of Liangzhou” by Ge Fei, translated by Dave Haysom
Surong Jing, 30/9/17
The reason why I choose this piece and would like to recommend it to other readers, in particular to my colleagues and students, is for its own sake as an English translation rather than for the Chinese original per se. I myself once translated this very story by Ge Fei when I signed up for the 2013 International Translation Contest of Excellent Chinese Contemporary Literature. Among many other options, this story was the only one I could entirely understand, at least in my view, in terms of language, plot structure and the author’s emotional tendency of seemingly despising but actually sympathizing with the protagonist Dr Lin’an. Of course I did not win any prize in the contest, but the process of translating that story has left me with a deep impression. I still remember how it took a long time for me to decide upon the best English title. Considering that the original Chinese title 凉州词 is actually a kind of melody popular in the Sui and Tang dynasties (581-907), I interpreted the story to be simply lyrics written to this kind of tune. So finally I translated it as “Lyrics to Liangzhou Tune”, which may not be acceptable to many readers but was a conscious choice on my part. From a colleague of mine, I learned about this programme. I logged in and was very happy to see another version of 凉州词 by a native and experienced translator. His translation will surely provide me a good opportunity to learn how to translate literary works in a more literary, but not literal, way.
Cynthia Anderson, 18/9/17
Ge Fei’s “Song of Liangzhou” is a story within a story about two scholars meeting after a long absence. Dr. Lin’an, a once celebrated academic, unexpectedly visits the narrator and recounts an anecdote concerning the famous Tang dynasty poet, Wang Zhihuan. At the same time the narrator recalls the puzzling circumstances of Dr. Lin’an’s divorce. Within these story lines conjecture and fact are continually juxtaposed leaving the reader disoriented and unsure as to what is going on and what it all means.
But time and place gird the reader. Time is ever present. We see not only how the passage of time impacts the characters, ‘Dr. Lin’an was no longer so talkative: his passion and his sense of humor had dried up,’ but also how human experience can collapse time when the system Brother Ye developed in the 8th century for allocating courtesans to the band of wild and unruly frontier poets in Liangzhou is compared to blind-dating in modern day Britain. Ge Fei uses place to remind us of where we are going from the ‘gorgeous women passing between the trees,’ to the ‘late-autumn air in the desert.’ As Dr. Lin’an says towards the end of the story, ‘wherever I went the desert followed. If our world had a predetermined course, as people say it does, then without doubt it takes the desert as its model.’
And what is the desert? The story is sprinkled with quotes and allusions to writers. Pushkin says ‘oblivion is the natural lot of man’ and Cao Xueqin muses that the world is ‘nothing more real than flowers in the mirror.’ There are no answers but I like the mix of Chinese writers with Pushkin, Kafka, Rilke harking back to the jumble of cultures and ideas that existed in Liangzhou during the Tang dynasty. Haysom’s translation admirably captures Ge Fei’s ironic tone and focus on time. “Song of Liangzhou” is a rich story that rewards with each new reading and I highly recommend it.
Todd Foley, 25/8/2017
Questioning the authority of official history and objective reality is a major characteristic of works produced by the generation of authors who began writing in the 1980s, and Ge Fei’s “Song of Liangzhou” certainly fits within this vein. The bulk of the story centers on a visit by the introspective and mysterious Dr. Lin’an to the narrator, during which the former provides his own embellished account of a legend involving the Tang poet Wang Zhihuan. His version of the tale is significantly spiced up from the official one (in which the identity of the courtesan who sings Wang’s poem is not revealed and he merely shares a laugh with his two poet friends), and it apparently holds some secret meaning for him, as he claims it has cured his insomnia. The story is largely plotless aside from this recounting, and it is peppered with a number of intriguingly enigmatic details causing one to wonder: why had the professor run off to Gansu province, and why was he reported to have died of cholera? What were his marital problems, and why had his wife written the narrator a letter in Russian?
As with all of Ge Fei’s works, “Song of Liangzhou” is technically sophisticated and intellectually demanding, and it raises some very interesting broader questions. How, for instance, can history be subjectively appropriated to revise both itself and the present subject? Although it’s quite short, this story offers a philosophical depth that I feel surpasses some of his other translated works, and I would definitely consider including it on a syllabus.
Translator David Haysom’s style is contemplative and a bit on the wordy side, which complements the tone of this story very nicely. For a piece meant to undermine the academic pursuit of facts — “the naïve desire to defend the truth is the surest road to banality,” according to Dr. Lin’an — Haysom’s cadence, characterized by his pleasantly casual insertion of dependent clauses, is skillfully executed and more effective, I think, than a more straightforward and economical “academic” rendering would be. Interestingly, “Song of Liangzhou” was also translated by Charles Laughlin (Chinese Literature Today 4.1(2014)); although I have not had the opportunity to look at the original Chinese, I noticed a few places where I suspect Laughlin’s word choice might be slightly more appropriate. Minor technical issues aside, though, I greatly enjoyed Haysom’s translation and found his style very readable and refreshing.