Dragon Boat Festival is an occasion to commemorate the death of Qu Yuan, a poet and patriotic minister. Though Zhang Lei's Responsory to Duanwu Festival mentions not a single word about Qu Yuan, the deep and profound grief for Qu Yuan overflows between the lines. For this issue of Chinese Verse in English Rhyme, we feel greatly honored that Rhapsodia, Ms. Liu Qun, has accepted our invitation to translate and recite the poem.
竞渡深悲千载冤， 忠魂一去讵能还。 国亡身殒今何有， 只留离骚在世间。
Responsoryto Duanwu Festival Zhang Lei (Song Dynasty) Translated by Rhapsodia
Th’ wronged soul of yore the regatta laments, A loyal heart gone, and won’t return thence. What th’ conquered country and the lost life left, ‚ Is but Li Sao that of us not bereft.
Notes: (1) The Duanwu Festival, also known as the Dragon Boat Festival, is a traditional Chinese holiday occurring on the 5th day of the 5th month of lunar calendar, hence the name Double Fifth Festival. The best-known story holds that the festival commemorates the death of the poet and patriotic minister Qu Yuan (c. 340–278 BC) of the ancient state of Chu during the Warring States period of the Zhou Dynasty. A cabinet member of the Chu royal house, Qu served in high offices. However, when the king decided to ally with the increasingly powerful state of Qin, Qu was banished for opposing the alliance and even accused of treason. During his exile, Qu Yuan wrote a great deal of poetry. Twenty-eight years later, Qin captured Ying, the Chu capital. In despair, Qu Yuan committed suicide by drowning himself in the Miluo River.
It is said that the local people, who admired him, raced out in their boats to save him, or at least retrieve his body. This is said to have been the origin of dragon boat races. When his body could not be found, they dropped balls of sticky rice into the river so that the fish would eat them instead of Qu Yuan's body. This is said to be the origin of zongzi. (Mainly cited from Wikipedia) (2) “The conquered country” refers to the ancient state of Chu, for which Qu Yuan served as a cadet member of the royal house. “the lost life” refers to Qu Yuan who committed suicide in despair when his country was subdued by Qin. (3) Li Sao is Qu Yuan’s signature poem, a remarkable example of Chinese poetry.
It is a great challenge to translate Chinese classic poems of profound cultural background. English readers, if not familiar with Chinese history and culture, would find it difficult to understand the denotation of the text, and even harder to grasp the connotation. The traditional holiday of Duanwu holds its roots deep in history and customs around it are ample, though the Dragon Boat Race may not be an entirely foreign event in the western world nowadays. This poem of Zhang Lei mentions not a single word about the persona, Qu Yuan. Common knowledge in one culture may be an absolute obscurity for people of another. In poem translation, I believe in staying true to original content, since any adulteration would bring imprimitive stains to its native beauty. In the meantime, consideration must be given to the consistency of impressions created in different languages. Thus, adding explanatory contents to the target counterpart of a poem is totally against my rules. Besides, a story as complex as Qu Yuan’s, cannot possibly be told in the translation text of the poem, even with a laconic attempt. Nonetheless, the purpose of translation is to facilitate understanding. Adding notation is a good alternative to achieving this goal.
About the Translator Rhapsodia，原名刘群，中文笔名晚枫。英语专业研究生毕业，从事语言教学和翻译工作三十余年，曾执教于北京语言学院。1992年出国后，在英语国家从事语言相关工作至今。主要翻译作品有诗歌、歌词、近百部电影和电视片。出版英译新编历史剧《黄叶红楼》、《汉英笔译全译实践教程》（合著）。现居加拿大。
Rhapsodia, aka Wan Feng, is the English pen name of Liu Qun, a postgraduate of English major. She has been working with languages for more than 30 years. She used to teach in Beijing Language and Culture University (formerly Beijing Language Institute) and continued working in the areas of translation and language teaching since moving overseas in 1992. Her main translation works range from poetry, lyrics, to subtitles of nearly 100 movies and TV series. Her major publications include Chinese-to-English translation of Yellow Leaves and Red Mansion, a new historical play, and a co-authored translation textbook A Coursebook of Complete Chinese-English Translation. She currently lives in Canada.