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Xu Zhimo's Leaving Cambridge poem: rhyming translation

Since 2008 a carved stone placed behind the bridge in King's college has displayed the first and last lines of a famous Chinese poem by 徐志摩Xú Zhìmó. The poem has been attracting Chinese people to Cambridge since 1928. In 2018, after the college choir performed a setting of the Mandarin by Rutter, a garden-paving design was opened around the stone; this quoted a 2009 English translation by Liang et al.

Zhimo was briefly a literature researcher at King's (1921-22) after reading economics and politics in Beijing, New York and London. He admired then-recent English poets such as Thomas Hardy (visiting Hardy's Dorset home in 1925), and rewrote some of their poetry in Chinese, as well as his originals including a first poem about leaving Cambridge in 1922, but the famous second one was dated 6th November 1928 after revisiting Cambridge on a tour (it's not about an old girlfriend as was mistakenly reported). In 1931 he died in a plane crash on the Chinese airmail service, unaware that his poem would later enter the curricula of many of China's schools.

The original poem has rhyme and rhythm.

I'm told it's hard for some non-English to see the rhythm in my version, so here's a recording with rhythm emphasised. Or see the Chinese version of this page, where I've added IPA and stress marks as used in some of China's English classes.
Most translations into English do not rhyme. This is under­stand­able because it's difficult. But seeing as Zhimo originally used rhyme, and he appreciated the great English poets that rhymed, I wanted to try and make an English translation in rhyming heptameters (七步格qībùgé 韵律).yùnlǜ

Below is the original poem and my attempt (2006, revised 2010), and also some notes on how that was arrived at, stanza by stanza. (This page uses Simplified Chinese characters, but the poem was originally written in Full-form or "Traditional" Chinese. A version with the original characters is also available if you prefer. If you want just one stanza, please see the short version at the bottom of this page.)

Zài Bié 康桥Kāngqiáo Leaving the Revisited Cambridge

轻轻Qīngqīng de zǒu le  正如zhèngrú 轻轻qīngqīng de lái 

轻轻qīngqīng de 招手zhāoshǒu  作别zuòbié 西 tiān de 云彩yúncai 

Quietly now I leave the Cam,

As quietly as I came.

Gently wave farewell the clouded

Western sky aflame---

河畔hépàn de jīn liǔ  shì 夕阳xīyáng zhōng de 新娘xīnniáng 

波光bōguāng de yàn yǐng  zài de 心头xīntóu 荡漾dàngyàng 

There the golden willow stands

a bride of sunset's glow.

How its dancing ripples glint

and stir my heart below;

软泥Ruǎnní shàng de qīng xìng  油油yóuyóu de zài 水底shuǐdǐ 招摇zhāoyáo 

zài Kāng de róu   甘心gānxīn zuò tiáo 水草shuǐcǎo 

crowded rushes wave in water

bouncing with the weed

flowing slick by soft-soil'd banks---

I long to thus proceed!

yìn xià de tán  不是bú shì 清泉qīngquán  shì 天上tiānshang hóng

揉碎róusuì zài zǎo jiān  沉淀着chéndiànzhe 彩虹cǎihóng 似的shìde mèng 


Duckweed-crumpled rainbow's pool

of iridescent dream

pure as springs 'neath elmtree's bough---

O search the shrouded stream;

Chēng zhī cháng gāo  xiàng 青草qīngcǎo gèng qīng chù màn  

满载mǎnzài chuán xīng huī  zài xīng huī 斑斓bānlán 放歌fànggē 

Punt toward the yonder whence

the emerald fields lie;

Return with joyous song engulfed

by tranquil starlit sky.

Dàn 不能bùnéng 放歌fànggē  悄悄qiāoqiāo shì 别离biélí de 笙箫shēngxiāo 

夏虫xiàchóng 为我wèi wǒ 沉默chénmò  沉默chénmò shì 今晚jīnwǎn de 康桥Kāngqiáo 

But as for me, I cannot sing

this muted summer's evening;

Even insects hush, as silence

plays the flute for leaving.

悄悄Qiāoqiāo de zǒu le  正如zhèngrú 悄悄qiāoqiāo de lái 

挥一挥huī yi huī 衣袖yīxiù  带走dàizǒu piàn 云彩yúncai 

Stealth'ly now I part from Cam,

As bid farewell I must.

Waving sleeve so gently lest

a cloudspeck I should dust.

Some Chinese tourists who visit Cambridge ask which "bridge" the poet was referring to. Since the only reference to a "bridge" is in 康桥Kāngqiáo, I assume this question arises from not understanding that this is an old name of the city.

I was first introduced to this poem by reading Susan Gu's translation in the 1999 issue of the student magazine The Seres (number 23), which by that time was a publication of the Cambridge University Chinese Society founded by Hong Kong students in the late 1950s with the aim of promoting understanding of Chinese culture etc among non-Chinese members of the university. By the 1980s there were many more Hong Kong students and consequently the society became larger and shifted its focus toward being a social hub for its members, losing the emphasis of promoting to non-Chinese, but they did support the Seres Group which published The Seres from 1988 to 1999 (it is available in the University Library under code Cam.b.41.63.1- but is in the Rare Books Room and not borrowable). In around 1998 CUCS and a few other Chinese student societies (there were several by that time, variously catering for mainland Chinese, British-Chinese, Chinese lawyers, etc) decided they should rejuvenate efforts to reach non-Chinese and created the Cambridge University Chinese Education Committee (CUCEC), subsequently renamed Chinese Cultural Society (CUCCS), which offered free membership and free language lessons; their entry in the student union's societies directory told freshers "you came here to learn new things and Chinese is going to be one of them!" I did some behind-the-scenes work for them in the early years; I couldn't learn much myself until I found out about graduated-interval recall, but I did receive that last issue of The Seres from them. CCS later copied CUCS's growth into a social club less focused on promoting to non-Chinese.

In 2004/05 I saw photocopies of English letters Zhimo wrote to Ogden when I was assisting a Chinese visiting professor to read the handwriting (my damaged visual cortex means I'm more used to guessing unclear things, albeit slowly). In the letters Zhimo described the places he'd visited and the experiences he'd had, and he also mentioned shutting himself in solitary confinement for months at a time trying to get over a writer's block. Some of them carried an address in Sawston near Cambridge. The professor's book was published in Chinese with ISBN 9787100083737. 

Alternative version for short quotes

In the original poem the first and last stanzas shared the same rhyme pattern, so the stonemasons could abbreviate the entire poem by joining the first half of the first stanza directly to the last half of the last stanza (the small cliff on the stone might have been intended to show this splice) and the resulting edited stanza still rhymes. When I made my translation (above), I did not foresee that somebody might wish to abbreviate my English version in the same way: they would either have to break the rhyme, or (as one language school did in 2016) have just my first stanza---an edit that does not match the one on the stone (I wish I could perform a "find and replace" on all publications that incorrectly say the stone shows the first verse; the situation might improve now the college added an explanatory sign). I propose the following alternative version for use when a single stanza is required: it has the advantage of matching more closely with the edit made on the stone, while still carrying a rhyme in English:

轻轻Qīngqīng de zǒu le  正如zhèngrú 轻轻qīngqīng de lái 

挥一挥huī yi huī 衣袖yīxiù  带走dàizǒu piàn 云彩yúncai 

Quietly now I leave the Cam

As mute as I arrived;

Waving sleeve so slight, lest sky

Of cloudspeck be deprived.

All material © Silas S. Brown unless otherwise stated.