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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. The number of syllables in each line is: 6+7, 6+7, 6+7, 6+7, 6+8, 7+8, 7+8, 6+8, 7+8, 6+8, 6+8, 7+8, 6+7, 6+7. The last characters on successive line-pairs rhyme: lái/ cǎi,  niáng/ yàng,  yáo/ cǎo,  hóng/ mèng (OK that one depends on your topolect/方言fāngyán), /  (also topolectical; Cantonese: go\), xiāo/ qiáo (an impressive rhyme against the name of the city), and again lái/ cǎi (although the last lines are not exact repeats of the first; more on this later).

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
Zài means "again" and the title has sometimes been translated "On Leaving Cambridge Again" or "Saying Goodbye to Cambridge Again", but Susan Gu (published in the Cambridge student magazine The Seres, Issue 23, 1999) simply wrote "On Leaving Cambridge" without "again", presumably because "again" seems like a more frivolous word that doesn't carry the "second and final poem years later" connotations that Zhimo might have wanted (see background above; Wieger says the character 再 implies "two", and Kai-yu Hsu put Second Farewell to Cambridge, which is also the wording on the notice added beside the stone in 2015). One Chinese student thought the 再 connotes a lingering or repeated farewell, instead of (or in addition to) the "revisited" idea, but I can't think of an English word suggesting this as well without making the title unwieldy.

康桥Kāngqiáo is normally written 剑桥Jiànqiáo "sword bridge" now, although Kāng does sound slightly more like the English "cam". Because of the 剑桥Jiànqiáo translation, some Chinese students think the word "cam" means sword! (There is a modern English word "cam" which is 凸轮 in Chinese, but the "Cam" in "Cambridge" came from the Celtic "Grontabricc" "Granta bridge" when the Normans changed Gronta to Cante and then Cam, eventually renaming the river to suit. One Chinese scholar remarked that the Chinese translation was done by somebody from Fujian who did not speak "Standard Mandarin", hence the difference.) The Cambridge University Chinese Society (which was formed by Hong Kong students in the late 1950s) has a logo that morphs the character 剑 (actually its "traditional" form 劍) into a variant that features the society's abbreviation CUCS in distorted letters; whoever drew that was an unwitting forerunner of website CAPTCHAs (invented in 2000).

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---

轻轻Qīngqīng means "lightly; gently" according to the ABC Dictionary edited by John DeFrancis; other dictionaries say "softly" etc. English translations of the poem usually say "quietly". When this idea returns at the end of the poem, a deeper word is used (more on this later). The line literally reads "lightly I left just-like I lightly came; I lightly wave, take-leave West sky's clouds" but that of course needs to be re-worked into English grammar. 西 tiān de 云彩yúncai is often translated "the clouds in the Western sky" but what did he mean by "Western sky"? (Note I am not writing 西 tiān as  the  one  word  西天Xītiān because I don't think it can possibly be a reference to the Buddhist Western Paradise or India.) "Western sky" could just mean "the sky in Western countries", but in the following lines he uses the word 夕阳xīyáng (setting  sun)  and  jīn liǔ (gold willow, clearly a reference to the golden light of the sunset illuminating the tree) so I think "Western sky" simply means looking West towards the sunset. This can be used to our advantage when making it rhyme, as there are many possible English sunset metaphors that could be added at this point and I don't think Zhimo would have minded much. I put "flame" to rhyme with "came", and later found Cyril Birch did the same thing in a non-heptametric rhyming translation in 1994. Incidentally "leave the Cam" is not in the original but Susan Gu put it in and I think she had the right idea to introduce the subject early in English (the original does not have River Cam Kāng until later).

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;

The Chinese "willow" can be read as either one or many ( "that" usually implies one, but it could be an abbreviated 那些nàxiē "those", or it could be "that" but referring to the 河畔hépàn riverbank); Susan Gu's translation used "willows" (there are many on the Cam) but King's college news said it is thought that the poem refers to the one willow in King's near where the stone was placed (a thought which, I'm told, vetoed proposals to fell that tree in the 2000s, although it couldn't be kept beyond 2018 so they took cuttings instead). Previously I had a plural translation on this page but I revised it when a Chinese told me that the "bride" metaphor sounds bad in the plural.

The "bride" metaphor could be taken as a bride of the setting sun or a bride in the setting sun's light, depending on how you understand the construction 中的zhōng de (which I'm still not sure I understand, although one clue is its use in Gen2's zhōng de poem).  We  also  have  波光bōguāng ("wave light" or "shimmer of water"), yàn yǐng (beautiful shadow/image, possibly also a wordplay on 电影diànyǐng "movie" which had only recently been invented at the time, but I don't know whether its Chinese translation had been coined before the poem), and a reference to it "rippling" in the poet's 心头xīntóu (mind or heart).

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!

软泥Ruǎnní is ooze or soft mud, qīng is green (when used of plants) and xìng is a kind of water plant like nymphoides peltatum (which was mis-spelled "peltalum" in the Unihan database and many Chinese-English dictionaries that derive from it). That plant looks like a kind of water lily and tends to grow in ponds or very slow-moving rivers with no shade; I wouldn't know where to look for them on the Cam. Perhaps the character had other meanings which current dictionaries don't bring out very well. Susan Gu translated it as "rushes" (灯心草) and I guess she knew what she was doing so I'll say "rushes" too. (One Chinese student said Zhimo might have misidentified the plant as he wasn't a botanist; another found the river's plants changed between 1928 and my arrival in 1997.) 油油Yóuyóu could mean "glossy; shiny; flowing smoothly and incessantly; luxuriant and dense" (ABC) and all of those meanings are relevant but unfortunately it's hard to bring them all out in brief English. Zài 水底shuǐdǐ 招摇zhāoyáo (act ostentatiously in the bottom of the water) suggests we're still looking at reflections. 甘心gānxīn zuò tiáo 水草shuǐcǎo means he wanted to be a piece of water weed; I had to reduce this from a metaphor to a simile ("thus proceed") for my rhyme because it's not good to rhyme with the exact same word, although I hope it really was the weed's action he wanted, not some other aspect (like its remaining on the Cam, cf Ps84 esp. v3 envying the birds that could stay there).

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;

不是Bú shì 清泉qīngquán means the pool is not a crystal-clear fountain or spring. English romantic poetry rarely uses this kind of negated metaphor, so it's hard to know how to translate it. Susan Gu said "more rainbow-like than pure spring water (*)" which is ambiguous depending on whether you infer "-like" or "is" at (*). I borrowed her idea of introducing ambiguity to make the comparison more positive ("pure as springs" could refer to the dream instead of the pool; that's why there's no intervening punctuation). A pair of residents from Hong Kong told me that their understanding was the pool is metaphorically made of rainbows instead of water, hence the degree of clarity of the water that it's "instead of" can be ignored, but I didn't want to throw it out altogether.

It seems he's talking about a pond (tán) rather than the previous line's River Cam (Kāng ), or at least he's talking about a still section of river that can metaphorically be called a pond. yìn xià means beneath the shade of an elm tree. I don't know where it is. Some translations suggest the pond doesn't hold water at all (a pool of mud, because 沉淀chéndiàn is "sediment"), but on the other hand means  "float"  and  hóng 揉碎róusuì zài zǎo jiān literally means rainbow crumbled in among floating algae, so if is taken in this context to be the progressive tense marker (zhe) then the "sediment" seems to have been used antimerically (verbified) as "sedimenting a rainbow". Susan Gu's translation in The Seres said the pool was "crumpled by duckweeed", and I couldn't resist using this idea even though "crumpled" might have been a misprint for "crumbled". Also Susan Gu translated 寻梦xúnmèng (seek+dream; "follow a dream" ABC) as "searching for a dream" which I sort-of kept but had to change for the rhyme (and anyway it's connected to the following part).

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.

It's hard to know what màn means. means against the current and some translations say "upstream" but where does the màn (overflow) come in to this (or should it be taken as part of the previous phrase)? I put "whence" (="from where") implying a metaphor tying the field layout to the river's course, but I'm not sure if that was the right thing to do. The only place you can punt to where there are fields is upstream (unless you have permission to use the lock and can go down to Stourbridge Common); the poem is not really about giving directions so I suppose the loss of explicit "upstream" is no great calamity. "Return" is not in the original, but that's what punters do if they find themselves still out after night has fallen.

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.

Here he introduces some very interesting Chinese words. First of all 悄悄qiāoqiāo, which can also be written qiǎoqiǎo in pinyin and can mean quietly/silently, secretly, or sad/grieved. He goes on to use this word in place of 轻轻qīngqīng when bringing the opening idea back to the end (below); it adds more depth to the meaning. 悄悄Qiāoqiāo shì 别离biélí de 笙箫shēngxiāo literally means "silence is leaving's flute" (by the way it's a vertical bamboo flute, not a transverse flute which would be 长笛chángdí, but I wasn't sure how to bring out that detail in the English); it could just mean "the leaving-flute is not playing" (compare 沉默chénmò shì 今晚jīnwǎn de 康桥Kāngqiáo which is literally "silent is this evening's Cambridge"), but it could be more metaphorical so I couldn't resist borrowing Susan Gu's idea of personifying silence as playing it. Zhao Yanchun's non-heptametric rhyming translation (2015?) has the poet himself playing "the parting flute" (and this is qualified with ``light[ly]'', which unfortunately distracts flute players like me into thinking about the technical difficulty of changing the volume while keeping a good tone on a vertical flute---if I can't use embouchure like I can on a transverse flute then I suppose I'd have to learn a raft of poorly-documented alternative fingerings). Also I didn't bring out the 为我wèi wǒ "for me" in "even insects hush for me" because I couldn't make it fit the heptametric rhythm so I left it implicit. 夏虫Xiàchóng is literally "summer insect" but I had to put the season into the previous line instead.

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.

Again we are deepening 轻轻qīngqīng to  悄悄qiāoqiāo and I tried to emphasize this by upgrading "quietly" to "stealthily" but other translations don't usually do this. "Bid farewell I must" is unfortunately added to make the last line rhyme but it's sort-of reflected in the poem's opening line with 作别zuòbié.  带走dàizǒu piàn 云彩yúncai means "not take-away a piece-of cloud" but I drew my version from Susan Gu's wonderfully metaphoric "I am fearful of dusting away a speck of cloud" (presumably with his sleeve). (I was tempted to copy Susan Gu's last line as-is, deliberately breaking the meter, but one Chinese advised me that such a break spoiled the mood.)

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 usually try to say it's a metaphor for the whole city which contains many bridges, and then direct them to the nearest example.

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 that is not 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). Therefore 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.