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. That poem has been attracting Chinese people to Cambridge since 1928.
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 especially 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: 来/彩,娘/漾,摇/草,虹/梦 (OK that one depends on your topolect/方言), 溯/歌 (also topolectical; Cantonese: go\), 箫/桥 (an impressive rhyme against the name of the city), and again 来/彩 (although the last lines are not exact repeats of the first; more on this later).
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 (七步格韵律).
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.)
Leaving the Revisited Cambridge
再 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 is normally written 剑桥 "sword bridge" now, although 康 does sound slightly more like the English "cam". Because of the 剑桥 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).
Quietly now I leave the Cam,
As quietly as I came.
Gently wave farewell the clouded
Western sky aflame---
轻轻 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. 西天的云彩 is often translated "the clouds in the Western sky" but what did he mean by "Western sky"? (Note I am not writing 西天astheoneword西天 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(settingsun)and金柳 (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 康河 until later).
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 (那 "that" usually implies one, but it could be an abbreviated 那些 "those", or it could be "that" but referring to the 河畔 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). 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 (which I'm still not sure I understand, although one clue is its use in Gen2's 我骨中的骨poem).Wealsohave波光 ("wave light" or "shimmer of water"), 艳影 (beautiful shadow/image, possibly also a wordplay on 电影 "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 (mind or heart).
crowded rushes wave in water
bouncing with the weed
flowing slick by soft-soil'd banks---
I long to thus proceed!
软泥 is ooze or soft mud, 青 is green (when used of plants) and 荇 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 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. 在水底招摇 (act ostentatiously in the bottom of the water) suggests we're still looking at reflections. 我甘心做一条水草 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).
Duckweed-crumpled rainbow's pool
of iridescent dream
pure as springs 'neath elmtree's bough---
O search the shrouded stream;
不是清泉 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 (潭)
rather than the previous line's River Cam (康河), or at least he's talking about a still section of river that can metaphorically be called a pond.
榆荫下 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 is "sediment"), but on the other hand 浮means"float"and虹揉碎在浮藻间 literally means rainbow crumbled in among floating algae, so if 着 is taken in this context to be the progressive tense marker (着) 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 (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).
Punt toward the yonder whence
the emerald fields lie;
Return with joyous song engulfed
by tranquil starlit sky.
It's hard to know what 漫溯 means. 溯 means against the current and some translations say "upstream" but where does the 漫 (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.
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, 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 when bringing the opening idea back to the end (below); it adds more depth to the meaning. 悄悄是别离的笙箫 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, 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 沉默是今晚的康桥 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 "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 is literally "summer insect" but I had to put the season into the previous line instead.
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to悄悄 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.不带走一片云彩 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, 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
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) 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 got involved in some behind-the-scenes work for CUCEC, but I'm sorry to say I didn't learn much at the time because I hadn't yet found out about graduated-interval recall).
CUCEC greatly helped to distribute the last issue of The Seres and I would not have seen it if it weren't for them.
By 2000 CUCEC had changed its name to Chinese Cultural Society (CCS), and subsequently copied CUCS's earlier transformation of becoming larger and 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.
The above translation and its notes were printed in the English-Chinese bilingual final chapter of a book in 2015. The book followed it with 6 other English translations plus 9 in other languages. (We were not able to track down Susan Gu to ask permission to include her 1999 version.)
The book's title is 寻觅康桥的诗魂 "In the steps of a Poetic Soul by the Cam River". Zhimo was called a 诗魂 (poetic soul) in an elegy written for him by the poet 黄庐隐 (1899--1934) and her second husband 李惟建; the book's editor and contributors considered this word to be a description of a poet's "inner/mental world" (精神世界, ABC; compare 丢魂 distracted) and it was not meant to suggest life after death. (The English and Chinese words both have multiple meanings, so some translators avoid them to avert confusion, but we hope the context is clear in this case.)
The book was published by Shanghai Jiaotong University Press in 2015, in furtherance to a 2012 conference but with additions, ISBN 9787313128072. The chapter is pp. 172-256 and these notes are on pp.180-95.
Reference copies are in Cambridge public library's "Cambridgeshire Collection" (C.52) and the University Library (FM.2015.8.1126, order in East Asian Reading Room). There are also borrowable copies in the English faculty (D 332 XU) and St John's College (first floor, PL 2765.U2.C3).
My "stealth'ly" ending was used in a BBC Radio 3 "Between the Ears" episode about the poem in June 2012, in which some friends and I participated. The programme prompted a modern response to the poem which was read at our wedding in 2015.
The guidebook "Welcome to Cambridge" published by Fotogenix has this translation on its last page, and I think the French, German, Italian and Spanish translations of that book used it as a starting point.
It has also been copied by other websites. I think it's polite to say where the translation came from, so I'm not too keen on the Catherine Jones jewellery shop which didn't.
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: