Translation by Evan Mantyk

“The Ballad of Mulan” was written in the sixth century about a legendary warrior, Hua Mulan, who lived during China’s Northern and Southern dynasties period (420–589 AD).

 

Sigh after sigh she sadly sighs
__While weaving near the door—
No sound of spinning loom that flies
__Just Mulan feeling poor.

Go ask her whom she thinks about,
__What boy is in her heart.
She says, “There’s none I think about,
__There’s no boy in my heart.

“Last night I saw the army’s list
__Of those the Khan has picked.
On all twelve draft lists that exist
__My father’s name is ticked.

“My father has no grown-up son
__Who can to battle race.
Once buying horse and saddle are done,
__I’ll take my father’s place.”

She buys a fine steed in the East,
__A bridle in the South,
A saddle blanket in the West,
__A long whip in the North.

At dawn, to parents bids farewell,
__At dusk, to camp hello;
No sounds of their familiar yell,
__Just Yellow River flow.

At dawn, she leaves the Yellow River,
__At dusk, Black Mountains soar;
No sound of parents calling daughter,
__Just wild horsemen’s roar.

Ten thousand miles for war she goes,
__Through mountain passes flying.
The sentry’s gong on cold wind blows;
__Her iron armor’s shining.

A hundred battles—generals die;
__In ten years, heroes surface
To meet the Emperor on high
__Enthroned in splendid palace.

He holds twelve scrolls that list their deeds,
__Gives thousands of rewards.
The Khan asks Mulan what she needs.
__“No titles fit for lords,”

She says, “To borrow a swift steed
__And ride home I prefer.”
Her parents, hearing of this deed,
__Rush out to welcome her.

When older sister hears the news,
__She dresses, waits, and looks.
When younger brother hears the news,
__The swine and sheep he cooks.

She says, “The chamber door I open
__And sit upon my chair.
My wartime uniform is shaken;
__My old time dress I wear.”

She faces out the window, looking,
__Fixing cloudlike hair,
And turns then to the mirror, hooking
__Yellow flowers there.

Out of the gate she meets the men
__Who’d by her side once fought.
For twelve years Mulan was a man,
__Or so they all had thought!

The male hares’ feet go hop and skip
__And female hares look muddled,
But when they run at a good clip,
__How can’t one get befuddled?

 

Original Chinese 

木 蘭 詩

唧唧復唧唧,木蘭當戶織。不聞機杼聲,唯聞女嘆息。

問女何所思?問女何所憶?“女亦無所思,女亦無所憶。

昨夜見軍帖,可汗大點兵。軍書十二卷,卷卷有爺名。

阿爺無大兒,木蘭無長兄。願為市鞍馬,從此替爺征。”

東市買駿馬,西市買鞍韉,南市買轡頭,北市買長鞭。

朝辭爺娘去,暮宿黃河邊。不聞爺娘喚女聲,但聞黃河流水鳴濺濺。

旦辭黃河去,暮至黑山頭。不聞爺娘喚女聲,但聞燕山胡騎聲啾啾。

萬裡赴戎機,關山度若飛。朔氣傳金析,寒光照鐵衣。將軍百戰死,壯士十年歸。

歸來見天子,天子坐明堂。策勛十二轉,賞賜百千強。

可汗問所欲,“木蘭不用尚書郎,願借明駝千裡足,送兒還故鄉。”

爺娘聞女來,出郭相扶將﹔阿姊聞妹來,當戶理紅妝﹔

小弟聞姊來,磨刀霍霍向豬羊。開我東閣門,坐我西閣床﹔

脫我戰時袍,著我舊時裳﹔當窗理雲鬢,對鏡帖花黃。

出門看火伴,火伴皆驚惶。“同行十二年,不知木蘭是女郎。”

雄兔腳扑朔,雌兔眼迷離。雙兔傍地走,安能辯我是雄雌?

 

Related

A Dizi Gui Translation: Chinese Children’s Poetry
“Quiet Night Pondering” by Li Bai
“Ascending the Phoenix Terrace in Jinling” by Li Bai, “Yellow Crane Tower” by Cui Hao
Preface to the Poems Composed at the Orchid Pavilion
“The First Day of the New Year” by Wang Anshi


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26 Responses

  1. James A. Tweedie

    Evan, you are a man of many talents. I like the way you keep the narrative tight in this translation. The short meter makes this possible but also makes the rhyming translation more challenging. My only suggestion is at the end where the meter becomes awkward. Better, perhaps to say,
    “The male hares go hop and skip
    And female hares look muddled,
    But when they run at a good clip,
    How can’t one get befuddled?”

    By the way, the muddled/befuddled is clever.

    Reply
    • Edmund Jonah

      3rd line should be ‘at good a clip’ to prevent the stress on ‘a’
      The last line too needs a little more thought.
      As a matter of fact, the whole poem seems to be fighting for rhymes, while acknowledging how difficult it is to translate into rhyming verse. It’s a fine effort.

      Reply
    • Suzanne Hettinger

      I agree with this suggestion. It makes not only the rhyming scheme flow better, but helps clarify the ending.

      Reply
  2. Joseph Charles MacKenzie

    This masterful translation of one of China’s most famous ballads delivers all that is best and brightest about Evan Mantyk, a poet who celebrates his rich Chinese literary heritage to the edification of grateful readers everywhere.

    The unaffected purity of Mantyk’s narrative style here, utterly free of affectation and conceit, gives the ballad an irresistible tone of authenticity.

    Counterbalancing the power of the story itself, Mantyk skillfully renders the delicate refinements of Chinese poetry in drawing out, to perfection, the essential contrast between the heroine’s soldierly virtue and her flower-like femininity, keeping in mind that her very name signifies “magnolia,” one of the national symbolic flowers of China.

    It would be impossible for a Christian reader of this poem not to see in Mantyk’s Mulan something of a Jeanne d’Arc, or even a Margaret of Provence (whose military exploits on the Seventh Crusade are chronicled by Joinville), especially in a translation so beautifully echoing, in this reader’s mind, the honesty and directness of the old French “romaunts” and Trobiaritz ballads of the Lenga d’oc.

    All comparisons aside, Mantyk has given us a deeply personable portrait of a legend’s humility, one that I think bears the indelible mark of great poetry.

    Reply
    • Damian Robin

      H Mac,
      a spell of doggerel

      Your learning is astonishing,
      Beyond what I can take.
      With ignorance admonishing,
      I cry “for goodness sake !”

      Your gushing here’s astonishing,
      And true beyond mistake.
      Dry Salvages admonishing,
      It’s good ! “For Goodness Sake !”

      Reply
  3. David Paul Behrens

    A great work of translation, this poem was very enjoyable.

    It reminds me of Belle Star, a woman who lived in the old west and worked as a cowboy in cattle drives and roundups, went on to become a horse thief and outlaw, and was sometimes mistakenly thought to be a man.

    Reply
    • Suzanne M. Hettinger

      I am neither Chinese, nor do I speak Chinese. This is a beautiful work; I thank you for having shared your translation. I wish to find out more about Hua Mulan. I like that she is a strong role model for girls and women. No stunts or supernatural acts, but a dedicated, loving daughter and family-woman.

      Reply
  4. T.D.Z.

    “But when they’re racing at a clip,
    Of course, they get befuddled.”

    Just a suggestion. Thank you for the lovely translation. It brings great freshness to a story some of us know only through our daughters’ taste in movies.

    Reply
  5. Ran Cheng

    OMG, I can’t believe that this poem can ever be translated until I saw my friends sharing this page on FB…

    Just one suggestion: It could be better to append the original poem in traditional Chinese instead of simplified Chinese.

    Reply
    • Damian Robin

      Hi Ran, I presume you are of Chinese descent so this will be good praise for Evan’s poem.

      I agree about the characters in the original here. Traditional would be best if we are to uphold the great things of the ancients into the future.

      Are you from Taiwan ? If so, you will be familiar with the traditional script. However, Mainland Chinese may not be and it’s a stretch to learn the old text.

      This will be a dilemma for a long time. One way out is to always print both simplified and traditional. Clumsy but doable for short pieces like here.

      Do you have a traditional text version to post here ?

      Or a spoken Chinese version ?

      Reply
  6. GaryDu

    Great translation! good job!
    I have one question though,
    “And turns then to the mirror, hooking
    __Yellow flowers there.”
    why “hook the yellow flower”?

    Reply
  7. Damian Robin

    Hi Evan, nice narrative carrying us, horseback, all the way.
    And nice calendar timing too. The Mid-Autumn Festival or Moon festival or Harvest Moon festival fell on the 24th of September this year.

    I’m saying what you know as this is a public forum.
    The predominant story of this festival is of another famous though less human woman Chang E and her husband, Houyi. It’s a kind of Romeo and Juliet story but with older, more celestial protagonists and a happier, though compromised, ending.
    There was a great danced version of the story by Shen Yun. Houyi’s arrows were fired from stage-level into the backdrop, making the nine suns disappear.
    http://www.shenyunperformingarts.org/learn/article/read/item/fX4pKuyhEqw/the-goddess-of-the-moon-change-and-hou-yi.html

    Reply
  8. Evan Mantyk

    Thank you all for your comments and insightful feedback! The last stanza was problematic and I have updated it since. Hopefully it reads better now. The original Chinese ends with a question and I wanted to preserve that.
    I also updated the characters to traditional style. To Gary Du, some accommodations had to be made for the rhyme and meter. There are many literal translations of the poem, but they of course lack the excitement and music of the original language, so this one has sacrificed some meaning for the sake of poetry. I could not find a translation that has done that and realized that it was time. Finally, thank you to Mr. MacKenzie who has opened my eyes to another great heroine that I was unaware of. So much rich history that should be remembered!

    Reply
    • Damian Robin

      Evan, this is posted at a poignant time — also other recent posts were in good time. And here you say the poem’s time had come. You are matching SCP to the Spirit of The Times.

      Reply
      • Damian Robin

        Evan

        Simplicity ! Astonishing !
        Straightforwardness, not fake !
        With backwardness admonishing,
        High Five ! “For Goodness Sake !”

  9. SamShi

    Hi, Evan. I’m a Chinese who always complaining about our Chinese-English translation is being bad for years. A friend shared your translation to me today, and I think your translation is awesome. Only that I found a mistake typo of you here:
    At dawn, to parents bids farewell,
    __At dusk, to camp hello;
    No sounds of their familiar yell,
    __Just Yellow River flow.

    It obviously should be “to camp by the Yellow River” rather than “to camp hello”.

    Hope to see more of your work. I really love this, and I’m surprised that Chinese literature can be translated into English so well.

    Reply
  10. shirly Liao

    Excellent work! Thanks for the translation of the Chinese ancient poems. It is difficult.

    Reply
  11. Just an Interested Party

    Here’s another translation.

    Ballad of Mulan
    trans. by Thomas Yue

    On and on the spindle creaked
    By the door did Mulan weave
    Hear not sound of loom and pick
    but the sighs of gloom and grief
    “Pray tell, girl, what’s on your mind?
    Something roused your memories?”
    “Not at all”, Mulan replied,
    ” ‘Tis not my mem’ries ailing me.
    I saw the notice late last night.
    A great army the Khan’s raising.
    All twelve scrolls of battle rolls.
    Father’s name from none missing.
    My father has no grown-up son,
    Nor have I a big brother.
    I wish to buy a horse ‘n whip.
    In his stead I shall go serve.”
    At north of town she bought the whip
    In the south a finest steed
    Bit ‘n reins from west bazaar
    Rug ‘n saddle from the east

    Leaving home in mid-morning
    By night Yellow River reached
    Hear not call of home and kins
    But the raging river stream
    Back on road at break of dawn
    Camp she arrived at by nightfall
    Hear not call of home and kins
    But the horses ‘cross the Wall

    A thousand miles to war she rode
    Mountains her passed flying by
    Golden gongs in northern air
    Armors in cold moonlight shined
    Ten long years ere her return
    From where men fell and countless died
    Summoned to the grand palace
    By His Majesty on high
    Twelve orders of honors earned
    Hundred thousands in rewards
    “What desire you?”, spake the Khan,
    “Simply ask and it’ll be yours.”
    “I’ve no use of high office.
    But rather have a fastest horse
    — If your Majesty so please —
    to take a son home in due course.”

    Mom ‘n dad heard Mulan’s back
    At the draw-bridge they her expect
    Sister heard of her return
    In her best clothes she got dressed
    Little brother got the word
    A great feast he set to prepare

    Open’d the door to her room
    She sits in bed where she once slept
    Off she took her war-time cloak
    On she puts her old-time dress
    In the mirror she paints her face
    By the window she combs her hair
    Out she came to greet her mates
    Who were caught in great dismay
    Twelve years side-by-side they fought
    Mulan’s a girl not once they thought

    Grab a rabbit by its ears
    The females squint and the males would kick
    While they run loose side-by-side
    How could one tell which is it?

    Reply

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