Notes Made When Translating: Aging of a Beauty

Kakashi: Hi all! Let me introduce guest blogger Joyce to you (one of the subbers of Nirvana in Fire and The Disguiser and one of the lovely commentors on the recaps of this show).

Foreword 前言

Usually when I like a song it’s because the lyrics are a beautiful poem in itself.

One of the main reasons I started watching NiF was because of its songs which literally pull me into the story. The series has 3 main theme songs and an additional song which was recorded as the theme of an online game based on the characters and story of NiF.

All 4 songs are beautifully written and composed with a distinct Chinese flair.

This series of posts intends to deep dive a little into the literary background of the lyrics in these songs. Hopefully this will allow you to enjoy them beyond the base translations provided which is oft not able to provide much information on the cultural backgrounds it’s referring to. 

Much of the information in these posts was gathered by me when attempting to translate the songs, interpretations and thoughts made, or just some further reading into the literary background of the references made in the lyrics.

This is very much an exercise in Chinese language learning and translation practice. So dear readers please do leave comments if you see anything in error or wish to share further information.

Lastly, I hope I can complete all the songs before the lovely ladies in Problematique finish with the series recaps.

The First song 第一首歌

I will be starting with “Aging of a Beauty” since it’s actually the first song out of the 4 that I heard and the first one that I attempted to translate. Also after listening to the 4 songs multiple times, this is perhaps the easiest and shortest one.

Several versions of the translation were made throughout the time the team at viki was translating NiF. The lyrical version posted to Drama Addicts wiki is an amalgamation of the different versions found at the time. All lyrical translations referenced below are from the Drama Addicts wiki.

Notes Made When Translating “Aging of a Beauty” 翻译《红颜旧》时的笔记

Title: 红颜旧 Aging of a Beauty
Lyrics: 袁亮 Yuan Liang
Composer: 赵佳霖 Zhao Jialin
Singer: 刘涛 Liu Tao

The Chinese title of the song is 红颜旧 Lit. Aging of a Beauty. 红颜 (hóng yán) literally means “red face”. The "red" is "color of rouge" that women would wear. This phrases' meaning was then extended to mean “a beautiful woman”. The choice of 旧 (jìu) I found interesting as the word usually means old or aged for things, but it does sound more poetic than other words such as 老 (lǎo).

= Update: 2016/1/17 =

I chatting with my friends and further browsing of NiF related things (which I do too much of XD) I came across another name for the song which I thought was very fitting. The title can also be "Faded Beauty". This fits very well with the theme on the song that of passing time and fading of the ephemeral parts of human existence.

= End Update =

The first line of song sets up a bleak and dreary scene in which our singer is existing:

Lit. West wind blows past in the night, cold mountain rains.
Lyrical: The west wind blows past, cold rain in the mountains.
Yes, that‘s snow, I know, but it fits the mood.
We are then brought in to the singers’ current thoughts and mood.

Lit. Home and country vaguely seen in broken dreams.
Lyrical: Home and country remembered vaguely in dreams.

Lit. Thinking of you but not seeing you makes me miss your more.
Lyrical: Thinking of you but not seeing you, brings forth more sorrows.

君 (jūn) is almost always used to refer to a man and depending on context when a woman is referring to 君 (jūn) she is talking about her love or husband. It is also used as a very polite form of 2nd person address and used to refer to the Emperor. More often than not you’ll see the term 君子 (jūn zǐ) which means a perfect gentleman comprising of being both talented and morally upright.

Next is a refrain that will be repeated in different format throughout the song where the singer laments having to bear this separation with her love.

别离难忍, 忍别离
Lit. Separation is hard to bear, but separation is endured.
Lyrical: Though arduous, separation is endured.

In the next section of the song we get a bit more of an idea of what caused their separation as the singer bemoans:

Lit. When will the wolf smoke and beacon flames rest?
Lyrical: When will the flames of war rest?

狼烟烽火(láng yān fēng huǒ) is a chengyu - Chinese 4 character idiom, sometimes written as 烽火狼烟 (fēng huǒ láng yān). 狼烟 (láng yān) literally "wolf smoke" and 烽火 (fēng huǒ) which is "beacon flames" are what you’ll see on beacon towers.

During daylight beacon towers would use smoke as signaling. The smoke is created by burning wolf dung hence the phrase "wolf smoke" – there are some scholars who argue that burning wolf dung is not true, instead the ancient armies would have burnt wool or wet wood. At night, a flame would be used instead. Since when beacon towers are lit it signifies that a place is under attack and requesting help the two phrases combined together became a term to refer to war.

What does all that fighting and shenanigans get you? The singer laments again that it all amounts to nothing in the end:

Lit. Successors be Kings, those who fail be bandits and all will flow to the east.
Lyrical: Successes and failures will wash away in the river of time.

成王败寇 (chéng wáng bài kòu) is another chengyu literally meaning: Successors be Kings, those who fail be bandits. The closets idiom I found in English for this is “winner takes all” although I feel this still does not encompass all the meanings conveyed in this idiom. The idiom also implies that the winner will dictate the outcome and how the process to reach the outcome will be presented. After all, it’s the winners who write the histories.

The usage of a river to figuratively describe washing away the efforts of men is an oft used metaphor in Chinese literature. The river that is used in the reference is (usually) the Yangtze River and the meanings in the metaphor is derived from the following:
  • That the rive flows continuously to the east and does not return – to describe how things past can never be recovered and what’s gone is gone
  • That it washes away everything in its’ path - it washes everything literally away

In this verse in the song it’s saying that all the troubles people go through will all wash away - like things that are in the river, and in time it’ll all become unimportant. It laments how in the end all of people struggles are for naught in the grand scheme of life and history.

In antiquity the Yangtze River was just called 江 (jiāng), the Yellow River was call 河 (hé) and all other rivers was referred to as __水 (shuǐ) literally "__water".

The singer literally spends the whole night with such despondent thoughts and bemoans how their separation is robbing her of a happy life. Comparing the length of existence for a person (the singer) and that of the lands and country, 人生苦短 (rén shēng kǔ duǎn) – people’s lives are short and full of hardship.

Lit. The candles are spent but tears will not dry.
Lyrical: The candles are spent, but tears will not dry.
Actual screenshot from the series, beautiful isn't it.
Lit. The rivers and mountains have not aged while the beauty has aged.
Lyrical: The kingdom is still young but she is not.

江山 (jiāng shān) literally rivers and mountains. It is used to refer to a country or the kingdom and in extension state power.

The refrain is used again to focus back on the theme of separation.

忍别离, 不忍却又别离
Lit. Enduring separation, hard to bear, but again we separate.
Lyrical: Separation is to be endured. Though hard to bear, separate we must.

Next the singer moves on from despondent thoughts and seeks a way to sooth her despair.

托鸿雁南去, 不知此心何寄
Lit. Entrusting the wild geese to head south, not knowing where this heart can be sent.
Lyrical: Entrusting the wild geese to head south, but where shall this heart go?

The wild geese is a migratory bird, every spring and autumn people would often see the wild geese flying across the sky in their signature skein. This behavior of the wild geese has been imbued with an abundance of nostalgic emotions in Chinese literature since antiquity. One of the earliest recorded poems using the wild geese can be found in《诗经》“Classic of Poetry”.
《雁南飞》- Wild Geese Flying to the South
From: Jeep极致摄影大赛
Is that a rising sun or a setting sun?
In literature the wild geese’s migration is often associated with the ideas of changing seasons, the passage of time, wandering souls, tragic bleak and desolate environments/situations, longing. There is also a story about Su Wu called “Wild Geese Delivering a Letter”《鸿雁传书》. From this story the wild geese was further imbued with the meaning of “letters”, specifically letters in which heartfelt longing and hopes are placed.

This line of the song easily brings to mind the tragic story of the two lovers in the series. Lin Shu and Nihuang are not only physically separated by geography but also by life and death and their respective responsibilities. Imagine that as Lin Shu is fighting with the last of his breath in the North, he sees a skein of wild geese flying overhead heading South, to where Nihuang is. They are free to take flight as they want but he cannot, tied down as humans are by things we cannot control. The only thing he can do wish for his longings to be carried by the wild geese as they head south in a wild hope that it would somehow sooth his heart.

In the last section of the song, the singer concludes that despite all the sadness and longing the singer knows that no matter what happens their love will remain like the heavens and stars which are eternal.

Lit. Aging of a beauty
Lyrical: She is no longer (as she was)

Lit. Despite the big dipper turning and the stars moving
Lyrical: While time flows as always.

Lit. Only this feeling persists.
Lyrical: These pure feelings will never waver.

斗转星移 (dǒu zhuǎn xīng yí), chengyu, literally saying “the big dipper (constellation) turning and the stars moving”. The idiom means the changing of times or passing of seasons, hence the passing of time.

Conclusion 结论

I personally like this song for the great use of idioms, imagery and symbolism. Using the comparison between that which is ephemeral – beauty, human’s life, and that which is eternal – the heaven, earth and lands and love to frame Lin Shu and Nihuangs’ tragic love was especially poignant.

As one of the few parts of the series to actual focus on romantic love, it really brought out one of the first climaxes in the series.

Appendix 附录

One of my earliest version of the translation is still view able in Ep 12 :D on viki and transcribed below.

Aging of a beauty

The west wind blows past, cold rain in the mountains.
Home and country remembered vaguely in dreams.
Thinking of you, yet to not see you, brings further sorrows.
Hard to bare separation, but we must.
When will the flames of war rest?
Everything washes away in the river of time.
The candles are spent, but tears will not dry.
The land is as always but she is not
忍别离, 不忍却又别离
Hard to bare separation but we must separate.
托鸿雁南去, 不知此心何寄
Entrusting the wild geese to head south, but where shall this heart go?
红颜旧, 任凭斗转星移
She is no longer while the firmament rotates as always.
Only this love is unchanged.
Unknowingly, it's dawn again.