Notes from Under Sky

Night Lights

A bilingual lament over light pollution

This is something a little different for me. Another of my interests is Chinese literature, and for some time now, I've had this idea about writing a Chinese poem in one of the regulated forms: five character cut verse. In this discipline, a poem consists of four lines of five characters apiece. The second and fourth lines must rhyme, just as in many English quatrains. In addition, Chinese characters have tones, and the characters in the poem must generally obey a number of rules regarding which characters carry which tones, sort of like the way sonnets must obey rules regarding accent.

Originally, I thought I would compare the lights of the celestial world with those of the Earthly world in a fairly neutral way, but as time went on, I found that the poem "wanted" to be about light pollution. At that point, what could I do but acquiesce? So here is "Night Lights," first in Chinese:

As written above, the poem is read in columns, right to left. The two-character title is at right and is spelled Ye Guang in pinyin, the standard that China uses to represent the sounds of Mandarin. For those unfamiliar with pinyin, the first character might be spelled more phonetically as Yih; it sounds like yip, but without the final p. Mandarin has four tones, and this first character is pronounced with the fourth of those; it sounds a bit like a gentle exclamation. The second character sounds to English speakers as though it were spelled Gwong, and it is pronounced with the first tone, in which the character sounds as though sung at a high pitch.

For those of you who are familiar with pinyin, the poem sounds like this:

Ye3 wai4 jin1 xing1 liang4
Ying2 he2 gua4 zhong1 yang1
Cheng2 qu1 dou1 bu2 jian4
Chu4 chu4 shi4 deng1 guang1

I haven't made the time to do a proper English translation, but here's a rough, though not quite literal, one:

Out in the countryside, Venus shines bright,
And the Milky Way hangs overhead.
In town, street lights censor their delicate glow,
Like writings thought better unread.

Copyright (c) 2006 Brian Tung