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Classical Chinese

Six Records of a Floating Life, 3: Kanke Jichou (Section 2)

A bamboo mesh with the characters '浮生六記 / 坎坷記愁' superimposed on itThis is a sentence-by-sentence translation and break-down from the chapter 坎坷記愁 in Shen Fu’s 浮生六記 (Six Records of a Floating Life).

(See the index of 浮生六記 translations)

浮生六記第六卷:坎坷記愁 → Section 2

余雖居長而行三,故上下呼芸為「三娘」。 Although I was the eldest son in the family, I was the third child in the sequence, so everyone from superiors to inferiors called Yun “third lady.”

Here 雖 and 而 work together in a “although… / yet…” structure. Either word could be used to translate it. 上下 refers to the entire household, including servants.

後忽呼為「三太太」,始而戲呼,繼成習慣,甚至尊卑長幼,皆以「 三太太」呼之,此家庭之變機歟? After a while, they suddenly started calling her “third wife”; at first it was a joke, but it went on to become a habit, to the extent that seniors and juniors, old and young all used “third wife” as her name. Was this the pivotal moment for disagreement in the family?

Two more contrastive phrases appears here. The first is 尊卑, which is literally “the honourable and the low”. The second is “長幼” - old and young. 機 here refers to a pivot; this meaning is the origin of its use to refer to machines.

乾隆乙巳,隨侍吾父於海寧官舍。 In 1777, I followed my father to the government offices at Haining to work for him.

This sentence begins with a date based on the reign of Qianlong (乾隆). 乙巳 refers to the 42nd year of the reign. 侍 is literally “attend on” but has been translated here as “work for”. Shen Fu’s father was probably not an official himself, but worked in the retinue of one. It was normal for government officials to have official accommodation in the area they were posted to, in an attempt to keep them from mixing with locals too much and becoming corrupt.

芸於吾家書中附寄小函,吾父曰: 「媳婦既能筆墨,汝母家信付彼司之。」 Yun would enclose little notes in letters from home, and my father said “Since your wife is capable with brush and ink, she can write your mothers letters from home for her.”

Shen Fu’s father refers to Yun as 媳婦, “daughter in law”, which has been translated here as “your wife”.

後家庭偶有閑言,吾母疑其述事不當,乃不令代筆。 Later, it happened that there was some gossip at home, and my mother suspected that she had written something improper; after that she would not have her letters written for her.

To clear up any ambiguity here: Shen Fu’s mother does not permit Yun to continue writing letters for her. 代筆 is literally “substitute writer” or “scribe”.

吾父見信非芸手筆,詢余曰:「汝婦病耶? 」 My father saw that the letters were not in Yun’s handwriting, and asked me “Is your wife ill?”

手筆 converts very precisely into English as “hand writing”. 耶 functions like a question mark at the end of a sentence.

余即作札問之,亦不答。 I immediately wrote a letter to ask her, but she did not reply.

久之,吾父怒曰:「想汝婦不屑代筆耳! 」 After a while, my father got angry and said “It seems your wife will not stoop to being a substitute writer!”

屑 means “worthwhile” as well as “condescend”. Here it means something like “she will not lower herself to the level of a scribe.” 耳 means “and that is all” or “it’s as simple as that.

迨余歸,探知委曲,欲為婉剖,芸急止之曰:「寧受責於翁,勿失歡於姑也。」 It was not until I returned that I ascertained the truth of the misunderstanding; I wanted to put things right appropriately, but Yun hurriedly stopped me, saying “I would rather suffer blame from your father than lose the fondness of your mother.”

This sentence contains an interesting binome, 婉剖. Literally the characters are “graceful slice” or “tactful cut.” It refers to dealing with an awkward situation in an elegant and appropriate way. 失歡 means “lose favour” or “lose the fondness of”.

竟不自白。 In the end her position was not made clear.

The translation here may be too literal. 自白 can also mean “confess” or “make one’s intentions known.”

Series: Six Records of a Floating Life

  1. Six Records of a Floating Life, 3: Kanke Jichou (Section 1)
  2. Six Records of a Floating Life, 3: Kanke Jichou (Section 2) (this article)
  3. Six Records of a Floating Life, 3: Kanke Jichou (Section 3)
  4. Six Records of a Floating Life, 3: Kanke Jichou (Section 4)
  5. Six Records of a Floating Life, 3: Kanke Jichou (Section 5)
  6. Six Records of a Floating Life, 3: Kanke Jichou (Section 6)
  7. Six Records of a Floating Life, 3: Kanke Jichou (Section 7)
  8. Six Records of a Floating Life, 3: Kanke Jichou (Section 8)
  9. Six Records of a Floating Life, 3: Kanke Jichou (Section 9)
  10. Six Records of a Floating Life, 3: Kanke Jichou (Section 10)
  11. Six Records of a Floating Life, 3: Kanke Jichou (Section 11)
  12. Six Records of a Floating Life, 3: Kanke Jichou (Section 12)
  13. Six Records of a Floating Life, 3: Kanke Jichou (Section 13)
  14. Six Records of a Floating Life, 3: Kanke Jichou (Section 14)

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