Poems of Mi Fu
Wave Beats the Shore
(Happy Birthday, Old Man)
Note: � indicates characters illegible in the original.
"Happy Birthday" is what I am here to explain.
Morally, it is a day of revitalization.
If you live for a century, it should be one long youth,
With five treasures, three blessings, and an eternal salary.
Live long, O Immortal.
An old man, lingering at home, making future calculations --
How could this be abundant virtue?
Year after year, at his birthday party, he smiles happily.
Year after year, he builds his gravestone before he is dead.
May your days exceed Peng Zu's.
First, let's talk about those □ things. One often comes across "missing" characters in digital Chinese documents. And almost always there are without comment as to why they are missing. Is it a utf-8 character missing from one's device's font set? Is it a utf-16 character foolishly included in a utf-8 world? Is it a typo? Is it actually missing in the original? All of the above can be true. In this poem, both appear to be missing from the original. Or, due to Mi Fu's wild calligraphy, illegible is more likely the case.
I have spent some time thinking about whether it is worthwhile to even translate poems with missing characters. I believe it is. If you do not make any assumptions, if you treat the ellision and its nearby characters as the usual units, and if you maintain what you know about the poet's style and personality, you can say what "at least" he intended. For example, in □德康宁 we have two poetic units, □德 and 康宁 which in general may or may not be bigrams. They are [xx][virtue] and [abundant][how could?]. Mi Fu modified 德, or used a bigram ending in 德. We don't know which. But he at least used 德, or "virtue." So if we only use 德, without adding to it, we have what he "at least" intended. If the missing chracter shows up, we can simply adjust the nuance.
As for the poem, the title (浪淘沙) is one of those de rigueur titles arching back into prehistory. Some early famous person wrote 浪淘沙 and everyone who was anyone followed suit. The little note (祝寿) is how you wish an elderly person "Happy Birthday." The "five happinesses" are longevity, wealth, health, love of virtue, and natural death. The three blessings (mysteries? magics?) are something I can't lock down. Mi Fu has no high opinion of the older men in his society. (He lived to be fifty-six, himself.) They are calculating and love their salary and their comforts. He thinks they might benefit by actually growing-up. But this is something men rarely do. They play "grown-up" but rarely exceed eighteen years of mental age. It's an historical constant. Speaking of years, 年 is the year of Nature and 岁 are the years which add up to death. The bigram 寿域 means "build your grave before you are dead." This has regained popularity in my time. It's a luxury. And a selfish one. Peng Zu is the analogue of Methuselah.