How is ‘Auld Lang Syne’ translated?
One thing that has surprised me most since retirement as Taipei’s representative in Italy in 2000 to resume teaching English in universities in Taipei is that all of my graduate students majoring in English and English literature cannot sing “Auld Lang Syne” in English. It is a Scots poem composed by Robert Burns in 1788 and set to the tune of a traditional folk song. The song is well-known in practically all the countries in the civilized world, its traditional use being to bid farewell to the old year at the stroke of midnight. By extension, it is also sung at funerals, graduations and as a farewell or ending to other occasions.
I asked the students whether they had been required to read Burns’ poem in their undergraduate course of introduction to English poetry. Their answer, which also shocked me, was that their professors did not teach them. The likeliest reason must be that the teachers did not know what “Auld Lang Syne” means. It is written in Scottish, and the teachers were probably too lazy to try to find out what “Auld Lang
Syne” means in English. It means “Old Long Since,” or more idiomatically, “Times Gone By.”
And I was really shocked when I, by chance, told my surprise to an American professor at Fu Jen Catholic University teaching comparative law and he said he did not know what “Auld Lang Syne” meant in English either.
Well, all this shows how “Auld Lang Syne” is translated in different countries. It is translated as Li Ge ( ) or Farewell Song in Chinese, which every one of my students can sing. The Japanese, however, have translated it as Hotaru-noHikari ( ) or Light of Fireflies, sung on the occasion of graduation from primary school. The translated verse which has little to do with the original poem is so named because it starts with the light of fireflies and snow piled on the window, which Ninomiya Sontoku ( ), a 19th century Japanese philosopher and economist, is known to have used in summer and winter to study late at night because he could not afford lanterns.
It was the way the Japanese education authorities taught the importance of the Protestant work ethic. Meiji Japan began to teach the schoolchildren that hard work per se is service to their emperor for making their country rich and its military force strong (
), just as the Protestants were required to work hard as service to God to make the United States the leading power of the world in the 20th century.
Protestant Work Ethic and
Confucian Work Ethic
The Chinese children did not have to be taught in school to work hard. They used to be taught at home. The two basic values of life taught at home in Confucian China are hard work and frugality, which have helped create the world’s oldest continuing civilization. Schoolchildren in Taiwan, however, are not so taught at home for their parents simply don’t care.
This Chinese work ethic has to be taught in school now as Taiwan is losing the values of working hard and saving what you can. One glaring symptom of the loss is the day off decreed by the three cities of Taipei, New Taipei and Keelung while Typhoon Dujuan was threatening to hit Taiwan.
There were no days off for typhoons in pre-war Taiwan. Stu- dents went to school and offices were open as usual. It remained the same after Taiwan was restored to the Republic of China at the end of the Second World War in 1945. Until the government began to decree days off after the war-devastated Taiwan had become “rich” enough following its economic takeoff that helped it work the economic miracle of the 20th century. It is now up to local governments to decide whether the people should stay at home when a tropical rainstorm is posing to land to devastate Taiwan.
No such days off are offered in typhoon-threatened Japan. There is nothing fundamentally wrong with local governments following the Americans offering hurricane days off except that such rest days are given merely to please the lazy “made rich” public. Oh yes, most of our people have been slothful and spendthrift, convinced that they were born to enjoy life without having to earn it.
Weathermen likewise predict every cyclone likely to sweep across Taiwan as one bigger and more dangerous than it actually is. One deplorable result was that people did not stay at home but turned out in droves to visit restaurants, movie theaters, and department stores to enjoy themselves on the day Typhoon Dujuan was supposed to play havoc in the three cities. One crafty twist in the whole episode was that the three local governments, after announcing a halfday day off, reversed their decision to acquiesce to angry demands for a full day of rest by netizens who ranted against the doubtful authorities. All three mayors knew they should not buckle under pressure But they had to curry favor with voters, for it is election time. Voters will go to the polls to elect their new president and a new Legislative Yuan come next Jan. 16.
In the process, the three mayors have done a great disservice to Taiwan that is undergoing an uphill struggle to remain a viable economy. They have taught citizens to raise hell to get an extra day off to enjoy themselves. The teaching of the values of hard work and frugality, if started now, would take at least two decades to reverse the unindustrious and spendthrift trend. In the meantime, would all local governments try to resist the temptation of pleasing pampered voters by decreeing typhoon holidays?