Zang Di 臧棣is a formidable intellect as well a leading contemporary poet. He teaches literature at Beijing University (the Harvard of the PRC), has published critical essays, edited a ‘best of’ poetry series (modeled after The Best American Poetry series), and put out numerous collections of his own poetry. His voice is as distinct and forceful as that of anyone writing in Chinese today.
It is exactly this sort of distinct, forceful voice that presents the greatest challenge to a translator, bringing the most fundamental issues to the forefront. How much is a translator a direct conduit, transferring as closely as possible the voice of the original author into a new language, and how much is the translator a creative partner, essentially writing a new poem in the target language? The 18th century German thinker Friedrich Schleiermacher advocates a method of translation in which the resulting poem is “bent toward an alien likeness.” This is my instinct as well. But to do this “skillfully and with moderation,” as he goes on to say (in Peter Mollenhauer’s translation, anyway), is the translator’s greatest challenge.
In English, some of Zang Di’s power is necessarily lost. Much, however, is gained – in illuminating strangeness, in cultural insight, in the stretching of the English language to accommodate a different way of thinking. Zang Di’s “Spinach” 菠菜, for example, illustrates the pain and pleasure of the impossible, which every translation embodies. Yet the translation Wang Ao and I have done achieves (I hope!) something of this alien likeness.
This beautiful spinach hasn’t once
hidden you in its green shirt.
You have never worn
any green shirts at all.
You avoid this kind of image –
yet I can clearly remember
your silent flesh resembled
a seed at its apex.
Why does spinach look
do I know you will think
this question, but won’t ask it?
Washing spinach, I feel
its deep green quality
seems like a child I had with the plant.
So spinach answers the question
of how we can see in our lives
angels that others say don’t exist.
The beauty of spinach is weak –
when we face the mere fifty square meters
of standard living space, this vivid spinach
is the weakest politics. On the surface
a bit wild, difficult to clean –
its beauty one might say
is sustained by the power of little irritations.
Yet its nourishment determines
its value, not to the left nor to the right.
trans. Eleanor Goodman and Wang Ao
There are so many intractable problems in “Spinach” that it’s hard to know where to begin. Let’s start with, well, spinach. The typical American, I would posit, eats spinach rarely and then only under severe duress. In the PRC, in contrast, spinach is an affordable, easily prepared vegetable for the masses, eaten at home several times a week. This sense of ordinariness is the basis for the tenor of the poem. In this light, calling spinach ‘beautiful’ is surprising. We all know it’s nutritious, and I actually like eating it, but...come on! This surprise is Zang Di’s entrance into the mind of the reader, forcing us to pay attention. Of course, if the cultural assumptions aren’t the same, the line doesn’t have the same effect. Necessary failure number one.
There is a linguistic problem here as well. In Chinese, ‘spinach’ is easily plural, whereas ‘spinaches’, while not exactly wrong, sounds weird. This is significant because in the second line of the poem, Zang Di uses the pronoun 它们 or ‘they’ (the plural referent to an inanimate object, a distinction English doesn’t make) to refer to the spinach. This ‘they’ comes to serve as a kind of bridge between the ‘you’ and the ‘I’ of the poem, an oblique means of commenting on the romantic relationship. This subtlety is entirely lost in the English, but it’s a necessary choice because ‘spinaches’ would add more awkwardness than it would meaning. Necessary failure number two.
Our spinach troubles pop up again in the thirteenth line. “Washing spinach, I feel / its deep green quality / seems like a child I had with the plant.” ‘Feel’ is the main problem here. In the original, Zang Di uses two verbs gan 感 and mo 摸, both of which are translated most directly as ‘feel’. 感 connotes emotion, and 摸 connotes physical sensation. So literally, the lines translate to: “When I wash spinach, feel [emotion] / its deep green quality felt [physical] out / seems as though it’s my and the plant’s child.” Not particularly elegant, to say the least. In the Chinese, these lines are sensual and rich, imbued with tactile and emotional resonance. This is, after all, a kind of love poem, and this ‘child’ is a product of the relationship. References to touch, a meal being made, the hints at a sexual encounter to come – this is all captured with the gorgeous compression Chinese offers. English seems bulky and brutish in comparison, a gorilla trying to one-up a baby lamb in a beauty pageant. Necessary failure number three.
And yet, the translator must make the attempt. My hope is that by using enjambment, this double sense of ‘feel’ can be simulated. Initially, “I feel / its deep green quality” reads as physical sensation. The grammatical turn in next line with “seems like” pushes the reader to reinterpret ‘feel’ in an emotional sense. All this goes by in a blur, however, and what the reader is left with is probably the surrealistic concept of a plant-human hybrid, and hopefully the emotional resonances that come along with it. That washing vegetables bring us to all this is an indication of Zang Di’s skill.
Finally, one more failure. (Why not, right?) Against all my instincts and principles, I added a word to the translation in the interest of explication. The word ‘living’ in the line “when we face the mere fifty square meters / of standard living space...” is nowhere in the original poem. Without it, however, readers unfamiliar with Chinese system of government and company allocation of apartments will probably not understand the reference to ‘fifty square meters’. Let me say that I have great enmity for the kind of translation that adds words and references willy-nilly into the text of the poem until it becomes an academic exercise rather than a work of art. So please excuse ‘living’ – it is a rare case in which the sense of the lines would be entirely lost without an unauthorized addition. Necessary failure...oh, I’ve lost count.
I point out all these failures to emphasize a greater truth. Translation is painful and touchy and contentious. Yet in the end, you all out there, who are probably not Chinese speakers, are reading Zang Di’s work. And, if Wang Ao and I have accomplished anything at all, you’re able to enjoy some of the poem’s power and intelligence and grace. That’s why a translator keeps doing what she does.
Tomorrow, a poem by Wang Ao 王敖, and the delicacy of translating your own collaborator’s work. --EG (顾爱玲)