When I first started translating Chinese poetry, I began where many translators begin and end: Tang dynasty poetry. The challenges of translating poetry from the seventh and eighth centuries are daunting, but to a large degree manageable. Much research has been done into the lives, language, and cultural background of these poets. There are entire dictionaries dedicated to the ideograms, recurrent tropes, and chengyu 成语 (four-character aphorisms based on history or folklore) that appear in the poems. Thanks to all this scholarship, Tang poems can for the most part be interpreted, albeit sometimes with the ease that accompanies a root canal.
Contemporary poetry presents a different range of difficulties for the translator. No dictionary can keep up with current slang, and there are few biographies of living poets. The political and historical context of our own age can be understood in depth only in hindsight. Given these stumbling blocks, many references in contemporary poetry remain obscure to those outside of the culture, the language is mystifying, and the structure is frustratingly opaque. What’s a translator to do?
In translating poetry in particular, it helps to have a native speaker as a partner (in crime, some would argue), as I am honored to have in the accomplished poet, academic, and critic Wang Ao. Here’s an outline of how our cooperation works: Wang Ao does a preliminary literal translation from the original into English (a trot), and I try to transform that trot into a poem. Then we discuss the result (this consists of Wang Ao enthusiastically pointing out all the places I’ve gotten completely wrong), and I do another round of revisions with the goal of getting rid of errors and bringing in more of the original poem’s beauty. Rest a day or two. Repeat.
With each step of the process, we inch another toe-length along a tightrope. At any moment, we might fall into the abyss of abominable translation. Off to one side is the chasm of hyper-literal academic pedantry of the sort found in books filled with so many footnotes and commentary that the poem disappears on the page like a little brother trying to compete with his bigger, flashier, but in the end much less interesting sibling. To the other side is the deep dark pit of exoticism, in which the original poem is rendered in imagistic, breathy lines that perhaps convey the superficial brevity of ideograms, but can’t begin to capture the semantic and emotional content of the poem, let alone the structure as it operates in the original Chinese.
So what to do? Well, two choices: give up before you begin, or keep your eye fixed on the goal and just keep taking little wobbly steps forward.
Let me say before some readers get their dander up, I don’t mean to dismiss ‘translations’ like Pound’s famous “The River-Merchant’s Wife: A Letter”. One finds a lot of this sort of work floating around bookstore poetry sections. These poems are often beautiful in English, and can have a powerful effect on the reader, which is all a poet can hope for. But a serious translator can and must hope for more. Pound’s poem verges on being an original itself: it bears his authorial mark heavily, and departs often from the Li Bai 李白 poem on which it’s based. My intention isn’t to scold Pound (well, not for this, anyway), but rather to point out that all translations exist on an axis. Indeed, they exist in a manifold of many axes intersecting. One axis is that of foreignness and familiarity. One axis is that of structural mimicry, another of melodic mimicry. And one axis is that of semantic fidelity. In this last, arguably most important aspect, Pound pushes pretty far into the unfaithful range. Cathay is a book of ‘poems inspired by’, not a book of ‘translations of’. And perhaps this claim wouldn’t have bothered Pound. (Although after reading his essay on translating Cavalcanti – which, by way of giving you a sense of the tone, includes this brilliant line: “It is stupid to overlook the lingual inventions of precurrent authors, even when they are fools or flapdoodles or Tennysons.” – I conclude it would have offended him greatly. But it shouldn’t.)
Simply put, Pound and his literary ilk undertook a different endeavor from the one Wang Ao and I have embarked on. We are looking to keep as close as possible to the original poem in voice, tone, meaning, structure, and emotional import, while simultaneously producing something readable in English. In fact, our ultimate goal is much more ambitious: an accurate translation that still functions as an original poem. As my dad always used to tell me as a kid (an idea he no doubt got from someone else, but I heard it first from him), only the impossible is worth doing.
Tomorrow, we’ll get on to the interesting stuff: a poem by the preeminent poet, Zang Di 臧棣. –EG (顾爱玲)