Tuesday, October 10, 2017

Reading Chinese Poetry

"I am a guest of the mountains and the woods."
When I was younger and my parents and I went to pick up my older brother from college, there was a drive-in movie theater at the turnpike exit. As you approached the exit, then again as the exit ramp circled around, and one last time as you passed through the tollbooth you got a few seconds glimpse of the film they were showing. With no soundtrack and mixed in with the whir of tires and roar of semis going by, you could occasionally catch enough to guess what movie it was. But more often than not it was simply incongruous flashes of an imagined life rising unexpectedly out of the corn fields of northern Ohio.

The experience of reading Chinese poetry is very much like that for me. Momentary images — without context or logic — arising out of a jumble of words. Part of the problem is that I don't read Chinese, so I must read the poems in translation. The same is true of other foreign poetry: Italian, German, Spanish, Russian, etc. But the disassociative sensation is not nearly as severe in other languages as it is in Chinese and Japanese.

There are a number of forces at work here:
  • First, there is the language. I must read the poems at a distance due to translation.
  • Next, there is a difference in culture that is likely to create some gaps in understanding.
  • Add to that the distance in time — especially when reading classical Chinese poetry (Li Bai, Wang Wei, etc.) — which can further detach the reader from the shared contemporary zeitgeist of the poet.
  • Finally, there is the syntactic difference between the Chinese and English languages which seems to make translations particularly difficult.
Add all of these distractions together and you have what appears to be an impossible separation to overcome. But strangely enough it appears to be the last item, the syntactic difference, that causes the most difficulty.

The lack of articles in Asian languages as well as the difference in sentence structure seems to overwhelm many translators. They get caught up in conveying the linguistic structure as much as the actual meaning of the poem, creating instead a mutant child belonging to neither world. For example:
I hear the apes howl sadly
In dark mountains.
The blue river
Flows swiftly through the night.
Meng Hao-jan translated by Greg Whincup

The translation sounds like  missing pages from Fun with Dick & Jane — all adjectives and adverbs: sadly, dark, blue, swiftly. The words may approximate the original poem, but somehow both the poetry and any sense of subtly is lost.

And the situation can get even worse when the translators try to be precise and seem to lose track of English as a language.
 This night to the west of the river-brim
There is not one cloud in the whole blue sky,
As I watch from my deck the autumn moon,
Vainly remembering old General Hsieh....
Li Po translated by Witter Bynner

Why "river-brim"?  There are so many other expressions in English that would seem better suited: river's edge, river bank, shore...  or is "brim" the key term? As in "brimming over"? But that connotation doesn't help the poem at all (or be supported by what follows).

Finally, some translators give up on poetry all together and seem to translate the poems at pure text — prose, or some variety thereof. For example:
A bend of the river brings into view two triumphal arches;
That is the gate in the western wall of the suburbs of Hsun-yang.
I have still to travel in my solitary boat three or four leagues—
By misty waters and rainy sands, while the yellow dusk thickens.
Po-Chu-i translated by Arthur Waley

This might come close to a literal translation of the original text. But it is like trying to appreciate a song by reading the lyrics: without knowing the melody or hearing the music, at least half if not more is lost: the essence is missing.

So what can we do? Short of learning Chinese (which is not out of the question, but given the number of languages in the world, even that is just a partial solution) our best offering is to try again. And again. And again.

Each time I read a translation, I get another tiny glimpse into what makes this literature so enduring. For example, the quote I opened with ("I am a guest of the mountains...") strikes a chord with me. I don't even remember  what translation I found it in — the rest was not as memorable — but this brief passage is English. It is lyrical. And it conveys a message and a feeling you are not likely to find in western literature.

But is it accurate? That I cannot tell. Ultimately, the goal is to find literature that touches you, speaks to you, across the languages and cultures and centuries that separate you. Literature that adds to what you know and, at its best, how you want to be as a human being. That is what I am looking for.

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