Let’s say you’re working on a book of translations of contemporary Chinese poetry. And because you must’ve behaved like an angel in your last life, you find a collaborator in the form of a remarkable intellect who has translated poets from Auden to Charles Wright into Chinese. A collaborator who wrote a dissertation at Yale in fluent English, yet whose mother tongue is Chinese. And say this collaborator also happens to be a tremendous poet who is quite (and quite reasonably) protective of his work, one who believes that his poetry is so steeped in its original language that it can’t be made to function in another tongue. Now imagine translating his poetry into English.
Wang Ao 王敖is a phenomenally accomplished young poet, translator, critic, and essayist. Barely into his thirties, he has already published three books of poetry and won all sorts of awards and accolades. His poetry is widely considered to be some of the best (if not flat-out the best) of his generation. His work is so fascinating because it is not exactly new. I say ‘not exactly’ because much of it is new, and thrillingly so. Yet Wang Ao’s poetry is grounded in the traditions of ancient Chinese poetry in ways that are rare today. His work is musically intense and tightly constructed, often inspired by forms that were practiced and perfected in the Tang dynasty, and while his voice harkens back to the late Tang masters – Li Bai, Wang Wei, Du Fu – it remains entirely his own.
And there’s the rub. In English, Wang Ao’s poetry is stripped of its unique voice and historical tethers. It loses some of its precision, the tightness of expression and expansiveness of connotation that is the hallmark of great poetry. How to convey that bedrock of more than a millennium of ancestors? How to capture the intelligence and authority of the poetic voice capable of building on that tradition without being crushed by it? How to keep Wang Ao from being furious at me for mangling his poems?
Our friend Schopenhauer says (through Peter Mollenhauer): “Rarely can a characteristic, terse, and significant sentence be transplanted from one language into another so that it will produce exactly the same effect in the new language.” I think this is terribly pollyannaish of Mr. Schopenhauer. Never can a sentence in one language be reproduced to exactly the same effect in a new language. Within these bounds of inevitable frustration, however, some attempts are better than others.
Let’s get on to the poem. Wang Ao has been working on a series of poems all titled ‘Quatrain’ 绝句. Traditionally, this form (jueju) involved four lines of five or seven characters each. The lines adhered to a set of strict rhyme schemes and tonal patterns. But we needn’t worry about all that, because Wang Ao’s quatrains don’t conform to these stringent requirements. Rather, his quatrains are jueju in the sense that Gerald Stern’s poems in American Sonnets are sonnets. The intent here is not to replicate the old form, but to renew it in the context of a changed culture, changed artistic expectations, and a changed conception of what poetry is. ‘Make it new’ is always the dictum, but as Frost urges, one should find an “old-fashioned way to be new.”
Enough of me. The poem:
Why, astrologer, when you gaze into my eyes
does it seem there are the wheels of the world’s wheels, why
does life have regret, and quatrains have life, yet the mighty carpenter
belongs to the mighty nail; why give me a cruel answer?
trans. Eleanor Goodman and Wang Ao
If you are a true poetry aficionado, as you probably are if you’re reading this, I don’t need to recommend that you reread the poem. A short shapely poem like this invites, no, insists upon, a second, third, even fourth reading. This is the essence of the traditional jueju (which means ‘truncated verse’) as well – the feeling of an entire world encompassed in a scant four lines. Wang Ao captures this enormity and circularity here. Not only is the poem literally centered on wheels, but his language also embodies this circular return. There are three repetitions of 为什么 (why), along with a question and answer that fold back on each other like a Möbius strip. We get the word ‘answer’ 答案, but no actual answer. We get a question that – like all parents of children between the ages of two and eighteen know – is impossible to respond to with any satisfaction. In the English version, there is the lovely (if I do say so myself) parallelism of ‘does’ and ‘does’ at the beginning of lines 2 and 3, along with the slant-rhymes of ‘eyes’ and ‘why’, and ‘carpenter’ and ‘answer’, all of which in some small way mimic the patterns of jueju. Sweet, sweet success!
Oh, but the sacrifices that come along with these fleeting satisfactions! But one example is 轮中轮, whose gorgeous visual symmetry is lost in English. Literally ‘wheel center wheel’ or ‘wheel inside wheel’, English can’t capture the brevity and directness and pictographic gracefulness of the Chinese formulation. Nor can English easily keep 眼珠, ‘eyeballs’ (or, more beautifully, ‘eye-pearls’), which of course again emphasizes circularity – the Daoist astrologer sees in the circular eye the circles of the world’s circles. The poem is a whirlpool in whose revolutions we are caught, just as we cannot escape the earth’s spin or the circulation of blood.
All this, and we haven’t discussed the influence of Daoism, which underpins the entire poem, nor mentioned the significance of the carpenter and the nail (with its Christian overtones), nor explored the insight that the most powerful is inevitably at the mercy of the most insignificant. And I’ve already strained your patience.
So all I can say is: reread the poem, and it will tell you itself. Even the English version.
Tomorrow: literary festivals and conferences, or, what happens when you get a bunch of Chinese poets in the same room. --EG (顾爱玲)