Before you ask the obvious question, here’s the answer: yes, it’s really [insert expletive] difficult.
But a while ago, having at that point been living and working in China three years, I sort of instinctively felt that part of what I should be doing (as if I ever know what I’m doing) had to be to tackle some of the classical Chinese poetry. Not reading it, because I’d done a bunch of that and it’s easy enough to do (in translation), but involving oneself at a different level, by which I mean trying my hand at translation. And it’s a poet kind of thing to do (isn’t it?) because it fills the gaps when you aren’t writing poems of your own.
I was learning Chinese – I still am, in a limited way, and it’s not at all easy. But at that point I knew enough of how the language worked, and had at least a decent amount of experience in China and of the culture, to feel that having a crack at the poems in the original wouldn’t be a total waste of time. I’d always figured (and this is in no way an original insight) the big and obvious problem with translation was the inability of the translator to convey the cultural aspect of the poem: that is, the associations and allusions that are almost always going to be beyond the foreigner at the deepest, most significant level. From the ancient Chinese that comes with bells on, to coin a phrase. Even the Chinese teachers and students I spoke to acknowledged that they don’t get some of the stuff in those old poems: the allusions and associations are lost except to a few scholars, and the smartest of readers often has simply to shrug and say they know the poem is great but that line, no, sorry, I don’t have a clue what it means, and even when it's explained they still don’t really get it because the deeper meanings simply don’t mean or resonate now in the way they once did. Add to all this the inevitable loss of the sound and tone and music of the poem – and Chinese is a tonal language – and it may seem like a lost cause. But it isn't.
The first poems I translated were by Li Bai, (right) and I had the assistance of one of my Chinese student friends, and a couple of Chinese websites that explicated some of the more abstruse points of the poetry for us. Then, for reasons that don’t matter here, I kind of let things drift, and did no translations for quite a long time. But in late 2010 I got back into it, armed with a knowledge of the language somewhat better than before. I still needed help with some of the more obscure parts of the poems, and the finer points of language in the originals are often beyond dictionaries, but one can only hope that the results would at least be acceptable to the guys who wrote the things in the first place. I know one should probably get very academic and technical about all this, but it occurred to me that in layman's terms it was also very important that one should come up with a poem that, if it were possible, the bloke who wrote the original would think was okay – that you could, for example, sit down with Li Bai over a glass of wine and talk it through and you'd both understand what you were about as poets, and that you'd come close. And those guys liked their wine, too, which might help…..
My version of the much translated Li Bai poem,
Drinking Alone Under the Moon
Alone among the flowers drinking wine
I raise my cup and invite the bright moon
come drink with me;
my shadow would make three.
But the moon's no drinker, and my shadow,
it just follows me like a shadow does.
Though we are only together like this
for a while, it should be enjoyed, like youth.
The moonlight moves along in time with me;
and it gets a little crazy.
Sober we're happy; drunk I have lost you.
If only our friendships were as constant
as the River of Stars is unchanging.
doesn't do much that's different from many earlier versions other than use an English I feel comfortable with, which is slightly different from the English of, for example, an American poet translating the poem 60 or more years ago.
The red bean grows in the south country.
In Autumn its branches are filled with pods.
Gather as many as you can and think of me
thinking of you reaping the red bean harvest.
In the Chinese, it's
and those last two characters – the word 相思 (xiāng sī) – have (or has) two meanings: it's a colloquial name for red beans, but literally it means "to be thinking of each other". I think that's so cool.
* A selection of my translations of the poems of Li Bai, together with an earlier version of this essay, will be published in Staple 74.