Introduction to The Silk Dragon: Translations from the Chinese

Arthur Sze [tooltip content= “The Silk Dragon: Translations from the Chinese (Copper Canyon Press, 2001)”] [source][/tooltip] [green_message] The translation of Chinese poems into English has always been a source of inspiration for my own evolution as a poet. In I971, as a student at the University of California, Berkeley, I majored in poetry. Also studying Chinese language and literature, I became interested in translating the great T’ang dynasty poets-Li Po, Tu Fu, Wang Wei, among others-because I felt I could learn from them. I felt that by struggling with many of the great poems in the Chinese literary tradition, I could best develop my voice as a poet. Years later, in 1983, after publishing Dazzled my third book of poetry, I translated a new group of Chinese poems, again feeling that it would help me discern greater possibilities for my own writing. I was drawn to the clarity of T’ao Ch’ien’s lines, to the subtlety of Ma Chih-yuan’s lyrics, and to Wen I-to’s sustained, emotional power. In 1996,  after completing my book Archepelago,I felt the need to translate yet another group of Chinese poems: I was particularly drawn to the Ch’an-influenced work of Pa-ta-shan-jen and to the extremely condensed and challenging, transformational poems of Li Ho and Li Shang-yin.I know translation is an “impossible” task, and I have never forgotten the Italian phrase traduttori/traditori: “translators/traitors.” Which translation does not in some way betray its original? In considering the process of my own translations, I am aware of loss and transformation, of destruction and renewal. Since I first started to write poetry, I have only translated poems that have deeply engaged me; and it has sometimes taken me many years to feel ready to work on one. I remember that in 1972 I read Li Shang-yin’s untitled poems and felt baffled by them; now, more than twenty-five years later, his verses-veiled, mysterious, and full of longing-strike me as some of the great love poems in classical Chinese.To show how I create a translation in English, I am going to share stages and drafts of a translation from one of Li Shang-yin’s untitled poems. I like to begin by writing the Chinese characters out on paper. I know that my own writing of Chinese is awkward and rudimentary, but by writing out the characters in their particular stroke order I can begin to sense the inner motion of the poem in a way that I cannot by just reading the characters on the page. Once l’ve written out the characters, I look up each in Robert H. Mathews’s Chinese-English Dictionay and write down the sound and tone along with a word, phrase, or cluster of words that helps mark its field of energy and meaning. I go through the entire poem doing this groundwork. After I have created this initial cluster of words, I go back through and, because a Chinese character can mean so many different things depending on its context, I remove words or phrases that appear to be inappropriate and keep those that appear to be relevant.

The Shih Ching , usually translated as either The Book of Songs or the Classic of Poetry, is the first great collection of Chinese poetry. Tradition says that it was edited into its present form by the Sage of Sages, Confucius himself. In fact the book was assembled before, during, and after the life of Confucius. Its more than three hundred poems include fragments of works as old as the Shang Dynasty (traditional; dates 1766-1154 BCE) as well as “contemporary” poems from the Chou feudal states written or spoken by both aristocratic court figures and just plain “folks”. A great deal has been said about the origin of many, if not the majority of the poems as oral “folk” art, but it is clear from the artistry of the written language in which they have been handed down that, like the scribes who improved upon the originally oral poetry attributed to “Homer” in the West to create the Iliad and the Odyssey, the people who converted Chou folk songs and court verses into poetry in written Chinese characters clearly thought of themselves as (and were) artists. So the characters used to render simple and direct lyrical utterances of the illiterate peasant folk often honor them with carefully chosen written vocabulary: the heart and soul of folk art remains clearly present, but literary subtleties are introduced. The scribes who created the Shih Ching were poets, not tape recorders. They chose the best of what existed, and they honored it with their own art.

In its present form, the Shih Ching consists of three major sections, the Kuo Feng, or Odes of the States, comprising 160 of the 300 are generally but not always folk songs. The Ya (Elegant Verses) subdivided with no obvious criteria into greater and lesser, include poems 161-265, and the Sung or Temple Odes high ritual songs and bits of dynastic myth, include poems 266-305. The present selection is comes, all but a single longer poem on drinking and its positive and negative consequences from the “Lesser Elegants”, all come from the Kuo Feng Sections.

Knowledge of the Shih Ching poems was a necessity of diplomatic practice around the time of Confucius, when it was a common practice to deliver or at least support the delivery of diplomatic messages among the feudal domains (the “States or Guo of the Guo Feng) by oral presentation of relevant lines from the Classic. From the Han on many of the poems where imbued with very specific allegorical interpretations, but it is clear that later poets, who memorized the book word for word, used it as allusive material in their own poems at least as often for its plain “folk” messages as for its orthodoxly approved allegorical ones.