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.