The Poem Behind the Poem: Literary Translation as American Poetry


Tony Barnstone [tooltip content= “Anchor Book of Chinese Poetry (Anchor, 2004)”] [source][/tooltip] [green_message]I originally came to Chinese poetry as an American poet learning how to make the image. Like many other American poets, I was led to China by my interest in Ezra Pound, William Carlos Williams, and other modernist poets who developed and modified their craft in conversation with the Chinese tradition. I came to China, in other words, to learn how to write poetry in English. This is also how I came to translation: as a way of extending the possibilities of poetry written in English. I wanted to learn from the Chinese how to write better poems in English, and to learn from the English-language tradition how to translate better from the Chinese. A translation, after all, is the child of parent authors from different cultures, and however assiduously the translator attempts to remove his or her name from the family tree, the genetic traces will be found in the offspring. What the translator brings to the equation can never be reduced to zero. Translators bring their linguistic patterns, cultural predispositions, and aesthetic biases to the creative act. They don’t merely hold up a mirror to something old but give the original text new life in a strange environment. Even a perfectly translated poem-one in which every word is turned magically into its doppelganger and in which form, sound, and rhetoric are retained-is still a product of misprision, and the translator does not so much create a text in the new language equal to the old one as a text that strives to be equivalent to he original.This is particularly true of translators of Chinese poetry. From a set of monosyllabic, largely pictographic characters calligraphed perhaps on°a Chinese painting, fan, or scroll, the poem proceeds through a hall of mirrors, reappearing on the other side of time, culture, and speech as a few bytes of memory laser-etched on a white page in the polysyllabic, phonetic language of the English-language translator. The effect is that of moving from the iconic, graphics-based Macintosh operating system to the text-based DOS system. It is very difficult to make the systems compatible because the conceptual paradigms that underlie them are so radically different. We can create a neutral language that will transfer information between the two systems, but small things will change: the formatting will go awry, certain special characters will disappear if their correspondents are not found, and attached files-such as graphics and footnotes, which modify our sense of the text-may become separated or lost. Raw information will be preserved, but the aesthetic unity, the gestalt of the poem, will be lost in the translation. Literary translation is more than anything an attempt to translate that gestalt, which a machine is not sensitive enough to detect, much less reconstruct.Those who discount the creative element in translation believe that translations should consist of word-for-word cribs in which syntax, grammar, and form are all maintained, and in which the translator is merely a facilitator who allows the original poem to speak for itself in a new language. Poetry, however, can’t be made to sing through a mathematics that doesn’t factor in the creativity of the translator. The literary translator is like the musician who catalyzes the otherwise inert score that embodies Mozart’s genius. In that act, musician and composer become a creative team. However, it won’t necessarily be good music just because the musician can keep time and scratch out the correct notes in the correct order. Musical skill inevitably enters into the equation. Fidelity comes from a musician’s deeper understanding of the music.`As ]ohn Erederick Nims says, “The worst infidelity is to pass off a bad poem in one language as a good poem in another.”[/green_message]

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.