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]