Dancing with the Dead: Language, Poetry, and the Art of Translation

Red Pine

Every time I translate a book of poems, I learn a new way of dancing. The people with whom I dance, though, are the dead, not the recently departed, but people who have been dead a long time. A thousand years or so seems about right. And the music has to be Chinese. It’s the only music I’ve learned to dance to.

I’m not sure what led me to this conclusion, that translation is like dancing. Buddhist meditation. Language theory. Cognitive psychology. Drugs. Sex. Rock and Roll. My ruminations on the subject go back more than twenty-five years to when I was first living in Taiwan. One day I was browsing through the pirated editions at Caves Bookstore in Taipei, and I picked up a copy of Alan Ginsberg’s Howl. It was like trying to make sense of hieroglyphics. I put it back down and looked for something else. Then a friend loaned me a video of Ginsberg reading Howl. What a difference. In Ginsberg’s voice, I heard the energy and rhythm, the sound and the silence, the vision, the poetry. The same thing happened when I read some of Gary Snyder’s poems then heard him read. The words on a page, I concluded, are not the poem. They are the recipe, not the meal, steps drawn on a dance floor, not the dance.

For the past hundred thousand years or so, we human beings have developed language as our primary means of communication – first spoken language and more recently written language. We have used language to convey information to each other, to communicate. But there are a set of questions just below the surface that we prefer not to address. How well does language do what we think it does? And what does it do? The reason we prefer not to address such questions is because language is so mercurial. We can never quite pin it down. It is forever in flux. And it is forever in flux, because we, its speakers and writers and translators, are forever in flux. We can’t step into the same thought twice. We might use or read or hear the same word twice, but how can it mean the same thing if the person who uses or reads or hears that word is not the same person? We speak of language, as if it was a fixed phenomenon, and we teach it and learn it, as if it was carved in stone. But it is more like water, because we are more like water. Language is at the surface of the much deeper flux that is our riverine minds. Thus, if we approach translation by focusing on language alone, we mistake the waves for the river, the tracks for the journey.

But this isn’t all. A number of linguists and anthropologists are of the opinion that language was developed by early humans not simply for the purpose of communication but for deception. All beings communicate with each other, but at least on this planet only humans deceive each other. And for such deception, we rely primarily on language. It isn’t easy for us to hide our feelings and intentions in our facial or bodily expressions, but language offers ready and endless opportunities for altering and manipulating the truth. Thus, the question for a translator is not only the efficiency of language, but its truthfulness. That is, does it actually do what we think it does, and does what it does have any basis other than in fiction?

We live in worlds of linguistic fabrication. Pine trees do not grow with the word “pine” hanging from their branches. Nor does a pine tree “welcome” anyone to its shade. It is we who decide what words to use, and, like Alice, what they mean. And what they mean does not necessarily have anything to do with reality. They are sleights of the mind as well as the hand and the lips. And if we mistake words for reality, they are no longer simply sleights but lies. And yet, if we can see them for what they are, if we can see beyond their deception, they are like so many crows on the wing, disappearing with the setting sun into the trees beyond our home. This is what poetry does. It brings us closer to the truth. Not to the truth, for language wilts in such light, but close enough to feel the heat.

According to the Great Preface to the Book of Odes, the Chinese character for poetry means “words from the heart.” This would seem to be a characteristic of poetry in other cultures as well – that it comes from the heart, unlike prose, which comes from the head. Thus, prose retains the deceptive quality of language, while poetry is our ancient and ongoing attempt to transcend language, to overcome its deceptive nature by exploring and exposing the deeper levels of our consciousness and our emotions. Though poetry is still mediated by language, it involves a minimal use of words, and it also weakens the dominance of language through such elements as sound and silence, rhythm and harmony, elements more common to music than logic. In poetry, we come as close as we are likely to get to the meaning and to the heart of another.

This, too, isn’t all. Poetry is not simply “words from the heart.” A poet doesn’t make a poem so much as discover a poem, maybe in a garden or a ghetto, maybe in a garbage dump or a government corridor, or in a galaxy of stars. In poetry, we go beyond ourselves to the heart of the universe, where we might be moved by something as small as a grain of sand or as great as the Ganges.

So what does all this mean for the translator? For me it means that I cannot simply limit myself to the words I find on the page. I have to go deeper, to dive into the river. If language is our greatest collective lie, poetry is our attempt to undo that deception. When I translate a poem, I don’t think of the Chinese on the page as the poem, only evidence of the existence of a poem. Poetry shows itself in words, and words are how we know it. But words are only the surface. Even after poets give their discoveries expression in language, they continue to discover a poem’s deeper nuances, and they make changes: maybe a few words, maybe a few lines, maybe much more. The poem, as I see it, is a never-ending process of discovery. And it isn’t just language. It’s the unspoken vision that impels a poet and to which the poet tries to give expression. But the poet never gives complete expression to that vision, only a few fragments from a kaleidoscopic insight, a few steps on the dance floor impelled by music even the poet hears only imperfectly.

Then a translator comes along, and things change. It is only then that the poet no longer dances alone but with a partner. And together they manifest a deeper insight into the poem, into the music that motivates the dance. Thus, I have come to realize that translation is not just another literary art, it is the ultimate literary art, the ultimate challenge in understanding as well as performance. For me, this means a tango with Li Pai, a waltz with Wei Ying-wu, a dance with the dead.


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.