Not Translated from the Chinese

Several years ago on a work trip I got into an intense discussion about Chinese poetry with my Senior Vice President in an Italian restaurant just outside Mannheim (which is as good a place as any for a Mandarin-speaking American and an Anglo-Welsh poet to trade theories of translation).  I know a grand total of five Chinese words (all of them related to spicy food) but by the end of the evening I was hooked – not just on classical Chinese poetry, but on a subversive view of translation that has implications for how we write original poetry in English.

A week later a copy of Wai-Lim Yip’s Chinese Poetry arrived (generously and unexpectedly) in the internal mail. In brief, it argues that attempting to render Chinese poetry into the grammar of Indo-European languages destroys the sense of the original. Classical Chinese poems avoid tense, person, relative clauses and subordination – the apparatus with which Westerners make linguistic sense of the world. In a Chinese poem it is often unclear who is the subject and who the object of a verb, or when the verb is taking place.

The book’s Introduction compares two lines from an eighth-century poem that it literally renders:



with a range of English translations, such as this from 1898:

I steer my boat to anchor
by the mist-clad river eyot
And mourn the dying day that brings me
nearer to my fate.

In resolving the original into English syntax, the translator has destroyed everything that’s immediate in the poem, explaining and imposing relationships between things where the original simply gives us the things themselves – a grammar that Westerners are comfortable with in cinema (montage) but not in language. Professor Yip argues that this transmutation of the poem into person, tense and syntactical relationship takes us away from the concrete and into abstraction. It’s hard to disagree with him.

The problem here is that the literal rendering is so difficult to digest as idiomatic English that it can only really be read in the way Chinese Poetry then lays out its 300+ pages of anthology, with the literal rendering shown alongside the original Chinese characters on the facing page and a more idiomatic version underneath. It was hard to avoid concluding that any attempt at a standalone translation will fail, forced to choose between the blunder of abstraction and the blunder of mangling the target language.

Fast-forward a couple of years and we found ourselves in a follow-up discussion about the dao de jing over curry in Manhattan. The wonderful opening lines of this poem (and it is a poem or sequence of poems, even if we look for it in the Religion section of the bookshop) are normally translated as something like:

The way you can follow is not the eternal Way;
the name you can speak is not the eternal name.

Steve wrote out the Chinese characters alongside a Professor-Yip-style literal rendition. Although the conventional version above isn’t strictly wrong, almost every word is misleading.

Dao/Tao (an untranslatable word that’s sufficiently well-known in English not to need translating) is both a noun and a verb, and in the above generic version is translated as both “way” and “follow”. Central to the whole poem is the notion that the dao and the act of dao-ing it (or its own act of dao-ing) are the same thing – something that’s there in the noun/verb pun without needing any exposition. As noted above, the verb dao isn’t in any grammatical person so “you” is an interpolation (as would “I” or “one” be, just as the side-step of putting the whole thing in the passive brings its own problems). “Eternal” not only comes trailing unhelpful cultural connotations but is technically a mistranslation, since the original adjective is more like “lasting” than “outside time”. The second line mirrors the structure of the first, so that both instances of “name” plus the verb “speak” are in fact the same word.

Taking all of this together, the least-erroneous version of the opening would be something like:

dao can dao
not lasting dao;

name can name
not lasting name.

I was back to the same problem of target-language idiom. A few days and a dose of jetlag later, I explained the problem to a poet friend and asked him how he’d render our literal version into an idiomatic, living, aesthetically-interesting standalone English poem. He paused for a long time then came out with something truly lovely:

dao can dao
not lasting dao;

name can name
not lasting name.

I can’t help thinking Professor Yip would have approved.

There’s no way an English-language poet can write like this for more than a handful of lines, but it gives an almost-visceral awareness of the abstraction inherent in English syntax. Sometimes that abstraction can be a powerful way of saying exactly what needs to be said, but it’s surprising how often our habitual tenses and relative clauses get in the way.

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