Dream Within a Dream?
To admit that one translates “medieval Chinese poetry” opens wide the portcullis to a potential barrage of inquiries from the curious to the contentious. Those familiar with Chinese culture will press, “Which poets? What dynasty?” Interlocutors acquainted with European history, if not necessarily that of China, may be expected to question what one means (“exactly”) by medieval. For readers of American poetry there may be an urgency to learn which translators one prefers; for sinological academics, to air an abiding interest in editions and commentaries consulted. Especially but not exclusively non-academic native speakers are likely to take issue with the enterprise of poetic translation per se, maintaining—traduttore, traditore—that the essence of literary art, particularly when it is poetic, defies all transfer.
Against such straw-man inquiries I have at ready a set of standard defenses along the following lines—
the factually delimiting:
the historically cognizant:
So much for contextualizing and justifications—what of the actual goals and tasks? If the curious and contentious actively considered the working details of the process, a whole new range of questions might be developed.
I hypothesize three ideal strategies of poetic translation (as suggested above). The “free” version is unconstrained by the form, conventions, and meanings of the source as recognized by its author and traditional audience. Its purpose—no irony intended—is to further the development of the translator-poet’s own range, style, and oeuvre. The pedantic translation I also term “misleadingly faithful”—misleading because to the translator philological considerations have become more important than the aesthetic principles dear to the poet and other readers. The pedantic rendering in other words is over-determined by syntactical and lexicographical interests at the cost of nuances of form, diction, and poetic effect. By the “faithfully poetic” I imagine a rendering that mimics broadly and in detail its source by constructing in the target language parallels in structure, imagery, and diction, all on the principle of minimal distortion with no gratuitous additions. The result is intended to be read as poetry in the target language, but will find ways to foreground the Otherness of its source.
The faithfully poetic translation has its share of problematic assumptions. If the pedantic translation assumes it can meaningfully re/present grammatical-semantic structures, the poetically faithful version makes even wider claims to functional correspondences—yet still promotes a sense of itself as a trans-cultural relic. The correspondences must rely on commonalities with Chinese tradition; a sense of Otherness just the opposite. In practice, the paradox is more apparent than prohibitive. A single translation may be constituted from multiple parallels, some of which “domesticate” or naturalize the translation into contemporary idiom, others of which by anachronism, transliteration, etc. alternatively “barbarize” it to point more directly back to the original text. The translator is at liberty to choose as to the particular combination of details, but unlike a free translation the faithfully poetic one is limited by its filial respect for the source in its range of options. I do appreciate (as above) the theoretical argument that if all readings and re-writings necessitate “difference,” pure correspondences between two languages cannot be thought to exist. But, taking a pragmatic tack, without correspondences of some kind, no discourse or communication whatsoever would be possible. The “faithfully poetic translation” then is one aesthetic leap beyond Zhuangzi’s rhetorical pose: how do you know that I do not know what the joy of fish is like?
Zhuangzi’s self-confidence and spirit of play are valuable assets to the would-be faithful translator. If as John Ciardi says “a poem is a machine for making choices,” then making choices to follow another’s compositional decisions by rights ought to seem even more mechanically restrictive. But latitude to “dance within the chains,” as traditional Chinese critics saw it, is still to be found in the “playing” out of details. The translator always has choices to make in the nuances of structure, sound pattern, imagery, diction. Moreover the goal is a convincing overall mimicry—not unattainable duplication—of the source text. The analogy of mimic is especially apt as regards the task of rendering a personal style. Period-style may be taken as a baseline: for the translator as for the original poet it suggests the norms of general form, other generic conventions, and the available registers of diction; it is the langue in relation to which a particular Tang poet fashions a parole. To impersonate a specific Tang poet, then, the aim should not be, as some would suggest, simply imagining how the original writer “might have composed” in the contemporary target idiom. Rather, it lies in imagining how that poet would be constrained to write in it should the contemporary target idiom be re-shaped to conform to the conventions of medieval Chinese poetics.
A particular Late Tang poet that I have at my peril sought to translate by the above principles is Li Shangyin. Since the Tang Li Shangyin has been considered a major poet with a highly individualized personal-style. The distinguishing traits of that style have been thought to include an elegant prosodic mastery of the regulated quatrain and octave forms; full use of internal parallelism, semantic and syntactic; dense historical and mythical allusion; and frequent grammatical, temporal and gender ambiguity. Each of these traits singly or in various combination, excepting perhaps the extreme ambiguity, have also been attributed to other High or Late Tang poets; but Li Shangyin is notable for the concentration of all these qualities, and their application to signature settings of the Late Tang.
Their ambiguity and allusiveness especially have made interpretation of some of Li’s poems something of a centuries-long parlor game for critics. A main point of contention is whether the poems whose surface narratives treat the theme of romance ought to be read in reference to affairs of the heart, or allegorically to affairs of the state. One of Li Shangyin’s modern critics, James J. Y. Liu, dispensed with the issue by theorizing that in his verse Li Shangyin created “worlds” with their own autonomous significance. Certainly in some of his most celebrated works Li seems to have pushed the poetic envelope as far as it conceivably could go in confusing the relations of signifier and signified. Besides complex ambiguities and allusions in the body of the poems he did this also by leaving many pieces “Untitled,” in direct contrast to the pervasive practice of descriptive occasional or conventionally generic titling (“Seeing Off a Friend...,” “Visiting...,” “Remembering...,” “Written On...” etc.).
In translating Li Shangyin against the context of Late Tang poetics I have settled on fairly constant guidelines:
On these principles I offer below some translations followed by self-criticism.
無題 Untitled (“Hard to meet”)
無題 Untitled (“Empty words”)
北齊 The Northern Qi
正月崇讓宅 At Chongrang House in the First Month of Spring
錦瑟 The Brocade Zither
The two “Untitled” poems seem to me the most satisfying of the group, but I may be overfamiliar with the material. The images do not carry the same force as the Chinese: while “give up its thread” is suggestive enough as wordplay, the Chinese pun on “thread” / ”think” / ”long for” is stronger by far and more complex; flowers and milady’s boudoir also are highly nuanced conventional motifs. The indeterminacy of point of view in these pieces may be more confused than intriguing. Yet, I think the imagery can be deciphered and appreciated through a sensitive—that is, careful and imaginative—reading of the cumulative details and emotional narratives. Although the symbologies of bat and mouse (as well as that of “house”) are very different in Chinese “At Chongrang House” may work in the same way, though with a result rather more gothic than is perhaps warranted.
In terms of sheer form a quatrain seems naturally easier to translate than are octaves. A quatrain depends on but one rhyme and its singularity gives a greater sense of unity and symmetry than should be case for the more diffuse rhyme-schemes in my octaves. Although top-heavy with transliterations and allusions, “The Northern Qi” is true to this experience.
“The Brocade Zither” enjoys notoriety owing firstly to the dubiousness of its interpretation and secondly to the challenge of transmitting its profusion of sensuous allusions into another language. My version I think does well in keeping true to the images while framing them within (mainly) parallel lines and an end-rhyme scheme. The weak point probably lies in the discursive conclusion, where the English does not come up to the compactness of language and sentiment in the Chinese final couplet.
My translations as a whole depart from the current practice of Anglo-American poetry by their deliberate regularity. They are further lent a sense of anachronism by a set of feudal furnishings: watch drums, kings and emperors, chantings, zithers, mythic realms—all the incidental “medievalism” that translates fairly directly. While it eschews slang, the diction here does not fall beyond the bounds of contemporary literary idiom. In trying to convey the grammatical compactness of the classical Chinese, on the contrary, my expressions often seem more modern than not.
Style is the most elusive yet essential component of the translator’s act of impersonation. If as has been claimed Chinese poetry is an art of small differences, then close agreement between the minutiae of original and target texts is an absolute requirement for rendering personal-style. As some readers see it, it is exactly the combined effect of allusions, ambiguities, and sensuous details in Li Shangyin’s verse when taken together that conjures the sense of whole “worlds” of romantic suggestion.
If so this is because readers themselves participate in the conjuring, ordering their own imaginations to match what they assume is the order of the text. The faithfully poetic translator assumes and does the same. The ultimate success of a translator’s imitative performance therefore cannot be measured by the failing or “loss” of any particular detail—but by whether more in total has been “found” in the process, and whether the gains include the expansion of the reader’s imaginative experience.