Translate or not the “subject” in Chinese poetry

Translate or not the “subject” in Chinese poetry

Ming Di

 

When translating Chinese poetry, ancient or modern, one will find that the ‘subject’ of a sentence is often missing. It shows one feature of the language that allows a verb to function alone, it also reflects an aspect of the Chinese tradition: poets try to express certain emotion or reflection that any reader can respond to personally.

The most common solution is to assume that ‘subject’ to be an ‘I’ or the persona in the poem. For instance, in “Mirror’, the best-known poem by Zhang Zao (1962–2010), the first line tends to give translators a headache, and an easy way to render this line would be something like this: “Whenever she recalls all the regretful things in life, plum blossoms will fall.”

While Ezra Pound and other pioneer poet-translators were able to “make it new” by transforming the old Chinese formal poetry into free verse, what can we do as contemporaries of the Chinese New Poetry which is already free verse? To make new something already supposedly new is a challenge. One way to deal with such problems would be to break the routine strategies in translation practice. A new approach to this century-long issue of missing “subject’ is not to use any pronoun at all, so as to retain the ambiguity and multiple allusions of the original line:

镜中

只要想起一生中后悔的事
梅花便落了下来
比如看她游泳到河的另一岸
比如登上一株松木梯子
危险的事固然美丽
不如看她骑马归来
面颊温暖
羞惭。低下头,回答着皇帝
一面镜子永远等候她
让她坐到镜中常坐的地方
望着窗外,只要想起一生中后悔的事
梅花便落满了南山
(1984)

Mirror

Plum flowers fall whenever a regret awakes —
as in watching her swim to the other shore
or climb a pinewood ladder.
Dangerous things are beautiful;
it’s better to see that she returns on a horseback,
her face warm,
abashed, her head lowered, speaking back to the Emperor.
A mirror awaits her, as always,
allowing her to sit inside it, in her usual place,
and gaze out the window — regrets awaken all the plum flowers
as they fall, like egrets, over the South Hills.
(1984)

The traditional functions of Chinese language – pictographic, ideographic, sound-imitating, meaning-transferring, and so on – have always been played with in Chinese poetry as rhetorical devices. Instead of writing a long footnote about how the two key words, Plum (梅) and Regret (悔), resemble each other in shape and echo each other in sound, I used “like egrets”, which didn’t exist in the original poem, to demonstrate the aesthetics of this poem and how one thing resonates with another as in “regret and egret”, which raises a familiar question: how can a translator be faithful and at the same time be creative enough to show the aesthetic driving force of the original poem?

 

First published in Poetry International (Rotterdam):

 

Advertisements

About 诗东西 Poetry East West

Chinese-English bilingual magazine (will include more languages), published in Los Angeles USA, printed in Beijing China. ISSN 2159-2772

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: