Translate or not the “subject” in Chinese poetry
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:
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, responding 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.
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):