The Poets’ Niche

By Mark Sconce

Translations: A Chinese Puzzle


chinese-puzzleInternationally respected translator and my dear friend, James  Falen,  writes of translation:  “It is a devilishly and tricky business, this game in a house of mirrors, this effort to catch and reflect  elusive reflections.” He should know having spent eight years translating Pushkin’s  Eugene Onegin.  Another translator, Willis Barnstone,  declares, “Translation is the art of revelation. It makes the unknown known. In translation perfect mimesis is impossible. But a fake or counterfeit of the original is possible. The translator/artist must have the fever and craft to recognize, re-create, and reveal the work of the other artist. But even when famous at home, the work comes into an alien city as an orphan with no past to its readers. In rags, hand-me-downs, or dramatic black capes of glory, it is surprise, morning, a distinctive stranger.”

I call translations the Pony Express ponies of civilization riding into town with new and different news. By way of example, let’s look at three translations of a Chinese poem by Meng Hao-Jan (7th century).  All three translators are poets and skilled emissaries of classical Chinese poetry.*

Kenneth Rexroth’s translation:

Night on the Great River

We anchor the boat alongside a hazy island.
As the sun sets I am overwhelmed with nostalgia.
The plain stretches away without limit.
The sky is just above the tree tops.
The river flows quietly by.
The moon comes down amongst men.

William Carlos Williams’ translation:

Steering my little boat towards a misty islet,
I watch the sun descend while my sorrows grow:
In the vast night the sky hangs lower than the treetops,
But in the blue lake the moon is coming close.

Gary Snyder’s translation:

Mooring on Chien-Te River

The boat rocks at anchor by the misty island
Sunset, my loneliness comes again.
In these vast wilds the sky arches down to the trees.
In the clear river water, the moon draws near.

     Here’s another Chinese poem by Li Bo (Tang Dynasty) translated respectively by Ezra Pound and David Hinton:

Ezra Pound’s translation:               Separation on the River Kiang

Ko-jin goes west from Ko-kaku-ro,
The smoke-flowers are blurred over the river.
His lone sail blots the far sky.
And now I see only the river,
The long Kiang, reaching heaven.

David Hinton’s translation:

On Yellow-Crane Tower, Farewell to Meng Hao-Jan Who’s Leaving for Yang-Chou

From Yellow-Crane Tower, my old friend leaves the west.
Downstream to Yang-chou, late spring a haze of blossoms,

distant glints of lone sail vanish into emerald-green air:
nothing left but a river flowing on the borders of heaven.

They almost seem like two different poems, yet we still come away with the feeling of two friends parting (a lonely sail) perhaps vanishing in the vast Middle Kingdom, never to see one another again. As James  Falen observes, “…the translator must try to view the work as a unified whole and try to be faithful, in some mysterious spirit, to this vision of wholeness. In the result, perhaps we can honor, if nothing else, the poor translator’s quixotic quest, a quest in some respects not unlike that of the artist he seeks to emulate.”

*The New Directions Anthology of Classical Chinese Poetry


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