Reviews / February 2010 (Issue 10)

Revival and Reinterpretation in Translation

by Michael Tsang

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The Chicago-Kunming Poetry Group, on the no road way to tomorrow, Virtual Artists Collective, 2009. 190 pgs.
Vera Schwarcz, Brief Rest in the Garden of Flourishing Grace: Poems of Remembrance and Loss by the Manchu Prince Yihuan, Red Heifer Press, 2009. 91 pgs.

It is common to hear that "a poem is open to various interpretations" or "every time you read a poem, you come up with a new interpretation." By the same token, a translation is a work of interpretation, and thus offers new insights into a piece. It might be useful then to focus less on what is lost in a translation and more on what is found, reflect on what poetry translation can do, rather than what it cannot. And although it is difficult to evaluate a translated literary work, we may as well consider new ways to interpret poetry in another language. Two new poetry collections— on the no road way to tomorrow by the Chicago-Kunming Poetry Group and Brief Rest in the Garden of Flourishing Grace: Poems of Remembrance & Loss by the Manchu Prince Yihuan by Vera Schwarcz—have adopted different approaches for creating new interpretations of poetry.

on the no road way to tomorrow is an anthology of poems written and translated by the Chicago-Kunming Poetry Group, a collective of 27 poets from Chicago and Kunming, writing in both English and Chinese. Reflecting the heritage of the writers, the anthology is bilingual and every poem is presented in both languages. The English title pays tribute to both Jack Kerouac and Laozi, but it is the Chinese title—translated as "welcome to the realm of tiny things"— that declares the aim of the anthology .

Poetry is the "tiny thing" referred to in the title, and it is through poetry that the writers in this collection seek to articulate their lives and reflections. We read a tribute to Jack Kerouac (by Charlie Newma) and one to Emily Dickinson (Paul Fredrich, "Emily Dickinson"), envision the Himalayas full of gesang (azalea) flowers (Su Qian, "why are the flowers so red"), picture the sturdy eminence of the Yellow Mountain in China (Deborah Nodler Rosen, "The Art of Huangshan"), witness the shattering of the American dream at the millennium (Nina Corwin, "Telling Time") and see pandas as a metaphor for the ridiculous ways we strangle the freedom of animals (Christopher Gallinari, "Pandas"). Each poet has his/her own style and writes on different themes and subject matter, but together they weave a rich tapestry:

each tattoo
  is a fleet of voyages
its brave limbs
  labour deck for tide
all in the big book noted
(Christopher Kelen, "peripateia: a note on the method")


Opportunity? What opportunity?
Look up to where the work is done behind desks and under tables.
If you're there,
among the tidy,
generating digital paperwork no one will read
except for your initials on the bottom
success and failure fall into place behind cul de sac smiles.
(Charlie Newman, "Jobbed")

I come to China to learn
to walk away. Gray
kitten on a branch beyond my reach
cries, and I cannot coax him down.
The world is no less dangerous
for my words. He will tell his story,
put his feet on the ground
when he sees the time is right.
(Steven Schroeder, from "For the Light")

As we can see, this anthology situates itself on the points of contact between the Chinese and (diverse) American culture. It is revealing to read both English and Chinese pieces together in the same collection, and one cannot help but notice their differences:
The Hermit Thrush, crushed by tires in our alley
lies far from Guatemala, from the Yellow-Jacket
who hovers over the thrush's blood, expectantly.
Some message in the bird's code, genetic bits—
runes but in a runestick—made it wing
south out of the White Pine stands of Ottawa
over the wheatfields like a man seeking home
(Paul Friedrich, "Generation")

This grey worm
climbs up
along the green veins
of a pomegranate leaf,
like a finger chopped off,
countless legs
wriggling ahead.
(Yu Di, "early summer", translated)

The English poems usually have a stronger sense of story and action, and use more proper names and specific nouns to allude to cultural touchstones. The Chinese poems, on the other hand, tend to muse on a single natural or abstract object and scrutinize it in detail.

The differences between the English and Chinese versions of the same poems were just as interesting. Being able to speak both languages, I found the experience of reading the different versions inspiring. With the original versions, I tended to roam freely in the world of imagination, while the translations directed my focus on details I may have otherwise overlooked. The quality of the translations could have been standardized in order to minimize the individual style of the translators, but it is also evident that some translators made a special effort to capture diction and meaning. For example, in a poem titled "Hac Sa Beach: yin yang musing" (Christopher Kelen), the verb "lends" is translated as suzao, which in fact means "to mold." The Chinese version uses an action verb, instead of the slightly more passive "lend," to give a concrete meaning to the poem, and in the process, actually adds another layer of interpretation to the work. In "Courtyard" (Li Sen), originally written in Chinese, the Chinese character "moon" is used to describe a fish scale, which the translator chooses to translate as "moonbeams" instead of "moon" or "moonlight." In Chinese, "moon" can mean the satellite, moonlight or moonbeam, but by specifying it as "moonbeams" in English, the translator has provided a narrowly focused visualization of the image and helped English readers understand the poem more fully.

Other translations, unfortunately, are not as effective, especially those which run up against the limits of the two languages. For example, the villanelle "Epiphany" (Christopher Gallinari) loses much of its poetic effect when rendered into Chinese because the rhyme and the meter cannot be translated. Moreover, the translator adds full stops after some lines, disrupting the enjambments that give the poem a continuous flow.

Linguistic limitation is undoubtedly one of the main obstacles to rendering a poem in another language. However, apart from direct translation, there are other ways to bring a poem to life in a different tongue. Vera Schwarcz's Brief Rest in the Garden of Flourishing Grace chooses rendition, rather than translation, as a means of bringing the poetry of Manchu Prince Yihuan into English. As Schwarcz puts it, "poetry…is what is lost in translation." Thus, she transports Yihuan's poetry to the present by assuming his voice and speaking as him. This is no easy task, but after reading the collection, I am convinced that the voice is indeed Yihuan's.

Yihuan was the father of the Guangxu Emperor, who, as the second last Emperor of China, ruled mostly under Empress Dowager Cixi's influence from 1875 to 1908. In his earlier days, Yihuan displayed literary talents and enjoyed arboreal gardens, but later, as the father of the Emperor, he gradually became one of the most influential people in the Qing court, despite his efforts at keeping a low profile.

Yihuan's poems, then, can be understood in terms of the tension between his mature and younger selves, and his remembrance and loss of his past. For example, when he revisits certain gardens in the Qing Emperor's summer palace, memories keep flooding back to him. Yet what he actually sees are the ruins of the gardens, what remains after the summer palace had been burned down by British forces in 1860. The lost scenery is therefore loosely linked to the downfall of the Qing empire, as the "land of China recoils / from shattered boundaries" ("Grieve for China").

There are two key features which contribute to Schwarcz's successful renditions of Yihuan's poetry. The first is her frequent use of crisp lines, short stanzas and enjambments to create a smooth, fluid feeling. Schwarcz does not abide by the old Chinese poetic forms and instead allows her lines to break naturally in the English language. It has an enthralling effect since the speaker's emotion is built up slowly as the imagery unfolds line by line. The last stanza in "Twenty Autumns" is a good example:

but the lonely shadow
of Jade Spring Temple,
wind bells chattering
among white clouds.
("Twenty Autumns")

As the scene is gradually revealed in these five lines, time seems to have lengthened, but then the poem ends with a full stop, hinting that it is the poem itself, not the stretching of time, that ends—and while the desolate image will last, so will Yihuan's reminiscence. This is an impressive technique, suitable for showing how Yihuan's world is slowly falling apart around him and how his favourite places have become ruins.

The second feature is the brilliant choice of material. Since these are renditions, Schwarcz does not translate the poems directly, but selects important images and combines them to evoke the feeling of loss and remembrance. An excellent example is the poem "Brief Rest in the Garden of Flourishing Grace", which is a set of four Chinese poems about Yihuan's visit to the ruins of the garden. The four original poems are dense in terms of their imagery, and they all share the same nostalgic mood. Yet, Schwarcz treats them as one poem, and chooses only the most striking images for her rendition. Here is a selection:

Terrace and courtyard, no
human sound, persimmon

blooms blood red,
river grass disheveled

by the west wind
on the trampled path,


all that shimmered

now eaten up
by red flames.
("Brief Rest in the Garden of Flourishing Grace")

Whereas Yihuan wrote four poems to express the sense of loss he experienced at the site of the ruined gardens, Schwarcz distills the essence of the originals and reworks them into a single touching rendition.

These renditions provide new scope to Yihuan's life; not only do they describe his sense of nostalgia, they also hint at his complex emotions towards China—no mean feat in a foreign language. Schwarcz chooses her words with care. In "Brief Rest in the Garden of Flourishing Grace", she also speaks of "barren mountains" and "dry rivers." When I first read the Chinese version, I understood the characters as "mounds" and "streams," items more likely to have appeared in an imperial garden. However, Schwarcz’s choice of "barren mountains" and "dry rivers" may also be appropriate, if we see them as metaphors for Chinese national decline in the late Qing Dynasty or as representing the effect of war with foreign powers. In this sense, similar to on the no road way to tomorrow , these renditions also open up new interpretations of the original poems which even native speakers of Chinese might overlook.

Translating a poem involves a lot more than communicating its meaning; it must also bring the work to life. Both of these poetry collections have managed to accomplish this with different methods. They remind us that poems can, and should, transcend linguistic borders.

Editors' note: Vera Schwarz's poem "When Joy Loses Its Silken Fringes" was published in issue #9 of Cha.

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