A Good Translation of a Bad Poem?
By Lucas Klein, published
Here is one of my least favorite poems in the standard anthology, The Three Hundred Poems of the Tang Dynasty 唐詩三百首, by Meng Haoran 孟浩然 (c. 689 – 740):
It’s one of my least favorite poems* for a number of reasons:
- it’s redundant: l. 1 says when you’re asleep, you’re not awake (though I suppose there’s some skill required packing so much redundancy into so few words)
- it’s vague: l. 2 talks of bird cries “everywhere,” as if nothing more specific were available
- it’s got lazy imagery: “night comes” (l. 3) with the “sound of wind and rain”; if only I could believe that “wind and rain” were code for sex—if so, the poem would be more interesting
- it’s grammatically incorrect: everyone understands l. 4 to mean that the speaker doesn’t know how many flowers have fallen, signifying some kind of awareness of temporality and ephemera amidst the lulling beauty of springtime, but the words clearly state that he knows exactly how many flowers have fallen
Go ahead—take me to task on my reading of this poem. I’ll still maintain that hating certain works of literature is an essential step in loving other works of literature.
But my hatred of this poem also has something to do with how it’s presented. The poem is harmless enough on its own, but it’s so overplayed, so obstinately recited, that the only rational response is to seethe against it in loathing. The last time I encountered this poem was in a Hongkong bookstore where customers and passersby were greeted with this poem, broadcast on endless loop from the doorway, recited in the malodorous--I mean melodious--tones of a standard-accent Mandarin-speaking kindergartner. In the CD they were peddling, the poem—and many, many more like it—had come to symbolize for Chinese parents and their children something very close to what Confucius, and his Institutes, symbolize for would-be language-learners around the world: in one shot your little Chinese boy or girl can learn Mandarin and the glories of our nation’s longstanding literary and cultural heritage, all for the purposes of building a more harmonious society. Hey, I like beauty, too, and believe that literature has practical applications, but when I see, or hear, literature being put to such uses as this, it’s hard for me not to feel an inner discordance against such enforced harmonizing (the poem, of course, was recited by one voice, not by many, which means that it can’t present any literal harmony, but only demand that we listeners harmonize with it, instead).
Funny thing is, I don’t think this is an inappropriate representation of Meng Haoran at all. That second-rate poet who came to the big city from the sticks (Xiangyang 襄陽 may as well have been Bumblefuck, or maybe Dodge, KS, in the Tang) decided, rather than writing against the dominance of the capital style, to cozy up to it, to write the way they wanted him to, even though they’d probably snicker at his accent (or in this poem, his oblique-tone rhyming) and prefer the work of someone raised in the city and trained to imagine nature properly (no wonder Meng failed the Imperial Exams). What better way to represent this in the present than to use his words to teach Mandarin and an appreciation for mainstream culture to little Cantonese-speaking girls and boys?
But then I came across this poem:
From spring sleep
I awake before dawn
To a world filled
A stormy night
Wind and rain I recall
But of ten thousand blossoms
I wonder how many have fallen
I like this poem. I like the detail, the specificity of pre-dawn birdsong, the slight lilt of formalized poetic phrasing in l. 6, the suggestion of an ancient Chineseness in “ten thousand blossoms,” and especially the way the poem snuggles up against rhyme without taking it over (dawn / birdsong) before jettisoning it conspicuously (recall / fallen).
Problem is, of course, that this—as you no doubt have already figured out—is a translation of Meng Haoran’s poem above, by Lan Hua 藍花, a pseudonymous homage to Red Pine. [It’s from this page here, but since it’s an FLG publication—the people who stand outside Chinese consulates and SAR tourist traps handing out leaflets about torture and leaving parties—readers in the Pea Are Sea probably won’t be able to access it; for those who can, you might also find this page interesting, where Lan Hua translates, less compellingly to my mind, one of my favorite Tang poems (by Wang Wei 王維, the poet Meng Haoran wanted to be), or this page, where neither poem in Chinese or English does much for me either way].
But if I like the poem in English much better than I like the poem in Chinese, does that mean that the translation is good, or bad?
I expect many readers will say that the translation is good. Assuming that there’s some beauty in the original, they’ll figure that the translation, in conveying its own beauty, is not only faithful, but a successful avoidance of that fatal trap of translations, academic deadness.
And as far as that goes, they’re right. But while the debate is nowhere near settled in my mind, for the purposes of this blog entry—a form that takes well to bombastic statements, or blogviating—I’ll state a flat-out disagreement. The problem with the saying that a translated poem should read like a poem (Guo Moruo’s 郭沫若 [1892 – 1978] phrasing is probably the most concise: 譯詩得像詩, or “translated poems must resemble poems”) is that the definition of “poem” changes over time and depending on location (as in, different cultures, communities, and sub-communities have different understanding of what defines poetry). At the moment, the prevailing definitions of poetry in the cultures I know something about are still Romantic, which is to say based on self-expressivity and lyric transcendence. Translation, though, at least as I’ve begun to see it, is in place to challenge, to address and redress, such conventional definition: a translation can’t be a vehicle for self-expression, since when you’re translating you’re expressing someone else; a translation can’t transcend, since it’s always got to have something to do with the materials that came before (as in, the original poem). If I like or dislike a translation as a “poem,” I want to be able to like or dislike it (or believe I like it or dislike it) for similar reasons that I would like the original if I were reading it in its language. If I’d like the rhyme in the original, I want to like the rhyme in the translation; if I’d dislike the sloppy diction in the original, I want to dislike the sloppy diction in the translation. I’m not saying that I have some absolute demand of ideally impossible fidelity, or a prescriptive way to produce or measure such fidelity—the interesting thing is how different translators come up with different answers to the same questions—but if translation is going to happen, it’s got to happen because things get translated.
One way to put it is accountability. The translation has to be accountable to—among other things—the piece that it’s translating. If you’re translating a legal contract, your translation has to be accountable to the law and writing of the original, and while the field of meaning and signification is much larger in poetry than in law, some of the same things apply. Especially in Chinese poetry, where accountability to reality—as seen in the story behind the expression 推敲, for instance—has been such a dominant criterion in aesthetic judgment, shouldn’t translation be held to similar, and related, standards?
Then again, if I don’t like Meng’s poem because of its lazy relationship to the reality it portends to depict, and fault Lan Hua’s translation because of its unrigorous representation of the poem it portends to translate, then doesn’t that end up making the translation ultimately more faithful? And doesn’t that mean I should like it more?
*It’s not my least favorite poem; that honor goes to Chen Zi’ang 陳子昂 (c. 661 – 702) for the sentimentalist schlock found in 《登幽州台歌》: