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Atlanta Review China Edition

喬治·歐康奈爾 史春波 客座編譯
Guest Editors &Translators: Diana Shi & George O’Connell

The Poetry of CHINA  -24-

Reflections in a Rippling Glass  -25-  George O’Connell
To the Tune of “Beating Silk”  -34-  Li Yu
To “Bodhisattva’s Headdress”  -35-
To “A Vessel of Pearls”  -35-
To “Calming Wind and Waves”  -36-  Su Dong Po
Poem on the Lute  -36-
Night Return to Lin Gao  -37-
The Rest of It  -38-  Lan Lan
Siesta  -39-
Wind  -40-
I Am  -41-  Lu Xixi
Chorus  -41-
All This Will Disappear Some Day  -42-
Summons  -42-
Simple Autobiography  -43-  Wang Jiaxin
Christmas 2002  -44-
The Last Days of Octavio Paz  -45-
from A Darkening Mirror  -46-
Night Swim, A Song  -48-  Sun Wenbo
The Dairy Farm Remembered  -49-
Reflections on the Cultural Revolution  -50-
Ghost Night  -51-
In My Dream, Grandfather  -52-
Shut the Doors and Windows Well  -53-
A Short Chapter  -54-  Hu Xudong
Tibetan Medicine  -55-
Written at Waterside  -56-
Marriage Cuisine  -58-  Zang Di
Against Memory  -59-
Primer  -60-
Your Hand  -61-  Han Dong
Grey  -62-
O  -63-
Falling Leaves  -64-  Shu Cai
Shattered Gold, Shattered Silver  -65-
Young Woman  -66-
Ebony Carving  -66-
On its Saturdays…  -67-  Yu Jian
Ninety poets…  -67-
How to capture a live leopard…  -68-
To plant a tree…  -68-
The Last Summer Storm  -69-
Life  -70-  Zhai Yongming
Doll  -72-
Lost  -73-  Yang Jian
Tomb-Sweeping Day  -74-
Dusk  -75-
So Many Pears  -76- Wang Xiaoni
Half of Me Is Aching  -77-
The Sugar Beet Cart  -78-
Ought To Be a Maker  -79-
Courtyard  -80-  Duo Duo
Amsterdam’s River  -82-
North Station  -83-  Xiao Kaiyu
To a Photo of the Deceased  -84-
Dusk  -85-
Song of Unimportance  -86-  Xi Chuan
Blackout  -87- 
This Moment  -88- 
China Contributors  -90-

Reflections in a Rippling Glass: 

Classical & Contemporary Chinese Poems

 Selected & Translated by Diana Shi & George O’Connell


Nearly all contemporary American poets and readers of poetry are aware of the deathless art China has given the world, mostly through the renderings of Ezra Pound, William Carlos Williams, Arthur Waley, Kenneth Rexroth, A.C. Graham, and others. In the early 20th century, when so much of our poetry was overdecorated and false with Victorian sentimentalities, the clean and spare imagery of the classical Tang and Song poets Li Bai, Du Fu, Wang Wei, and Su Dong Po came like a crisp north wind, clearing the air.

The natural compression of the Chinese character, though in some ways misunderstood by Pound, became a model for Imagism, the poetic ideal whose notes still ring through our aesthetic. Pound translated these poems mostly in open form, precisely what American poetry needed, even if the Chinese originals were far more formal. Such are the vagaries of cultural borrowing, and translation itself. At any rate, the influence of this work has been immeasurable. It’s inseparable from what our poetry has become.

Today’s Chinese poets struggle for a language that is neither the socialist narrative of the post-revolutionary era nor the legacy of the classical past, but speaks to a more contemporary state of being. China’s major cities, like our own, are thronged with freeways and gleaming cars, a long way from the silks and pavilions and straw raincoats of the Tang. A long way from life in China even twenty years ago. Like American poets, they wish to make space for the imaginative mind in an atmosphere of rampant consumerism and televised banality, amid the inexhaustible dishonesties of corporations, advertising, and governments, and the realization that poetry has a more marginalized voice.

Among some Chinese and western poets there has also been the sense that no one controls his own life, that knowledge and experience are fundamentally untrustworthy, and that the most faithful poetic testament to our times is to reflect utter disorientation. For other poets, both Chinese and western, the central task endures: to find within the truth of the human condition those things, those moments that might be called sacred or sublime, to express such griefs and beauties as are always with us, and always passing from our lives. And to do so in the idiom of our own age.

While American poetry spans a wide range of voices, in many styles, it has in recent decades grown rather more divided along these lines. To be sure, the same tensions also arch across contemporary Chinese work. For the last quarter-century, there has also been a rift between the “Intellectual” and “Popular” modes of Chinese poetry. Variously characterized as the “Sublime” vs. the “Root-Seeking,” or “Elevated” vs. “Earthly,” these terms describe points of extremity along an aesthetic continuum.1 The former sprang partly from the menglong, (“Misty” or “Obscure”) school of the late 70’s and 80’s. It is more or less associated with the urban north, particularly Beijing, and a somewhat loftier diction. The latter tends to be southern, associated with poets like Yu Jian and Han Dong, holding the view that ordinary life and ordinary spoken language are the rightful province of the art.

I am tempted to make the doomed comparison that one tends to be more Stevens-esque or Eliotic, the other more like Williams, but that would be hopelessly reductive. In fact both ends, and those regions between, contain many serious and fine poets, working different ground in different voices. Though every healthy poetry has its wars and skirmishes, generational and doctrinal, I also believe diverse Chinese poets have come to see more in common with each other than with an increasingly commodified and materialist society which has less interest in their art, whatever its label. In this they are not so different from their brother and sister poets of the west.

There is, however, a distinct difference in the experience of many Chinese poets now in mid-career, including most in this issue: the Cultural Revolution. From 1966-77, the nation was torn by internecine warfare, vast social turmoil and the wholesale destruction of traditional culture. China’s educational system, riven by political and civil chaos, shuddered to a halt. Teachers and professors were beaten, thrown from buildings, and publicly humiliated. Young people who would have finished high school and entered university were instead shuttled to the countryside, where they labored for years in farm fields or on construction projects. Others went into factories. Some, like Yu Jian, their parents “sent down” to labor or re-education camps, were abandoned to wander the streets as “untied” youth.2

When universities struggled to their knees at the close of this era, a few lucky applicants from the fields and factories were admitted, receiving the rudiments of higher education. Most were not, constituting a lost generation, now in their late 40’s and 50’s, many without the knowledge or certification needed to find and hold proper jobs in what has become a very fast-moving economy. Images from this period surface in the work of some poets, Wang Xiaoni for instance, sometimes as bittersweet contrasts with present prosperity. Others do not mention it.

Before saying anything about the nature of translation from Mandarin to English, it may be useful to remember that writing or speaking in one’s native language already involves translation—from thought to word. Simple enough, perhaps, when we blurt or chatter. Less so when we try to place the best words in the best order. Translation can be a difficult process, especially if one wants each word in a poem to earn its place. To have a fair sense of what makes good poetry in both the original and target languages, the ideal translator should be deeply educated in the literature of both. If the translator learns only the classical literature, however, it does not necessarily follow that he or she can understand or recreate a contemporary poem in the target language, or a classical poem for contemporary readers. This of course assumes that the best translations must work in their new language not merely as footnotes or explanations, but as actual, living poems. Our ideal translator must have equal sensitivity to the nuances of sound and meaning in each language. Unfortunately, precious few have such depth of learning, and even fewer possess fine nuance in both languages.

The alternative is obvious and frequently employed. A skilled reader of literature in the original language, who also speaks and writes the target language reasonably well, can work with a partner. Ideally that partner, a native speaker of the target language, will have training in his or her own country’s literature, an awareness of poetry’s common elements everywhere, and some knowledge of the literature in the target language, even though in translation. Above all, he or she must have fine sensitivity to how her native language might be rendered poetically, and be a fair hand at phrasing. This does not necessarily mean either member of the translation team must be an actual poet, but when we look at the most successful translations from Chinese poetry into English, that has frequently been the case.

Every so often someone declares that translating Chinese poetry is simply impossible. It is impossible to translate everything a poem contains, whether consciously placed there by the poet, or carried unconsciously by the language itself. Apart from the largest differences in cultural or psychological context, probably the most pointedly untranslatable aspect of Chinese is the feeling native readers get from the shapes and strokes of the Hanzi characters themselves, something far more physical than can ever be present in Roman letters. Adjacent characters may be intimately involved with each other, combining with a vividness few English words can suggest. For instance, the verb phrase ran shao is composed of two characters, the first suggesting “ignite” and the second “burn” or “roast”. While the characters also carry allied meanings, each contains the huo radical for “fire”. The blazing intensity of the phrase is thus doubled in both sound and visual impact, describing not something burned but the actual state of burning. This was the energy and compression which so attracted Pound to Ernest Fenollosa’s “The Chinese Written Character as a Medium for Poetry.”

It’s true that Mandarin and English are in many ways far apart, though their usual syntactical sequence—subject, verb, object—is the same. While Chinese has terms to indicate tense, for instance le to suggest completed action, or duo (many) to lend quantity to nouns and verbs lacking distinctly singular or plural forms, its poetry often eschews these limitations. Indeed such liberty releases Chinese poetry to an enviably live oscillation between the specific and the inspecific, the particular and the universal—precisely the charged ambiguity one feels in the best poetry of any language. But unless the translator intends to sound telegraphic, it’s usually necessary to express some of the latticework of English—prepositions, pronouns, tenses, number—all of which may help the poem assume a more natural tone in English, paradoxically enabling the translatable portion of the original to be heard more clearly. How much or how little of the lattice is required can only be found empirically.

Chinese has no capitals, and some poets employ little or no punctuation. Combined with a tendency toward run-on sentences, more common among Chinese writers generally, this can impart a certain relentlessness to the lines, an inescapable emotional drive. For English readers, it can also create a bewilderingly indigestible cascade, forfeiting moments of dramatic poise. The translator’s expedient is to try both ways—more or less as written, then with the cues of punctuation and capitals, opting for whichever seems best. While one tries to honor original lineation where possible, and usually can, sometimes the play of English phrasing cries out for an altered linebreak, and the translator yields, remembering that the poem must succeed as a poem in its new clothing. Chinese poets also seem more willing to repeat words in close proximity, even when not intending anaphora. This may have much to do with the paucity of synonyms relative to English, highlighting one of the latter’s advantages. Worth mentioning in this regard is the effect translation has on one’s own language, enlarging its possibilities and scope for both translator and reader. Just as successful translation illuminates the sensibilities of minds outside our immediate culture, the numberless acts of translational composition expand our capacities in English.

Academic questions of practical poetic translation have become further complicated in recent years, now that many universities in both China and the west have embraced abstract and variously politicized theories in lieu of actual practice and exposure to contemporary poetry. As one encounters a great deal of erudite talk about this theory of translation or that, with reams of attendant discourse and terminology, it’s notable how often the poetic quality of the translations associated with such toils seems inversely proportional to the verbiage.

If it’s impossible to fully translate a poem, it is often possible to translate something. I hold the currently heretical view that despite cultural differences, the human condition everywhere is, after all, the human condition. Thus that translatable “something” may be very much indeed. From many conversations with Chinese poets, I believe a few of them think so too. Which is why quite a number are not only familiar with the work of poets like Rilke or Reverdy or Milosz or Lorca or Lowell or Neruda, but are also active translators themselves. I recall a conversation with a Chinese scholar whose specialty was 18th century British poetry. A classicist, he declared that reading one particularly well-known contemporary Chinese poet was like reading western poetry translated into Mandarin. I’ve loved Chinese classical poetry since my youth, but heard this as an unintended compliment. The sensibilities of the best contemporary Chinese poets are certainly Chinese, but their frame of reference is increasingly and inevitably international. Most, having traveled and lived abroad, belong to the emerging voice of poetry that is the global community’s, whatever language they speak and wherever they may call home. Just as the sophisticated western poet reads beyond his or her borders, their models are not only China’s great poets, but the world’s.

Regarding the longevity of China’s classical poetry, the truth is that every language alters naturally and inevitably over the years. From time to time, even Li Bai will need retranslation. If I may quote from the contemporary Beijing poet and scholar Shu Cai, “Poetry translation is never finished. It’s not only because good poetry continues to arrive, but because the language itself changes. To re-translate a poem is always possible and necessary. If a poem has a fixed translation, it can live only in a certain period, during which the language changes little. …A poem that is spiritually limitless cannot have its infinity locked to some fixed location in time and space. Infinity opens to the future. The fundamental nature of human beings and time ensures that a new translation is always being conceived.”

Some readers may be curious about how the translations in this issue actually came into being. During my Fulbright professorship at Peking University, I taught a two-term graduate English course in Modern American Poetry. In the spring, I offered as well a graduate creative writing poetry translation workshop for selected students, many of whom were attending the lecture class and already had a fair notion how a strong American poem might move and sound. With 14 native speakers, and one Mandarin-fluent Finnish student, we began translating contemporary Chinese poets. First to last, our goal was making translations that would stand as living poems in English. Diana Shi, my co-translator and co-editor, had throughout the autumn gathered as many collections as she could of poets we were considering. Some we knew by reputation, others by personal introduction or suggestion. In this, the advice, generosity and friendship of John A. Crespi, Luce Professor of Chinese at Colgate University, was invaluable. At the time on a Fulbright Research appointment at Peking University, he specializes in contemporary mainland poetry, and is well acquainted with the current scene. John opened many doors across the country, introducing us to several poets, including Yu Jian in Kunming.

Two other poets included here, Zang Di and Hu Xudong, were colleagues at Peking University. Early that year we were also fortunate in meeting Xi Chuan, one of the most prominent Chinese poets, previously a resident at the University of Iowa’s International Writing Program. Xi Chuan and another eminent Beijing poet and critic, Wang Jiaxin, led us to the work of still more poets, both in Beijing and beyond. A few also appeared at conferences, or at universities I visited around the country as a Fulbright Guest Lecturer.

In preparing for the workshop, one unexpected difficulty was finding printed copies of each poet’s oeuvre, even at literary bookstores in Beijing. Sometimes only a single collection was available, the rest being out of print or simply unstocked. In a country where poetry matters less than it once did, but considerably more than in the U.S., perhaps they were sold out. We were reluctant to trust online texts, whose accuracy is unreliable. Some poets gave us copies of their books. Over several months, Ms. Shi selected around 25 poems from each of a dozen poets. Guessing which poems might carry well into English was the tricky part, something no one could be sure of until the process was finished, or at least well under way. At this she proved uncanny.

When the workshop began, she assigned separate packets of four or five poems from each week’s poet to pairs of students for rough translation. Over the semester, we discussed and collectively revised selected renderings on the blackboard as class time permitted. By June we had a substantial stack of translations in varying degrees of finish. These formed the core of what we subsequently refined for the Atlanta Review China Issue, and included poems by Lu Xixi, Sun Wenbo, Yu Jian, Xi Chuan, Zang Di, and Zhai Yongming. For this issue, we deliberately left out translations of poets no longer living, such as Gu Cheng, Hai Zi, Ge Mai, and Luo Yihe. We also decided to limit our selections to those still working primarily in the mainland. More poetry from the Peking University workshop will appear in the larger anthology of Chinese contemporary poetry we are currently assembling.

Over the next year we gathered material from additional poets, include two women, and a few more voices from outside Beijing. These we translated on our own, including poems by Duo Duo, Han Dong, Hu Xudong, Lan Lan, Shu Cai, Wang Xiaoni, Xiao Kaiyu, and Yang Jian.

At AR editor Daniel Veach’s good suggestion that the issue include a taste of classical Chinese poetry, we turned to Mei Shenyou, a former workshop participant, presently a literary translator and Peking University lecturer in British and American poetry. He selected and rendered a number of Tang and Song poems, six of which, by Li Yu and Su Shi (Su Dong Po), we finished for inclusion here.

John Crespi also selected and translated well-advanced renderings for the four Wang Jiaxin poems, as well as reading drafts of many others.

Below are the names of those student-colleagues upon whose labors much of this effort stands. While our original intention had been to list each with whatever poem he or she had initially rendered, we sometimes found ourselves building a finished poem from roughs by more than one person. And in this issue at least, we did not include work by every student. We also realized that listing the names in the introduction would honor the poetry with a cleaner, less cluttered page.

Our workshop student-colleagues in translation at Peking University were: Anna-Stiina Antola (Finland), Han Jinpeng, Huang Yi, Kang Yuying, Li Shasha, Luo Chenzi, Mei Shenyou, Ni Lu, Tian Tian, Wu Yinghui, Zhang Huishu, Zhang Jing, Zhang Linhua, Zhang Yajing, and Zhang Yuan. Our deep thanks to them all.

We wish to extend our gratitude as well to the Fulbright Commission of the Council for the International Exchange of Scholars; to the inimitable Oh-Mee Lee and her colleagues at the American Center for Educational Exchange in Bejing; to Professors Ding Hongwei and Lin Qingxin of the Department of English (with special thanks to Ms. Suo Ya Li), and Dean Gao Feng-Feng of the Graduate College of Foreign Languages, Peking University; to Professors Zhao Baisheng and Hu Xudong of the World Literature Institute, Peking University; to Professor Zhang Yan of the Department of English, and Dean Cheng Xiaotang of the Graduate College of Foreign Languages, Beijing Normal University. In one way or another, each helped make this work possible.

Xie-xie nimen!


1. For an astute discussion of these terms and their context, see theexcellent article by Sinologist and translator Maghiel van Crevel, Universityof Leiden, at: www.isp.msUniversityedu/studiesonasia/s3_v2_n1/

2. From the Poetry International’s biography of Yu Jian, by Simon Patton: