On Translation

 

Note. This is a quick rough draft.

 

There are many translations of Tang poetry into English. Not all of them agree on the wording. Some are literal, some attempt to retain the poetic sound of the original, some put meaning over substance. This is not to say that some are right while others are wrong. It is a matter of interpretation.

We may generally define poetry as the literary expression of feelings and ideas using style and rhythm. It would also be correct to include the oral expression of poems, as most poems are meant to be read and heard. Verse is a looser form of expression which focuses more on style sacrificing rhyme for imagery and meaning.

Style, rhyme, meter, and form were all considerations of classic Tang poetry, but different poets gave different importance to each of these elements.

I am, I confess, intrigued with the fundamental difficulty of translating any foreign language into another. To understand the poet, we must understand the historical context, the day to day living conditions, the culture, the upbringing and so many things that go into being Chinese, or French, or any culture. Add to this the difficulty of history. Time passes and the context and meaning of words change. If you don’t believe me, try reading Shakespeare verbatim or the King James Bible.

Words change meaning. To give one example, the word “awful” once meant worthy of awe, and today something quite different.

A second fundamental point is that the brain recognizes not the word, but the image it conveys. Plato pointed this out thousands of years ago in Socrates discussion of the concept of a “chair.” To use a more recent example, refer to the slang use of “good” and “bad”, which according to the speaker and the context might be interchanged. And each of us has our own visualization of a “bad dude” or a “good girl.”

If it is so difficult, one asks, why translate at all?

The cheeky response is because it is there. It is a challenge, and one sees in the answer one of the difficulties of translation. The English know quite well what is meant by “cheek” and the Chinese not at all. One must interpolate, extrapolate, transmogrify, hunt for a word choice that conveys the meaning if not the exact same image.

It is fun. Perhaps a bit like bringing chaos into order, like God in the beginning, creating Paradise for Adam and Eve to enjoy. Poets do like to think of themselves as creators of beauty and feeling. The translator might not have these same divine qualities, but they may take joy in being God’s apostles who spread the word.

To arrive at my translations, I utilize Google Translate and Linguee. I also use Google Search, and yes, of course, I read the many translations that have already been done. Whether, I achieve something new and different, and something meaningful is up to the reader.

Enjoy!

One more note.

Shī 诗 is Chinese word and character for old poetry and Gǔshī 古詩 old poetry. Along the way other variants of poems were created. Keep in mind poems are rhythmical and often metaphorical, which makes translation difficult.

 

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