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  • Translating a Poem by Li Shang-yin
  • Arthur Sze (bio)

The translation of Chinese poems into English has always been a source of inspiration for my own evolution as a poet. In 1971, as a student at the University of California at Berkeley, I majored in poetry. Also studying Chinese language and literature, I became interested in translating the great T’ang dynasty poets—Li Po, Tu Fu, and Wang Wei, among others—because I felt I could learn from them. I felt that by struggling with many of the great poems in the Chinese literary tradition, I could best develop my voice as a poet. Years later, in 1983, after publishing my third book of poetry, Dazzled, I translated a new group of Chinese poems, again feeling that it would help me discover greater possibilities for my own writing. I was drawn to the clarity of T’ao Ch’ien’s lines, to the subtlety of Ma Chih-yuan’s lyrics, and to Wen I-to’s sustained, emotional power. In 1996, after completing my book Archipelago, I felt the need to translate yet another group of Chinese poems: I was particularly drawn to the Ch’an-influenced poems of Pa-ta Shan-jen and to the extremely condensed and challenging, transformational poems of Li Ho and Li Shang-yin.

I know translation is an “impossible” task, and I have never forgotten the Italian phrase traduttori/traditori: “translators/traitors.” What translation does not in some way betray its original? In considering the process of my own translations, I am aware of loss and transformation, of destruction and renewal. Since I first started to write poetry, I have only translated poems that have deeply engaged me; and it has sometimes taken me many years to feel ready to work on a particular poem. In many instances, I have lived with a poem in Chinese for a long time before ever sitting down to translate it. I remember that in 1972 I read Li Shang-yin’s untitled poems and felt baffled by them; now, more than twenty-five years later, they strike me as veiled, mysterious, and full of longing: some of the great love poems in classical Chinese.

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Figure 1.

To show how I create a translation in English, I am going to share stages and drafts of a translation from one of Li Shang-yin’s untitled poems. I like to begin by writing out the characters of the Chinese poem on paper. I know that my own writing of Chinese characters is awkward and rudimentary, but in writing them out in their particular stroke order, I can begin to sense the inner motion of the poem in a way that I cannot by just reading the characters on the page. Once I’ve written out the characters, I look up each in Robert H. Mathews’s Chinese-English Dictionary and write down the sound and tone along with a word, phrase, or cluster of words that help mark its field of energy and meaning. Doing this groundwork, I go through the entire poem. After I have created this initial cluster of words, I go back through the poem and, because a Chinese character can mean so many different things depending on its context, I remove from the list I’ve made the [End Page 116] words or phrases that appear to be inappropriate and keep those that appear to be relevant. In the case of Li Shang-yin’s untitled poem, I would then have a draft that looks like the illustration on the previous page.

In looking at this regulated eight-line poem, I know that each of its seven-character lines has two predetermined caesuras, so that the motion in Chinese is 1–2/3–4/5-6-7. I therefore try to catch the tonal flow and sense the silences. I know that the tones from the Mathews’s dictionary only give me the barest approximation. T’ang-dynasty poems are most alive when they are chanted. The sounds are very different from the Mandarin dialect that I speak. Yet I can, for instance, guess that the...