Brian Holton:

Driving to the Harbour of Heaven:
Translating Yang Lian’s Concentric Circles

This essay is modified from the Translator’s Afterward to Yang Lian’s Concentric Circles (Northumberland: Bloodaxe Books, 2005).

Concentric Circles is not an easy book, in any sense. It makes great demands on the reader in any language, and it has often been a vexing and frustrating experience attempting to translate it, though I must also say that Agnes Chan and I have just as often felt the exhilaration of rising to a challenge and the rewards that come when the puzzle of a recalcitrant text is finally unlocked.

Yang Lian has written to me that it is the “most important piece since I came out from China”, and that he intends the work to be seen as a matched pair with his book-length poem cycle Yi1. It is, he insists, emphatically not a political work, but instead an artistic work focused on “deep reality”.2

Yang Lian’s style, it seems to me, is one founded on a type of collage, where many small fragments, each complete in itself, are aligned together in a series of patterns to form a grander mosaic: from line to line, poem to poem, cycle to cycle, book to book, in ever-widening concentric structures. Like Burroughs’ cut-ups, they are startling and disjointed on one level while remaining coherent on another, but Yang Lian is collaging images, not words—‘image cut-ups’, perhaps. Each image remains self-sufficient and perfect, creating an extraordinary and vertiginous effect as the reader’s focus is shifted willy-nilly from micro to macro, the eye and mind constantly jolted between different levels of reference and different levels of attention. There is order here, a precisely shaped and crafted order, as intricate as the work of the mosaic-builder or the watchmaker. Though they may be ambiguous, and though the meaning of each fragment is not always instantly obvious, his images are exact and true. A good example of this precision is in the opening lines of his poem cycle Where the Sea Stands Still:

blue is always higher    just as your weariness has chosen
the sea    just as a man’ s gaze compels the sea
 to be twice as desolate

At first when I read these lines, I was paying more attention to the stanza as a whole, and, inasmuch as I gave much thought to it, I assumed blue is always higher to be an abstract kind of thought, a ranking of the ocean’s blue as having a higher, more abstract quality, with the added possibility of its referring also to the blue of the sky, which is positioned above the sea. Then in 2003, Yang and I were in Auckland for a poetry conference4: though he had lived in Auckland for several years, during the period when Where the Sea Stands Still was conceived, and I had visited the city a couple of times, we had never been there together. As we walked or drove around the city that week, Yang constantly drew my eye to small details in the cityscape or in the scenery, referring them to lines and images in his poetry. Finally, we were invited out to Mike Hanne’s place, close to Karekare beach, where Jane Campion’s The Piano was filmed. As we arrived, Yang rushed me out to the deck to look at the view: as we looked down the narrow valley to where the sea was framed between two almost perfect 45 degree hill slopes, the optical illusion that the blue seawater was rising away from us at a steep angle was near-perfect. “That’s it!” he said. “That’s where blue is always higher!” And it was, perfectly precise and physically present, there in front of me. Nothing abstract about it, but a deftly executed sketch of a physical phenomenon, inserted into a complex tesselation of images.

I will not speak here of the nature of the poetry, but something must be said here about how the work of translation went on. Yang gave me the manuscript of Concentric Circles in late 1997, at a moment when I was overwhelmed with my teaching job, and little able to find time to take on a work of this complexity. However, even at first glance it was obvious that there were some very difficult problems, and some tricky poems that would be great fun to do, so I got into the habit of sitting down with it at odd moments, often with a beer or two after work, jotting down ideas as they came. My friends John Thor Ewing, Francis R. Jones and W.N. Herbert were often co-conspirators in the early stages of playing with rough drafts and making likely-looking fragments: I thank them here for their willingness to join in the fun. But by the end of 1999, when I left for Hong Kong, there was little of the book in English but a few fragments and sketches in pencil jottings on the facing pages of the manuscript. So it remained until 2001, when I was able to begin what was to be a fascinating and productive period of collaboration with Agnes Hung-Chong Chan, my colleague here in the Hong Kong Polytechnic University.

I had always felt that the way to improve the standard of Chinese-English literary translation would be for native English speakers to collaborate with native Chinese speakers in small teams: as a non-native speaker, I will never be able to read the Chinese text with enough subtlety or depth; conversely, the Chinese speaker will find it extremely difficult to render the richness of the text in an English sufficiently nuanced to have literary value. Yet together, what might we not achieve? The reader will judge us on the product of this joint venture, of course, but I think the process of translating this book has been a very interesting and highly affirmative experience, and in terms of our collaboration, a resounding success.5

How did we work? Agnes Chan took on the painful job of slowly reading through the Chinese text, noting ambiguities, intertextualities, cruxes and challenges (of which more later). She then presented me with first drafts in English, including alternative readings and helpful notes on every page. Once a week, we would sit down together and slowly read through her draft, as I polished the English drafts, looking for rhythm, nuance, and cadence, as well as trying to create for our English versions a sound structure that could in some sense replicate or parallel the sounds of the original (a few of the more problematic poems will be discussed below). We were not always in agreement, though our collaboration was good-humoured: from time to time we did, however, come close to losing our patience with the poet, who tormented us with such seemingly-intractable problems—but that is a fact of life, if you are foolish enough to attempt the charmingly impossible trade of poetry translation.

Yang Lian is engaged in testing the limits of his language, and in so doing, he has tested the limits of our ingenuity. Some of the problems we have had to deal with are acrostics (the three poems in the final section which all bear the title 詩 POETRY), neologisms, coinages and apparent malapropisms (e.g. oysterses), the splitting of words into their component parts and even the splitting of characters into their constituents. These are tricky to negotiate, though not impossible to resolve.

However, there is one poem, one of the first I attempted, where we are presented with the conundrum of how to translate a text which has strict form but no content at all. SWAY is a metrically perfect example of the form known as Song ci , which is to say, it is a lyric poem whose structure is based round a fixed pattern (once that of the original song which gave each pattern its title6). Now that pattern can’t be reproduced in English, because it relates to patterns of tones, the fixed pitch contours (level, rising, dipping, falling) which every Chinese syllable has and no English syllable can have. Yang tells me that his intention in this poem was “… to show the pure sound-level in the Chinese language and poetry by distorting (taking off, breaking) the levels of Visual-links and Meaning-links of the characters, thus this is a poem of PURE SOUND”.7

What to do? My earliest draft simply translated word for word, with neither rhyme nor rhythm; second-stage drafts added some manipulation of word order and sense to give the same rhyme pattern as the original, and a similar rhythm:

smoke mouth in front night found
mountains he morning grand
labour text hand autumn round
ocean knife dream never sand
clothes ghost sweet tall sound

all slaughter year dark mound
bitter after blue-green band
not stone brow stand small ground
beauty come bitter black brand
word water bug million resound

Although I was not entirely successful in avoiding collocation (it is very hard to stop words from meaning: Yang tells me that writing the original took a great deal of effort, for the same reason), this was, I felt, enough to be going on with … but memories of Louis and Celia Zukovsky’s Catullus kept running in my mind. So next I attempted to invoke the sound of the Chinese as the basis for the subsequent version, by substituting English words as close as I could find to the sound of the Chinese (this is difficult, because Chinese doesn’t allow consonant clusters, and syllables can end only in vowels or nasals, and never in consonants):

yank oh yeah you chin
fen sought a sham
lowing choose oh you eddying yam
more high easy door yo men
equal gog gun

sigh you antonian
squeak couching wan
domey bushy shocking land
choosy coolie herring lay
this way chawing chin

Not altogether bad, I thought, almost prepared to leave it there, even though the rhyme-scheme was under-developed. Yang Lian, however, suggested that I combine the two approaches, to produce a text which made no sense, yet had a structure which was clearly visible in English. After much experiment, and many dead-ends, I found the Welsh bardic metre Cyhydedd Hir8, which is composed of an octave stanza of two quatrains with a strict rhyme-scheme: near enough, we thought, with a little bending and stretching, to give us the final version. The title, by the way, had to change from the original WHO, which is the sense of the Chinese, to something closer to shui, the sound of the original.

yank so yeah you chin
fen sought bam show shin
choose ewe add fling sin
moat high ease door fin
eik wall gun gog

sigh you anti dan
squeak couching ban
doe hay bushy shan
coolie herring fan
fizz way chaw cog

Equally puzzling was KNOWING, which in the original looks like this:

The characters are in the archaic Seal Script, and are just about intelligible to modern readers, with the exception of the central one, which is Yang Lian’s own invention9. It is pronounced yi, and is composed of the archaic characters for sun, person, and one10, with the sense of ‘the unity of Heaven and Man’11. The translator’s goal here is to produce a text for the English reader at the same level of near-intelligibility (or near unintelligibility) as that intended for the Chinese reader, together with something of the same feeling of an archaic talisman or charm: the result is more graphic art than translation, some might say. The choice of Greek words rendered in the Latin alphabet was the solution I finally arrived at in 2000, after pondering other alternatives for a year or two. My thanks are due to my most erudite friend Lisa Raphals of UCR for her help with the Greek.

These two examples are probably quite enough detail for now, and there remain only a couple of final samples to be displayed to the weary reader. First is the sequence A LABYRINTH GRADUALLY GROWING, where each poem on the sequence has as its epigraph one line from 登高 High Up, a well-known classical poem by the Tang dynasty master, Du Fu12. The two central couplets of poem read as follows in our translation:

        infinity of fallen leaves rustling, rustling
        ceaseless river waves rolling, rolling
        constantly travelling a million miles of autumn melancholy
        mounting this balcony alone in years of sickness

This exquisite little poem, written in the classical ‘7-character line’ alluded to in CONSTRUCTED COMEDY, and of which Du Fu was such a master, is immediately accessible and instantly recognisable to the Chinese reader. The problem with this kind of intertextuality is that it doesn't translate: though he is a poet of world class who deserves to be much more widely known, how many English readers will actually know of Du Fu? Some may recall the ‘Tu Fu’ of Arthur Cooper and David Hawkes, or, more recently, David Hinton13. Disguised by two different spelling systems, it is the same poet. The crux of the problem for us is that, as translators, we cannot in English bring the combined notes of august authority and schoolroom familiarity which are inherent in the Chinese text: had we chosen to substitute for Du Fu, say a sonnet by Shakespeare (and we did consider that), then we would have had the familiarity and the authority, but at the price of losing the coherence between poem and epigraph, not to mention—dare I say it?—the authenticity of the work. But here I am in danger of straying into the deep waters inhabited by theorists, and I will say no more. Yang explains it like this: “what I did here was to “respond to” his poem in a creative way—my four poems are contemporary echoes of his lines, so finally the creative link has been built, and all the poems are joined together as one piece—the time-difference (THE TIME) has been canceled!”14

Another interesting issue of intertextuality arises in the concluding section of RONDO AND COUNTERPOINT, where the poet begins to write an old-fashioned kind of Literary Chinese reminiscent of the great stylist Ban Gu (A.D. 32 – 92), author of the History of the Former Han Dynasty. This is very different to the Modern Standard Chinese employed elsewhere, and we wanted to make this obvious to the English reader, but were having problems deciding exactly how to do that. Help came from Francis R. Jones of the University of Newcastle upon Tyne, himself an extraordinarily gifted translator of poetry: the passage beginning “Ban-Goo read out these Wordes by Candle-light: ‘This age hath no Heröes, and even a simple Ninny might acquire Greatnesse…” was transformed by Francis into a splendid Augustan English which beautifully parallels Ban Gu’s lucid and elegant Chinese (and we thank him heartily for it). Now to the hoary old chestnuts of word-for-word and sense-for-sense translation, we have added parody-for-parody.

It is our hope that we have succeeded in making a kind of sense of these very difficult and daring poems, and that some of what makes them difficult and daring in Chinese will still be at least dimly visible in our English text. I will say nothing of the many allusions—to places, writers, artists, landscapes—made tiresomely obscure by the awkwardness of the transliteration of foreign names in Chinese; nor will I dwell on the many allusions to the ancient and book-haunted culture of China: fewer of them than we hoped have survived the transition to English, though one possible exception may be the title of GAIA. The original Chinese term kun 坤 is a complex one: it is the name for the second hexagram of the ancient Book of Change (Yi Jing aka I Ching), and represents the cosmic principle of Earth, the physical manifestation of the energy of Yin. Gaia in both her ancient and her modern senses of goddess of the earth and hypothetical principle of ecological balance, though perhaps a shade more personalised than the Chinese kun, at least captures something of the numinosity of the term.

Perhaps Yang Lian’s poetry can show us that, if we stretch language to its breaking point, we will be able to glimpse behind the straining structure of the known a new kind of poetry, an anti-poetry defined by the absences and silences of the poetry we knew. This has been the object of the journey we have undertaken, stress-testing both our languages as we went, in the effort to delineate a diagram of the very strange world that is the poetry of Yang Lian, across whose exotic waters we have voyaged, alternately dazed and delighted.