Red Pine:

Dancing with the Dead:
Language, Poetry, and the Art of Translation

Every time I translate a book of poems, I learn a new way of dancing. The people with whom I dance, though, are the dead, not the recently departed, but people who have been dead a long time. A thousand years or so seems about right. And the music has to be Chinese. It’s the only music I’ve learned to dance to.

I’m not sure what led me to this conclusion, that translation is like dancing. Buddhist meditation. Language theory. Cognitive psychology. Drugs. Sex. Rock and Roll. My ruminations on the subject go back more than twenty-five years to when I was first living in Taiwan. One day I was browsing through the pirated editions at Caves Bookstore in Taipei, and I picked up a copy of Alan Ginsberg’s Howl. It was like trying to make sense of hieroglyphics. I put it back down and looked for something else. Then a friend loaned me a video of Ginsberg reading Howl. What a difference. In Ginsberg’s voice, I heard the energy and rhythm, the sound and the silence, the vision, the poetry. The same thing happened when I read some of Gary Snyder’s poems then heard him read. The words on a page, I concluded, are not the poem. They are the recipe, not the meal, steps drawn on a dance floor, not the dance.

For the past hundred thousand years or so, we human beings have developed language as our primary means of communication—first spoken language and more recently written language. We have used language to convey information to each other, to communicate. But there are a set of questions just below the surface that we prefer not to address. How well does language do what we think it does? And what does it do? The reason we prefer not to address such questions is because language is so mercurial. We can never quite pin it down. It is forever in flux. And it is forever in flux, because we, its speakers and writers and translators, are forever in flux. We can’t step into the same thought twice. We might use or read or hear the same word twice, but how can it mean the same thing if the person who uses or reads or hears that word is not the same person? We speak of language, as if it was a fixed phenomenon, and we teach it and learn it, as if it was carved in stone. But it is more like water, because we are more like water. Language is at the surface of the much deeper flux that is our riverine minds. Thus, if we approach translation by focusing on language alone, we mistake the waves for the river, the tracks for the journey.

But this isn’t all. Many linguists and anthropologists are of the opinion that language was developed by early humans not simply for the purpose of communication but for deception. All beings communicate with each other, but at least on this planet only humans deceive each other. And for such deception, we rely primarily on language. It isn’t easy for us to hide our feelings and intentions in our facial or bodily expressions, but language offers ready and endless opportunities for altering and manipulating the truth. Thus, the question for a translator is not only the efficiency of language, but its truthfulness. That is, does it actually do what we think it does, and does what it does have any basis other than in fiction?

We live in worlds of linguistic fabrication. Pine trees do not grow with the word “pine” hanging from their branches. Nor does a pine tree “welcome” anyone to its shade. It is we who decide what words to use, and, like Alice, what they mean. And what they mean does not necessarily have anything to do with reality. They are sleights of the mind as well as the hand and the lips. And if we mistake words for reality, they are no longer simply sleights but lies. And yet, if we can see them for what they are, if we can see beyond their deception, they are like so many crows on the wing, disappearing with the setting sun into the trees beyond our home. This is what poetry does. It brings us closer to the truth. Not to the truth, for language wilts in such light, but close enough to feel the heat.

According to the Great Preface to the Book of Odes, the Chinese character for poetry means “words from the heart.” This would seem to be a characteristic of poetry in other cultures as well—that it comes from the heart, unlike prose, which comes from the head. Thus, prose retains the deceptive quality of language, while poetry is our ancient and ongoing attempt to transcend language, to overcome its deceptive nature by exploring and exposing the deeper levels of our consciousness and our emotions. Though poetry is still mediated by language, it involves a minimal use of words, and it also weakens the dominance of language through such elements as sound and silence, rhythm and harmony, elements more common to music than logic. In poetry, we come as close as we are likely to get to the meaning and to the heart of another.

This, too, isn’t all. Poetry is not simply “words from the heart.” A poet doesn’t make a poem so much as discover a poem, maybe in a garden or a ghetto, maybe in a garbage dump or a government corridor, or in a galaxy of stars. In poetry, we go beyond ourselves to the heart of the universe, where we might be moved by something as small as a grain of sand or as great as the Ganges.

So what does all this mean for the translator? For me it means that I cannot simply limit myself to the words I find on the page. I have to go deeper, to dive into the river. If language is our greatest collective lie, poetry is our attempt to undo that deception. When I translate a poem, I don’t think of the Chinese on the page as the poem, only evidence of the existence of a poem. Poetry shows itself in words, and words are how we know it. But words are only the surface. Even after poets give their discoveries expression in language, they continue to discover a poem’s deeper nuances, and they make changes: maybe a few words, maybe a few lines, maybe much more. The poem, as I see it, is a never-ending process of discovery. And it isn’t just language. It’s the unspoken vision that impels a poet and to which the poet tries to give expression. But the poet never gives complete expression to that vision, only a few fragments from a kaleidoscopic insight, a few steps on the dance floor impelled by music even the poet hears only imperfectly.

Then a translator comes along, and things change. It is only then that the poet no longer dances alone but with a partner. And together they manifest a deeper insight into the poem, into the music that motivates the dance. Thus, I have come to realize that translation is not just another literary art, it is the ultimate literary art, the ultimate challenge in understanding as well as performance. For me, this means a tango with Li Bai, a waltz with Wei Yingwu, a dance with the dead.

“Dancing with the Dead” was first presented as part of the Simmons College International Chinese Poetry Conference, October 8 - 10, 2004.