Postface: On the Translation of The Talisman Anthology of Contemporary Chinese Poetry
The translations in this anthology are without exception the result of a two-step process: the literal translation from the Chinese original to an English “raw” or “draft” translation, and then the transformation of these drafts into poetry. This process was accomplished by two groups of individuals whose talent and knowledge complimented each other, each having an intimacy with either the Chinese original text or poetics in English. We made the choice of this two-step strategy before we started the editorial work of selecting poetry for the anthology in the winter of 2003. This choice was made by necessity. In an ideal situation, American poets as equally accomplished as their counterparts in China would be equipped with sufficient knowledge of the Chinese language to render the translation single-handedly. In the absence of such an ideal, the project brought about the necessary collaboration through a two-year process involving much deliberations and effort. I completely agree with Willis Barnstone, one of the pioneers in translating modern Chinese poetry into English, when he writes “we should not read inferior translations, since they traduce the work of the author”. Therefore we should not produce inferior translations.
Draft 1 by Chen Dongbiao (CDB):
Light the lamp into the stone, let them see
Draft 2 by Joseph Donahue (JD):
Shine the lamp on the stone. Let them see
Draft 3 with my modification and notes (ZE):
Shine the lamp into the stone. Let them see *1
Final version: Light The Lamp
Shine the lamp into the stone.
Here is another example of a little more involved process for the last stanza of Chen Dongdong’s Waibaidu Bridge:
Draft version of CDB:
The old pinions of the iron bridge flap with all strength
JD’s version 1:
The hinges of the bridge rise and fall
Email from JD to ZE:
A question: my trouble here is with the word tentacle. Is the bridge compared here to a tentacle, as in the arm of an octopus? I find it hard to fit that image, given that DD is not a full-blown surrealist, with the scheme of bird imagery associated with the bridge. Am I correct that the bridge and not the city is being compared to a tentacle in line 3, and is there any other words beside tentacle that I could play with here, or does he actually mean for us to insert the mental picture of an octopus, or a squid, into our meditation on the bridge?
Email from ZE to JD:
literally he said, “touching hand” of the city. yes, the bridge is the touching hand which belongs to the city. touching hand in Chinese is clearly associated with either insect or octopus or machine. not of birds though. maybe we should go with the “mechanical arm” to fit the bridge’s structure, rather than to animate it.
JD’s version 2:
The hinges of the bridge rise and fall
ZE to JD:
here are my two cents:
JD to ZE:
I take it that the “prison” concept is out, which is fine with me. Was it even in the original? Of the three adjectives that now modify "structure" which ones are in the text? Is it “ambiguous” and then something like “cumbersome” or “colossal”? Are there other possibilities for ambiguous, since it is hard for me to hold together ambiguous and say colossal, since what can really be ambiguous about something so big and obvious? Clearly, what the bridge represents, in terms of aspiration and escape etc. is ambiguous, its just hard, to my ear to apply the term ambiguous to a large metal structure. Could ambivalent work? I’ll figure something out. My main concern is I don’t want to have too many syllables running around in the penultimate line, it blunts the effect of the last line.
ZE to JD:
you are such a fine poet, Joe, can one get even closer to the words?
JD to ZE:
Here it is, another attempt to climb the mountain of perfection! I have my ice pick, my water bottle, a chocolate bar and of course the holy bible! I fiddled with the third line a bit, substituting reach for limb. My thinking here is merely that the limb image, while it saves us from the intrusive picture of a squid or octopus, still raises questions in the readers mind. If the bridge is essentially like a bird, then it can't quite be called a limb. Even if its a limb of a bird, that is a wing. Then it would sound like the city is the body of the bird, and the bridge is its wing. So I've put reach instead, a bit more abstract, but then maybe closer in a way to the Chinese sense of "touch" that you said was in the original. As for the last two lines, I think "so much" gets enough of the sense of colossal, and that iron in air gets the uncanniness of the bridge, and prepares us for the idea that it is "upheld" by collective desire. I realize the word eerie is different from ambiguous, but they are related, and it sets the last two lines more within the perceiving consciousness. I think the sense of eerieness is latent within ambiguous here, and that its a more emotionally effective adjective. Twice the word for half the syllables! Also, while span is different from structure, I believe it conveys the sense of the architectural design, while communicating some of the energy and daring of building any kind of bridge. And at one syllable, its a bargain!
JD’s final version:
The hinges of the bridge rise and fall
I can also offer a few examples of email correspondence between the translators and from translators to this editor on the process to illustrate the essence of the task at hand:
Between a poet translator (P) and a literal translator (L):
P: For me, the first duty of a translator is to make a version in English that works as English...this often requires transpositions not only of language but of fact, culture, etc. What may be coherent, visually, to a speaker of Chinese may be incoherent to an English reader...i.e. language is also in the eye. Lord knows, it makes for difficulties....but there are also opportunities for invention, as Pound showed in his Cathay....
L: I totally agree that the final poems should be English poems not clunky translations from the Chinese. Still since we are two people who each knows one language intimately, we have an advantage over Pound... i completely trust you on the English version's poetic quality. the revision is not a question of that. it is its distance from the Chinese original. After all we are not here to rewrite the poem for [the Chinese poet]. Especially these are not my own work, i do not have the liberty to disregard/reduce certain layers of the poems (or to add new elements to them).
P: But let's be bold about translation.....some things, and sometimes important ones, I have found, will always be discarded and some things added....a boat must be re-fitted to sail in different waters, sometimes radically refitted....our translation will succeed if it advocates the original for which, of course, it cannot substitute....I remember once seeing a kangaroo lost in a snowstorm in Missouri.....it had clearly escaped from some local petting zoo...we don't want to make a kangaroo in the snow.
L: Yet, we don’t want to dress the kangaroo up in wolves’ skin in order to match the snow either…Please re-read my last version and see if there are any thing that you can incorporate back into the current version. The translation in my mind should expand rather than deduct the poem, because additional energy/efforts from the collective intelligence pool have poured in it. On the other hand, "leave it all out is another way, perhaps a truer way", quoting Ashbery...
Between a potential translator (T) and the editor (E) on the two step strategy:
T: I confess I have my doubts about anthologies where a bunch of poets who know nothing about the original language or culture are given "trots" to turn into poems. I don't think you have to be an expert in the original language, but you should know something, otherwise it turns into a kind of airport art.
E: I am touched by your concern/doubts. yet, as Mao stated once, “one can only learn the taste of the pear by tasting it”. i view the process of collaborating translation as a way of crossing the culture/language barrier on the micro-level, as a way of touching the other. In most cases, the "trots" here are much closer to the real thing than what Pound had when he tasted his pear. His poetic invention and his linguistic mistakes are more interesting than most of sinologists' correctness. to me, a bunch of poets who are willing to risk their reputations by venturing into a unfamiliar arena are more attractive than a bunch of sinologists/academics who have no interest in poetry per se …
A literal translator’s retrospective comment on the collaboration with a poet translator:
Hard to explain [the process]. Sometimes through [the poet translator]’s misreading my English, I became aware of meanings I didn’t realize my words would generate. Also as we went back and forth about individual poems, even lines and words, I could feel [the poet translator] coming closer to what I saw [the original] words meaning. I sensed that the process of gradually discerning the structure of meaning through my sometimes misleading or disorganized English was exciting for [the poet translator]. Finally, [the poet translator]’s questions or word choices often required me to consult [the Chinese poet], which I had done little during the translation phase (when I tried a few times early, I had trouble getting answers I could use). But when I returned with very specific questions I sometimes discovered that I had made silly mistakes in my translation (thank God I caught them!), and I also got much clearer answers from [the Chinese poet].
The translations in the anthology are the result of collaboration of many talented people. This is manifested in the long list of translators at the back of the book. More than 20 Chinese scholars, linguists, graduate students and sometimes the poets themselves contributed in the literal translation. Most of them have an intimate knowledge of the Chinese language, either as a mother tongue or as a main focus of study for many years. They painstakingly translated as accurately as they could the Chinese original poems into English drafts. Many a time, the drafts were accompanied by comments and notes, multiple choices of wordings, to clarify or to point out hidden layers of original work without glossing over it. Many literal translators also participated in the second step of the translation, the transformation of the drafts into poetry. They offered background information on the language and culture in general and choice words, rhythm, voices, personal characteristics of individual poet at hand, as questions often raised by the poet-translators working from the drafts. Most importantly their feedback provided the needed check on the accuracy of the final poems. Their efforts are largely responsible for the fundamental accuracy of the translation in the anthology. For poets whose literal translators were not available for the second step consultation, I would play the role of the “reality” check of the literal translators.