Part I : Encounters
I first encountered Li Qingzhao’s poetry in Robert Hass’s translation workshop at Berkeley. I was very young, and probably had no business being in that workshop, since all of my theories of translation were secondhand. But I loved poetry, and I loved Bob. I loved disappearing into the shadowy recesses of Dwinelle Hall to spend time thinking about poetry. And, I reasoned, I’d spent my entire life translating, back and forth, between languages and cultures. I thought I could bring some practical knowledge to the task of literary translation.
A classmate brought in a Li Qingzhao poem. I remember the exact poem that she read, because later, I tried to translate the same poem. Over the years, I would return to that poem — and the rest of Li’s oeuvre—and attempt to render some approximation of her poetry in English. And each time, I found myself defeated, unable to convey, in English, the things that moved me in the original.
I was drawn, at first, to her poems on love and longing. They seemed to me to be dream songs of youth and romance. I was barely twenty, then, in love with love. These poems — with their song-like /melodic cadences, describing young women putting on—or taking off—make-up, studious before the mirror in order to appear carefree in public — struck at something deeply familiar. But her young women were forever putting gold pins in their hair, or walking through peonies, or putting on —and then taking off — transparent silk dresses. It was all far more glamorous — and beautiful — than my actual life, but the themes were, or so I thought, the same.
Li Qingzhao was born in 1084 in Qizhou (modern-day Qinan, Shandong province), a small city in northwestern China.
She was born into wealth and privilege. The daughter of two poets, Li was something of a prodigy herself. At seventeen, she was already feted at the Song court for her elegant poetry. She enjoyed an idyllic girlhood, and married a man who was as mad about art and poetry as she was. She died poor and alone, thousands of miles away from her childhood home. Her life has all the trappings of a romantic tragedy: illuminated by love, romance, glamour, marred by war, death, and loss.
Towards the end of her life, Li returned to the themes of her early, incandescent poems. Only this time, love is dogged by loss. Those late poems are hard to translate without descending into pathos. Those early images of shimmering silks and starlit gardens have been transformed into flickering mirages, fragments of a lost world. Their beauty is intense, and excruciating. You can’t look at them, and you can’t look away. Is that pain or is that joy? These images, shards of light in a darkened world, were almost impossible for me to translate in my early twenties. I kept trying to walk the knife edge, failing, and falling over onto the side of camp.
I can no longer find any trace of my first attempt to translate Li’s poetry, beyond a note that I should translate the title as “Like a Dream.” Even now, across all that time, I still feel the same shiver of pleasure at the original’s sing-song lilt—and the same stymied frustration at the way that the poem refuses to translate.
Classical Chinese is always difficult to translate into English. The trouble derives, not from any one thing — but rather, from everything: the grammar, the sound, the context. With Li’s poetry, there’s the added wrinkle of musicality. Her poems were often intended serve as song lyrics, they were set to the tunes of popular songs of her time. Modern translators are faced with an odd problem — no one actually knows what these songs sounded like. They have become, in many ways, like Sappho’s wedding songs. Only the words remain.
The best way to explain the difficulties inherent to the work of translation—whether the translation of Classical Chinese poetry, or modern Italian, or 12th-century French—is to walk readers through the process. My process is neither unique nor original. In my college days, I wrote the poem out in a grid, one word per cell, and then matched potential English translations for each word. And then, faced with a grid of disjointed English words (mostly nouns and unconjugated verbs), I tried to assemble these building blocks into something resembling English. Later, I would discover that pretty much every translator uses this method. It’s simple, economical, and has the added advantage of visual clarity. The grid becomes unwieldly when the subject of translation is a longer text, but it works well for poetry.
In an essay on Kenneth Rexroth’s translations of Du Fu and Li Qingzhao, Lucas Klein gives readers a sense of the distance between a word-for-word translation and Rexroth’s English rendering of Du Fu. (I’ve given, below, Du Fu’s poem in Chinese, with numbered lines, followed by Klein’s word-for-word rendition of the same poem.)
1 clear autumn army tents well paulownia cold, alone reside river city candle dwindle.
2 whole night horn sound tragic self language, mid sky moon color who see.
3 wind dust delay voice letter end, border posts desolate to move road difficult.
4 already endure wander tne year stuff, force mobile perch one branch to settle.
Rexroth’s version, titled “I Pass the night at General Headquarters”:
A clear night in harvest time.
In the courtyard at headquarters
The wu-tung trees grow cold.
In the city by the river
I wake alone by a guttering
Candle. All night long bugle
Calls disturb my thoughts. The splendor
Of the moonlight floods the sky.
Who bothers to look at it?
Whirlwinds of dust, I cannot write.
The frontier pass is unguarded.
It is dangerous to travel.
Ten years of wandering, sick at heart.
I perch here like a bird on a
Twig, thankful for a moment’s peace.
Analyzing Rexroth’s translation, Klein writes: “The basic movement of Du Fu’s original poem is replicated in Rexroth’s translation, but his deviations are obvious and significant. Du Fu’s line begins with a simple “clear autumn”, which becomes “A clear night in harvest time” in Rexroth’s version. The speaker of Rexroth’s poem wakes besides a “guttering candle”, which is a poetic overstatement compared to Du Fu’s more austere “the candles have gotten shorter”, with no mention of waking.” Translation, here, is as much about interpretation (or “misinterpretation, in Klein’s view) as it is about words and syntax.
In the preface to his 2010 anthology of Classical Chinese poetry (titled, appropriately, Classical Chinese Poetry: An Anthology), David Hinton tried to convey to Anglophone readers a sense of the basic problems of translating Classical Chinese poetry into English. “[A] remarkable characteristic [of the Classical Chinese] language,” Hinton notes, “is that its grammatical elements are minimal in the extreme, allowing a remarkable openness and ambiguity that leaves a great deal unstated: prepositions and conjunctions are rarely used, leaving relationships between lines, phrases, ideas, and images unclear; the distinction between singular and plural is only rarely and indirectly made; there are no verb tenses, so temporal location and sequence are vague; very often the subjects, verbs, and objects of verbal action are absent. In addition, words tend to have a broad range of possible connotation. This openness is dramatically emphasized in the poetic language, which is far more spare even than prose.” (Hinton, Classical Chinese Poetry, xx-xxi)
This was the very first Li Qingzhao poem that I ever encountered:
Ronald Egan’s translation (from The Works of Li Qingzhao, 2019)
To the tune “As If in a Dream”
I often recall one sunset in a riverside pavilion.
Having drunk too much, I forgot the way home.
Knowing it was late, I started back in my boat at dusk
but paddled by mistake into a thick patch of lotuses.
Struggling to get out,
struggling to get out,
I startled a whole sandbar of egrets into flight.
Joy of Wine
(To the tune of ‘a dream song’)
I remember in Hsi T’ing
All the many times
We got lost in the sunset,
Happy with wine,
And could not find our way back.
When the evening came,
Exhausted with pleasure,
We turned our boat.
By mistake we found ourselves even deeper
In the clusters of lotus blossoms
And startled the gulls and egrets
From the sand bars.
They crowded into the air
And hastily flapped away
To the opposite shore.
Another translation, by Jenn Marie Nunes. Like Egan’s translation, Nunes’s version includes the repetition of the phrase “爭渡” (zheng du, literally fight to navigate, a phrase that Nunes renders as “paddling,” capturing the literal action of the paddling the small pleasure boat out of a thick stand of lotuses):
To the tune, Ru meng ling
You often remember the river pavilion dusk
So drunk you don’t know the way back
Tired of the evening your boat returns
Mistakenly deep into a patch of lotus
Paddling ____ paddling
You startle a shoreful of herons to flight
I like elements of all three translations, but find none of them fully satisfying. In some cases, I quarrel with the translator’s word choices. In others, I disagree with the way the writer chose to render an image in English. But isn’t that always the experience of reading someone else’s translation? This is lovely, you think, this catches the music. But also: this word is wrong. I wouldn’t make that association. And always: they left out the best part.