The deep work of translation

Text of Li Shang Yin's poem

The full text of Li Shang Yin’s poem

I came across a poem recently in a Walter Jon Williams book. It was lovely and wistful and I thought I’d post it here, but when I went looking for the name of the translator by way of Google, what I found was five different translations.

Here’s one version, author unknown.

Sent North on a Rainy Night
Li Shangyin

You ask me what time I’ll return, but I cannot give a time,
The rain in the hills of Ba at night overflows the autumn pools.
When can we trim the candle together by the western window,
And talk together of the rain in the hills of Ba at night?

It’s evocative, but the arrangement of words in English is a little clumsy, especially the last line with its four prepositional phrases.

Here’s version two, translated by Francis Chin:

You ask when I’m coming, I do not know

It’s autumn and the night rain

is flooding the mountain pool.

When can we trim the wicks again by the window

When can we talk all night while the

mountain rains?

This one was obviously translated by a poet; it’s got a repeated structure (“When can we / When can we”) and I especially like “while the/mountain rains.” Chin helpfully presents two more options, one by Lien Wen Sze and Foo Check Woo:

You ask the date of my return

I know not the date

On this mountain

the night rain

brims the autumn lake

When shall we

By the west window

Together trim the candle

And recollect this moment

A rainy night in the mountain.

This one takes advantage of English words with near rhymes: date/lake. But the word “date,” in English, is kind of – well – quotidian, unpoetic. It pulls you out of the lyricism of the poem. On the other hand, “When shall we/By the west window/Together trim the candle” has a nice staccato punch.

And this one, by Witter Bynner: 

You ask me when I am coming, I do not know
I dream of your mountains and autumn pools brimming all night with the rain
Oh when shall we be trimming wicks again, together in your western window
When shall I be hearing your voice again, all night in the rain?

Where before, the narrator and the listener “spoke,” now the narrator misses something specific: “your voice.”

And finally, translator Catherine Platt wrote in detail about her process of translation here.

Sent North on a Night of Rain
By Li Shangyin

You ask when I’ll return

I don’t yet know

In the Sichuan hills it rains tonight,

Autumn pools overflow.

When will we trim the candle

By the west window again,

Recollecting this time,

The Sichuan hills, this night of rain?

Platt notes, ” ‘Ba Mountain’ refers to the ancient kingdoms of Ba and Shu, which were situated in Sichuan. Since ‘Ba’ doesn’t carry any resonance in English, I translated it as ‘Sichuan.’ ” What does she mean by ” ‘Ba’ doesn’t carry any resonance in English”? I think she made the decision based on its syllabic count. “In the Sichuan hills it rains tonight” does have a lovely rhythm in English, but the name “Ba” also has a sonorous authority quite different from “Sichuan.” What I love about this translation is those last two lines; now the two people are not speaking at all, but recollecting. Their silence is deep with longing.

Are you still with me after falling down that rabbit hole? And which one did you prefer? Did the one you liked best seem like the most honest translation?

Each of these translators has had to make numerous compromises and artistic decisions about these four lines of poetry. If nothing else, my little Google experiment highlights how complicatedthe work of literary translation really is. Once a piece of writing goes through this process, it’s really not a singular entity anymore; it’s two things, or more – it’s manifold, multiplicitous. It has acquired facets or pocket universes like the eleven dimensions in string theory. It can’t be reduced back to one thing. And for those of us who will never read Chinese characters, there’s a powerful element of ambiguity in our appreciation of the work.

This reminds me of a debate I had with my mother about one of my favorite books, Peter Høeg’s Smilla’s Sense of Snow (Frøken Smillas fornemmelse for sne). I first read, and love, the Tiina Nunnally translation, but my mother could never get into it.

Høeg’s prose, via Nunnally’s translation, is both crystalline and elliptical, and that’s of a piece with the subject matter: the structure of ice, human venality, and biracial identity (along with a lovely idea called “absolute space” – seriously, I adore this book). After not much caring for the book and giving up on it, my mother stumbled across an earlier translation titled, more literally, “Miss Smilla’s Feeling for Snow.” In this translation, the language is dry and straightforward, and the magic, for me anyway, is completely gone. When I started comparing the two, I felt queasy and betrayed; my attachment to the Nunnally translation was that strong. My mother, on the other hand, found this version much more readable: it was the difference, perhaps, between a murder mystery and a mystery/meditation on liminal spaces.

So here’s my dilemma: which version is more truly Peter Høeg’s book? Is my impression of Høeg’s themes really just an artifact of the translator’s work? Going by Høeg’s other books, I feel pretty comfortable asserting that he really was writing about liminal spaces using liminal techniques. But can I be sure? No. Not unless I learn to speak, and think in, Danish. And is the version my mother likes any less valuable? I’d argue that if it allowed her into the book, then that version was more valuable to her.

Translation is complicated. It is an act, simultaneously, of intent and of self-effacement on the part of the translator. It is an act which adds layers to a work of literature, which complicates it irrevocably. Ultimately, the very fact that translation leaves so much uncertainty is part of its pleasure. A difficult pleasure.

I never did locate the exact translation of Li Shang Yin’s poem that Williams quoted. Was does it do to my perception of the poem that I read that version first? Can I come to the poem anew? There’s something impossible about the whole experience. The more I explored, the more confused I became, the more nuanced an idea I had of the original. And yet, I can never really get right next to the original text. This experience of translation, I think, is part of the experience of poetry. Perhaps it’s the other side of how, in the writing of poetry, it’s impossible to ever say exactly what you mean. We embrace both as part of poetry’s difficult soul.

You ask when I will return

The time is not yet known.

Night rain overspills the autumn pools

on Ba Shan Mountain.

When shall we trim a candle at the western window

And speak of this night’s mountain rain?


Postscript.If you love speculative fiction / poetry crossovers, you must read Guy Gavriel Kay’s Under Heaven.

Post-postscript. The Walter Jon Williams book is, appropriately enough, Implied Spaces.


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