In his essay concluding Jade Ladder, Brian Holton discusses the trials, tribulations, negotiations and compromises involved in translating Chinese poetry into English. Some of Yang Lian and Qin Xiaoyu’s first choices were shelved, he writes, “because the joke just wasn’t funny in English”, poems “were speaking only to Chinese readers’, or they ultimately “fell flat in translation”. The translators generally avoided footnotes unless they appeared in original poems, or unless they would “transform a poem that otherwise would be closed to the reader into something more accessible and enjoyable”.
My first questions, as I began reading: in being “more accessible and enjoyable” to an English-speaking readership, would the book sacrifice cultural authenticity? Would it pander to me, a non-Chinese speaker new to contemporary Chinese poetry? Because for all that I’ll admit my ignorance, I am hungry to experience unfamiliar language, concepts and ideas. I want to meet this book halfway. Luckily, Holton continues:
“What we did not do was omit poems because of their difficulty. This was a matter of professional ethics: the student or beginner complains, ‘It’s too difficult’ – but the professional is more likely to complain that a task is too easy, because, where no challenge exists, there is no chance to extend your craft skills, or to become a better practitioner.”
The poems are categorised into six sections: lyric, narrative, neo-classical, sequences, experimental and long poem. After a brief yet thorough introduction by Qin Xiaoyu, each follows its stream through some of its best contemporary examples. The poetries inevitably intersect. For example, Xiaoyu writes: “the first poet in the history of Chinese poetry whose name we know… Qu Yuan is best known for his long poems, including ‘Tian Wen’ (Heavenly Questions), a poem which established the image of the poet as questioner, and, arguably, suggested that the true poetical motive must be the questioning of oneself”. This “true motive” illuminates all of the poetries in this book, thanks to their shared origins in classicism. Indeed, classical narrative poetry’s ‘the order of things’ could be said to be another expression of this true motive: when our stories are in order, so are our lives.
Lyric poems take up the entirety of Part One, and for good reason. Qin Xiaoyu writes: “Since The Book of Songs, traditionally reputed to have been edited by Confucius in the 6th century BC, the lyric poem has always been the mainstay of classical Chinese poetry.” The contemporary threads which have frayed from it are constantly aware of its precedence, even when cutting ties. English-speaking readers would do well to consider how a deeper familiarity with the Chinese lyric might invigorate their own. I am particularly struck (and a little ashamed) that surreal juxtaposition and fragmentation are not ‘trendy’ but well-established, even crucial, features of Chinese poetic language. In Chu Cheng’s fragmentary ‘We Write Things’, the “insects looking for paths in a pine-cone” are startlingly original but entirely at home, culturally true. In Duo Duo’s poignant, disturbing elegy ‘I’m Reading’, the extended metaphor is as Chinese as Pinsky’s ‘shirt’ is American, and just as capable of covering a host of personal and public concerns. Thanks to the subtle marker of ‘hooves’, the animal arrives into the poem slowly and subtly, where it might have galloped clumsily into any number of UK poems:
In the November wheat field I’m reading my father
I’m reading his hair
The colour of his tie, the crease of his trousers
And his hooves, tripped up by shoelaces
Now skating on ice, now playing the violin
The scrotum shrinks, the neck, knowing too well, stretches toward the sky
I read as far as my father’s being a large-eyed horse
Quality remains high in Part Two, with standout poems in every category. All traditions are excitingly combined in the experimental section, as in Yu Jian’s poem-file mash-up ‘Zero File’, the Names and Devices of Gu Cheng’s ‘Liquid Mercury’, or the joyous, post-ironic “tongue-twister to try”, Yang Xiaobin’s ‘Super-Cutie Language’:
say there’s a bird called a bride bird
and there’s a board called a breadboard
and, maybe, there’s a face called a bored lid
suppose, you put all the bared faces together
would they join up to make a blinded blackbird?
say I’m blacking my face – that’s also
blocking my face. But if the black leaves the board
can the bread-head, eyes barred, draw a bead on the bride?
Inevitably, apart from the book’s necessary dialogues with, for example, American modernism, occasional phrases and ideas feel so universal that I’m left wondering what is uniquely Chinese about them. When the subject is language, as it often is in the experimental section, what difference does it make that Chinese literature’s ‘visual poetry’ contributes as much to its meaning as sound and sense? What was sacrificed in the translation of these poems into bland English type? I’m curious, especially after reading, in the experimental section’s introduction, about the poet Suhui and her alleged ‘word square’ of Pre-Quin dynasty times, or Gu Cheng’s experimentation with American Language poetry and Chinese characters, which, as he beautifully puts it, are “like plants that grow continually”.
Still, if poetry is what gets lost in translation, we need not mourn the losses. Ultimately, much more has been gained here, for the individual reader and for international poetry itself. W.N. Herbert and Yang Lian, along with Brian Holton and Qin Xiaoyu, have completed a remarkable project which should be valuable to casual enjoyers of poetry, serious students of its historical and cultural contexts, and everyone in between.
Mark Burnhope’s work has appeared in various magazines in print and online, as well as anthologies including The Best British Poetry 2011 and Lung Jazz. His pamphlet collection, The Snowboy, was published by Salt.
Jade Ladder: contemporary Chinese poetry edited by W.N. Herbert & Yang Lian with Brian Holton & Qin Xiaoyu, is published by Bloodaxe, 2012, £12.00
(to read previous Magma blog reviews, please click on the ‘Reviews’ tag immediately below)