Category Archives: Translations

New Translation of “For Tomas Transtromer” [Chinese]

Mary Tang wrote me today to share a Chinese translation of my poem “For Tomas Transtromer.” For more information about my call for translations of this work, see the Translate This Poem page. On the composition of the translation, Mary writes, “My translation of your poem from English to Chinese was spontaneous and took little time. To me some poems translate themselves into Chinese; other can never be.” Find out more about Mary on her site here. Thanks Mary!

*

路上的冰
影出你我
眼中所見
一般無奈
無法轉向
南部遠冬水盡
跪倒一行古柏
像一隊累了的兵人
失去了重舉的志願
他們背後
鱷寇稱王
我在千里之外的寒春麥田
望見無聲未覺的風暴逼近
深信萬物可失
像腦中的浮現
像夢中的呼叫
–縁盡
風以暴力
能否聽到
你我心聲?
與我同在
面向將來
(c) Mary Tang

Night (for Ruan Ji) [after and for Mei Yao-ch’en]

Night (for Ruan Ji)

日從東溟轉, 夜向西海沉.

From the east the day comes spinning, revolving towards
the strange west, where descending evening colors the ocean’s every drop.

羣物各已息, 衆星燦然森.

Every living thing is resting, or holding its breath, it’s hard to tell
on nights when the toad swallows the moon –

蝦蟇將食月, 魑魅爭出陰.

Starlight glinting from every pine needle – or is it a million swords
unsheathed, our demons striving to materialize out of the dark cluster?

阮籍獨不寐, 徘徊起彈琴.

Only you, my friend, sleepless, pacing in your room, can sense it; only you
with a word, or a wave across your zither, can turn the knife’s edge back into night.

*

[Note: This is the most recent draft of a work based on a poem of Mei Yao-ch’en (1002-1060), about whom I have written many poems on this blog. The first version can be found here. The three between that draft and this one were too incomplete to share, so I’m sparing you those.

My continuing thanks to Chen Zhang, Chinese Literary Preceptor at Harvard University, for her explication and patience. She not only provided a word-for-word translation but important historical and critical perspective that helped me locate this work closer to the heart of Mei’s writing; she also provided her own enthusiasm for this specific poem. Sitting alone with a cup of coffee a few days ago in a Panera Bread with a marvelous view of the twilight saturating the Blue Ridge, I found a way into this poem through the voice of the poet I have appropriated/channeled/imitated in nearly forty other poems that were not attempting to be translations. That voice I was so used to writing in already helped me re-imagine this most recent version, which I think may be closer to a true translation of my friend Sheng-yu’s work. Again, the idea to approach the poem that way came from Chen, who pinpointed so well the difference between interpretation and translation in my many amateur’s questions.

Ruan Ji (210 – 263) was a poet Mei admired. He was also, some might say, an accomplished ne’er-do-well born into a prominent family who was unafraid of leveraging that prominence and wealth to support his chosen vocation as a poet. Some stories about him include him staying drunk for over a month to avoid having to get married, and so impressing an elder in his family with his zither playing one evening that his reputation was upgraded to ne’er-do-well-who-plays-a-mean-zither,-and-that-has-gotta-mean-something. ]

Night [after and for Mei Yao-ch’en]

NIGHT

日從東溟轉, 夜向西海沉.

The unhurried day drizzles, turns
westward and sinks beneath the sea.

羣物各已息, 衆星燦然森.

All things hold their breath, the stars
just right, glorious like the forest.

蝦蟇將食月, 魑魅爭出陰.

The toad on the moon eats,
the demons strive to come out of the clouds.

阮籍獨不寐, 徘徊起彈琴.

The city dozed fitfully, alone, hesitated,
then rose and picked up its instrument.

 

*

[Note: This is a first draft of a work based on a poem of Mei Yao-ch’en (1002-1060), about whom I have written many poems on this blog. As with the previous poem I shared, this will likely change greatly from its current state to a final accurate version more worthy of being called a translation. The method I’m following is unusual but feels most natural for me — To write an impression of the poem gathered into my own poem in English, and then to continue to write a poem in English, and another, with the hope that each one gets closer and closer to my friend Sheng-yu’s poem in its traditional Chinese characters, till they are at least close enough to nod at each other or share a bottle of wine.  Chen Zhang, who is busy at Harvard finishing her dissertation while teaching as the Chinese Literary Preceptor up there in Cambridge, furnished me with the traditional characters for Mei’s  poem. I will keep you updated on any new versions. ]

Revisiting “For Tomas Transtromer” (in Swedish!)

stones A few stones shine like full moons. –Tomas Tranströmer The name of this site is based on the idea that even the poems we write in our native language are translations of a kind, coming to us through a process which must transform source material from a language with no words, to borrow a phrase from the poet Tomas Tranströmer, into the words of our own language. I’m happy to report that the site now will actually include an actual “translation from the English”—what follows is a translation of my poem “For Tomas Tranströmer,” written on January 14th, rendered thoughtfully and also somewhat spontaneously into Swedish by James Wine—as he was showing the poem to Tranströmer himself, just twelve days after its composition… Plenty of back-story below, but first here’s the poem in Wine’s Swedish translation, followed by the work in its original English:

For Tomas Tranströmer

Isen på vägen ser oss med våra egna ögon och det är inte bättre än vad vi är på att hjälpa oss själva som riktningsändringar. På vinter långt söder om här, vaktas den stilla vattnets kanten fortfarande av cypresser knän, som en trött armé som låg på ryggen och tog en tupplur utan att hitta en anledning för att stiga upp. Långt borta hörde jag vrål av en tjur alligator som hävdar världen. Genom en kall vår majsfält tusen mil bort, stirrande på stormens vind springa förbi innan den kunde höras eller kännas, jag vet att allt kan begäras, som dessa minnen–är de oändliga chanser att säga hej bara ett rop över slumrande? Kan vindens våld äntligen höra oss med våra öron? Jag kommer att sitta här med dig ett tag och se vad som kommer. * The ice on the road sees us with our own eyes and is no better than we are at helping ourselves as direction changes. In a winter far south of here, the edge of still water is guarded by cypress knees, like a tired army that lay on their backs for a nap and never found a reason to get up. Beyond them I heard the bellow of a bull alligator claiming the world. By a cold spring corn field a thousand miles away, watching the storm’s wind sprint across before it could be heard or felt, I know everything can be claimed, like these memories—are the endless chances to say hello merely a shout over the slumbering? Is the wind with its violence finally hearing us with our ears? I will sit here with you for a while and see what comes. (If you go to Google translate you can hear the sound of the Swedish, at least as well as the Translate robot can figure out free verse poetry… you can also see that the translation, re-translated into English, renders pretty faithfully.)

The Astor-Piazzolla-like Nature of Time

Readers of this site know that I’m an admirer of the poetry of Tomas Transtromer. You see a line of his on the site’s banner, and I have also posted an appreciation for his work here. I’ve been reading Transtromer for over twenty-five years; I first encountered his work in 1989 in the Cambridge Public Library, stumbling across the Ecco Press collection of his work edited by Robert Hass and including translations by a nearly a dozen different translators. I can still remember standing in the stacks and reading the opening lines of “Prelude,” the first poem in TT’s first book from 1954, and thinking how that poem had waited 35 years from its first publication to reach me but flowered immediately in my mind as if it were being written while I stood there, somewhat dumbfounded, that such a great poet could exist without me knowing about him (as someone fresh from a university tends to think), and read it again and again. Twenty five years later and exactly a month ago from this evening, film-maker James Wine wrote me to let me know that he was releasing a film of Transtromer’s poem “Baltics,” read by the author himself in 1990. The film never usurps the author’s voice, instead furnishes images of the landscape of the poem without intruding on the marvelous effect of the writing itself (subtitles in English are the translation of Mr Wine and a group of friends). Mr Wine contacted me because he’d found this site while searching the web for traces of Transtromer’s global following, which is indeed large, to help pass on news about the film. I viewed the film and wrote about it here, and have since watched the film a few more times—there seem to be more wonderful lines in that one poem than many poets find in a lifetime, and the film provides local context for some of the imagery in the poem while at the same time managing not to diminish anything; rather than explaining, it amplifies the wonders of the poem. Seeing the film inspired me to write the poem, although I did not send it to Mr Wine. It was discovered by one of his colleagues, and he wrote to me a week later, saying he’d like to show it to the poet himself. You can imagine, given the above, how excited I was (and still am) to know that this poem reached the poet himself, and in such short order. In fact, I felt the accordion-like nature of time contracting in a whirligig musical crescendo which might be comparable to finding oneself thrown into a scene in a Thomas Pynchon novel, re-created in a film by Fellini, with a soundtrack by Astor Piazzolla: thirty-five years between when Transtromer wrote “Prelude” and when an awkward American grad student first encountered it; twenty-five years of avid reading followed; then, after an out-of-the-internet-blue email from Mr Wine, a mere twelve days between when I composed a poem honoring my favorite poet and when the poet himself saw it in English, and heard it in Swedish thanks to the work of Mr Wine. As he wrote to me later, “We had a good time with the translating!” *

So, Translate this poem!

That line from Mr Wine gave me an idea. I know many of this site’s readers are also writers and poets; and many of you visit here from lands quite far-away from the Blue Ridge mountains here in Virginia—from China, from Turkey, from Manila, from Spain and Italy and even from Boston, where I know from experience the English language is just a little bit different… So why don’t you take a shot at translating this poem into your own native language? If it creates one more reader of Tranströmer as a result, you’ll have done a great deed. And I’m curious, from a somewhat philosophical perspective as a writer, what the problems and rewards are of translating one of my own works into another language.  I’ll put up a new page on the site’s banner where any new translations can be posted and compiled, and would like to hear from any intrepid souls who attempt this exactly what the experience was like. I know the poem itself, as well-meaning as it is, is much more a stone than a full moon; but seeing it translated into Swedish, and knowing that it reached its intended audience, made it shine a little bit brighter to me. My great thanks and appreciation to James Wine, not only for bringing this poem to Mr Tranströmer’s attention, but also for providing his translation for me to post here.

Translation talk at Black Swan Books

translation

I will be checking out this rather cool topic in my rather cool and little city this weekend. Angela Carter and Stan Galloway are area poets whose work I have enjoyed hearing in person.

Printer extraordinaire Emily Hancock of St Brigid Press will also be bringing copies of the mini-broadside of my translation of Li Ho’s “Sky Dream” for the event. I will not be selling this myself and I’m not sure if Emily has it for sale yet on her site, but you can always write her if you’re interested in seeing more. The poem is printed on very thin Unryu paper backed by grey Magnani Pescia paper, in Bembo typeface. The matting creates the shape of the moon which of course our poet Li would not bother to name in his brilliant and strange piece of verse, and will I think be available in a variety of night-sky-ish colors.

I believe St Brigid Press will also be issuing this poem’s companion translation of Li Po’s work, as well as a few other translations of classical Chinese verse. And of course as I attend this event I’ll be taking with me my time-travelling version of Mei Yao-ch’en, the great 11th century poet with whom I have spent so much time these last few months…

LiHo_SkyDream_black

 

LiHo_colophon

On Translating a Poem from the Chinese

On Translating a Poem from the Chinese

First you find a quiet place in the forest near a mountain. You set about clearing a small patch of land, building a house, moving a family in from the other side of the world, naturally they are confused at first, until you show them that everything is where it should be, including the dragon behind the falling water and beneath the icy pool and the distant dragon in the mountain and the fox behind the tombstone they cannot read and the toad on the moon and the orioles in the tree, and you set about showing them you have built the house where a breeze from the south protects against the red dust of the paths which led them here, and then you set about taking in the family’s exiles, who naturally drink more wine than anyone else yet seem not to have the same sense of vertigo upon arrival, because the moon is the same and has always been the same moon and one day when you are out looking for one of them who did not come home last night you find a plant growing on the dusty path and take it home, and when you get there the exiles are waiting wondering where you were and if there is any more wine, and then you set about placing the perfect plant in a window on the top floor that the family loves and the forest around it loves and that sounds as the last needle of sun skims the canopy of trees and glances off the window like the sound like rain on bamboo. And in the leaves of that plant the past of each of the house’s denizens has to be taken into account, and in every flower a future extending a thousand years. And then you turn your back on it as you turn your back on a dream upon waking, it has to melt back into the earth, artificial as it is, without causing harm. And the fox comes around looking for the garbage and in the middle of a clearing is the poem.

Two Poems About the Moon, one mentioning the moon six times and the other not mentioning the moon at all [new translations]

Two poems about the moon, one mentioning the moon six times and one not mentioning the moon at all

 

Sky Dream

Li Ho (790-816)

In the sky, that cold toad’s eye weeps.
Between towers of cloud its clarity slants, unstuck,

a jade wheel rolling anew in each drop of dew, glinting
off imaginary immortals on the fragrant path as they meet

and watch dust and ocean trade places beneath the Three Mountains
and even as they blink a thousand years run by like horses. Meanwhile,

way up there, to the toad the great nations are nine wisps
of angry mist and the wide ocean of sorrows a small spilled cup.

 

Still Night, Thoughts

Li Po (701-762)

Moon’s so bright before my bed
I mistook it for frost glowing on the floor.

I lift my head, and old hopes, to that moon,
then back down, eyes full of a dream of home.

 

–translated by Jeff Schwaner