Ars poetica

Xu Futong: 月 (Moon), calligraphyXu Futong: 月 (Moon), calligraphy

I love the statues of Henry Moore, especially the emptyness in the middle of them.

(Gu Gan: 現代書法三步 (The three steps of modern calligraphy), Beijing 1990)

While skimming through again the book of Lin Yutang, I found a poem by Xin Qiji which I love so much and about which I did not know that it had been translated into Hungarian. The Hungarian version sounds like this, in the original and in a verbatim English translation:

Ifjú napjaimban
Csak vidámságban volt részem,
De szerettem fölmenni a padlásra,
De szerettem fölmenni a padlásra,
Hogy bánatot színlelő dalt írjak.

Azóta volt részem
A bánat keserű ízében,
És szót nem találok,
És szót nem találok,
Csak ezt: „Mily aranyos őszi óra.”
In my young days
I only partook in happiness.
How much I loved to go up the attic
How much I loved to go up the attic
So that I would write a song affecting sorrow.

Since then I have partaken
In the bitter taste of sorrow
And I can find no words
And I can find no words
Only this: “What a golden autumn hour!”

This translation with its lack of precision and misunderstandings, and especially with its unjustified sentimental additions displays well why the whole Hungarian (but I could also substitute it with some other languages as well) tradition of Chinese poetic translation, rooted in the fin-de-siècle, is an absolute mistake.

Gu Gan: 绕 (Coiling)Gu Gan: 绕 (Coiling)

The Chinese poem is like a knife. Sharp and precise. The words of the Chinese poem are simple and detached almost by force. They are only frames for that vast emptiness which is the very essence of the Chinese poem in the same way as it is of the Chinese image.

This is why we also proceed in the Casa de la Poesía China by translating first in a small popup window one by one each word of the verse, so that every reader would clearly understand these frames; then including a Romanized transcription so that everyone would also feel the rhythm; and then offering an explicitly verbatim, almost raw translation. Then everyone has to assemble the poem for him- or herself.

You are recommended to check there this poem of Xing Qiji by character and in transcription. Here I copy from there only the precise Spanish translation (then retranslating it into English).

De joven no sabía el gusto de la pena,
subía a la torre.
Subía a la torre,
a cantar una pena fingida.

Mas hoy sé bien el gusto de la pena,
y ya no quiero contarlo.
Ya no quiero contarlo,
solo decir qué hermoso, el frío otoño.
When young, I did not know the taste of sorrow.
I went up the tower.
I went up the tower
to write a poem on pretended sorrow.

By now I’ve completely tasted sorrow, but already
I do not want to speak about it.
I do not want to speak about it,
I only say: what a beautiful, cold autumn.

Gu Gan: 露 (Dew)Gu Gan: 露 (Dew)

Xing Qiji in this poem uses such a fine play of words – or rather “play of characters” – that we can not translate, only explain. However, this play is the key not only to this poem, but to the Chinese poem in general.

The two parts end in two similar words, chóu and qiū (ch’ou and chou). The final qiū 秋 of the second part, composed of the images of an ear 禾 and of the fire 火 means ‘autumn’, the season of the stubble-field burning. In the final 愁 chóu of the first part we find this same 秋 ‘autumn’, but standing above the sign of the heart and of the feelings 心 and thus meaning ‘sorrow’, “autumn in the heart”.

The classical poetry of the Tang period made an effort to avoid this too “lyrical” word. The great dictionary of the Tang poetry only includes two occurrences of it. However, the popular poetic genre of the Song period, the ci that imited folk songs, often exploited the sounding and “etymologic” similarity of the two words, as we also find it in Li Yu among the poems translated by us.

This play, well known in his age, is reversed by Xin Qiji when he says that in the years of his youth he wanted to write about “the autumn in his heart” – but how far he was at that time from really having autum in his heart! And by the time he had it – we have already hinted at the reason in our previous note – he already reached the point where he did not want to describe “the autumn in the heart”, but only “the autumn” which he already saw clearly with all its beauty and coldness, and with the omission of all the frills of sentiments 心.

And if he – and the best of the Chinese poetry – reached the point of omitting them, then why does the translator want to smuggle back, intrusively and at any cost, his own ones?

Wang Xuezhong: 白花齊放 (Let a hundred flowers bloom)Wang Xuezhong: 白花齊放 (Let a hundred flowers bloom)