All the Way to Chang-Feng-Sha: Some Translation So Medieval Chinese Poetry
Derbyshire, John, Parnassus : Poetry in Review
Many years ago I was living in MongGok, a working-class district of Hong Kong, surviving as best I could by giving English lessons while in between times trying to master the Chinese language. Browsing in a small bookstore late one evening on my way home from a class, I came upon a cheap, locally-published volume with the title Tang Shi San Bai Shou, which translates as "Three Hundred Tang Shi." I knew enough Chinese to understand that this was a poetry anthology. Opening it, I was pleased to see that it was, in fact, a parallel text, with an English translation following each poem. It was plain that the English words had been set in type by an alphabetically-challenged Chinese compositor; but through the fog of misspellings I could also tell that whoever had supplied them had taken some pains to make his translations into decent English poems.
Chinese-English parallel texts were not easy to come by in the Seventies, and locally-produced books were absurdly cheap in Hong Kong at that time. I paid the equivalent of fifteen cents for that one. I lost the book on my travels some years later; but for as long as it was in my possession it was a friend and companion-though a rather ragged one, as the binding fell apart almost immediately.
It was not, however, as good a study guide as I had hoped. My own personal approach to poetry is through memorization. If I feel, after a passing acquaintance, that I want to know a poem better, I learn it by heart. My plan was therefore to identify among the shorter poems a few that were particularly well-known to Chinese people (a thing I could determine from enquiry among Chinese friends) and commit them to memory.
The problem was that those English translations kept getting in the way. I made my own translations, of course, but they were for purposes of study only. I did not attempt to craft them into English poems because my goal was understanding, not literary production. Yet reference to the parallel English text proved invaluable. Chinese is not an easy language to read. Even when you understand the meaning and grammatical function of each word, you may still be at a loss to say exactly what a sentence means. The medieval poets had been educated in the older, classical style of written Chinese, of which one learned sinologist has observed: "The student of classical Chinese is sometimes led to conclude despairingly that... he is not dealing with a medium for the communication of new ideas but a mnemonic device for calling to mind old ones. Is it too much to ask that the writer indicate at least the subject of the sentence? he may ask. In the case of classical Chinese the answer is usually, yes." (Burton Watson, Early Chinese Literature.) Time and again I found myself resorting to the parallel texts for clarification, and in this way I came to know them quite well. Too well, in fact; I was dismayed to find that while I had the utmost difficulty retaining the Chinese in my head, I was in some cases, without having put forth any conscious effort, word-perfect in the English versions!
This was the more odd because they were all in free verse. Like most readers who came to poetry in the late twentieth century, I have seen far too much free verse. While I do not reject it out of hand like G. K. Chesterton ("Free verse? You may as well call sleeping in a ditch `free architecture'!") I do find it much too easy to write and much too difficult to remember. I classify it, in my own mind, with other manifestations of the slack hedonism the human race seems to have fallen into-cost-free, effort-free, and blame-free, lifestyles learned from a book, religion without scourgings, music without harmony, novels without imagination. Doing office work in Britain and the U.S., I have sometimes let slip in conversation that I am a reader of poetry. Invariably some colleague-most often a young woman-will appear in my cube an hour or so later with a sheaf of her poems for me to pass judgment on. …