Floating signifiers are especially insecure in translation, in which one often has to choose between music and intention, double meanings or single ones, visual effect or faithful retellings. They present a particular dilemma because a floating signifier in one language may not be one in the other. The Chinese language, painting with a full palette of the pictorial, the symbolic, the historical, and the literal, has a tangibility that does not lapse into the vague as easily as English does. Ernest Fenollosa, in his (flawed but admirable) studies, characterized Chinese characters as a medium for poetry. It is not that Chinese is inherently more possessive of the elusive idea of poetics, but rather that the facets of Chinese language that enchanted Fenollosa with their invocation of poetry are also what result in headaches for translators. We do not count our losses in translation. Instead, we admire the growth a poem may undergo as it leaves its writer’s hand and wanders onto the page, how it may cross oceans and national borders, how it lives, how it is alive, the way we know language to be.
Shan notes that in Henry Zhang’s English version of Yu’s poem “Letter of Regret,” the word “‘love’ is applied much less liberally, turning up only four times” to Yu’s six for aiqing 爱情. “There is no retracing the tangled process of translation,” she says, “but one may guess that it has something to do with how ‘love’ weighs lighter in the Chinese language, which has ceded less value to the word in its public consciousness.”
I don’t know about that. But looking at the first stanza of the poem in Chinese and English, I wonder if Zhang was working with another version.
Letter of Regret
I wrote so much love
love would make me
two cities, each ignoring the other
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