Jeffrey Yang, poet, editor, and translator of Uyghur and Chinese poetry (both classical and modern, including Liu Xiaobo’s 刘晓波June Fourth Elegies, Su Shi’s 蘇軾 East Slope, and Bei Dao’s 北岛 forthcoming memoir City Gate, Open Up) answers questions as part of Words Without Borders‘ “Translator Relay“:
You are a translator, but also an award-winning poet. Can you speak about how your work as a poet informs your translations? And in turn, do you find that your work as a translator informs your poetry?
I try not to dissect this back and forth too much as the two so naturally fit together, like Adam and Eve. Both require careful attention to the musical qualities of language. The two can also overtly overlap, in that translating a poem is akin to writing a poem in a new language, or when writing a poem includes translated lines from another language. Both practices thrive in obscurity and with patient tinkering at the minutest level of word and line. As the recent Nobel Laureate said fifty years ago, “People have one great blessing—obscurity.” Each revels in an economy of language while persisting outside of the day-to-day economy, where profit never ventures upon its threshold. The one feeds the other in body and spirit, as with the other arts.
A persuasive theory equates the English-language poets of the Elizabethan age (Shakespeare, Wyatt, Surrey, Sidney, Marlowe, Raleigh, Campion, and others) with the Chinese-language poets of the T’ang (or Tang) dynasty (618 to 907) which is often considered to be the Golden Age of Chinese poetry. Poets like Wang Wei, Tu Fu, Li Bai (or Li Po), and later poets like Su Shih, have in common with the Elizabethan poets and with many modern American poets that they were highly-educated and at the same time virtually unemployable. The emphasis on academic qualifications and the impossibility of attaining proper employment haunt these three eras: the Elizabethan Age, the Tang Period, and the modern American age.This means that many scholars from those three periods are highly trained in the various branches of rhetoric, yet afflicted with a world-view that is highly complex, negative, and painfully aware of the likelihood of unemployment.
The picture we in the west have of Li Bai is that of cheerful mastery through excess: he wrote millions of poems, threw most of them away, drank lots of alcohol and drowned on a drunken swim, trying to catch the reflection of the moon in the water. So legend has it.