Asymptote Reviews Bai Hua’s Wind Says

The new issue of Asymptote features Henry Leung’s review of Wind Says 风在说, poems by Bai Hua 柏桦 translated by Fiona Sze-Lorrain. Here’s what he has to say on the poetry and translation:

Beginning especially with the “Hand Notes on Mountain and Water” section in Wind Says, his poems become more staccato, numbered, and jagged, pinballing from image to image—freeing up the range of movement. One of my favorite lines is section 4 in “Hand Notes,” which reads in its entirety: “He has a dawn-like spirit, but his punctuality expresses his sadness.” And the poem ends with a rhyme of action that would not be so poignant or direct without the sharp cuts of white space around each line:

He smashes ants with a hammer.
That maid picks up and walks away with two pieces of dog shit.
That old man rubs two peaches like rubbing two testicles.

These are uninflected juxtapositions of images. They don’t require explanation or rhetoric; the images spin a vitality out of their own mysteries.
Sometimes I wonder if certain lines that fall flat—such as “infinitely, infinitely …” in “Character Sketches,” a line so poor compared to its succeeding line with the same function, “fiddling with an eternal bell on a bike”—are flaws of the original, or of the translation, or simply of the incapacity of English to carry abstractions the way Chinese can. On the translation itself, I must note some occasional awkwardness that is misdirecting more than productive—”Opposite windows open” is a mistranslation of what would mean “the windows opposite”; “The third story (can’t help but) begin(s) from romance” is an overcomplication of the original parenthetical; and so on—but overall the translation is admirable. Sometimes Sze-Lorrain even improves on the original, as in the exquisite cadence of “who blows now / who is fire / who is the convulsing arm of a new flower” in “Beauty.” And by no means can I fault a translator who can bring us this couplet from “Fish”:

Born as metaphor to clarify a fact:
the throat where ambiguous pain begins

Interesting, though, that amidst a discussion of translation, Leung would focus on the line “That old man rubs two peaches like rubbing two testicles” without mentioning that this is, in fact, a mistranslation: the line in Chinese is 那老人搓着两个核桃若搓着两个睾丸, so the old man is rubbing walnuts, not peaches.