Poetry Daily has published Vivek Narayanan on “a Poem’s Re-Entering History,” looking at Bei Dao’s 北岛 famous poem from the seventies, “The Reply” 回答 (elsewhere “The Answer”).
“I personally like to read multiple translations against each other,” he writes:
both as a way to see and triangulate what the translator is doing and to think/feel my way into what the source poem could be like. Read the translation on our site, by Clayton Eshleman and Lucas Klein, with its clear lyrical growl, to my ear more explicit in its political echoes, against this one by Bonnie S. McDougall, a little stilted in its language but also perhaps more indirect. If you can, read the version co-authored by Donald Finkel, a seemingly “free”-er version with surprising results. And do read this fourth—unattributed—translation on a “Learn Chinese” site, also very useful, despite what will feel to some like a mildly alienated idiom. Finally, listen to the dramatic recitation of the original Chinese linked on the “Learn Chinese” site above and consider to the extent possible, without fear, the transliterated Chinese. (Tip: also try hovering your mouse over the original Chinese characters!)
If we look at just the first two lines—
bēibǐ shì bēibǐ zhě de tōngxíngzhèng
gāoshàng shì gāoshàng zhě de mù zhì míng
—we see that the key lies in repetition—bēibǐ (“contempt,” “debasement,” “shabbiness”) in the first line and gāoshàng (“gravitas,” “nobility,” “refined,” “lofty”, etc.) in the second. This is no simple repetition, however. The translators show us how the word in each case is being turned against itself, in a visceral struggle for personal existence and for language to have any meaning or purpose at all. From this point, the poem should start to emerge. The line “I-do-not-believe”—four stark characters isolated by dashes, like cries from deep within—continues to resonate even in the moment from which I write, thinking of the protestors in Hong Kong, the silencing of Kashmir, or the current American era, with a head of state whose every utterance stokes disbelief.
(links to the translations and the “Learn Chinese” site in the article).
“But it would be glib to stop there, because we have not yet grappled with the poem’s final paradox: between internal and external, public and private,” Narayanan continues. Click here to read more.