The new issue of the New York Review of Books features “Poems Without an ‘I,’” Madeleine Thien’s review of three books, The Banished Immortal: A Life of Li Bai [李白] (Pantheon, 2019) by Ha Jin 哈金 and The Selected Poems of Tu Fu [杜甫]: Expanded and Newly Translated (New Directions, 2020) and Awakened Cosmos: The Mind of Classical Chinese Poetry (Shambhala, 2019) by David Hinton.
Thien’s is a very informed and informative piece, but as Victor Mair points out on Language Log, even as she’s reviewing translations of Chinese poetry, she seems to believe that translation of Chinese poetry is not really possible:
The essential experience of Chinese poetry is all but untranslatable. Eliot Weinberger, Lucas Klein, Burton Watson, Stephen Owen, and David Hinton, among others, have set down superb translations, while noting that, in bringing Chinese poetry into English, more things go missing than in translations from other languages … Ha Jin describes a particular Li Bai poem as obtaining a beauty that “can be fully appreciated only in the Chinese.” Hinton observes that a particular line, severed from its radically different philosophical context, “fails absolutely in translation.” But the incommensurability of Chinese (logographic) and English (alphabetic) written systems begins the moment a mark is made. Chinese ideograms are composed of strokes, and each of the brushstrokes references others.
I love being put in a list with some of my heroes as having “set down superb translations,” but I cringe at the remark that the “essential experience of Chinese poetry is all but untranslatable.” As Mair writes, “I have never been a fan of the view that Chinese poetry is untranslatable, or that any other genres of Chinese literature, for that matter, are untranslatable. Since I have done a huge amount of translation in my lifetime, if I accepted the notion that Chinese literature is untranslatable, I would long ago have made a gigantic fool of myself.” And I like what Red Pine (Bill Porter) writes, in the comments section to the Language Log post: “How absurd that Chinese poetry would be untranslatable, or anything for that matter. Poems don’t come with moonlight or wind, much less the effects of the wine. They’re just words, until the reader, or the translator comes along and brings them back to life.”
There’s more to Thien’s article than this, of course–and her piece is not the worst offender when it comes to articles mystifying Chinese or poetry written in that language–but it’s worth reiterating: Sure, there are aspects of poetry in Chinese or any language that don’t make it through to other languages well in most translations, but that doesn’t mean the poetry is “untranslatable.” As Maghiel van Crevel points out in an article called “Transgression as Rule” (in Kroll and Silk, eds., “At the Shores of the Sky”: Asian Studies for Albert Hoffstädt; Brill, 2020), “untranslatability” really means hypertranslatability. With more aspects to consider, there are more options for the translator to try out in rendering something from one language into another.
Translation isn’t impossible–it happens all the time. It’s perfection that’s impossible.
I should also add that it’s a strange thing to write “each time we see an ‘I’ in a translation of Tang poetry, it was almost certainly not in the original text” in a discussion of Li Bai–one of the most forceful users of the first-person pronoun in classical Chinese poetics.
Click on the links above to read the pieces in full.