Humility in translation.

After a year teaching in China, one of my colleagues gave me two beautiful scrolls. One was a calligraphy alphabet she had drawn herself on gold-coloured paper and the other was a scroll of a famous poem, hand made by her calligraphy teacher at art school. At more than a meter and a half in length, it is a gorgeous work. At the top are the two characters for dragon, underneath which the poem is written in fast flowing swirls of brushed ink. It takes a sure hand to get it right, and Weijie’s teacher is a master of the art. The graciousness of both the giving and the gift were very moving and it hangs proudly on my wall.

But here’s the thing. In one of those weird co-incidences that less rational people confuse with predestination, more than a year earlier in Melbourne I had bought a T-shirt with exactly the same poem on it. I know, right? Instead of the Chinese characters, it features the painting of an actual dragon, but still. Surely it was more than mere coincidence. Surely. Of course, in reality it wasn’t at all surprising because it is a very well known poem; you’ve probably got a tea towel with it on somewhere in your kitchen drawers. Nonetheless it’s kind of like the Mona Lisa – the commonplaceness of the image on a bewildering array of unrelated objects doesn’t diminish the beauty of the original. And a handcrafted scroll is very different to a mass produced T-shirt and I was almost too embarrassed to accept such a beautiful thing. Almost.

In a poorly thought through notion of respect, I decided to try to translate the poem because most of the versions in English that I had seen were varying degrees of bad. It wasn’t that I thought I could do it better (well it was, but that’s just me being big-headed) it was more that I wanted to give the poem back some of the delicate strength that seemed to be missing in the translations. The attempt was unquestionably and possible arrogantly self-indulgent and obviously well beyond my scope but my excuse was that the exercise was meant solely for my own benefit and eyes. And with not just little drop of misplace vanity to oil the wheels, I set the machinery in motion.

Chinese poetry is written to be beautiful on the page: the best ones seem to actually cascade down the paper like water or like a leaf falling to the ground. Chinese poetry also values the sounds of the words, not just how the words sound but the melody in the sequence of the tones. And that is probably going to be impossible to capture in English. But the English language has strengths of its own. You can use words that have multiple meanings and if you can control the imagery then you can create different layers of meaning. I’m not saying I can do it very well, but at least I know what I am aiming for.

Chinese poems don’t usually have verses or stanzas as Western poetry mostly does. Stanzas are a great way to build those layers of meaning because they can put complex concepts next to each other, and so build the poem up in a surrounding architectural or conceptual scaffolding. It seemed to me that this poem had three stanzas. The first verse asks the question of what gives a place its emotional resonance or soul? The second verse takes that further into a personal sense, what makes a place special for you? The third verse takes that idea even further to suggest that a sacredness of a place exist primarily in the person who occupies that space. So the progress of the poem, its narrative larc, is very stately and measured in tone but also very fast in its development from the generic to the specific – much like a good sonnet in English poetry. And there is a carefully wrought balance in its arrangement; it sits evenly on the page. These were the qualities I was aiming to retain. In theory.

Of course, as usual I bit off way more than I could chew and the result was not nearly good enough for public scrutiny. The main major hurdle was the fact that I actually can’t speak Mandarin, like, not at all, so it beggars belief that I even thought I could translate a poem written in that language. I looked up every word in my dictionary and quickly found out that each word had approximately four million very different meanings. I asked everyone within my immediate radius to tell me what individual phrases and words and whole sentences meant. I found seventeen translations on the internet and studied them all. And then when I thought I knew what the poem was mostly about, I had a go at putting it together into one coherent, cohesive and consistent whole that had some poetic feel to it. After all that I looked at the words on my computer screen for a long time and then decided not to show my translation to anyone, ever, because it was embarrassingly inept. It would stay locked in the proverbial bottom draw forever, where no one could ever see it. So, here it is.

 

A Humble House

A mountain is sacred not because it is high
but because spirits chose to live there.
A lake is enchanting not because it is deep
but because dragons chose to play there.
A house is welcoming not because it is grand
but because a virtuous man has chosen to live there.

Moss-covered steps behind a bamboo screen
Lead to my cottage where I can be at peace.
There, away from the harsh noise of the world
I listen to the quiet wisdom of learned men.
Their voices hum like music, a leaf that floats
From the page and onto the pool of deep reflection.

My home is may be a simple hut, but as Confucius said
“No place is humble when it houses a virtuous man.”

I deliberately took out Chinese names from the original and words that had no English equivalent, so only Confucius remains, but I think that the poem is immediately recognizable as Chinese, even though it has a very loose sonnet structure. When I showed it to my friend Tony, the man who finds great enjoyment in my complete inability to pronounce even the most basic of Mandarin words with any degree of accuracy, he said it needed to be ‘more green’. For a moment I was confused but then nodded sagely and agreed. Of course, it did: people often say that about my poems. “Your poems,” they say, “need to be more green.” Like, not a day goes by when people do not say that. Number One Library Team Leader Lin looked at me pityingly. Peering myopically over his spectacles, he said without a hint of a smile, “You are a nut shop!”

Translation is difficult. But even when we don’t get it quite right, it can be delightful.

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