One way to understand translation is that it's the opposite of writing or its mirror image. When you write, you start with a truth that’s inside you, and you use language to try and expose it to the outside world. When you translate, you start with an outside truth that’s given to you, and you must internalize it through the medium of language. Translation in that way is just a deeper form of reading, an attempt to go beyond a shallow understanding of what someone else has said by memorializing it in words that ring true to your own ear.
Red Pine, who is one of my favorite translators of Chinese poetry, has said that there are as many translations of a Chinese poem as there are translators. That's really a definitional observation and leads us to the understanding that there is no such thing as a definitive translation. To take this thought a bit further, translation is certainly not a science, nor do I think of it as an art so much as it is a fundamental part of the human condition. We are forever translating, whether we realize it or not, the web of language that surrounds us into our personal idiom.
We pursue truth the way a hunter chases after game, except that truth is far more elusive than even the fleetest doe or buck. No matter how many arrows we shoot, they always fall short of the mark, until we learn to shoot in the dark and with no arrows at all take aim. Writing and translating happen through the medium of language but the truths we pursue reside in wordless silence and ultimately that’s where they always remain.
My new book of translations of Chinese poetry
called The Poetry of Awakening is now available
in paperback. You can find it on Amazon (if you
don't mind abetting monopoly power) or on Barnes & Noble.
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"There's something wrong here. Translating Chinese poetry isn't supposed to be this much fun"
-- Red Pine
When I finished the manuscript for this book, I sent a copy to Red Pine and he was kind enough to provide me with this blurb quote. My editor, Marc Estrin, decided not use it on the book jacket because he thought it didn't recommend or illuminate the book to potential readers. This is one case in which I find myself disagreeing with Marc. Red Pine's blurb reads to me as high praise, at least when I translate it into my personal idiom. Translating these poems was close to pure delight for me, and I hope at least part of that joy comes through for readers.