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. Word-for-word translations, writes François Cheng in his masterful Chinese Poetic Writing (1977), can give “only the barest caricature.”
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. Cheng gives this line from Wang Wei as an example, followed by its literal translation:
木 末 芙 蓉 花
branch end magnolia flowers
The character for “branch” 木 begins to transform at its tips 末 and bud into life. In the third character, 艹 (the radical for “grass” 艸 or “flower”) bursts forth from the crown of the words 芙蓉 (magnolia) and ends in 花 (flower). Further, in a simultaneous layer of images, the third character, Cheng writes, “contains the element 天 ‘man,’ which itself contains the element 人 ‘Man’ (homo),” or person. “Face” 容 is visible in the fourth ideogram, and the fifth contains 化 (transformation). Thus the line also records a human trajectory: spiritual metamorphosis and then mortality embedded in nature itself.
Many simple characters can be incorporated into a single ideogram—the word, Cheng writes, “never succeeds in completely repressing other, deeper meanings ever present within the sign”—and ideograms placed beside one another generate further significance. Transference, parallels, metonymy, and correspondences across words and lines generate a radically different poetic realm than lexical meanings produce in English-language poetry (with its own rich universe of etymologies and literary associations). Each of the twenty ideograms in, for instance, a pentasyllabic quatrain, are considered independent “sages” and personalities; words are not only denotative but have their own “reality.”
This is a difficult thing to wrap one’s head around; the dimensionality of the Chinese writing system itself is akin to a forest we walk through (where the trees keep grouping and regrouping as we move among them), rather than a series of twigs arranged on a surface. Cheng observes that the writing system “has refused to be simply a support for the spoken language: its development has been characterized by a constant struggle to assure for itself both autonomy and freedom of combination.” To add to the constellations of meaning within any given poem, the disciplines of poetry, calligraphy, and painting are not considered distinct but rather facets of a single complete art.
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