Why translations of premodern poetry are having their moment (3)

Du Fu

state gone, just creeks and peaks
spring grows high in the streets
times bloom with sprinkled tears
birds part and start at heart
beacons burn for three months
letters worth piles of gold
I scratch my white hair short
so my pin doesn’t hold

tr. MW, July 2016

I was on the road when I read Lucas Klein’s very detailed and interesting observations. When I came to Du Fu’s poem, picked out from the new complete Du Fu in English by Stepehn Owen, I started to make up my own version as I sat on the train from Lago Maggiore in northern Italy to Switzerland. I had to hit reply to have the article with the poem there and write down the lines I came up with. I should have put it into Drafts, but wasn’t 100% sure that would work. So I hit send. It went into Outbox, the phone couldn’t send right away, there was no WiFi. Then I tried to move it from Outbox to drafts. Didn’t work. But then it was completely gone from Inbox. At least I haven’t sent out this first draft, I thought. Oh well. I have known this poem since 1986 or so. I was an undergraduate in Chinese studies. The Tang Poems class was much easier for me than the one where we had to memorize the vintage Chinese-English textbook dialogues and recognize every sentence from awkward German translations tossed at us at exams. Also memorize the classic 214 radicals, with supposed pronunciation. Every real Chinese speaker knows this is not how people use 部首. 214 radicals, who do you start with? Interesting thought. Anyway, Tang poetry was easy. But my favourite thing in connection with that poem is from a Japanese Studio Ghibli film, the second one with the cat Baron (猫の恩返し Neko no Ongaeshi). The heroine is late for class and comes in as the teacher recites the poem for the students to repeat after him and writes it on the blackboard. Everyone is falling asleep, but the latecomer and the teacher’s reaction make for a welcome diversion.

Goethe was fascinated by Chinese literature. He read translations in French, anything that was available. He probably never encountered anyone who could speak or read the language, but there was enough inspiration for poems. Gustav Mahler pieced together one poem by Meng Haoran and one by Wang Wei for Der Abschied (Farewell), the last piece in The Song Of The Earth. He worked from German translations of French renderings of French translations. He also added and changed lines and words to fit the poems to his music. The results are very beautiful variations on Li Bai and so on. Very distant variations, but certainly no less deep and inspired for that.

Many German poets worked with material from classic Chinese poetry – Klabund and Günther Eich, for example. Brecht, of course.

One of the things that struck me about Lucas Klein’s fascinating article is the Us And Them shining through. US and China. Almost as if there was nothing else, at least in English. Of course everyone knows there is a world, there are worlds in between. Chinese American poets, for one. But one cannot write about everything at once. And Lucas Klein’s long article is very succinct and a pleasure to read. Many details. It was interesting to see the Cultural Revolution mentioned together with what was going on in India. But did Indira Ghandi’s policies have any impact on reception of Chinese poetry in America, or Asian poetry in general?

Anyway, Lucas celebrates and affirms the impact of Ezra Pound’s Make it new!, and I am certainly glad there has been so much inspiration. The dichotomy of US vs. China or the other way round does stand out, but maybe this is one of the sources of Lucas Klein’s own inspiration. Why not?

When I looked at my own attempts again yesterday, I knew I had failed one more time. I have written a handful of good poems inspired by Du Fu, Bai Juyi, Wang Wei and others. They are in German, all written in 2007 and 2008. Some are closer to the Chinese source, some are freer. Variations on very old standards. But also very much inspired by my own life, by our life back then in China and in Austria. This is why they are some of my best poems. Every time I came up with a different rhythm. Short lines. From Du Fu’s five syllables per verse to seven or eight, in one example. But also from Wang Wei’s five syllables per verse to my five syllables. I think classical Chinese poetry should be read like Haiku and Tanka are, counting syllables. The crucial thing is I just wrote poems. Not just translations. The results were published in the NZZ, the Neue Zürcher Zeitung, beginning in 2011. They also published some of my translations of new poetry by Yi Sha, Ma Fei, Pang Pei etc, as well as my own poems.

When I translate poetry by living writers, it often comes out in English first, or if an English version come after a German translation, it is sometimes better, at least in some details. I notice other things, notice omissions or mistakes I had made before. It is all very random. Sometimes I write a series of my own stuff only in English, at first. Sometimes in Chinese.

Du Fu


state gone: creeks & peaks,
spring grows in the streets.
times bloom sprinkled tears;
birds part, startling hearts.
beacons burn three months,
words from home are gold.
scratching white hair short:
pin doesn’t hold.

Tr. MW, July 2016

Last night I came home from a trip to Germany. I was in Münster, with Chun Shu. We had a joint reading with her poems and my translations, and with my own stuff. A little too much of many things, though some of it was received very well. This is the first one of a series of her recent poems:

Chun Sue

in a five-minute break
I remember: many years ago

we sat on a bench before a small store
Beijing back then is not the one I understand anymore

very strange
but everything is unremarkable

I cannot express it today
just like you threw the language away
I don’t get anything out now

what should I say
what should I do
maybe me back then is the one who should know

it was never so completely confusing, but it’s not what you did,
please don’t apologize, you have not made me sad

if you had a soul
it would hurt you double

Tr. MW, July 2016

Should I avoid the rhymes, because they aren’t there in the source? You can see the texts in Chinese and in translations on my blog.

Thank you!

Martin Winter <dujuan99@gmail.com>

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