Unfortunately, English is the only language in which I'm fluent, and that is often arguable in itself. But I read a lot of poetry that has been translated into English. I'm particularly interested in Chinese poetry, particularly wilderness poetry, sometimes called rivers-and-mountains poetry, which has a rich tradition among Chinese poets and visual artists. Or so I've read. Not being able to read even a single Chinese character, I often wonder, though, if I really like Chinese poetry or if what I actually like is the modern sensibility of these poems as they've been translated by the likes of Ezra Pound, Kenneth Rexroth, Gary Snyder, and David Hinton, to name just a few of the prominent translators of the past fifty-plus years.
Each translator has his or her own style, and there are different approaches a translator can employ that radically or subtly change the way a poem comes across to a reader. When you're reading a poem in translation, particularly if it was written originally in a language you can't read, you are totally in the hands of the translator: he or she becomes the surrogate for the poet. So in the case of David Hinton's translations, is it Hinton's voice that I enjoy or is it the voices of the poets he's translated? I don't know. But I do know I like Hinton's work.
Here as an example is a piece written by Chia Tao (779-843) and translated by David Hinton in his excellent book Mountain Home: The Wilderness Poetry of Ancient China (2005, New Directions, New York, New York).
Sent to a Master of Silence on
Knowing you've returned to White-Tower,
I gaze into mountain distances, late skies
clearing. Mind tranquil in a stone house,
moon-shadow lingers across frozen lakes.
Thin cloud feathers into scraps and away.
Ancient trees fall and dry into firewood.
Past midnight, who hears stone chimes?
The cragged summit on West Peak is cold.
Lean, concise, compact lines. A subtle enjambment between the first and second couplets, which creates a pleasing, soothing flow; the simple, direct pacing of the lines throughout the poem express the sense of an enlightened individual's "tranquil mind" as a part of the greater, wilder, ancient and ever-changing world. It's very much a modern poem, to our eyes and ears and perhaps even our sensibilities. Yet it was written over 1000 years ago. How modern the "ancient" Chinese poets were!
A few years ago, I became aware of the work of an interesting group of poets collectively called "The Moth Wing Cold Book Poets." These anonymous poets are part of a tradition that is perhaps 500 years old. I quote here from a limited-edition booklet titled Selected Translations From Moth Wing Cold Book, which served as my introduction to this interesting poetic collective:
"We know little about the group of poets who created the poems of Moth Wing Cold Book . . . . We know this much: some of the Moth Wing Cold Book poets are Chinese; some are not; all have chosen to work anonymously, allowing various translator-interpreters of their poems to be closely identified with the 'content' of the poems.
We believe that the [Moth Wing Cold Book] poems were initially written in Chinese, translated by the poets into other languages--French, English, Arabic, and Latin (?!) [sic] are among those identified as source languages for the poems--and then translated back, literally word-for-word into Chinese. Thus, the current English translations are at least fourth-level interpretations of the source material. It is not clear why the Moth Wing Cold Book poets work in this unconventional manner--writing, translating, retranslating, then giving away their work for additional translation and publication--but it is a group tradition that goes back an estimated five hundred years!"
I was surprised recently to stumble upon a Moth Wing Cold Book poet's translation or interpretation of the Chia Tao poem, "Sent to a Master of Silence on White-Tower Mountain." This poem has apparently been floating around, as it were, but has not yet been formally collected into the body of known Moth Wing Cold Book poems. This poem was translated approximately five years ago by Maggie "Robert" Nice, a well-known Moth Wing Cold Book translator. It goes without saying that the poet who originally wrote or translated this piece in the first place did so anonymously, as is the long-standing convention for Moth Wing Cold Book poets:
Knowing you've returned to White Castle,
your booth in the west corner;
the shade drawn to protect yourself
from the sun; to drink your coffee black,
eat your sack of Slyders and
French fries dunked in those little white cups
of ketchup, I gaze across the valley:
the bright sprawl feathered in purple
light; restaurants and gas stations,
strip malls and auto dealers.
All of tranquil mind. Does the boy
who looks like Travis Bickle
still work at White Castle?
The darkness surrounds us, Master Silicone.
I see men who resemble Mohamed Atta
everywhere I go. I am afraid
to eat oranges. T.V. and movies are all about death:
teen-age gunmen; suicide bombers; erectile dysfunction.
What is to be done? My identity was stolen.
Some third cousin of the deceased surgeon general of Nigeria.
He seemed sincere.
Airplane travel has its risks.
Have you completed your napkin commentaries
do you have a publisher?
Past midnight, who hears ambulance siren chimes?
The coffee cold. The moon a white crescent sheening.
This is a fascinating piece on a number of different levels, and indicates, assuming it will be accepted by scholars as a genuine article, that the Moth Wing Cold Book poets are still active today. The tradition continues!