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Translator's Note: Island (#2)

BY ARTHUR SZE

 

"Island" is a sequence of five poems, and I have only translated the second. The insistent voice makes many tonal shifts and harnesses unusual images to create an aura of longing.

In making an initial translation, I was keenly aware of the original's tercet form, but I was also interested in the fact that there was no punctuation and that there were white spaces inside many of the lines. These silences stopped the motion, heightened the tension, and also enabled tonal shifts to occur. Like yin energy, the white spaces charged the yang language on the page.

In the first few drafts, I tried to resist making sense or connecting the images too soon. Rather, I tried to suspend the images and trust the unfolding motion and rhythmical charge to the lines. In the third line to the first stanza, I quickly encountered an untranslatable phrase, yuan yuan. In conversational Chinese, it is common to repeat a character (for instance, man man can be translated as "slowly," but it also embodies the experience of slowing things down). In addition, repeating characters exist in the earliest classical poetry. In "The Beautiful Toilet," attributed to Mei Sheng, 140 BCE, Ezra Pound, in Cathay, translates the opening line as "Blue, blue is the grass about the river." Repeating characters create a haunting musicality and, for a moment, suspend time. At first I tried to translate yuan yuan as "roundly, roundly," and then I tried other adjectives, but they all felt, and sounded, forced. I then considered omitting the phrase, but I felt a huge gap. I decided to work on the rest of the poem—lines fourteen and fifteen came after intense struggle—and when most of the translation was complete, I came back to yuan yuan. I reread the line to reenvision it and suddenly saw how a single drop of water embodied a kind of perfection. I then wrote, "Water one drop can perfectly lock up these shores," and was able to complete the translation.—AS

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This poem originally appeared in the April 2009 issue of Poetry magazine

April 2009

Originally appeared in Poetry magazine.

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