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Translator's Note: Mother, Kitchen

One would think a poet who owns over thirty thousand classical music cds would write verse driven by sound, rhythm, melody. So when I first sat down with Ouyang Jianghe in a Beijing coffee shop to dissect his poems, I expected a revelation along these lines. I thought that if I understood the music of this obtuse, gnarled language, I might better sing in his voice—and convey something essential about this essentially untranslatable poetry.

But I got none of this. All he gave me—or was willing to give me—was a scattering of observations about how one thing relates to another: notice a horizontal thing here, a vertical thing there; here black, here white; here in, here out. And yet, I came to learn, this is the music of his poetry. Sonority matters little to him—yet he arranges the elements of a poem as a composer structures a piece of music, through stylized repetition, juxtaposition, and development of motifs. He’s like Bach busy at his fugues, moved more by math than passion, building stark, intricate cathedrals to vault our minds above the everyday.

My job is to capture this music of ideas—which requires great sacrifice, considering how rife his poetry is with double meaning. In “Mother, Kitchen,” the word I take as “opening,” kaihe, actually means the action of opening and closing, like a box-lid or door. Finding no such word in English, I need to choose between these two meanings, cant the word so only one facet shows—making sure that facet catches the light of all other facets it was meant to reflect. Only “opening” will do, as it must evoke a door, to be echoed in the next line and the last. The “cabbage,” poor substitute for liangbansansi, a slaw-like noodle salad whose name puns with “two halves,” chimes instead with potato, turnip, sun: round things all, to be halved. 

What is actually evoked by these images is less important than that they evoke each other. Meaning is secondary. Ouyang describes his goal in writing as creating an emptiness, a vessel. “The Burning Kite” strikes me as a prime example of an “empty” poem—bare architecture inviting the reader to fill it with the furniture of her thoughts. My goal as translator is to replicate this architecture, widen the space within. The kite imagined is, of course, a Chinese kite, made of paper, not nylon, and shaped like a bird. —aw


This poem originally appeared in the June 2011 issue of Poetry magazine

June 2011

Originally appeared in Poetry magazine.

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