Prose from Poetry Magazine

Traveling Between Languages

Possessed by Chinese characters.

by Chen Li

1

For the past few decades, the Chinese language used by the people in Taiwan has been in many ways different from that used by the people in mainland China. The differences lie not only in expressions, accents, pronunciations, and characters but also in linguistic “temperament.” In my opinion, the Chinese language used in Taiwan has some sort of vitality different from that used in mainland China. For one thing, whereas mainland China tried to wipe out its traditions, started the Great Cultural Revolution, and implemented a simplified form of Chinese characters, Taiwan, under the rule of the Kuomintang after WWII, advocated the “Movement of Reviving Chinese Culture,” continued to use the traditional complex form of characters, and put Chinese classical literature and history on the examination list. The result of the different policies is that people or writers in Taiwan are likely to have a more profound understanding and a subtler perception of “the beauty of Chinese” than people or writers in mainland China. Also, being an island, Taiwan enjoys more liberal and freer living environments, which enables people to assimilate diverse elements to form a more flexible, energetic, hybridized, and colorful language.

Chinese—with its pictographs, monosyllables, homonyms, and characters with multiple meanings or similar pronunciations—has a savor that is rarely found in other languages. A Chinese poem written in traditional complex characters is likely to lose part of this savor if transcribed in simplified characters. Thus I feel that the Chinese poem I write in Taiwan has an essential quality that may be absent in works written by users of other languages or Chinese speakers in other areas. Judging from what modern Taiwanese poetry has achieved in the past few decades, the Chinese language in Taiwan has indeed evolved and created new sensibility and vitality.

In my poem “Breakfast Tablecloth of a Solitary Entomologist,” I collect all the Chinese characters with “虫” (insect) as their radical. This “character tablecloth,” made of numerous strokes and swarmed with insects, would lose its distinctiveness if it were printed in simplified characters. For example, the traditional complex character “蝟” would be simplified into “猬—the radical 虫 would be turned into犭(dog); “蠱” and “蠶” would become “蛊” and “蚕—several “insects” would be missing:

虭虮虯虰虱虳虴虷虹虺虻虼蚅蚆蚇蚊
蚋蚌蚍蚎蚐蚑蚓蚔蚕蚖蚗蚘蚙蚚蚜蚝
蚞蚡蚢蚣蚤蚥蚧蚨蚩蚪蚯蚰蚱蚳蚴蚵
蚶蚷蚸蚹蚺蚻蚼蚽蚾蚿蛀蛁蛂蛃蛄蛅
蛆蛇蛈蛉蛋蛌蛐蛑蛓蛔蛖蛗蛘蛙蛚蛛
蛜蛝蛞蛟蛢蛣蛤蛦蛨蛩蛪蛫蛬蛭蛵蛶
蛷蛸蛹蛺蛻蛾蜀蜁蜂蜃蜄蜅蜆蜇蜈蜉
蜊蜋蜌蜍蜎蜑蜒蜓蜘蜙蜚蜛蜜蜞蜠蜡
蜢蜣蜤蜥蜦蜧蜨蜩蜪蜬蜭蜮蜰蜱蜲蜳
蜴蜵蜷蜸蜺蜻蜼蜾蜿蝀蝁蝂蝃蝆蝌蝍
蝎蝏蝐蝑蝒蝓蝔蝕蝖蝗蝘蝙蝚蝛蝜蝝
蝞蝟蝠蝡蝢蝣蝤蝥蝦蝧蝨蝩蝪蝫蝬蝭
蝮蝯蝳蝴蝵蝶蝷蝸蝹蝺蝻螁螂螃螄螅
螇螈螉融螏   螐螑螒螓螔螖螗螘螚螛
螜螝螞螟螢螣螤螪螫螬螭螮螯螰螲螳
螴螵螶螷螸螹螺螻螼螽螾螿蟀蟂   蟃
蟄蟅蟆蟈蟉蟊蟋蟌蟑蟒蟓蟔蟗蟘蟙蟛
蟜蟝蟞蟟蟠蟡蟢蟣蟤蟥蟦蟧蟨蟪蟫蟬
蟭蟯蟳蟴蟶蟷蟹蟺   蟻蟼蟾蠀蠁蠂蠃
蠅蠆蠈蠉蠊蠋蠌蠍蠐蠑蠓蠔蠕蠖蠗蠙
蠛蠜蠝蠟   蠠蠡蠢蠣蠤蠥   蠦蠨蠩蠪
蠫蠬蠮蠯蠰蠱蠲蠳蠶蠸蠹蠻蠼蠽蠾蠿

Years ago I wrote a poem, “A War Symphony,” which consists of many lines but only four characters—“兵,” “乒,” “乓,” and “丘” (you may even say it’s composed of only one character, “兵,” since the other three characters can be seen as its transformations):

兵兵兵兵兵兵兵兵兵兵兵兵兵兵兵兵兵兵兵兵兵兵兵兵
兵兵兵兵兵兵兵兵兵兵兵兵兵兵兵兵兵兵兵兵兵兵兵兵
兵兵兵兵兵兵兵兵兵兵兵兵兵兵兵兵兵兵兵兵兵兵兵兵
兵兵兵兵兵兵兵兵兵兵兵兵兵兵兵兵兵兵兵兵兵兵兵兵
兵兵兵兵兵兵兵兵兵兵兵兵兵兵兵兵兵兵兵兵兵兵兵兵
兵兵兵兵兵兵兵兵兵兵兵兵兵兵兵兵兵兵兵兵兵兵兵兵
兵兵兵兵兵兵兵兵兵兵兵兵兵兵兵兵兵兵兵兵兵兵兵兵
兵兵兵兵兵兵兵兵兵兵兵兵兵兵兵兵兵兵兵兵兵兵兵兵
兵兵兵兵兵兵兵兵兵兵兵兵兵兵兵兵兵兵兵兵兵兵兵兵
兵兵兵兵兵兵兵兵兵兵兵兵兵兵兵兵兵兵兵兵兵兵兵兵
兵兵兵兵兵兵兵兵兵兵兵兵兵兵兵兵兵兵兵兵兵兵兵兵
兵兵兵兵兵兵兵兵兵兵兵兵兵兵兵兵兵兵兵兵兵兵兵兵
兵兵兵兵兵兵兵兵兵兵兵兵兵兵兵兵兵兵兵兵兵兵兵兵
兵兵兵兵兵兵兵兵兵兵兵兵兵兵兵兵兵兵兵兵兵兵兵兵
兵兵兵兵兵兵兵兵兵兵兵兵兵兵兵兵兵兵兵兵兵兵兵兵
兵兵兵兵兵兵兵兵兵兵兵兵兵兵兵兵兵兵兵兵兵兵兵兵

兵兵兵兵兵兵兵乒兵兵兵兵兵兵兵乓兵兵兵兵兵兵兵乒
兵兵兵乓兵兵乒兵兵兵乒乒兵兵乒乓兵兵乒乓兵兵乓乓
乒乒兵兵兵兵乓乓乓乓兵兵乒乒乓乓乒乓兵乓兵兵乓乓
兵乒兵乒乒乒乓乓兵兵乒乒乓乓乓乓乒乒乓乓乒兵乓乓
乒兵乓乓乒兵乓乓乒乒乓乓乒乒乓乓乒乒乓乓乒乒乓乓
乒乒乓乓乒乒乓乓乒乒乓乓乒乒乓乓乒乒乓乓乒乒乓乓
乒乒乓乓乒乒乓乓乒乒乓乓乒乒乓乓乒乒乓乓乒乒乓乓
乒乓乒乓乒乓乒乓乒乓乒乓乒乓乒乓乒乓乒乓乒乓乒乓
乒乓乒乓乒乒乓乓乒乓乒乓乒乒乓乓乒乓乒乓乒乒乓乓
乒乒乒乒乒乒乒乒乓乓乓乓乓乓乓乓乒      乒乒乒   乓
乓乓   乒乓乒乒    乒   乓     乒乒      乒乒        乓乓
乒乒    乓乒    乒   乓   乒  乓   乒乒乒     乓     乒
   乒乒  乓   乓乓    乒     乒   乓      乒  乓         乒
乒               乓乓                    乓         乒   乓
   乒       乓      乒                       乓         乓
         乒                                            乓

丘丘丘丘丘丘丘丘丘丘丘丘丘丘丘丘丘丘丘丘丘丘丘丘
丘丘丘丘丘丘丘丘丘丘丘丘丘丘丘丘丘丘丘丘丘丘丘丘
丘丘丘丘丘丘丘丘丘丘丘丘丘丘丘丘丘丘丘丘丘丘丘丘
丘丘丘丘丘丘丘丘丘丘丘丘丘丘丘丘丘丘丘丘丘丘丘丘
丘丘丘丘丘丘丘丘丘丘丘丘丘丘丘丘丘丘丘丘丘丘丘丘
丘丘丘丘丘丘丘丘丘丘丘丘丘丘丘丘丘丘丘丘丘丘丘丘
丘丘丘丘丘丘丘丘丘丘丘丘丘丘丘丘丘丘丘丘丘丘丘丘
丘丘丘丘丘丘丘丘丘丘丘丘丘丘丘丘丘丘丘丘丘丘丘丘
丘丘丘丘丘丘丘丘丘丘丘丘丘丘丘丘丘丘丘丘丘丘丘丘
丘丘丘丘丘丘丘丘丘丘丘丘丘丘丘丘丘丘丘丘丘丘丘丘
丘丘丘丘丘丘丘丘丘丘丘丘丘丘丘丘丘丘丘丘丘丘丘丘
丘丘丘丘丘丘丘丘丘丘丘丘丘丘丘丘丘丘丘丘丘丘丘丘
丘丘丘丘丘丘丘丘丘丘丘丘丘丘丘丘丘丘丘丘丘丘丘丘
丘丘丘丘丘丘丘丘丘丘丘丘丘丘丘丘丘丘丘丘丘丘丘丘
丘丘丘丘丘丘丘丘丘丘丘丘丘丘丘丘丘丘丘丘丘丘丘丘
丘丘丘丘丘丘丘丘丘丘丘丘丘丘丘丘丘丘丘丘丘丘丘丘

兵” (bing) signifies a soldier. “乒” (ping) and “乓” (pong) are onomatopoeias that sound like gunshots but look like one-armed or one-legged soldiers; when combined, they are associated with ping-pong (table tennis). “丘” (qiu), meaning small hill, has the implication of “tomb.” This poem may be my best-known work, but I think it is hard to translate. Most translators simply translate its title and attach an annotation, leaving the original intact. However, one day I surfed the Internet and found that Bohdan Piasecki, a Pole who taught translation in England, had translated the poem into English. In the first stanza, he substitutes “A man” for “兵.” In the second stanza, “Ah man” and “Ah men” are used to replace the scattered “乒” and “乓.” And in the third stanza, “丘” is replaced by “Amen,” which may be interpreted as a prayer at the funeral. It is an interesting translation: the translator recreates the poem.

I often tell others that I am not the real author of this poem. I was simply possessed by “Chinese characters”: one morning I woke up, turned on the computer, took five minutes to key in and duplicate those four characters, and then it was completed. In my prose piece, “The Delight of Animations,” I mention Konflikt (Conflict), an animation made by the Russian animator Garri Bardin in 1983. A green match troop comes into conflict with a blue match troop; they burn each other to death. This animation never crossed my mind when I was writing “A War Symphony.” Not until a female artist in Taiwan re-presented it in the form of animation did it occur to me. You may say that my poem translates Bardin’s film. A reader mentioned on the Internet that there might be some relation between  “A War Symphony” and the poem “Ping Pong,” written in 1953 by the German poet, Eugen Gomringer. I searched for the poem immediately and found I had never read it before. Yet this poem is very much like a translated version of part of the second stanza of “A War Symphony”:

ping pong
         ping pong ping
         pong ping pong
                            ping pong

I think this may be regarded as a coincidental encounter of two writers while they are traveling in languages. And such a happy encounter transcends time and space.

2

Although I can’t read Japanese, I have read and translated Japanese haiku and tanka through English translation and the original, because there are many Chinese characters in Japanese, and because I can always consult my father, who knows both languages. Reading these Japanese poems inspires me to write about contemporary life in similar poetic forms. The result of such experimentation is my book of three-line poems, Microcosmos: Two Hundred Modern Haiku, whose title comes from Béla Bartók’s Mikrokosmos, a musical composition containing 153 piano pieces. Patterning after or imitating senior masters (or using allusions) is itself part of the convention of haiku. Some of my “modern haiku” are tributes to or variations of classical haiku or other art classics; others are evolved from poems written by senior writers, fellow poets, or myself. Traveling in the family of poetry is the most substantial and warmest link on the lonesome journey in the universe. (“Traveling in the Family,” the title of one of my poems and one of my books, comes from the Brazilian poet, Carlos Drummond de Andrade, whose poem of the same title is translated in my Anthology of Modern Latin American Poetry.) My three-line poems are “Taiwanese” rather than “Nipona.” They manifest the savor of “Taiwanese Chinese”: at once Chinese and Taiwanese, classical and contemporary, just like the island of Taiwan. Take, for example, some poems I’ve read, translated, or written:

Picking chrysanthemums by the east hedge, at ease I see the south mountain.
                —“Tao Chien”

At ease he sees the south mountain—this frog.
               —“Kobayashi Issa

Resting on the temple bell, asleep, a butterfly.
               —“Yosa Buson”

Resting on the temple bell, glowing, a firefly.
               —“Masaoka Shiki”

He washes his horse with the setting sun on the autumn sea.
               —“Masaoka Shiki”

He washes his remote control
with the moonbeams infiltrating
between two buildings.
               —“Chen Li, Microcosmos, I: 1”

I wait and long for you:
a turning die in the empty bowl of night
attempting to create the 7th side.
               —“Microcosmos, I: 14”

A turning die in the empty bowl of the night
creates the 7th side:
oh God, you do exist.
               “Microcosmos, II : 25”

Multiplication table for kids of clouds:
mountains times mountains equals trees, mountains times trees
equals me, mountains times me equals nothingness
               “Microcosmos, I: 51”

The story of marriage: a closet of loneliness plus
a closet of loneliness equals
a closet of loneliness.
               “Microcosmos, I: 97”

Just as the frog in Issa’s haiku defamiliarizes and freshens the perspective of the ancient Chinese poet, Tao Chien, I use the “remote control” to translate and update the elegantly lonely life-scene of Shiki. Both are resting on the temple bell—Shiki’s glowing firefly vividly stirs the serenity of Buson’s soundly sleeping butterfly. And in my poems the same “die” gives a different result at a different time and space, attesting to the ambiguity of the existence of God or miracles and to the anxiety and fragility of man. The last two poems are based on pseudo-arithmetical formulas. Maybe they could be seen as examples of how modern Taiwanese poetry creates surprise out of the commonplace.

3

In 1976 I wrote a ten-line poem, “Footprints in the Snow,” whose title comes from a piano piece by the French composer, Claude Debussy (Preludes, book 1, no. 6). I attempted to translate Debussy’s musical work into poetry:

Cold makes for sleep,
deep
sleep, for
a feeling soft as a swan.
Where the snow is soft, a hastily scrawled line is left
in white, white
ink,
hastily because of his mood, and the cold:
the hastily scrawled
white snow.

Several composers have set this poem to music; by doing so, they have translated it back into music. In 1995 I wrote another “Footprints in the Snow.” You could say it was a translated version of the previous poem, but this time I used only noncharacter symbols and punctuation marks:

%
        %
           

                %
                      •
                             .
                                .

A similar self-translation appears in Microcosmos:

Your voices suspend in my room
cutting through silence, to become
a bulb speaking with heat or chill.
           —“Microcosmos, 11: 47

                           ......

                ,
                “Microcosmos, 11: 48”

The latter poem can be viewed as a translation or visualization of the former poem. The Chinese punctuation mark “。” (a period) is very much like a bulb that gives off sound in silence or with silence.

Is writing some kind of translation, traveling between languages? Or do all writers create the same work, the pure blankness and the empty fullness overwritten again and again? Recently I wrote a poem called “White.” The first half consists of two Chinese characters, “白” (white) and “日” (day); the other part is made up of noncharacter symbols:

白白白白白白白白白白白白白白白白白白白白白白白白
白白白白白白白白白白白白白白白白白白白白白白白白
白白白白白白白白白白白白白白白白白白白白白白白白
白白白白白白白白白白白白白白白白白白白白白白白白
白白白白白白白白白白白白白白白白白白白白白白白白
白白白白白白白白白白白白白白白白白白白白白白白白
日日日日日日日日日日日日日日日日日日日日日日日日
日日日日日日日日日日日日日日日日日日日日日日日日
日日日日日日日日日日日日日日日日日日日日日日日日
日日日日日日日日日日日日日日日日日日日日日日日日
日日日日日日日日日日日日日日日日日日日日日日日日
日日日日日日日日日日日日日日日日日日日日日日日日
凵凵凵凵凵凵凵凵凵凵凵凵凵凵凵凵凵凵凵凵凵凵凵凵
凵凵凵凵凵凵凵凵凵凵凵凵凵凵凵凵凵凵凵凵凵凵凵凵
凵凵凵凵凵凵凵凵凵凵凵凵凵凵凵凵凵凵凵凵凵凵凵凵
凵凵凵凵凵凵凵凵凵凵凵凵凵凵凵凵凵凵凵凵凵凵凵凵
凵凵凵凵凵凵凵凵凵凵凵凵凵凵凵凵凵凵凵凵凵凵凵凵
————————————————————————
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..................................................................................

After this poem was completed, the paintings of Mark Rothko came into my mind.

This essay is excerpted from a longer version, which will appear in Chinese Writers on Writing, edited by Arthur Sze, published by Trinity University Press..
Originally Published: March 1, 2010

Translated by Chang Fen-ling

COMMENTS (4)

On March 1, 2010 at 3:29pm Schelling wrote:
Wonderful visual poems!
See an animation of Chen Li’s “A War Symphony” here:
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vKJumF5Rdok

On March 11, 2010 at 7:43am Josh wrote:

In "Travelling Between Languages," the poet Chen Li asks "Is writing some kind of translation, travelling between languages"? More Hanks than Clooney, when it comes to air travel at least, he lingers in the terminals of his various poems like a short, nondescript man with dark sunglasses and a newspaper folded over his knee. That glow you feel radiating off of him is love: "Travelling in the family of poetry is the most substantial and warmest link on the lonesome journey in the universe," he says, which is sort of like what Mandelstam said. Actually, a lot of his poetry (http://dcc.ndhu.edu.tw/chenli/introduction.htm) reads like Mandelstam to me, which would seem to be the most striking and improbable translation of all (except maybe not so improbable: after all, family members do tend to resemble one another...)

On March 24, 2010 at 11:52am Adrian wrote:
I found Chen Li's essay on translation particularly fascinating. The poetry examples given are readable by a western reader because of their visual nature, a sort of Taiwanese concrete poetry.

On March 29, 2010 at 6:18am Kyle wrote:

Do you feel like having your socks knocked off? Do you feel like you want to see a poem that is just going to make you go, “wow, I hadn’t thought of that before!” Anyways, here it is! I was looking in the latest issue of “Poetry,” which we conveniently have at the SDSU Library Current Periodicals section, and I saw a poem that actually impressed me. It is by Chen Li (“Breakfast Tablecloth of a Solitary Entomologist”), I recommend checking out the issue because the print version is insurmountably more visually stunning. Zoom in on the text, look close and really get lost in it (again, print version, my love). See how the letters just look less like blurs and a story starts to come out. The repeating radical of a language we don’t understand, it is so beautiful. That is the beauty of Concrete Poetry, it can not be digested as a painting nor as a poem, but rather as both!

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MORE FROM THIS ISSUE

This prose originally appeared in the March 2010 issue of Poetry magazine

March 2010

Biography

Chen Li was raised in Hualien, Taiwan and has published over ten books of poetry. Regarded as “one of the most innovative and exciting poets writing in Chinese today” (Michelle Yeh, University of California at Davis), he is also a prolific prose writer and translator.

Continue reading this biography

Originally appeared in Poetry magazine.

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