Unlike many contemporary American poets, Arthur Sze did not attend a traditional MFA program to learn to write poetry. Instead, he turned to translation to hone his craft. “I thought that this was how I could learn to see how poems are made,” he told Tricycle’s editor-in-chief, James Shaheen. Sze’s latest collection, The Silk Dragon II: Translations of Chinese Poetry, compiles fifty years of his translations, illustrating the vitality and versatility of the Chinese poetic tradition across nearly two millennia.

In a recent episode of Tricycle Talks, Shaheen sat down with Sze to discuss the ruptures and continuities between classical and contemporary Chinese poetry, the destruction and renewal inherent in the process of translation, and why we need translation now more than ever.

You describe translation as an impossible task, and you quote the Italian phrase traduttori/traditori, or translators/traitors. So how is the translator a traitor, and what makes the task all but impossible? I believe every translator is aware of loss. If I’m looking at a Chinese poem and thinking about how to translate it into English, I immediately see that Chinese is a tonal language, so I’m going to lose all of the sounds and rhythms. I can’t carry that over, so what I’m going to try to do is carry the spirit over. To be able to work with the spirit of a poem requires a lot of time and patience.

With that in mind, I think it’s important to have that sense of translators/traitors as a point of humility—to recognize that you cannot just transport from one language to another. There’s a sense of humility in approaching the translation thinking, How can I not betray what’s happening in the original poem when I know I’m losing the sound and the rhythm? I can’t convey, for instance, how the water radical or the rain radical is running visually through a line of Chinese poetry. And yet I think we need translation more than ever. We need to bring cultures together. The more we can understand and appreciate each other, the better, and for me, translation is a vehicle for insight and cultural exchange. It has great urgency to it.

This collection is unique in bringing together classical and vernacular Chinese poetry in the same volume. So can you tell us about your decision to include both? Many anthologies of Chinese poetry honor 1919 as a dividing point, which is the beginning of writing poetry in vernacular language. The classical language that had been used for 2,000 years was very strict in form, and it couldn’t accommodate all of the changes that were happening in China. A contemporary poet, Xi Chuan, says the distance between contemporary Chinese and ancient Chinese is as big as the difference between Chinese and a foreign language. In classical Chinese, you can’t say “radio,” “television,” “car,” “cell phone,” “atom bomb,” “electricity”—the language had to be reconstructed, reassembled, opened up, and broken apart. In 1919, as poets were beginning to write in a language that is close to spoken Chinese, all of the intricacies and complexities of modern society could come into poetry.

Rather than see these as two separate worlds, I feel like there are certain continuities despite all the ruptures of history and transformations. I thought it would be valuable to run a small selection of [both classical and contemporary] poems and marvel at the continuity as well as rupture—to think about how some of the themes from ancient times are being treated in a way that is appropriate to our day and age now.

One of my favorite vernacular poems in the collection is “Dead Water” by Wen Yiduo. Could you tell us about this poem and how it is related to its predecessors, and, on the other hand, what a radical break it is? Wen Yiduo (1899–1946) is a national hero in China. In 1946, he got up at a political demonstration and denounced the nationalist Kuomintang government for corruption, and he was gunned down in the street later that day. Though he is lionized as a patriotic poet, he’s not always fully appreciated even in China for how fantastic his poetry is. He knew the classical tradition of Chinese poetry beautifully, yet he thought that China needed a different kind of poetry. He said that when he looked at the earliest poems being written in vernacular Chinese, he felt like they had no structure or architecture to them. In his essay “The Form of Poetry,” he articulated the need for rhythm and rigor in language.

In traditional Chinese poems, there are often five or seven characters in a line. Wen Yiduo created his own form, which is nine characters to a line. His poems are in vernacular Chinese, but they show an outgrowth from the tradition. When he writes “a few peach blossoms,” for instance, peach blossoms are a standard cliché image out of Tang dynasty poetry. Li Bai has a poem, “Peach blossoms on flowing water go into the distance.” It’s a beautiful image of transience. And look at how Wen Yiduo subverts that: “rust on tin will sprout a few peach blossoms.” You don’t go to nature to find the peach blossoms. You’re finding them in this grungy setting: rust on tin, or grease, or mold, or mosquitoes, or dead water. For him, this is emblematic of what China is—this is where you have to be able to transform things.

His poems carry me with them the whole way, and then those final lines have such a sudden impact. Can you tell us about the final lines in his poems? Emily Dickinson once said, “If I feel physically as if the top of my head were taken off, I know that is poetry.” I always feel like the ends of Wen Yiduo’s poems are like that. It’s like, Where did that come from? There’s something unexpected. To me, that’s almost like satori—all the Zen stories of studying and studying and studying and you don’t get it, and then the monk says “Forget about it,” or a rock hits a wall, and it’s like, “Oh, that’s it.”

One thing I love about Wen Yiduo is his voice—you can feel a pressure behind the language. His poems aren’t beautiful artifacts. They aren’t something you read and say, “Oh, that was nice,” and put it away. There’s an urgency that demands that the reader pay attention and step into the world of the poem. I love that sense of voice moving the language into its shape. That was the hardest part for me to translate, but I worked to escalate it so it builds toward this moment and then releases.

This excerpt has been edited for length and clarity. Visit tricycle.org/podcast for more.

Question and Answer in the Green Mountains

By Li Bai (701–762)

You ask me why I live in the green mountains;
I laugh and don’t answer—I’m at peace.
Peach blossoms on flowing water go into the distance.
There is another sky and earth not among men.

Dead Water

By Wen Yiduo (1899–1946)

Here is a ditch of hopelessly dead water.
A cool breeze would not raise the slightest ripple on it.
You might throw in some scraps of copper and rusty tins,
or dump in as well the remains of your meal.

Perhaps the green on copper will turn into emeralds,
or the rust on tin will sprout a few peach blossoms.
Let grease weave a layer of fine silk-gauze, and
mold steam out a few red-glowing clouds.

Let the dead water ferment into a ditch of green wine,
floating with pearls of white foam;
but the laughter of small pearls turning into large pearls
is broken by spotted mosquitoes stealing the wine.

Thus a ditch of hopelessly dead water
can yet claim a bit of something bright.
And if the frogs can’t endure the utter solitude,
let the dead water burst into song.

Here is a ditch of hopelessly dead water.
Here beauty can never reside.
You might as well let ugliness come and cultivate it,
and see what kind of world comes out.

Translations from The Silk Dragon II © 2024 by Arthur Sze, used by permission of Copper Canyon Press.

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