I want to write here about my participation in the 2nd Simmons International Chinese Poetry Festival, October 3-5, 2008 here in Boston. I was part of a panel on the process of translation with Michelle Yeh of UC Davis, perhaps the foremost translator of contemporary Chinese poetry, and Chinese poet Leung Ping Kwan. In attempting a translation of my poem, “Refugee” from Gold Star Road, a poem I chose for its supposed linguistic simplicity, the challenges of poetic translation soon became clear. Here’s the poem in its entirety for reference (it also appears here on Verse Daily):
A man carries his door,
the door of his house,
because when the war is over
he is going home
where he will hang it
on its hinges
and lock it, tight,
while he tries to remember
the word for welcome.
If his house is gone
when he returns,
he will raise it from rubble
around this door.
If he cannot return,
the door will remember
the rest of the house
so he can build it
And if he cannot go on,
his door can be a pallet
for his rest, a stretcher
to carry him, his shade
from sun, his shield.
In the very first line we encountered difficulty: it seems there is no single word for “carry” in Chinese, where the choice of verb depends upon how an item is carried — on one’s back, over one’s head, with another person, under one’s arm, etc. and an equivalent for “transport” wouldn’t do it either since that verb suggests both a starting point and a destination, and of course the man carrying “the door of his house” has no destination, a state of affairs that I hope gathers heartbreaking force as the poem proceeds. After much delightful contention, and many questions put to me again and again, Michelle and Ping Kwan both seemed satisfied with their solution so we moved on – all this work of course was only to establish a first draft.
Another problem that emerged early on stems from the cultural differences that inhere in the word “door” as it is used in the poem. In much of China, the word for door does not have the same resonance it does in English, since many Chinese homes, especially outside the cities, have gated walls around them so that the door is not the barrier to outsiders, but the gate. Several lines “where he will hang it/on its hinges/and lock it, tight,/while he tries to remember/the word for welcome” presented us with a cross-cultural conundrum. Once again Michelle and Ping Kwan were able to resolve things to their satisfaction.
We proceeded like this — the Chinese poets asking me questions and explaining the particular difficulty they were encountering, while I tried to shed light by paraphrasing, comparing, and, in my excitement, almost shouting out synonyms — for a good hour and a half before there was a first draft. As I recall, the verb “raise” in line 12 was a problem. Jim Kates, president of the American Literary Translators Association, was walking around, sitting in from time to time at one or another of the tables where poems were struggling to cross from English to Chinese or from Chinese to English. He asked what verb Chinese Christians use when they speak of the Resurrection. Yes, I thought, yes, that is the felt sense of the verb “raise” at that point in the poem. Unfortunately, both Michelle and Ping Kwan shook their heads — in Chinese that word would be far too weighty, with not a hint but instead a large dollop of Christian theology attached to it. Michele explained that it would upset the delicate balance between hope, denial, and futility that is part of both the refugee’s predicament and the poem’s coherence.
Looking back, I think it was at this point that I fully realized what an intimate exchange was going on. When you write a poem that seeks to be at once a complex act of witness, a capture and focusing of a complex situation, a set of related ideas about the situation, a sonic structure, and an emotional echo chamber, you work alone, things very gradually coming clear to you so that you go back to stanzas and replace a word with a better one, change the syntax to work against the constraint of the line, say the becoming poem out loud, listen to it, find something “off” and change it to something that at least at that moment seems better. In so doing you create a psychic space in which all those impulses, decisions, adjustments are the intricate features of something like a spider web in a dark corner of yourself. Now, while Michelle and Ping Kwan, refusing gists and approximations, labored with the same urgent, circumspect, and playful poetic intentions, I felt joined in that space which had been so private, and even without a knowledge of Chinese, I saw that the web they were spinning was as delicate and intricate as my own, with different but analogous considerations at every moment. I experienced this as intimacy.
The next morning, at the opening panel, we talked about the process of translation. Judging from the response of the gathered Chinese poets when Michelle read the translation, she and Ping Kwan had made a very compelling Chinese poem from mine.
In subsequent conference sessions, a number of Chinese poets including Wang Ao and Bei Ta, made reference to the poem and applied it to the situation in China today, especially to post-quake Szechuan province.
Several of the American writers spoke about gentrification and the displacement of the poor, especially in minority communities. What was most remarkable to me was the agreement and solidarity that emerged, the identification of an arrogant and insensible power that in the name of “progress” assumes the prerogative to destroy communities and replace them with a profit-seeking monoculture while preaching the benefits of a globalization that amounts to cultural genocide and the erasure of history. I felt called upon to read an earlier poem, from Without Paradise, written about 15 years ago. I include it here:
FROM A FRONT WINDOW
There is the city of glass and money,
over there, but here it comes,
closer with every newspaper.
Unidentified lying spokesmen
interpret the same old photos:
the bloody feet of refugees,
the bloody hands of soldiers.
Here comes someone, not a neighbor,
with a clipboard and a calculator.
Where will we grow children and roses?
Where will we grow older?
Because mothers still tell children
making ugly faces to be careful
or they will harden into one of them,
I am a little less afraid.
When fathers wipe their children’s dirty faces
with handkerchiefs that smell of sweat,
their children do not forget them
easily. I am a gladdened father
learning that, and a calmer son.
And lovers’ bodies make a clumsy knot
just good enough to mend the net.
The theme of the conference, “Translation is a way for us to listen to each other” was realized in any number of ways beyond the act of translation itself, and those ways included a deep exchange of ideas about fairness and justice, an understanding of shared histories, the role of poets in the necessary dispraise of dehumanization and disrespect for life itself, and the need to restore our debased languages as a first step to extricate our communities from the sticky web of half-truths and fictional histories that cloak the designs of merciless predation across boundaries.
I want to thank Simmons College for the opportunity to “listen to each other” this conference provided, especially poet and Simmons professor Afaa Michael Weaver (who, I believe, is in China as I write this) and co-chair of the conference Michelle Yeh. I’m happy to hear that plans are already underway for the next conference, which I’ve pledged to help organize.
Resistance to further dehumanization depends upon such listening to each other.