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From The Asian Reporter, V14, #42 (October 12, 2004), page 14.

Insights into the creative spirit that speaks all languages

The Poem Behind the Poem: Translating Asian Poetry

Edited by Frank Stewart

Copper Canyon Press, 2004

Paperback, 273 pages, $18.00

By Dave Johnson

In this anthology of essays, each followed by poems translated by the author, the essayists discuss their personal methodology and reflect on the difficulties and wondrous results of translating ancient and modern Chinese, Japanese, Korean, Vietnamese, Khmer, and Sanskrit poetry into English.

Before you quickly dismiss a book that sounds like a volume aimed at poets, or an academic tome to plow through for extra credit, let me make a brief case for its merit as a good read.

The Poem Behind the Poem is, more often than not, an accessible text that offers insights into the creative spirit that speaks all languages. It isn’t essential to be a card-carrying wordsmith to benefit from a greater understanding of the intellectual, emotional, and metaphysical charge that moves a poem from one language to another; from the prevailing zeitgeist of one culture to that of another; or from the ethereal wisdom of an ancient mind to a masterful interpretation by a modern writer.

Embedded in these essays by twenty-two contributors, including Gary Snyder, Arthur Sze, and Michelle Yeh, is an overarching notion expressed in the title. Behind every poem is the innate idea of the poem, or the meta-poem as it’s called by scholars who read science fiction in their spare time.

In other words ‘that may deliver you from the abstract,’ if bamboo stalks along the riverbank are stirred by the morning wind, this movement is an ephemeral/eternal poem available to any poet of any nation touched by that wind.

For John Balaban, Vietnamese literature has been layered for hundreds of years with poems tucked behind poems. In the first century C.E., most poetry was written in Chinese. From the tenth century C.E. into the early twentieth, Vietnamese poets wrote in nom, a calligraphic script heavily influenced by Chinese poetry.

Balaban explains that, "Alongside and beneath the nom and Chinese poetries, an even older poetry known as ca dao runs like a vast river or aquifer. This oral poetry, still sung in the countryside, originated perhaps thousands of years ago in the prayers and songs of the Mon-Khmer wet-rice cultures to which the Vietnamese are tied."

In this translation of Ho Xuan Huong (c. 1775-1820), my guess is that Balaban asked the sly spirits of nom and the grinning river sprites of ca dao to collaborate with him to render this amazingly modern poem into English:

"Spring-Watching Pavilion"

A gentle spring evening arrives

airily, unclouded by worldly dust.

Three times the bell tolls echoes like a wave.

We see heaven upside down in sad puddles.

Love’s vast sea cannot be emptied.

And springs of grace flow easily everywhere.

Where is nirvana?

Nirvana is here, nine times out of ten.

A second theme that permeates this symposium is offered by editor Frank Stewart: "If there is a thread that runs through the essays, it is the willingness of translators to allow themselves to be assimilated to the poems in the original language … to lose themselves — intellectually, emotionally, culturally … by a leap into a state of mind …."

Gary Snyder, whose life as a firewatch, merchant marine, and poet has led him to the study of Zen Buddhism in Japan and homesteading in the high Sierra Nevadas, was instrumental in reshaping a brand of American poetry that is Asian in flavor and sensibility.

In his "Reflections on My Translations of the T’ang Poet Han-shan," he echoes Stewart’s comment: "A truly apt translation of a poem may require an effort of imagination almost as great as the making of the original. The translator who wishes to enter the creative territory must make an intellectual and imaginative jump into the mind and world of the poet, and no dictionary will make this easier."

After "arbitrarily" picking one of Snyder’s translations to end my review, I suddenly realized that I was typing away to the soundtrack of a recent film set in the U.S. Civil War:

"Men ask the way to Cold Mountain"

Men ask the way to Cold Mountain

Cold Mountain: there’s no through trail.

In summer, ice doesn’t melt

The rising sun blurs in swirling fog.

How did I make it?

My heart’s not the same as yours.

If your heart was like mine

You’d get it and be right here.



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