On Translating Poetry: To Be Precise
In 1967, U.S. Country-&-Western singer George Jones issued a tune whose refrain swore, “If my heart had windows, / Use yours for love just for you.” The idea was, the male lover would be able to enjoy vicariously the female’s love, even if it were only for herself. In other words, his heart would be able to translate her self-love into a shared love. I think that the translation of poetry works similarly: One peers lovingly—even squints upon—the original work, and then seeks out equivalently fresh, equally true, meanings in the diction of the receiving or importing language.
But I imagine that a similar process occurs in writing any poem—even in one’s native tongue, for each poem is a translation of inspiration, of lived experience, of the whole language distilled into one set of terms. My own mother-tongue, English, is itself always in the midst of translation—evolution and devolution—having originated as a mishmash of Anglo-Saxon-Germanic-Norse grunts and growls (sounded while were dudes spearing bears or clubbing down boars) plus the courtly, diplomatic suavité of the Norman French, plus the polysyllabic Latin of the Catholic monasteries, so ideal for euphemism, legalism, and abstraction. Thus, when I come to write a poem—ostensibly in English—I’m echoing its origins in my diction, in my mix of monosyllables and polysyllables, and then via the lingoes (plural) specific to me as an African-Canadian, born and raised among the Bluenosers (in Nova Scotia), but of African-American (partial) roots. Thus, my poetry “translates” English into Canadian, Ebonics, Nova Scotian, and even shards of French (an official language in Canada), plus the academic diction in which I’m steeped as a scholar….
Inescapably too, all contemporary translators of English are the (bastard) brood of U.S Modernist poet Ezra Pound, who remodelled English poetry—“made it new”—by ogling enviously the ways in which Chinese, French (Provençal), Greek, and Latin—seemed to be able to get—succinctly—at “Truth” (or so Pound chose to believe), that Flaubert’s le mot juste was M.I.A. in English on occasion, that one had to find it elsewhere. Translation was a way, for Pound, to locate the Truth in Mythology, the Drama in History, the perpetual Tragicomedy in Political Science….
In Mirrors and Windows: East West Poems with Translations, Anna Yin follows Pound in striving to make contemporary poetry in English accessible to Chinese audiences while, simultaneously, granting English poets a purchase on our contemporary, Chinese peers. Her talent as a translator is a gift of genius to the world. However, it is also necessary diplomacy in an age when global, corporate capitalism calls us to battle stations (again) to make war on each other so as to defend their environmentally destructive and genocidal profiteering. But we poets will have the last word—as always (eventually)—and it is Peace.
George Elliott Clarke
4th Poet Laureate of Toronto (2012-15)
7th Parliamentary Poet Laureate of Canada (2016-2017)
–Thank George Elliott Clarke for writing this foreword for my book of translations:Mirrors and Windows…. (it will be included in my upcoming book with Chinese translation ….)