Before you ask the obvious question, here’s the answer: yes, it’s really fucking difficult.

But a while  ago, having at that point been living and working in China three years, I kind of instinctively felt that part of what I was doing (as if I ever know what I’m doing) had to be to tackle some of the classical Chinese poetry. Not reading it, because I’d done a bunch of that and it’s easy enough to do (in translation), but involving oneself at a different level, by which I mean trying my hand at translation. And it’s a poet sort of thing to do (isn’t it?) because it fills the gaps when you aren’t writing poems of your own.

I was learning Chinese – I still am, and it’s not at all easy. But at that point I knew enough of how the language worked, and had at least a decent amount of experience in China, to feel that having a crack at the poems in the original wouldn’t be a total waste of time. I’d always figured the big and obvious problem with translation was the inability of the translator to convey the cultural aspect of the poem: that is, the associations and allusions that are almost always going to be beyond the foreigner. From the ancient Chinese that comes with knobs on, to coin a phrase. Even the Chinese teachers and students I spoke to acknowledged that they don’t get some of the stuff in these old poems: the allusions and associations are lost except to scholars, and the smartest of readers often has simply to shrug and say they know the poem is great but that line, no, sorry, I don’t have a clue what it means, and even when it's explained they still don’t really get it because the deeper meanings simply don’t mean now in the way they once did. Add to all this the inevitable loss of the sound and tone and music of the poem and it may all seem like a lost cause. But it isn't.

The first poems I translated were by Li Bai, and I had the assistance of one of my Chinese student friends, and a couple of Chinese websites that explicated some of the more abstruse points of the poetry. Then, for reasons that don’t matter here, I kind of let things drift, and did no translations for quite a long time. But in late 2010 I got back into it, armed with a knowledge of the language somewhat better than it had been previously.

I still need help with some of the obscurer points in the poems, and the language of the originals is often beyond dictionaries, but one can only hope that the results would at least be acceptable to the guys who wrote the things in the first place.

* A selection of my translations of the poems of Li Bai, together with an earlier version of this note, will be published in Staple 74

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