As I selected things to re-release from our early years from this Parlando Project for National Poetry Month, I wanted to include some of my translations. We’ve already done a translation from the French of Dada founder Tristian Tzara this month, but today’s is another of my favorites, written by a master of classical Chinese poetry, Du Fu.*
I work from literal English glosses to translate from Chinese, a language I have even less knowledge of than French. This may seem like a cheat, and yes, ideally a translator would speak the language they’re translating from intimately. Yet, as I mentioned in my post regarding Tzara’s French language poem, there’s something worthwhile in translating anyway. For a poet, translating other poets is a rich experience, and the Parlando Project is about the ways poetry can be experienced. Reading it is one. Reading it with careful attentions more so. Speaking it out-loud is another. Writing music for it, or singing it, yet another deep connection. But translation is still unparalleled.
I think I started doing translations from classical Chinese poets before I read poet Robert Okaji’s, but his work in this area heartened me in my own efforts.
I made no attempt at moving over Du Fu’s word-music to English. I wouldn’t know how to start with that. Most of what I do is to try to absorb and understand the images and then redraw them in modern English. In this case I extended the wordage used to convey the images somewhat. My reasons for that: I felt there were associations and dual meanings in some of them that deserved to be highlighted for the contemporary English speaker. At times in translation I will use phrases or idioms that readers of English language poetry will hear as overtones from our own. For example, the image of rats running across roof tiles in Du Fu’s original I rendered as “Rats are running in the rafters.” My hope is that that gives resonances with the idiom “bats in the belfry,” of something being mentally in disarray.
Similarly, I felt Du Fu’s concluding image was ambiguous as to the roads that lead away from the palace ruins, and I chose the Yogi Berra choice: “When you come to a fork in the road — take it.” I used both the idea that there are choices in roads, but also that “None of them go on forever.” If the listener gets the idea that Robert Frost’s roads are there diverging in these Chinese woods, that’s a good thing I think. And for that matter, I suspect many English speakers will think of Shelly’s “Ozymandias” as they hear Du Fu’s poem in their language. Of course, Du Fu wrote his first.
Here’s the link to the lyric video.
We’re back with three ways to hear The LYL Band perform my translation of Du Fu’s “Jade Flower Palace.” You can use a graphical audio player below, but then some won’t be able to see that, so this highlighted link is provided. And there’s a lyric video above for the third way.
*Du Fu’s name was formerly transferred into the Western alphabet as Tu Fu. It’s the same guy.