“Little Dumb Bear” Reads Tang Poetry

I am proud to say I finished reading a volume of poems from the Tang dynasty, compiled and published in 2003 as part of a “Little Dumb Bear” series by Heilong River Children’s Books Press, in Harbin, China. Yes, the slim 89-page volume illustrated with cheesy computer-generated art is intended for consumption by toddlers and children. Never mind that. What it means is that the poems come accompanied by Pinyin, the standardized system of romanizing Chinese characters into the Latin alphabet that helps any reader, young or old, sound out the words.

(Ironically, Pinyin is also the reason English speakers find Chinese names so mystifyingly hard to pronounce. My last name Zhang for example is pronounced “dzhaang,” dzh as in between the hard English j for jug and the soft French “je” for “je t’aime.” Or as in the Serbian linguist Vuk Karaić – wha? Never mind.)

Tang (618-907 A.D.) along with the Song dynasty are considered the golden age of Chinese artistic and cultural production, especially poetry and painting. The most well-known name to English speakers may be Li Po (or Li Bai), who wrote much verse on the topic of nature, longing for home, and aging. In fact, most of the poems in the volume riff on one or more of those topics. A few focused on war, education, or friendship, and there was even one written by a woman (though sadly it did not impress).

The one that stuck out and excited me was a ballad by Chen Zi’ang. According to Wikipedia, Chen Zi’ang served during the infamous reign of Wu Zetian (690-705 A.D.), which all Chinese children know was the only woman to have had de jure rule and official status as Emperor (she proclaimed it unto herself). The fact that he was a loyalist to the “she tiger” alone makes him interesting.

I’m not a fan of English translations of Asian language poetry, including Chinese verse and Japanese haikus. They end up sounding overly simplified, dumbed down, and obvious. They become cringe-worthy caricatures, perpetuating a narrow reductive view of Asian cultures as defined by simplicity and elegance. I’m not saying these poems are not simple and elegant. But they are also extremely nuanced in meaning, intellectually and formally complex. These qualities are almost always lost in translation, perhaps inevitably so, considering the gap between Latinate and character-based languages, structurally, syntactically, visually– in every way.

But I really loved this poem, and I want English speakers to be able to experience it.

Some searching on the internet yielded less than satisfactory translations – too trite or too rambling. The beauty of the poem is I think its razor-sharp curtness and the metric shift from two 5-character lines to two 7-character lines, thereby upping the devastation the poem ultimately arrives at. The University of Virginia has a decent translation online (search “Ziang”), but I made my own attempt. Still simple and a bit trite, but I think it preserves the spirit of the poem. That is to say it has a kind of modern sensibility, a ring of solitude/alienation, and our favorite combination of a steely heart with nevertheless capacity for feeling.

On Ascending Youzhou Gate-Tower

By Chen Zi’ang

See no ancients before me,

See none coming behind me.

Think on heaven and earth boundless,

Alone sorrow and tears stream down.


2 responses to ““Little Dumb Bear” Reads Tang Poetry

  1. This is one of my favorite poems. I’m trying to translate all the Tang poems. I try not to get too carried away — I’d be happy if I could just convey what the words literally mean (I think that’s pretty much all a translator should attempt to do — you just provide a crib for an intelligent language learner to help them understand the original for themselves). But Chinese poetry is heavily allusive and highly idiomatic, which makes even literal translation very challenging.

    • Alex, you pinpoint a core issue, the desire to reach even the “literal” meaning in a translation, perhaps especially in Chinese poetry. Though I think that may be the reason why many existing Chinese-to-English translations falter in their overall poetic integrity, since, as you suggest, the nature of classical Chinese poetry is already at odds with the pragmatics of a one-to-one substitution (translation). Forget style and poetic character, we are still stuck on getting across the meaning(s) itself! But I agree about trusting the intelligent reader-language-learner. Keep posting your translations!

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