A Conversation on Li Shangyin: Chloe Garcia Roberts & Guangchen Chen

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This dialogue took place over the course of several months in early 2015 and was published in Chinese by the Beijing-based magazine, Painting, Calligraphy, Poetry (詩書畫) that same year. In formulating this conversation on the poetics of the Late-Tang poet Li Shangyin we circled around this question for months before finally agreeing that the best entrance to the dense ephemeral landscape of his work was through the substance of the poetry itself. We decided to pick an as-yet-untranslated poem that I would translate simultaneous to our discussion and dissection of his unique aesthetic. In this way we believed, we might be able to leave behind a trail of our own discoveries in this surreal poetic inscape as well as mark a path for other readers to follow in their own readings of the work.

—Chloe Garcia Roberts & Guangchen Chen


I.

無題

颯颯東風細雨來,芙蓉塘外有輕雷。

金蟾嚙鎖燒香入,玉虎牽絲汲井回。

賈氏窺簾韓掾少,宓妃留枕魏王才。

春心莫共花爭發,一寸相思一寸灰。

Guangchen Chen: Even before we start to inquire what the poem means, let’s look at it—I mean, not read, but literally look at it. I’m sure this is one of the best visual experiences to discourage anyone from learning to write Chinese. That there are so many strokes crammed in a poem with fifty-six characters is visually overwhelming. Li’s style is obscure and dense not just in his imagism but even in the sheer visual effect of the characters. Certainly, Chinese characters always have a pictorial side in that some of them mimic the objects. But in this poem, as in many of his other works, the effect is non-referential, and densely decorative.

This aspect of the poem leads me to an important question, whether Li can be called a Baroque poet. James J. Y. Liu, who wrote the only English monograph on Li, described him as a Baroque poet. But he didn’t care to define the term and justify this claim in the book.

While this is not the place to get into any detailed discussion and critical delineation of Baroque, at least one of its characteristics is very relevant to us. From the visual complexity of the characters he chooses, to the density of imagism within a single couplet, to the obscurity of their allegorical meanings—all these aspects keep us from getting beneath the surface, so to speak. And I think few would object that Baroque aesthetic typically gives a prominent place to appearance and allows decorations to overwhelm the subject matter. The appearance is like a labyrinth, where we not only get lost but forget to search for meanings.

 

web_li_shangyin

Derangements of My Contemporaries
poetry by Li Shangyin
translated from the Classical Chinese by Chloe Garcia Roberts
Softcover, $10.95
New Directions, 2014

Chloe Garcia Roberts: Interesting apart from the idea of this phenomenon being applied within the work is how it relates to the translation and reception of his poetry in translation. The translation of his work for me requires at least a reconciliation with this twinned view, a compromise with the limitations of English to express the intended allegorical meaning and its abilities to depict the imagery, the sensuality of the original in one organic whole. I have consciously chosen however not to include notes in the poems, even though this could be one way to bring all of Li Shangyin’s allusions into the reader’s experience. I made this decision because I want the reader to experience the poems as stand alone pieces of art, and also to experience the obfuscation that exists even in the original.

You talk about the connection between the Baroque and the style of Chinoiserie, which you define as a manner of seeing that “let the sensuality of symbols stimulate our senses, blocking us them from inquiring after their meanings.”

 

GC: Dating from the seventeenth century, Chinoiserie, an European trend in imitation of Chinese arts, has at least a stylistic—if not historic—connection with the Baroque and Rococo. Apart from parallels in decorative and asymmetric mannerisms, I think Chinoiserie also shares an affinity with the Baroque in that the sheer sensuality of the imagisms takes the limelight. In the case of the former, it is because a lot of the symbols are exotic, a deeper meaning of which is inaccessible to Europeans. Therefore, I’d call this a style of opaque appearance. And the way you treat the twinned layers of his poetry is fascinating, both in terms of Li Shangyin reception in particular and of translation theory in general.

 

CGR: This also reminds me of the phenomenon of heightening one sense by obstructing or damaging another. Blind people who have incredible hearing or smell for example…

 

GC: Interesting! Like Homer or Borges.

 

CGR: Yes, and interesting to think of Li Shangyin adopting this disorientation or fragmentation of sensuality in his poetry. I have always thought of his poetics as disembodied, the senses are released from a corporeal or definable speaker and from each other. In this way hearing, smell, touch, and taste are threads loosed from the author that are able to cross the thresholds he so desires to inhabit but physically cannot.

II.

Untitled

 

[rush rushing] [east] [wind] [fine] [rain/drizzle] [comes] [lotus] [pool] [outside] [there is/has] [faint/light/muffled] [thunder]

 

[golden] [toad] [clenches] [lock], [burning] [incense] [enters] [jade] [tiger] [pulling] [silk thread/cord] [draw water] [well] [returns/turns]

 

[Lady] [Jia] [only?/just?/ barely] [glimpsed] [young] [secretary] [han] [through the] [curtain] [Princess] [Fu] [bequeathed, left behind] [pillow] [for] [talented] [Prince] [Wei]

 

[Spring] [heart] [not] [with] [flowers] [fight/compete] [to bloom/burgeoning] [One] [measure/inch] [longing], [one] [measure/inch] [ash].

GC: The poem Untitled follows a pattern quite typical of Li Shangyin: the first couplet describes natural phenomena, the last gives a kind of admonition, and sandwiched between them are two couplets filled with a string of vignettes. They depict glimpses of moments in life, and though these relatively obscure historic names are meticulously mentioned in the third couplet, the scenes are disjointed from any context.

The first couplet presents us with a very broad and ambiguous space, one created with the ingenious use of the preposition 外/wai meaning beyond, outside, or yonder, but too vague to denote a precise location. On the other hand, what strikes me is that this sense of spatiality is aided by sound. In the first line, the verb 來/lai or “arrive” coupled with the rustling sound depicts the movement of the rain that approaches us from afar. Then in the second line, in the opposite movement, the focus zooms out to the far-away, to the faint thunder (輕雷/qing lei), which also indicates an undetermined and ambiguous space.

 

CGR: The translation of 外 in the first couplet was a crucial point for me as the character has a sense of meaning everything outside of, a surrounding not, a not there, an afar, an infinite ring of not-lotus pond. It sets up so well the within and the without of the speaker’s perspective.

 

GC: Does the difficulty of rendering the preposition 外 tell us anything about the difference between the two languages?

 

CGR: Perhaps. I find that Chinese language is ideal for communicating direction, what is within, what is without, where did a movement or thing originate, where did it arrive—there are so many verbs and particles in Chinese that serve to emphasize location, origin, direction etc. (裏, 中, 外,來,到, 出… ). I have always had somewhat of a love affair with these characters and try to include them in the English as I think this specificity of objects and verbs in contrast with the unspecificity of subject is a crucial element of the poetics. Moreover, because English-language poetry has an almost relentless focus on the subject, for the English-speaking reader, the absence of subject is keenly felt. I want the reader to be able to experience this difference, this alternative set of priorities in poetic depiction.

 

GC: The fact that this thunder is apart from, beyond, yonder the lotus pond, opens up the space of the poem. It always reminds me of Schubert’s last piano sonata (in B flat, D. 960). There you have a harmonically rich melody, interrupted by thunder-like trills in the lowest register. Clearly the sound is broken down to two categories: music and noise. One of the differences between music and noise is that the former is a purely interior acoustical experience, whereas the latter always directs our attention to a spatially external referent source. When you hear the noise of glass breaking, for example, you tend to look for the origin of this sound, or at least mentally determine it. But when you are attentively listening to a song, its sound interiorizes you and you no longer care where it comes from. And I think this is what the thunder conveys to us in this line. It pulls our attention to the distance.

What is more, I recall hearing people say that classical Chinese operas were typically intended to be performed in private gardens, with a small pond separating the pavilion-stage and the audience, so that the sound crosses the water to reach the ears. In this way the sound has a certain distant softness, or even moisture if you like. I would say that in this first couplet there is a certain sensualness, a touch of moisture in the sounds.

 

Li Shangyin

Li Shangyin

CGR: Beautiful. And beautiful to think of Li Shangyin recreating the elements of music inside his poetry: reconstructing the environment within which it is best to hear the sound, as well as the sound itself.

The poem opens with the sounds of imminence, the Eastern Wind, and with these rustlings of the approaching rain the rain arrives. Where? To the subject. Who is not there, to the reader who is not named, to the I. Here. By not giving you a subject, the I is fractured, you are there, he is there, the I is there. In the next line the focus moves back out, beyond (外) to another sound which calls our/the I’s attention, out on the horizon, the edge of hearing/awareness, the thunder, and just like that in the first pair of couplets, Li Shangyin has succeeded in pulling us forcefully into this poem along the path of sound and then repelled us back out also following sound at an incredible, almost breakneck speed. We are stunned, disoriented, and thus in the perfect state to descend further into his world.

 

GC: Wonderful. There is indeed a dizzying effect of the opening couplet. The perspective changes so abruptly, with zoom-in and zoom-out interchanging in such a speed that, as you say, we are stunned and disoriented. Interestingly, the first two lines achieve this dislocation through sounds, not images. The second couplet does turn to the visual though.

But more than that, we are made to be more sensitive to the relativity of the perspective. Namely, Li makes us aware of not only the scene but also the location where we experience it. And this location is ever changing. There is no objective vision of a world, because any vision is envisioned by a viewer located somewhere within the world.

 

CGR: Does that mean the perspective is subjective?

 

GC:  I’d say any perspective is always subjective. A perspective is always connected to a body that is looking; it is always individual. Very appropriately, this is a central theme in some twentieth century philosophers’ revisiting of the Baroque (Gilles Deleuze, Maurice Merleau-Ponty and Susan Buci-Glucksmann are prominent examples). For them the Baroque dislocates the validity of any visual presentation’s claim to objectivity.

There is another interesting point about the soundscape of this poem. The meaning of thunder in the first line is explained by some commentators by a reference to an older poem, Sima Xiangru’s (司马相如) 长门赋, which has a line that reads: “The sound of thunder arises faintly, which is like the sound of your (君) carriage.” And because the second couplet describes scenes in private parts of the house, by inference the listener should be female. So this is about a lady, alone at home, who expects her lover, and probably mistakes the thunder for a signal of his arrival.

It is a common practice in classical Chinese poetry commentary practice to explain a line through reference to earlier poems, and the most significant fact about this that the factual link need not be vindicated. This referentiality is either on the part of the poet or the commentator. The poem becomes a surface of palimpsest, which leads us to the penultimate pair of couplets.

 

CGR: We have described Li Shangyin’s poetry as painful before, and it is interesting to think of this pain in conjunction with a non-objective poetic frame. I find pain to be both palpable and ever present in his work like a note held constantly throughout the lines. This presence is a thread that inspires me in my translations as it serves almost as a counterpoint to the abstraction and obfuscation of his work. And I suppose because pain and agony must ultimately stem from an I, a body, that it seems to naturally fall into a subjective reading for me. Even in the inciting of empathy the reader first accesses their own sense memories in order to feel the author’s. The pain here then is where I feel the “I” or subjectivity the most and it is the voice by which I navigate through the mist. What are your thoughts?

 

GC: I would say it is a kind of pain that cannot be located. Yes there needs to be a body. But you also mention disembodiment, which I agree with. The body, the self, is indeed fractured. So the power of his poem seems to come from the fact that this pain, so sensual and concrete as it is, is always afloat, always intangible, unlocatable. The utmost case of unfulfilled desire, maybe…

 

CGR: So each instance of loss remains tethered to its own little cellular moment which we see only sidelong, obliquely, always too early or too late, always missing the desired.

 

GC: In these middle couplets Li is describing four instances in life, each isolated from their contexts, lumped together in a kaleidoscopic manner. As you have said, they are all about something that is about to happen, yet to happen. We could compare this to Gotthold Ephraim Lessing’s point made in “Laocoon; or the Limits of Poetry and Painting.” There Lessing argues that:

If it be true that the artist can adopt from the face of ever-varying nature only so much of her mutable effects as will belong to one single moment… then it is clear that the great difficulty will be to select such a moment and such a point of view as shall be sufficiently pregnant with meaning. Nothing however can possess this important qualification but that which leaves free scope to the imagination… There is not, however, throughout the whole process of a mental affection, any one moment less favourable for this purpose than that of its highest state of excitement.

Lessing is basically making two points. First, a visual artist needs to identify the climax of an event; second, she should avoid directly depicting it, because by so doing she leaves no room for the imagination. Therefore the moment right before this climax is recognized as one “pregnant with meaning.” What is striking about Li’s choice of such a moment is that, it is pregnant with many meanings which have no direction. They even seem trivial for poetic depiction: a fragrance enters the room, a cord holding a bucket is circling, someone glimpses her lover, and another is in the process of leaving some token of love for her lover. There is no climax; nothing happens. We are shown moments of expectation for something intense, and then moments of loss when the time has elapsed and the longing is left unfulfilled. This might explain why his poems are so painful.

 

CGR: The second couplet for me is one step deeper into the labyrinth, two images oscillating between being two symbols (the golden toad, the jade tiger) and two objects (a toad made of gold, a tiger made of jade). These images/symbols exist in scenes pregnant with a gone presence, a recent exit, the one who lit the incense, the one who touched the cord at the well. They then lead into the next couplet: two vignettes of great loves, the kind of love that myths are made of. However both of these vignettes only focus on only the outset and the dénouement of this love. They serve as bookends for the undepicted substance of the two stories.

This particular flavor of loss, of bereavement by temporal separation, of imprisoning the reader in the moments before or after the beloved is present is rampant in Li Shangyin’s poetry. It is a loss made exquisite by the excruciating proximity to its desired object. He can still hear the sounds, the music, still smell the incense, still the see the places, the objects, all the components of a moment never returned to and never arrived at. His repainting of these scenes just emphasizes the loss, what is not there, who is not there. They are depictions of a lacuna, a relief portrait of joy which is, of course, a portrait of loss.

III.

Untitled

 

Rush, rustling of the East Wind, a fine rain arrives

Beyond the Lotus Pool, is a delicate thunder

 

Golden Toad bites the lock, burning perfume enters

Jade Tiger weights the cord above the water well, circling

 

Young Secretary Han: glimpsed by Lady Jia though curtains, briefly

Talented King Wei: bequeathed Princess Fu’s pillow, only afterward

 

Spring Heart, refrain from competing with flowers in effusion

One measure of longing, one measure of ash

CGR: Earlier you used the word admonition to describe the last line. Do you think that there is a sense of warning to the reader on the part of the poet in his poems? A kind of here but by the grace of god go you? Your use of that term made me think about who the poems are addressed to, who the despair is being presented to…

 

GC: As if an experienced or even traumatized person is advising younger readers.

 

CGR: Yes, that’s why I thought admonition sounded very right. Many of his poems seem to be preaching an acceptance, maybe better a succumbing. I always feel like the agony here is not just agony though, it is exquisite agony in that this is the moment where the poem’s preciously watercolored, ethereal images become so clear and focused as to hurt…

 

GC: A kind of hurting experience gets polished and decorated, which I think is indeed very Baroque—in other words, suffering becomes the object of decoration and aesthetic appreciation.

Now we finally see this poem wonderfully rendered into English. This is no small achievement. It’s quite a journey—from a purely visual experience of the Chinese characters to a word-to-word translation, to an elegant recreation of the original in a very different language. Can you tell me a bit about the process? Did your experience of Li Shangyin’s vision develop following a similar pattern?

 

CGR: I am always struck by the reverberation that Li Shangyin uses in his work. The images and the symbols in each poem reverberate against themselves and each other like notes, together they create a chord, which is the cord. (Cord: A “thread” which runs through and unites the parts of anything. –OED) He captures not just the components but the music that they make together, a harmony of disparate parts that I impossibly try to strive for in translating the work.

I begin of course by reading the poem. Reading it over and over again until the words coalesce into several different readings or understandings of the text. I do this so I can cast the net of the translation as widely as possible so as to catch as much of the implied meaning which resides behind the written words, the references, the wordplay etc. This is not to say that all of this multi-dimensionality can ultimately make it into the translation, only that I want to hold it in my head when creating the new incarnation, as superstitiously I believe that knowing these fine contours of the work can help me rebuild them in a balanced way in the new poem.

I then work on tracing the structure of the poem, finding the load-bearing words, the words that create the borders of the poems, the words that work in tandem with others, locating the images versus the symbols, the stories and images that are known, the stories and images that remain a mystery. Once I have taken everything apart and laid it out in front of me in notes and thought I then begin the process of putting it back together again, in English.

Because the sound of Chinese, the oral structure, is lost in English, I try to supplement for that loss by heightening the vividness of his images and atmosphere while also maintaining a poetic framework that mirrors the original as closely as possible. And in rebuilding the poem, I try to balance the original and the translation. That is I aim to try and keep the ratios of the poem the same: a noun modified by two adjectives in Chinese also is modified by two in English, an action without a subject in Chinese is rendered the same way in English (whenever possible) etc.

 

GC: This is probably a good way to remind the English readers that they are reading a Chinese poem. And I should add that the original poem is very difficult for a native Chinese reader as well. So it’s a good idea to preserve the difficulty as much as possible. For example, the third couplet has an incredibly convoluted syntax. How do you manage to render it in English? And what do you think of this type of syntax stylistically?

 

CGR: Well this is a place where, as much as I could, I tried to load the words of the translation with the tone of the stories. Additionally there is a lot of wordplay in this line. Li Shangyin is creating almost a double entendre with the end words of this third couplet. The adjectives 少(young) and 才 (talented) are both adjectives used to describe the protagonists, the objects of affection. However, when read in line with the other end words, which I worked to maintain place-wise in English, their alternate meanings 少(briefly, for a short while, lacking) and 才 (only then, afterward), become a part of the tonal legend of the poem. These end words are the central notes that outline the emotional atmosphere of a classical Chinese poem. Contortions were certainly required to keep both of these meanings in the lines and in the end words, but any artifice (namely breaking each of these characters into two words in English the first and last words of each line of this couplet in the translation) felt justified to me.

You have mentioned Wordsworth before in connection with Li Shangyin both in the sense that his poetry is a recollection of emotion and because of his quest to write poetry that combined the rational with the emotional. Could we think of Li Shangyin’s contrast of specificities as also navigating a similar combination? And if so, it is interesting to apply that comparison to the last line of this poem where Li Shangyin is literally measuring emotion.

 

GC: Temporality is such an interesting aspect in Li’s poetics. He likes to write about memory, about irretrievable loss. Intense emotional states are recollected in a calm way, and he is able to decorate these with heart-breaking pain, even turn them into delicate artifacts. Wordsworth similarly advocates writing poetry in the form of memory rather than a record of the present, for example “Lines Composed a Few Miles above Tintern Abbey.” And of course there is his classic statement that poetry “takes its origin from emotion recollected in tranquility.”

But more than this, I think Li often uses incredibly confusing and convoluted tenses in one couplet. And this is of course aided by the ambiguity of Chinese verbs, which have no tense. “One measure of longing, one measure of ash” should be read in the light of the previous line about spring, which is first of all a seasonal, hence temporal concept. There is no verb here, but the time lapses, from flowery longing in the spring to dead ash in autumn.

Typical examples also include the famous concluding line of 锦瑟 / The Brocaded Zither: “I could consider this feeling a memory sought. / Only by that time, I am already wavering” or 夜雨寄北 / Night Rain Sent North: “How will we be together, trimming a candle at the west window / talking of that rainy spell on Ba mountain?”  These many lines of his remind one of the much talked about beginning of Márquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude, “Many years later, as he faced the firing squad, Colonel Aureliano Buendía was to remember that distant afternoon when his father took him to discover ice.”

 

CGR: Now that we are at the last line of the poem, I thought we could turn to the presence of Spring. Li Shangyin’s take on this month of flowering and rebirth feels, at least to me, familiar. I always feel guilty being depressed or sad in the spring, it feels unjustified and ungrateful in a way, and yet I often find myself there when it begins. Spring always feels violent almost, like a joy forced before I am ready to accept it, and then gone once I do… In this way I appreciate Li Shangyin’s depiction of sadness and spring as inseparable. The crux of this depiction is that both reactions are there: the acknowledgement of the splendor and his resentment of it. The originality of his take for me is in the clash of appearance and reality, the anticipated and the experienced….

 

GC: Why T. S. Eliot said that April is the cruelest month?

 

CGR: Yes, Eliot! In “The Waste Land” I always read that statement as arising out of the arduous painful work of growing forward, through. Maybe the visible dragging ourselves out into life again after winter…breeding

Lilacs out of the dead land, mixing

Memory and desire, stirring

Dull roots with spring rain.

 

GC: A kind of difficulty of beginning again?

 

CGR: Yes, I think that is a good way of putting it. As you said, for Li Shangyin, temporality seems to be so important, he is always in the wrong “when.” So a growing forward then would be a physical reminder of the widening separation between the desired when and the when he is in now.

 

GC: Personally, I always associate spring with a kind of sweet sadness. Precisely because spring is too beautiful, the awareness that anything beautiful is transient makes me depressed, even when the beautiful thing is still in its prime. I’d say that instead of winter or even autumn, spring is by far the saddest season in Chinese poetry.

IV.

春心莫共花爭發,一寸相思一寸灰。

 

GC: Now after the close reading, maybe we can return to the general questions we post in the very beginning? First, classical Chinese poetry had a considerable influence on twentieth century American poetry. In particular, many critical poets have participated in translation projects, and consciously incorporated what they perceive as Chinese poetics into their own poetry. Just to name a few more famous examples: Ezra Pound’s free and secondhand rendition covers not only Tang poetry but also Shih-ching (Classic of Poetry) and even Confucius’s Analects. Gary Snyder is fascinated by the Zen monk Han Shan. Eliot Weinberger and Octavio Paz did an interesting anthology of translations of one single poem by Wang Wei, entitled Nineteen Ways of Looking at Wang Wei. However, they share a certain image of Chinese poetry that is in stark contrast to Li Shangyin’s. How would you characterize the two, and their differences?

 

CGR: Well I would say that the aesthetics of Wang Wei have become emblematic of Chinese poetry in the American perception. This spare, minimalistic resonance has in turn, I believe, also influenced the choices of who is translated from the Chinese canon. For my part, I first encountered Li’s work in a Classical Chinese literature survey course, and was frankly shocked by what I found there. Up until that point, I had only read Classical Chinese poetry in translation and had wrongly assumed that it was all in written in this spectrum of minimalism. Li Shangyin’s work not only upended that misperception, it also challenged my assumptions about the development of lyric poetry. His work felt, and continues to feel, eerily contemporary. This project of creating literary translations of his work, which emerged shortly after I first read his poetry, feels doubly imperative, as it aims to both bring new readership to Li’s work and  address the gaps in the general American understanding of Classical Chinese literature.

Additionally, I can understand how translators have more readily inhabited the work of Wang Wei as there is more room there for them to do so. Li Shangyin’s poems are as dense and faceted as diamonds. They contradict static readings and challenge narrative resolutions. Each poem is a measured unveiling, a slow sharpening to an emotional point, which forces the translator to undergo a similar paring of the self and any pre-conceived readings in the translation. Li Shangyin’s poems demand eventual submission on the part of the translator to the very cramped quarters in which they must work. The space for the translator in Li Shangyin’s poetry is certainly less inviting than in Wang Wei’s, though I personally find this restriction more seductive…

 

GC: Poets like Wang Wei and Han Shan indeed have a kind of minimalist style. In this sense I might venture to say they are naturally suitable to be translated. Li Shangyin, on the contrary, is like James Joyce in his Finnegan’s Wake. They are both on the other end of the spectrum, belonging to the untranslatable. The impenetrability and inconvertibility of language itself is pushed to an extreme. I’m afraid there is an inevitability in Wang Wei’s being popular as a translated poet, and Li Shangyin being the opposite. So, how do you, as a translator, view the significance of translating the untranslatable?

 

CGR: I think in order to answer this question I need to address both what I understand untranslatable to mean and what I think the role of a translation is. I say this because this question of translatability is brought up almost every time I mention that I am translating Li Shangyin. And each time I wonder how I can both be in agreement that he is in fact untranslatable and yet still continue with this project. The answer that I’ve arrived at is that the untranslatable becomes translatable if one perceives the translation as a reflection, a type of mirroring or even a reincarnation of the original, not as a literal replication.

Ultimately I am only able to translate my own reading of the poem, so I believe my work is to make that reading as expansive, informed and inclusive as possible. And, I am able to translate this reading because it is mine and of me, the reading is the line where the original poem and the I meet. The more I inhabit the poem through my reading, the more I can translate of it. This is perhaps why translating Li’s work takes so long. I feel a duty to trace the contours of each word with all of its allusions, resonances etc. And whether these make it into the poem or not, they are a part of the translation process and therefore in some way, are not absent in the translation. Or so I tell myself. But perhaps you could say what you mean by untranslatability?

 

GC: My definition of untranslatability: If we compare a poem to a piece of music, then each word is like a note. When a note is produced, it generates layers and layers of overtones, which is like the allusions—both subtle and straightforward—a word creates in our (sub)consciousness. Depending on the instrument used, the volume of the overtones varies. And this is to a considerable degree beyond the control of the performer.

Li Shangyin has a very special way of producing a maximum amount of overtones with almost every word he uses. This accounts for the richness, ambiguity, and difficulty of his poetry. And these overtones overlap, multiply, and resonate. A translator certainly can do well relatively easily in translating the words, but it seems to me not much can be done to reproduce the overtones.

 

CGR: Again, I agree and yet somehow still continue trying. These overtones and the layered resonances of a poem, what makes it untranslatable are what I am most attracted to rendering. The particular echoing of concepts strung together into a line, the overlay of the said and the unsaid, the emotional atmosphere that is unwritten and invisible yet permeating every word in the poem: all untranslatable. And yet, this poem behind the poem is always what pulls me forward.

The truth is I find the content of Li Shangyin’s poetry can be directly applied to my experience as his translator, and this gives me succor.  The poems tell and retell a journey where the poet endlessly retraces a path of ever-present longing which arcs between his implacable reality and his unreachable desire—a perfect depiction of the process and the heartbreak of translation.

 



About the Authors

Li Shangyin (813–858) was a poet from the late-Tang era famous for his dense and cryptic poetic imagery. During his lifetime, professional success proved elusive and he moved between various posts as a low-level government official. Though his writing was appreciated within certain literary circles, his status as one of the most important poets of his time was not recognized until after his death.

Chloe Garcia Roberts is the author of The Reveal (Noemi Press, 2015) and the translator of Li Shangyin’s Derangements of My Contemporaries: Miscellaneous Notes (New Directions), which was awarded a PEN/Heim Translation Fund Grant. Her work has appeared in BOMBBoston ReviewA Public Space, and Interim Magazine, among others. She is the managing editor of the Harvard Review and a Contributing Editor at The Critical Flame.

Guangchen Chen is a PhD student in comparative literature, with a secondary field in musicology at Harvard University. His publications include “Fu Lei” in Harvard’s A New Literary History of Modern China, and other essays on Chinese literature and music theory. He translated into Chinese Albert Schweitzer’s Bach (East China Normal University Press) and Claire Roberts’ Friendship in Art: Fou Lei and Huang Binhong (Zhongxi Shuju).

 

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