Photograph by Taca Sui, "Wen River", 2015.
周年 路灯注册每片经过的雪 返回的雪
纷飞的指尖 戳中你 烫伤你
Translation by Brian Holton, winner of the Sarah Maguire Prize 2021, awarded by the Poetry Translation Centre.
earlier dark formed up behind winter is so similar
but isn’t you
more hastily collapsing white more like the museum’s marble steps
steps you can’t come down
two gardens neatly fall into
a shrubbery a freezing pink girl’s embrace
anniversary streetlamps register each passing snowflake returning snow
fingers flying thick and fast stab you scald you
on the so graceful place of the conductor
two breaths float in air
each an unfinishable book you take on your hand
leaning on the trickle of melt water that oozes from marble floods the museum
an earlobe pink with cold trysted with the twilight
waiting everywhere a planet carved from the cold
the wind’s wailing knows you stands still
and floating down too tender six-sided signatures
press the girl’s secret curved shoulder
you need not walk down moon-white stone statues splashes are rising now
the very likeness of your imagined skeleton
tattered a bit by small hands carrying ashes
the small seer commemorated nothing but swirling upward gave birth again
chilled to the bone like beauty itself
Chinese, like English, is an analytic SVO language (man bites dog/dog bites man), although nouns don’t decline, verbs don’t conjugate, and tense, number, definiteness, gender, are all unmarked. There is one irregular verb. Verbs can be marked for aspect, but don’t have tobe; similarly, nouns can be pluralised, but it’s not compulsory, as it is with pronouns, which do have a plural suffix; but Yang Lian sometimes adds that to nouns, forcing me to write things like oysterses.
The writing system leans toward sense rather than sound, and because Chinese is very parsimonious with syllable sounds, it rhymes easily for many more lines than are possible in English. It’s also well-equipped for puns and wordplay.
Modifiers come only before nouns, so sentences are often complex structures of adjective, noun, or verb phrases in apposition, with none clearly dominant. Yang Lian likes both piled-up modifiers and ambiguity: a Chinese editor once told me she saw five different ways of reading one of his lines.
At first reading, I have to put who did what to whom and when to one side, and by the time I reach a pre-final draft, every article, every tense, almost every singular or plural are mine, and not the poet’s. Yang praises the Chinese verb for its tenseless timelessness, and much of his poetry does seem to operate in eternity, but those of us who work in a language burdened by the need to mark for definiteness, time, number, and so on, have to make tough decisions in the knowledge that we are flying in the face of the poet’s intention.
In this poem, lines 1-2
earlier dark formed up behind winter is sosimilar
更早的幽暗 gengzao de you’an
more early [subordinating particle] gloomy/darkness/darknesses
形成于酷似你 xingchengyu kusi ni
shape[d]-become to very like you [enjambement]
又不是你的冬日后面 you bushi ni de dongri houmian
and not is/was you[sing.] [subordinating particle] winter(day) behind [postposition]
Chinese word order has to be inverted here, as does the relation between headword winter and its modifiers. The verb xingcheng is rendered as a participle: Chinese verbs are not necessarily marked for voice, and since they don’t conjugate, an infinitive is indistinguishable from a participle, past tense from present, active from middle or passive, and so on.
Chinese tends to trochees, and English to iambs, but I try to keep the same number of beats in my line as Yang has in his, and I build a sound structure out of chains of echoic devices like alliteration, or half-rhyme, for example: in lines 3-4, this includes hastily/steps/collapsing, or more/museum’s/ marble. When he asks me to rhyme, I will comply as far as I can: adding form while keeping content is difficult and often impossible, but it’s great fun to try.
After nearly thirty years of working together, the voice I have found for Yang Lian feels like my own voice now.
3-4 March 2021