Friday, February 8, 2013

Bringing Chinese poetry into the English world - John Digby and Leslie Bai

Leslie Hong Ai Bai and John Digby
Oyster Bay poet and collagist John Digby was already working with Chinese poetry and published a few translations by the time he met Leslie Hong Ai Bai, a linguistics scholar, currently at LIU Post, a colleague of his wife, poet Joan Digby. Leslie, born in China to Korean parents, is in command of various oriental languages in addition to English and French.

Since 2010, they collaborated on a number of themes: horses, women - particularly the neglected, unloved or no longer loved ones, animals, landscapes. They dug out poems for Cold Food Festival, forgotten holiday which now enjoys a revival. All work is by poets active until the 19th century. These are some of their published works - Cold Food Festival, The Horse in Chinese in Chinese Poetry and Culture, Simple Simple, Losing a Slave Girl, Three Neglected Chinese Women: Three Deserted Tang Poets, The Sword Dance.

In their work they try to convey the tone of the poem and stay away from the literal translation. In case of the Chinese poetry the latter is almost impossible to accomplish, as even in the original the poems can be read in many different ways.

There are very many translations of the classic 'At Summit Temple' (李白: 题峰頂寺(夜宿山寺)) by various Western poets. This is John and Leslie's take on it:


Big climb this!

Breathless dizzy
and panting I've
attained the summit

I quiet my heart
hold my breath
looking into infinity

Now I could reach up
cradle a star in my hand
but scarcely whisper a word
for fear of waking up deities

Chinese poems, minimalistic gems, are typically composed of 4 lines of 5 to 7 characters, like the one above. There is no subject, no personal pronouns, no gender, no tenses. There exists rhyme and rhythm of the rising and falling phonetics of the characters. The characters themselves may have up to 30 varied meanings and are often complex, rarely used characters to mark the skill and knowledge of a poet - poetry was a domain of highly skilled individuals who strutted their linguistic dexterity like peacocks. Many poems are not easily understood by an average person of today.

Leslie and John revising text
The process of bringing a translated poem to its satisfactory stage is long and arduous. John and Leslie agree on a topic. Leslie researches potential candidates. A choice is narrowed down to a poem. John learns as much as possible about the author's life and environment. Leslie transcribes the individual characters of the poem into Pinyin. John analyzes every Pinyin character and attempts to construct a meaning or rather a mood from the puzzle before him. Leslie elaborates on metaphors and hidden meaning in the poem, provides additional background. Initial translation is created.

At this stage the battle of wits and esthetics commences. John wants to put in every shade of meaning that transpires. Leslie strikes out half of the words. They encounter numerous cultural differences. One memorable clash happened over a translation of 'green window'. Heated discussion revealed that for John green window was a window with stained glass. For Leslie it was a color of leaves outside - old Chinese houses did not have glass windows, it was the color of leaves that reflected on paper panels. Revision after revision follows, the work may take up to six months to complete. Leslie creates commentary on the poet, poet's time and customs.

Revisions of the poem 'Cold Food':

Please come back soon to enjoy a beautiful poem 'Losing a Slave Girl' in the upcoming Long Island Poem for Sunday series.

No comments:

Post a Comment