Monday, January 27, 2014

Readings: The Poetry of Yu Xuanji


My Facebook friend, Aliki Barnstone, is the co-editor of the anthology, A Book of Women Poets fromAntiquity to Now, which I have borrowed from the Alden Library at Ohio University.  It is a huge book, and, after perusing it with great interest, I decided to ask Aliki this:

“If I were to ask you to recommend one poet from your anthology of women poets from antiquity to the present whose work I probably don't know, who would that poet be? And, if I asked you to recommend one poet from that anthology to study in depth, regardless of the likelihood of my knowing that poet's work, would that be a different woman?”

Aliki’s response to the initial part of that two-part question was this:

“…the poet Yu Xuanji, translated by Geoffrey Waters - that might be the one you don't know.”

While she also generously answered the second part of the question, giving me plenty of names, several of which I was well aware of, and several more that I will need to check out in the future, I decided to start at the beginning, with Yu Xuanji.

Indeed, Aliki was correct: I did not know of Yu Xuanji. I own several books containing Chinese poetry in English translation, but none of them included the works of Yu Xuanji. I went online to search the Alden Library catalog for “Waters, Geoffrey” and could not find a listing for his translations of the recommended poet. I next searched the OhioLink university inter-library loan system catalog, with the same result.

Alden Library does, however, have a translation of the complete poems of Yu Xuanji  entitled, The Clouds Float North; translated by David Young and Jiann I. Lin. So, this morning, I borrowed that. Having done so, I thought that it might be interesting to compare some of Geoffrey Waters’ translations with those of Young and Lin.

Translation, particularly from non-European languages into English, can be a tricky thing. Although I don’t know enough to attempt a learned explanation here, I do know enough to say that Chinese poetics do not work like English poetics, so that literal translations are literally impossible.

Below I will compare two translations of the same poem by Yu Xuanji. You will note that even the two titles of the poem have been translated differently. First, Geoffrey Waters:

Selling Ruined Peonies

Sigh, in the wind fall flowers, their petals dance.
Their secret fragrance dies in spring’s decay.

Too costly: no one bought them.
Too sweet for butterflies.

If these red blooms had grown in a palace
Would they now be stained by dew and dust?

If they grew now in a forbidden garden
Princes would covet what they could not buy.

And now, Young and Lin:

Selling the Last Peonies

Facing the wind makes us sigh
we know how many flowers fall

spring has come back again
and where have the fragrant longings gone?

who can afford these peonies?
their price is much too high

their arrogant aroma
even intimidates butterflies

flowers so deeply red
they must have been grown in a palace

leaves so darkly green
dust scarcely dares to settle there

if you wait till they’re transplanted
to the Imperial Gardens

then you, young lords, will find
you have no means to buy them.

How different these two translations are. Just compare, “Too sweet for butterflies” to “their arrogant aroma / even intimidates butterflies” -- yet both translations convey the extraordinary essence of those last peonies, as experienced by the poet. I am grateful to Aliki Barnstone for turning me on to this wonderful poet and her talented translators.
Here is a link to the Geoffrey Waters article in Wikipedia.