Inhabiting Wang Wei


Atomic Geography

AG lives in Vestal, NY and writes about cyborgs, disability and Buddhism.

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10 Responses

  1. Avatar Em Carpenter says:

    Thank you for this! I only had time to read half of it but I can’t wait to finish. I love when we publish something like this, a nice refreshing interlude among all the current event and political outrage pieces.Report

  2. Avatar J_A says:

    I applaud your objective. Translation (something of a family traditional occupation) should ideally preserve or convey not just the literal meaning, but the form the original words had, both written and spoken, and the feelings they evoke.

    Having said that, I respectfully suggest you have overthought and overworked this particular poem, particularly the beginning of it. And the result, to me, reads like a philosophy essay, and not the quick, sudden moment of awareness that I get from the original poem.

    My issues start with your first word. Voidness is such a corny, ackward word that even my autocorrect just changed it to “avoid mess”. I see what you are trying to do do there. The Spanish word “vacio”, meaning both the adjective “empty” and the noun “emptiness”, would have done the trick. But Voidness is ackward, and long. It’s too precise. It robs the reader the ability to discover different layers of meaning, something I’m sure Wang Wei would have wanted. “At land’s height” is also a strange phrase that I don’t immediately understand as an English speaker. What is “land’s height”? It’s not altitude over sea level, for sure, but then, what?

    I like your second line much better. However, I didn’t understand the original to be a question, which is now implied when you use “whose”. An alternative translation that I think keeps the meaning you intend might have been

    “Yet, voices…? Echos…? Whose?

    Your last two verses are, in my book, much better. Yet I had troubles with the sound of the word “breathe” in the third verse. I think the meaning is correctly translated by “breathe” but the word grated me in the verse. It reminded me too much of “Take a breath, calm yourself”. Inhale, would not have that problem, but it’s too clinical. It would be “Voidness” again. I confess I can’t suggest a better word, but it stands up too much for my taste.

    And the fourth verse it’s just right. Congratulations on it.

    And thank you for engaging in this exercise. I enjoyed myself tremendouslyReport

    • Thanks for your thoughtful and detailed reply. The combination is a rare commodity. In response I will return the favor.

      A strong tradition exists translating this poem as a pastoral, which I’m guessing you would prefer. I’m convinced at this point that this is wrong.

      The first word of the poem, kong, translated mostly as “empty” is probably untranslatable in its complexity and nuance into English. It clearly does refer to Buddhist Emptiness, as well as the absence of people. This is, at its core, a philosophical poem. But the most common rendering of “empty mountain” seems genuinely odd to me in English. I also think most readers do not also include the Buddhist aspect in their understanding of it. Could I have overcompensated? I hope so.

      “Corny” seems to refer to a popular culture sense of “void” and related constructions. For me, those associations do not intrude at all. Perhaps I have a blind spot there, to immersed in Buddhism, but I prefer to think I’m using the word in a rigorous way that crowds out the corny. I leave it to each reader to decide.

      “Land’s height” is a reworking of the phrase height of the land. How successful is it? I don’t know, but I don’t think it’s as obscure as you suggest.

      I find your response to the next line odd. You object to reworking the line into a question and suggest an alternative that replaces one question with three, including the offending “whose”.

      Of course I find your response to the third (“breathe” not withstanding) and fourth lines much more insightful in their complementariness (awkward construction?). Seriously, to me, the whole point of the poem is the fourth line, so thanks.

      In any event, this is very much a work in progress. I anticipate another version, sometime in the future. I’m sure your comments will influence that effort. There is no final version possible. This poem, more than anything else, is a mystery.Report

  3. Avatar Jaybird says:

    This was absolutely wonderful.

    Thank you!Report

  4. Avatar Slade the Leveller says:

    As someone who is trying to learn Chinese on his own, I found this exercise fascinating. I’ve really been struck by the beauty of the language, but I’ve also come to realize that direct translation just makes it sound silly to an English speaker. For instance, take the word family, which in Chinese is jia ren (I won’t bother with the diacritics). Translate that back to English and you get home people. Sounds pretty ridiculous, even though it’s a great definition of the word family.

    Therein lies the danger in direct translation. What is revealed here is the great elasticity and fluidity of the English language. The quoted translation, as well as AG’s, are beautiful, compact renderings of the original, with both managing to convey the beauty and spirit of the original. Yet the 2 English renderings could not be more different.Report

  5. Avatar atomickristin says:

    Cool piece! I really liked it.Report