Make it new

Where the Sea Stands Still

Yang Lian (translated by Brian Holton) <em>Bloodaxe Books, 191pp, £8.95

The poetry of a far-off time or place, Ezra Pound wrote, "requires a translation not only of word and of spirit, but of 'accompaniment'". By which he meant that the translator's audience must somehow be made aware of "the mental content" of the original audience, and of "what these others drew from certain fashions of thought and speech". It's a tall order. In truth, poetry in translation presents great difficulties to the reader. How much of the original work carries through in the second language? The situation with classical Chinese poetry is worse yet, because many of the devices used in its construction have no straightforward counterpart in English. And as for sense, or "mental content", that seems altogether an enigma.

Pound was writing about Guido Cavalcanti, but his own translations of the eighth-century Chinese poet Li Po, published in the volume Cathay in 1915, thoroughly confound his own prescription; on their appearance they were derided by sinologists as shoddy, inaccurate stuff, containing some sophomoric howlers. Today they are generally acknowledged as fine translations - because, to misuse that most famous of Pound's catchphrases, they make it new. The relationship of Pound's words to what Li wrote (and, as they were based on Ernest Fenellosa's versions of Japanese translations, they are three times removed from the original) is almost beside the point.

A poem - a decent poem, at any rate - is explosive, dynamic. It can spring surprises, send resonances and associations spinning off in directions undreamt of by the author, and a translator of poetry should not be in the business of trying to put a halt to this chain reaction. On this view, translation is an altogether different proposition. It may not be an exact science, but it's at least conceivable that one should experiment with it.

I approached Yang Lian's new book, Where the Sea Stands Still, with these difficulties very much to mind. Brian Holton and Yang have worked on the translations together, and they regard it as a joint enterprise in which the voice they create is neither wholly Holton's nor Yang's. For that reason, the Chinese text doesn't have the primacy usually accorded to translated "originals". These English poems are perhaps just as original as the Chinese ones that appear alongside them. In part this is a reflection of Yang's situation, as a London-based exile whose work is banned in China. But even if questions of textual hierarchy can be simply set aside, these are still challenging poems to read. Yang's sensibility is influenced by surrealism: images are hurled against one another, colliding obliquely, creating extraordinary frictions where they meet and freakish geometries of sense.

Several themes and images recur throughout: the idea, familiar from ancient Chinese thought (particularly the I Ching), of balance between opposites, to which the book's title points strongly; barren shorescapes; empty skies; violent death and decay; and especially the sea. The fine title poem is here translated twice, first into English and then into Holton's own Scots vernacular as "Whaur the Deep Sea Devauls". This does much to bear out W N Herbert's description of Yang's poetry as being "like MacDiarmid meets Rilke with samurai sword drawn". There is something in that phrase. This is poetry with attitude, an intricate fusion of east and west that literally gets the best out of both worlds.

This article first appeared in the 24 January 2000 issue of the New Statesman, The New Statesman Essay - The tyranny of the brands