Brief bio sketch

Lloyd Haft (1946- ) was born in Sheboygan, Wisconsin USA and lived as a boy in Wisconsin, Louisiana and Kansas. In 1968 he graduated from Harvard College and went to Leiden, The Netherlands for graduate study in Chinese (M. A. 1973, Ph. D. 1981). From 1973 to 2004 he taught Chinese language and literature, mostly poetry, at Leiden. His sinological publications include Pien Chih-lin: A Study in Modern Chinese Poetry (1983/2011; published in Chinese translation as 发现卞之琳: 一位西方学者的探索之旅 in 2010) and Zhou Mengdie’s Poetry of Consciousness (2006). His most recent sinological book, a liberal modern Dutch reading of Laozi's Daode jing, was published as Lau-tze's vele wegen by Synthese in September 2017. His newest book of poems in Dutch, Intocht (Introit) has been available as a POD from the American Book Center since June 2018.

He has translated extensively into English from the Dutch of Herman Gorter and Willem Hussem, and from the Chinese of various poets including Lo Fu, Yang Lingye, Bian Zhilin and Zhou Mengdie.

Since the 1980s he has also been active as a poet writing in Dutch and English. He was awarded the Jan Campert Prize for his 1993 bilingual volume Atlantis and the Ida Gerhardt Prize for his 2003 Dutch free-verse readings of the Psalms (republished by Uitgeverij Vesuvius in 2011). His newer poems are published (some republished) on this blog. His newest book of poetry in Dutch is Intocht (Introit), issued by the American Book Center in June 2018.

After early retirement in 2004, for a number of years Lloyd Haft spent much of his time in Taiwan with his wife Katie Su. In addition to writing and translating, his interests include Song-dynasty philosophy and taiji quan. For many years he sang in the choir of a Roman Catholic church of the Eastern Rite in The Hague.

Monday, September 2, 2013

On Translating Zhou Mengdie 周夢蝶 (Part 1 of 3)

On Translating Zhou Mengdie 周夢蝶[1] (Part 1 of 3)

by Lloyd Haft

This paper is about Zhou Mengdie’s (hereinafter ZMD’s) poetry as seen through the eyes of a translator. ZMD’s poetry is exceptionally difficult to read and understand, and that fact makes it exceptionally difficult to translate. On the other hand, I hope to show that exactly because the translator is forced to scrutinize each poem word-by-word with an intensity probably exceeding that of most native readers, the translator may be rewarded with glimpses of possible meaning that add resonance to the already rich experience of reading Zhou Mengdie.
Translatability or untranslatability is not just a practical area of technical discussion, but involves the most basic questions of interpretation, semantics, and what we can only call ‘thought.’ For example, in ZMD’s poetry the ubiquitous ‘reversal’ or ‘palindrome’ motif occurs at various interweaving levels of implication, which need not exclude each other and may be simultaneously valid. An occurrence of this motif may be a rhetorical-stylistic device of composition and also an allusive feature evoking Buddhist thought and also a classic psychological pathway described by Freud.[2]

1.      Levels of implication: ‘Ambiences’

In the following discussion I will be referring to three of these levels. I will call them Ambiences, which I will call the Public, Scriptural, and Realization Ambiences.[3] By ‘Public Ambience,’ I mean the world of factual, historical, and ordinary social reality. By ‘Scriptural Ambience,’ I mean the discourse of traditional philosophies or religions whether Christian or Daoist or Buddhist. By ‘Realization Ambience,’ I mean the subjective-individual position, the speaking ‘I’ as bearer of experiences which may be represented differently or not at all in the other two Ambiences.
        What the Scriptural and Realization Ambiences have in common is that their valuation of things may be completely at variance with what the Public Ambience has to say. What the Scriptural and Public Ambiences have in common is that they seem to have pre-existed the present Realization and to take no account of it: to use a Lacanian term for a moment, they tend always to ‘inscribe’ the individual within the inexorable fixities of their own logic. What the Public and Realization Ambiences have in common is that they can both focus sharply on the present moment.
An Ambience is not the same thing as a ‘register’ of language. It is certainly not the case that the Public Ambience, just because it is public, is always the most plodding and unimaginative. On the contrary, it is exceedingly rich in possibilities, owing to the vast history and complexity of the language as attested in preserved literature, dictionaries and other sources which are in principle open to anybody to consult. 
In ZMD’s poetry, because of the constant presence of what I am calling alternative Ambiences of diction and thought, it is often difficult to know when and whether the overtones of words – what they might mean in an alternative context – actually override, take over from, the more immediately evident meaning. A word may be a part of everyday street talk yet also an abstruse term used in Buddhist texts. Must the latter be privileged over the former? If the Buddhist term is used, does it always bring the full freight of its philosophy with it?[4]
        The poet (and hopefully, following him the reader) is constantly moving to and fro, here and there among the different Ambiences. When switching from the perspective of one Ambience to that of another, one and the same word may be taken in a different or even seemingly opposed sense. For example, in the Public Ambience, ‘cold’ is normally an unpleasant state to be avoided if possible. But in ZMD’s Scriptural Ambience, ‘cold’ seems associated with a non-sensual, Himalaya-like height of contemplative detachment and liberating enlightenment. Similarly, white, the color of ‘cold’ snow, may convey the least warm and gentle season, hiding away the pleasures and vitality of spring and summer – or it may be the color of the highest wisdom, in which individual colors – the se which in Chinese can be ‘desires’ or sensory ‘forms’ as such – no longer are present to trouble and obscure.
In ZMD’s ‘In the Tomb’ 在墓穴裏 ( 86),[5] we read that poetry itself ‘can take the cold’ and that it is a ‘synconium-bearing plant’ – which is also true of the fig or of the so-called sacred fig of Buddhism, the udumbara. In Chinese, the fig is the wuhuaguo 無花果 , literally the ‘flowerless fruit’ – which sounds like a plant which bypasses the flowering stage. As I read ZMD’s remark, then, poetry is a special kind of fecundity, going around or beyond the plane of ordinary sexual emotion: a ‘synconium-bearing plant’ whose ecology is what Wallace Stevens called ‘heavenly labials in a world of gutturals,’[6] which blossoms exceedingly seldom, but brings enlightenment when it does.
        In other words, in the Realization Ambience of this particular poet, poetry plays the role which metaphysical insight or wisdom plays in the Scriptural Ambience. This role, this concept as a vital element, is something which in the Public Ambience does not exist. But as we will see, it is poetry, as the voice of the Realization Ambience, which succeeds in finding or creating unity or unities among all three Ambiences, such that all three can survive.

2. Lines that end, or don’t

In ZMD’s poetry, because of his non-conventional use (or non-use) of punctuation and his consciously anti-linear phrasing, it is often not clear what the ‘form’ is. Determining where a given expression begins and ends, which parts of the rest of the text it links up with, often depends on which Ambience the reader places it in.
        A very troublesome issue in this regard (to this translator’s mind a lamentable fact of existence!) is that very many modern Chinese poets use little punctuation or none at all. It is tempting to write this off as merely a would-be modern mannerism that is actually a reversion to classical Chinese practice. ZMD does use some punctuation, but it is at least as liable to occur within the lines as at the end of them. This means that the sense of closure which we normally associate with ‘the end of a sentence’ can only be established by reading on, trying to link the present line with what follows, and judging whether and where the sentences end. It might be possible to try to maintain this situation in a translation, but given the inherent great differences between English and Chinese word order, and the difference in sheer length between phrases which may be equivalent in meaning, it would not be easy to do this. I personally do not think it is realistic to try to imitate even the typography of Chinese – in which there is no such thing as a difference between capital and lower-case letters, so that in ZMD’s case often neither the beginning nor the end of a sentence is ‘marked’ – in an English translation.
In a poem by ZMD we cannot assume, without first reading ahead, that the line boundary marks the end of a grammatical sentence – i.e., where a Western reader or translator would at least mentally fill in a ‘period.’ Sometimes it does; sometimes it does not. And sometimes it can be taken both ways, yielding two different meanings. The two meanings may run in parallel at different levels, one being a ‘heavier’ or more ‘esoteric’ amplification of the other. Or they may seemingly contrast.
        ZMD himself has thought about this: at the end of the second poem of ‘Two Nine-Liners’ 九行二首 ( 57-59), we read:


talk through till dawn and you’ll never get done talking,
I’m partial to periods. But even more
to commas swaying forlorn, tadpole-like.[7]

Even this brief fragment has various implications. The ‘tadpole’ allusion can refer to the physical typography of the poem on the page. There was an ancient Chinese script form called ‘tadpole script’ (蝌蚪書), which took its name from its form, most brush strokes having the ‘head’ larger than the ‘tail.’ In many styles of Western typography, the same description would apply to a comma. But philosophically, the reluctance to give primacy to the ‘period,’ that is to the supposedly final-and-complete pronouncement, also fits in with Zhou’s view of the poem as a ‘palindrome,’ a text that can be read in more than one direction or sense. Something ‘tadpole-like’ is still unfinished, still implies possibilities for growth and change.
        Let us now consider an example of fruitful ambivalence as to whether the end of a line is the end of a sentence.

即事 ― 水田驚艷 ( 91)



 – a shock of glamor[8] in the paddies

Just this tiny
tiny tiny dot of white
and the green swaying in misty waves far as the eye can see
is the green’s no longer.

The green is no longer the green’s
after a fresh rain over the paddies:
at a height now within, now beyond reach
leisurely flying
one little butterfly
coming it seems from what comes from nowhere,                          
the fair lunar snowgleam
of the firstmost, the lastmost.


Reading just to the end of the third line, we might initially feel we had arrived at the end of a sentence, meaning more or less:

Just this tiny
tiny tiny dot of white
and then it’s green swaying in misty waves far as the eye can see.

This could be taken as the description of an esthetic-psychological process: the arrival of the very least touch of a contrasting element (‘white’) accentuates, brings out all the more, the overwhelming ‘green’ of the living environment.
        But if we look on to the next line, we find


(it) is no longer the green’s

And looking across the strophe boundary to the next following line, we see a repetition, this time on the same line, of the words lü bu fu wei lü suo you綠不復為綠所有, which had been divided across lines three and four. This placement makes it seem more compelling to read the syntax as

Just this tiny
tiny tiny dot of white
and the green swaying in misty waves far as the eye can see
is the green’s no longer.

The subsequent lines on the butterfly, with their ‘lunar’ and ‘snow’ associations, imply that the daylit and summer-like, seemingly uncomplicated and non-philosophical ‘green’ has now been taken up in a more mental and meditative, less season-bound context. The ‘white’ element, like the ‘snow’ which is a recurrent image in Zhou’s poetry, suggests a more rarified ‘pure’ state which transcends individual colors or emotional states.
        These alternative readings can both be supported by the locally prevalent grammar and the presence or absence of punctuation. Do they really conflict? Do we need to choose one or the other?
It is not easy to establish limits as to how ‘legitimate’ it is to tease out and apply alternative readings. My own position on this is extremely flexible. I am always afraid that a sophisticated yet valid reading might be excluded by applying a too lowbrow standard of which associations are ‘plausible.’
But another factor is that language itself is associative, always multiplex, always ready to connect some of itself with more of itself. Nobody owns a language. Language belongs to the Public Ambience. It is not within the province of the individual poet to dictate the limits of what words mean or what they shall evoke in the reader. The poem ‘means’ anything it can sensibly be read to mean.
But what is ‘sensible’? The Public Ambience supplies the words, but not the full scope of their possible senses. For the latter, recourse must be had to other Ambiences.

3. Reading word by word

In ZMD’s poem ‘Gentle Snow’ 細雪 ( 107), we read that ‘all poems are palindromes’ – in other words, they can be read from back to front, read as reversals of themselves.[9] The normal flow of time, of grammar, or of logic, can never be presumed to hold. In his book of personal reflections on the classical novel Dream of the Red Chamber (Honglou meng), he says not only that he read this 120-chapter book in reverse order (!), but that poetry ‘originates in nonsense’ ( 13, 109).
If we take seriously this idea that the normal beginning-to-end sequence, hence also normal grammar, is not an absolute guide to the text, one thing we as readers can do is to focus with unusual intensity on isolated phrases, even on the individual words. And as translators who are non-native speakers of Chinese, we are in a special position to do this: we are forced to scrutinize the individual words to a special degree of exhaustiveness, undoubtedly looking up many of them in dictionaries, discussing them with native speakers who would not normally reflect on them and in general, learning much about the associations these words might have in other contexts. It is true that the presence of non-explicit overtones often makes it more rather than less difficult to translate the poem, and speaking broadly, Chinese poetry-reading strategies do not like us to come out at the end with a lasting ambiguity or irresolution. But these ‘overtones’ make the reader’s experience of the poem, be it ever such hard going, even richer. In that sense, the foreign translator, forced to read the text in an almost ‘philological’ sense, is privileged vis-a-vis the native reader, who is liable to skim lightly over apparently clear passages without letting the deeper implications of the words sink in and grow.
ZMD himself does focus philologically on individual words, at times explicitly in his poems. A good example occurs in ‘Someday the Flower’s Bound to Blossom’ 花,總得開一次 ( 137):


What’s ‘I’?
hard to distinguish, a little of both:
a stem
and an edged weapon, though
stem’s not I,
neither is weapon I.

Here, ZMD is playing with etymology. In the original, he seems first of all to be talking about how to analyze the written character wo meaning...ah, yes, meaning what? Most obviously wo means ‘I.’ But in specialized contexts, including Buddhist and other philosophical texts, its meaning can be the ‘ego,’ the ‘I’ as a function. Trying first to make it read ‘I,’ the translator might read it as I have just done. But in Wut Tai-shing’s屈大成 exposition on Buddhist features in ZMD’s poetry, we find this very passage quoted (Qu 292) as an example of fei wo 非我, being a technical term equivalent to wu wo 無我 , meaning ‘having no ego’ or ‘having no definite self.’ In other words, as in German or Dutch but unlike English, the same word in Chinese can mean either the ordinary first-person pronoun or the technical term for ‘ego,’ and the translator has to choose. ‘Having no definite self,’ I think, fits well with the rather abstract sound of shenme shi wo甚麼是我which sounds, at least to me, more like ‘what is an ego’ than ‘what am I.’ Yet...the last two lines sound more like ‘the stem’s not me’ than ‘the stem is egoless,’ more like ‘the weapon’s not me’ than ‘the weapon has no ego.’
        Now for a closer look at the intervening ‘etymology.’ I put this in quotes because although it is structured like the ordinary etymological dissection of a character: ‘the left half is A and the right half is B’ – in this case ZMD does not follow the actual traditional etymology. The latter would say that the right half of wo is indeed an ‘edged weapon,’ of whatever kind exactly,[10] but the left half is a human hand.
        Why does ZMD instead make the left element a ‘stem’ or ‘stalk,’ as of growing grain? Given ZMD’s obvious awareness of every overtone of every word, it is probably legitimate to think here of the existing metaphoric usages of the ‘stem’ and the ‘weapon’ in Chinese. They can mean respectively ‘harmony’ (reading as ) and ‘warfare.’
        How to get all this into a single translation? I think the only way would be to quietly add an appositional line, amplifying the ‘stem’ and the ‘weapon’ as ‘harmony’ and ‘strife.’ Then, perhaps using the indefinite article ‘a’ in front of ‘I’ to make it sound like a technical term and not a pronoun, the result might be:

What’s an ‘I’?
hard to distinguish, a little of both:
a stem and an edged weapon,
a harmony and a strife, though
stem has no I,
nor has weapon I.

The next line in the original reads:


The names are different, and the fates. The dream’s the same.

Here ‘the names are different,’ when read aloud, sounds also like ‘the genders are different’ – and this fits in, as dictionary explanations of pushuo mili撲朔而迷離, the expression I have translated as ‘a little of both,’ often refer to an animal such that it is not easy at a quick look to distinguish the male from the female.
        But with this, we are already broaching the subject of puns in ZMD’s poetry. We will return to it soon.

[to be continued]

List of Works Consulted/Cited

Works by Zhou Mengdie 周夢蝶:

Bu fu Rulai bu fu Qing 不負如來不負卿 []. Taipei: Jiuge 九歌, 2005.

Gudu guo 孤獨國 []. Reprinted in Zhou Mengdie. Gudu guo/Huanhun cao/Fenger Lou yigao孤獨國/還魂草/風耳樓逸稿, edited by Zeng Jinfeng 曾進豐. Taipei: INK, 2009.

Shiji shixuan 世紀詩選 (1) []. Taipei: Erya 爾雅, 2000.

Shisanduo bai juhua 十三朵白菊花. []. Taipei: Hongfan 洪範, 2002.

You yizhong niao huo ren 有一種鳥或人 [], edited by Zeng Jinfeng 曾進豐. Taipei: INK, 2009.

Yuehui 約會 []. Taipei: Jiuge 九歌, 2002.

Other works in Chinese:

Qiao Nianzu 喬念祖 (ed.). “石濤畫語錄與現代繪畫藝術研究. Beijing: Renmin yishu chubanshe 人民藝術出版社, 2007. Authors are Qiao Nianzu, Zhang Zhihua 張志華 and Shao Jingjing 邵菁菁.

Wut Tai-shing 屈大成. “周夢蝶詩與佛教,” in Li Huoren 黎活仁, Xiao Xiao 蕭蕭 and Luo Wenling 羅文玲 (eds.). Xuezhong qu huo qie zhu huo wei xue 雪中取火且鑄火為雪. Taipei: Wanjuan lou 萬卷樓, 2010, 251-312.

Zeng Jinfeng 曾進豐. “Zhou Mengdie shi yanjiu” 周夢蝶詩研究. M.A. Thesis, National Taiwan Normal University, Guowen yanjiu suo 國文研究所, 1996.

Zongjing lu 宗鏡錄. Consulted on website of the Electronic Buddhadharma Society (EBS) 美國佛教會電腦資訊庫功德會(資功會), February 20, 2013.

Works in Western languages:

Chou, Ju-hsi. The Hua-yü-lu and Tao-chi’s Theory of Painting, Occasional Paper No. 8, Tempe, Arizona: Center for Asian Studies, Arizona State University, 1977.

Crump, J. I. Songs from Xanadu: Studies in Mongol-Dynasty Song-Poetry (San-ch’ü). Ann Arbor: Center for Chinese Studies, University of Michigan, 1983.

Edwards, Richard. The World Around the Chinese Artist: Aspects of Realism in Chinese Painting, Ann Arbor: Center for Chinese Studies, University of Michigan, 1989/2000, pp. 105-154.

Frontier Taiwan: An Anthology of Modern Chinese Poetry. Edited by Michelle Yeh and N. G. D. Malmqvist. New York: Columbia University Press, 2001.

Haft, Lloyd [2006]. Zhou Mengdie’s Poetry of Consciousness. Wiesbaden: Harrassowitz Verlag.

_____[2008]. “Perspectives on John C. H. Wu’s Translation of the New Testament,” in Chloe Starr (ed.). Reading Christian Scriptures in China. London and New York: T & T Clark, 2008, pp. 189-206.

Hoffmann, Hans Peter. Die Welt als Wendung – Zu einer Literarischen Lektüre des Wahren Buches vom südlichen Blütenland (Zhuangzi). Wiesbaden: Harrassowitz Verlag, 2001.

Legge, James (trans.). Confucian Analects, in The Chinese Classics vols. I & II, ‘reprinted from the last editions of the Oxford University Press.’ No publ. no date.

Soothill, William Edward and Lewis Hodous. A Dictionary of Chinese Buddhist Terms. Revised by Shih Sheng-kang, Lii Wu-jong and Tseng Lai-ting. Kaohsiung: Foguang 佛光, 1962.

Watson, Burton (trans.). Chuang tzu: Basic Writings. New York: Columbia University Press, 1966.

[1] This piece is based on my paper “ ‘Branchings of My Hands’ : Translation as a Key to Parallel Meanings in Zhou Mengdie’s Poetry,” presented 24 March, 2013, Taipei, at "Poetically He Dwells"—An International Conference on Zhou Mengdie: Manuscripts, Literary Works, Religious Thoughts and the Arts, organized by National Taiwan University Institute for Taiwanese Literature, Kaohsiung Normal University Department of Chinese, and Central University Department of English.
[2] See Haft 2006, especially Chapters 1 and 2.
[3] In Chinese, my terms for these Ambiences would be 公認語際 (Public), 經義語際 (Scriptural) , and 自覺語際 (Realization) .
[4] Zeng 143 discusses how ZMD may be using a Buddhist term ‘rhetorically.’
[5] For abbreviations of sources in citations, see the List of Works Consulted/Cited.
[6] From Stevens’ poem ‘The Plot against the Giant.’
[7] All quoted translations from ZMD’s poetry are my own.
[8] I deliberately use ‘glamor’ here to accord with the terminology of Western occultism.
[9] Interesting here is that the exact formulation, 所有的詩皆回文, could be read by the diehard pun-seeker as ‘all poetry reverses wen (i.e. ordinary ‘civilization’),’ i.e., poetry contravenes the Public Ambience.
For an extensive discussion of the ‘reversal’ motif in Zhou’s poetry, including his frequent use of chiasmus and other symmetry structures, see Haft 2006, 17-42.
[10] Existing sources give various descriptions and pictures. In any case, my own translation in Haft 2006,  62, was more poetic than correct.