The Third Shore (in three parts): 3

(This third part of the Third Shore intro has been delayed by other work, which – such is my ineptitude – prevented me from deploying the few minutes necessary to dig out the correct characters for the point it makes about translating from Chinese.

In the published edition, the key term ‘鮮’ (‘xiān’ in pinyin), meaning ‘fresh’, was unfortiunately not given – although it is present in the Chinese version of the text. The term substituted for it made a nonsense of my point, which depended on the meanings of the two characters which together make up ‘xiān’. So this version replaces that published in the book.)


I wrote in the introduction to Jade Ladder about my conviction, gained through working on that book, that translation is a fundamental aspect of any process of dialogue, not just those evidently about a transfer of meanings across languages. The transition from one era to another, from one class to another, from one gender to another, from a memory to the world-view of the present self, each involves us in a type of translation.

This is self-evidently a metaphoric use of the term ‘translation’, but we must always be alive to the metaphors through which we conceptualise such exchanges. Many of our metaphors for translation tend to contain hierarchical assumptions, from the gendered ‘mother tongue’ to the idea that meaning can be ‘lost’ as though it were baggage – or rather merchandise – in transit. And yet there is a more fundamental sense in which translation is itself metaphoric, which has a direct bearing on the processes employed and the choices made by the poets gathered in this anthology.

Translators are often supposed to work in what might be described as a metonymic manner; that is, when seeking equivalences of language, form, image or cultural reference, it is often anticipated that they will seek contiguous ones – synonyms rather than antonyms, syllabics for numbers of characters, images drawn from the same field of reference, and cultural equivalences that appear to be as ‘close’ as possible.

But it is as often the case that what is being sought are metaphoric equivalences – words, metrics, images, references, which are ‘like’ the original, but don’t necessarily directly correspond. The likeness, as in metaphor, is made implicit by the act of creating a poem in the target language, rather than, say, writing an essay about the original poem. In a sense, the translation is itself a metaphor for the original. In I.A. Richard’s terms, the original is the tenor, and the translation is the vehicle.

This relationship is, I think, particularly clear when when we look at translations between English and Chinese. The dynamic between pictogram and meaning in Chinese is often metonymic, for instance the character meaning fresh, ‘鮮’ (‘xiān’ in pinyin), consists of an association made from contiguous elements – the characters for two fresh things, ‘fish’ and ‘sheep’ (魚 ‘yú’ and  羊 ‘yáng’).

By contrast, for the English speaker, ‘fresh’ delivers its associations by dint of being an Old English monosyllable. That is, whether we are aware of its etymology or not, most English speakers register the directness of the sound and link it to its meaning in a way we might not so readily do with ‘neoteric’ or ‘uncontaminated’. Synonyms in English come from different sources that we don’t always recognize as contiguous, and in fact can experience as contrasting.

When we think about the relation between ‘鮮’ and ‘fresh’ therefore, we are thinking metaphorically about how a spatial relationship between characters can resemble a meaning built up through complementary or contrasting linguistic roots, ie a temporal relationship. This is, I believe, what the poet Yu Jian meant when he said at a recent festival in Nanjing, ‘The Chinese character cannot be translated.’ He didn’t mean that a kind of translation did not take place, but rather that translating Chinese makes us think laterally about equivalence itself.

To think of translation as a search for metaphors as much as a search for meanings is to note that likeness may be something subtly different from similarity. Twins can resemble each other exactly but have different natures, while two strangers can contrast in every way while recognizing – or at least agreeing – that they are in some way fundamentally alike.

Translation in this sense is a kind of leap of faith which we can only commit to if trust has been established between translated and translating poets: they must have faith in each other’s judgement as poets beyond the limits of their grasp of each other’s language and culture. Poet to Poet translation, then, is a relationship rather than an infallible method, one in which we hope to recognize and value likeness.

This recognition of likeness occurred again and again in the creation of this book, as poets in both languages acknowledged that each other’s engagement with their culture’s politics, history and prosody was not just similar to their own, or not just simplistically operating in parallel, but felt as though it were the same engagement. The evidence was as simple as finding you were as fascinated by your fellow poet’s problematic or otherwise relationship with his or her canon as you were by your own, and indeed as he or she was by your own.

It was certainly the case that many of the poets from Britain responded strongly to the way in which Chinese writers were renegotiating their relationship with avant-garde techniques (often imported from US poetics) through a radical exploration of their classical heritage, in which, on the one hand, no simplistic direct link to that heritage was assumed to exist, nor, on the other, in the wake of the horrors of the Cultural Revolution, was an absolute break with that past considered either desirable or possible.

This was, some of us felt, not unlike the continued negotiation that had gone on throughout twentieth and twenty-first century poetry written in Britain and Ireland between what was interpreted as experimental and traditional poetries and poetics. Having as broad a variety of formal resources as theoretical approaches seemed to both sets of poets to be of something like the same importance.

This sense of shared values and of common commitment to a method of translation that places such emphasis on dialogue may, it is hoped, help to mitigate a final imposition that anthologies of this kind make upon their contents and contributors.

Our cultures do not have a detailed awareness of each other as contemporary entities, especially when it comes to the field of poetry. The temptation, therefore, especially for readers of English contemplating the vastness of Chinese culture, but also for Chinese readers considering the wide variety of Englishes from US to UK to Indian, Australian, and so on, is always to employ a sort of thinking by synecdoche, that rhetorical device whereby the part is held to stand for the whole. ‘I shall never read everything,’ we think, refusing to admit the thought even as it arises, ‘therefore, this poem shall represent this poet; this poet shall stand for that cultural movement; and this anthology shall be adequate for the entire medium of poetry in that language.’

This anthology seeks to displace that act of substitution by moving in two directions at the one time. Each language presents to the reader a portrait of itself and a picture of the other as selected by that other. These two images simultaneously encourage comparison and contrast. They are in dialogue with each other exactly as the poets who translated each other were in dialogue. They in fact represent that process as much as they represent their respective cultures, and they suggest limitations: this type of anthology can only consist of that part of each culture which is prepared or practically able to enter into this kind of dialogue: there will be many who are not, or cannot do so.

This is the sort of limitation many writers will recognize as a great liberation: the technical restriction that obliges invention, and thereby enables you to escape from other, more doctrinaire constraints. We do not, I think, want to represent our cultures in quite so straightforward a manner as a synecdochic reading implies. Rather we wish to explore what we can do as writers and translators freed from this sort of representation into a zone where communication, with each other, with our own, and with each other’s audience, is the key element. In that zone, if the quality of the original writing and of the translation is high enough, both writers and audiences will create their own understanding of our respective poetries, their links and contrasts, their evident particularity and their possible universality. They will, in effect, land upon the third shore.

About Bill Herbert

Poet and pseudo-scholar W.N. Herbert was born in Dundee in 1961, educated there and at Oxford, where he completed his DPhil thesis on Scottish poet Hugh MacDiarmid, and now lives and works in Newcastle. He is Professor of Poetry and Creative Writing at Newcastle University, and his books are published by, among others, northern publisher Bloodaxe Books. He is also the Dundee Makar, or city laureate.
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