The following contribution from Lucas Klein is our first post in a blog series we’re calling “The Untranslatables.” Klein was awarded the Lucien Stryk Prize in 2013 for his translation of Xi Chuan’s Notes On the Mosquito: Selected Poems, which he discusses here:
there is a crowd of commoners as purple as red cabbage—the line, from my version of “The Distance” 远方, epitomizes something of Notes on the Mosquito (New Directions, 2012), my translation of the selected poems of contemporary Chinese poet Xi Chuan 西川. While my version figures the metaphor in terms of a distinctly European ingredient, as Xi Chuan wrote them, the purple commoners are perhaps paradigmatically Chinese, which is to say their description speaks to Chinese conceptions of reality in colloquially Chinese idioms: 有一群百姓像白菜一样翠绿.
Neither the grammar nor the vocabulary of the line is particularly complex or obscure in its language of composition:
有 yǒu there is / are
一群 yìqún a group of / crowd of
百姓 bǎixìng “hundred surnames”
像 xiàng like / as
白菜 báicài bok choy
一样 yíyàng same as
翠绿 cuìlǜ jade green
“There is a group of ‘hundred surnames’ as jade green as bok choy.” Nor is the cultural knowledge very advanced: “hundred surnames” is a very old (as in, millennia old) expression still in use that refers, as almost all students of Chinese learn in their first semesters, to common people, the families who do not constitute the nobility; additionally, it helps to know that bok choy (whose English comes from the Cantonese pronunciation) means “white cabbage.” This explains the poetry of the line: “there is a crowd of non-nobles as jade green as white cabbage.”
The line deals with the essences of Chinese, but with a twist. While many scholars have codified the Chinese aesthetic as metonymic and literal, the poetry of Xi Chuan’s line operates by revealing the fiction in the Chinese language’s conceptualization: white cabbage is not white (that it is modified by the quintessentially Chinese “jade green” twists the twist with even more torque). At other moments in my translation I have left the Chinese allusion for the educated reader to follow or the interested reader to look up, such as in Eagle’s Words 鹰的话语:
32. An enthusiast of the Analects of Confucius refutes another enthusiast of the Analects of Confucius to a bloody pulp.
33. Du Fu has received too much exaltation, so no other Du Fu could ever win anything.
In this instance, though, I sacrificed the insinuation about Chinese in particular to imply that all languages may contain such falsehoods and misnomers: as purple as red cabbage, because, of course, red cabbage is not red. And to reproduce the poïesis of Xi Chuan’s alliteration, such as with the chiasmus of /b/ and /x/ (IPA [ɕ]) and the repeated /c/ (IPA [tsʰ]) in yǒu yìqún bǎixìng xiàng báicài yíyàng cuìlǜ, I preceded it with, there is a crowd of commoners.
Lucas Klein, Hong Kong
“The Untranslatables” is a series on M-Blog about those words or phrases that give us pause as translators, that stump us and then, sometimes, enlighten us. In other words, those fragments of a text that can be so hard to translate but also so utterly satisfying when and if we finally find a way to say in our language close to what they mean in another one. If you would like to contribute an “Untranslatable” story to M-Blog, write to us at email@example.com.