Machines Made Out of Words: Translating Function & the Translator's Function

Tony Barnstone | October/November 2008

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Tony Barnstone


Yet if we are to believe Freud, we can glimpse the unconscious through the cracks in consciousness, through jokes, dreams, fantasies, "Freudian slips," and even through art, which Freud sees as a form of daydreaming.

Poems are small machines constructed to organize and process the mind. But it is hard to perceive perception, and harder still to perceive how the mind is processed by the structures of language within works of literature. As John Culkin famously observed, "We don't know who discovered water, but we're certain it wasn't a fish."1 So how can we have perspective on language when we are immersed in it? The medium is the message, and so it may be that the mediating act of translation is a place to start. The translator of a poem dismantles a machine of consciousness in one language and rebuilds it in another, and perhaps in this process reveals something about machines, consciousness, and language. Perhaps not. With language we name the world, and with linguistics we try to name language, but by what language do we name the movement of works of art between languages—the act of translation? It may be that at the heart of this act is something ineffable.

Perhaps we can take a cue from the ancient Chinese poet Lu Ji (261-303), who writes in the preface to his "Art of Writing" that "to learn writing from classics is like carving an ax handle with an ax—the model is right in your hand...."2 So, when seeking a critical language to speak about an activity as mysterious as translation, about the ineffable essence of a poem that may or may not survive the journey between languages, it may be that we can get a handle on it by applying poetic techniques to criticism, speaking in parables and metaphors and analogies to model translation and transformation.

Metaphor can help us see translation because (to make a metaphor) translation is metaphor. Like translation, metaphor is a dynamo that generates a charge of pleasure and insight, connecting separate worlds to see what energies are released. By creating a bridge of meaning between things organized in the brain in separate categories, it allows us to see the shapes of those categories. If we are told that a poem is a field of tomatoes, we respond with pleasure as our minds leap to close the gap between these two things. The page is a blank field on which, in collaboration with the author-farmer, words grow organically, in rows, out of some deep underground of the unconscious. We may think of the roots of the term "verse," which derives from the Latin "versus," meaning "having turned," and "As a noun it came to mean the turning of the plough, hence furrow, and ultimately row or line."3 We may imagine walking through the poetry fields plucking and eating fresh fruit. "Versus"in Latin means turning toward, and so metaphor tells us that all things are connected.

In the Katha Upanishad, Death tells a young boy who is asking him about the nature of the universe that all things are joined, all things are one, and therefore "This in truth is That."4 And yet, once that is said, isn't one immediately tempted to talk about the ways in which "This is not That?" My love is like a red rose... Does that mean she has a really bad sunburn or acne rosacea? That her skin is tinted green and peels like leaves? That her feet smell like fertilizer? Comparisons are a function of the difference between the two things joined, just as much as of their similarity. Even our lovely Latin word "versus" that gave us the poem-as-field metaphor has a secondary meaning of turning against, depending on how you translate it. To revise my previous statement, then, "metaphor is a dynamo that generates a charge of pleasure and insight, because it simultaneously creates and destroys a bridge of meaning." A translation is like this as well. It is a rhyme, not an equal sign. It is a bridge across that constantly threatens to collapse into nothingness.

"Mediate thought about language," writes George Steiner, "is an attempt to step outside one's own skin of consciousness, a vital cover more intimately enfolding, more close-woven to human identity than is the skin of our body."5 I like to think that the act of literary translation is just such a step outside language. But it is difficult to speak about, to even imagine, the inter-lingual, the space between languages. It is a problem that is similar and related to what Freud faced when he wished to speak of, prove the existence of, and perhaps even measure, the unconscious. The unconscious is that of which we are not conscious, and the inter-lingual is what we cannot name through language. Yet if we are to believe Freud, we can glimpse the unconscious through the cracks in consciousness, through jokes, dreams, fantasies, "Freudian slips," and even through art, which Freud sees as a form of daydreaming. Translation is such a crack or fissure, not in the all-encompassing immanence of consciousness, but in language, which itself structures and subsumes consciousness.

The act of translation is a step outside of language, and a step outside of words; it is an act of impossibility that quickly collapses back into language and words. But before that collapse, something magical and strange happens, or can happen. We distance ourselves momentarily from ourselves, and have at least the potentiality to glimpse our language from a new angle. This is why writers have always turned to translation in order to renew their literature, whether it is Chaucer cribbing from Boccaccio, Shakespeare stealing scenes from Plutarch, or Pope learning from Homer. As Kenneth Rexroth writes, "Translation saves you from your contemporaries."6 It can also save you from your own tradition. This is why contemporary Chinese poets have learned techniques of compression and collage from the American modernists, who themselves based their techniques at least in part upon the classical Chinese poets. Speaking personally, this is why, as a young poet, I found little to love in Walt Whitman's long lines, lists, and celebration of the ordinary, but loved how these Whitmanian techniques influenced and surfaced in the poems of Octavio Paz, Jorge Luis Borges, and Fernando Pessoa: in translation, these techniques go through a sea of change into something strange and wonderful.

A few years ago, a writer for the television show The Simpsons gave a talk at my college about the process of collaborative comedy writing. Ten talented writers sit around a table shooting ideas back and forth, trying to hone the jokes to a fine sharpness. There is one peculiarity to the room: the air conditioner pumping out white noise distorts the conversation, so that a writer at one end of the table often misunderstands what is said by a writer at the other end. The air conditioner is a noise machine that partially dismantles the language of one writer, forcing another writer's mind to leap into the void in order to complete it, and you may or may not be surprised to hear that it is responsible for many of the show's most brilliant bits. In his essay on translation, Marshall McLuhan writes, "technologies are ways of translating one kind of knowledge into another mode"7; so the air conditioner is an intra-lingual translation machine, translating mistakes into genius.

In an essay on Gertrude Stein's work, William Carlos Williams once wrote (with characteristic profound simplicity), that "Language (is) made up of words, the spaces between words and their configurations."8 To me, the statement has always suggested something about the negation of words, as in the white noise of the air conditioner, or about the silences between sounds. As Lu Ji writes, "A poet stands between heaven and earth/and watches the dark mystery," takes a journey through internal space, searching everywhere, to the ends of the inner earth and the top of the mental sky and the depths of the mind's ocean, and at last finds words when he "knocks on silence to make a sound."9 The suggestion is that words emerge out of a prelingual space, a space between words and between worlds. Think of Milton's Satan, who in Book Two of Paradise Lost, seeking revenge upon his maker and former master, wings his way out of the pit of Hell towards Eden. There it is before him, hanging from Paradise on a golden chain: a new world, our world. But to get there he must navigate the realm of the uncreated, where Chaos dwells, and Discord, and Confusion, and Rumor and Chance and Night. There he makes a pact with these ancient powers. They allow him passage, and behind him Sin and Death build a broad bridge between Hell and Earth. Satan, you might say, was the first translator.

But the voyage is useless if it takes him nowhere new. So upon arriving in Eden, Satan is troubled:

... for within him hell
He brings, and round about him, nor from hell
One step more than from himself can fly
By change of place (4.17–23)

As he says in a famous speech, "Which way I fly is hell; myself am hell..." (4.74–75). What good does it do Satan to fly to Paradise if he brings hell along inside him? The sun is an oppression that shows his own darkness; the beauty of the world shows him his own ugliness; the purity of humanity shows him his own fallen nature. What good does it do an American poet to wing her way to China, if she spends her time playing video games and eating at McDonald's? What good is a piece of unrhymed, unmetered American free verse that masquerades as a classical Chinese poem, when the original was written in a form as rigorously measured and rhymed as any villanelle? Should it matter to us as translators that contemporary American audiences overwhelmingly prefer free verse to formal poetry? How about the Spanish translation of Emily Dickinson that I saw in a bookstore in Madrid that got rid of all those bothersome dashes and expanded her compact language, making her a long-line poet like Walt Whitman? What good is a translation that doesn't voyage through the chaos of the uncreated and make a pact with discord and confusion in order to discover a new chord and a new fusion? Unless you first unmake yourself as a writer, dismantling your preconceptions, you cannot live in Eden.

Our own preconceptions are inscribed within our language, which not only structures how we see the world, but also, like Whitman's leaves of grass, roots each of our minds underground. You can believe or not believe in Emerson's idea of the oversoul, in the Jungian concepts of the archetype and the universal unconscious, or in the Hindu notion of Bráhman that unites each Atman or soul into a larger world-soul. But you cannot doubt that language is something larger that lives through us, so that the tongues of the dead in Song of Myself speak from the earth through our mouths, and through Whitman's singular and universal mouth. As Marshall McLuhan asks, "might not our current translation of our entire lives into the spiritual form of information seem to make of the entire globe, and of the human family, a single consciousness?"10 Channeling the larger force of language, we play it with our mouths, forming it with lips and tongue, and occasionally give it a new sound.

But when we translate from another language we may not know how to love its music precisely because it is so new to us. Its music may sound to us atonal, without melody, and we may not know how to play it. When this happens, our preconceptions weigh us down like stone. How shall we escape them? I don't have an easy answer to this question, but I do have a parable. There is a Zen story that goes like this:

Hogen, a Chinese Zen teacher, (heard) ...four traveling monks... arguing about subjectivity and objectivity. He joined them and said: "There is a big stone. Do you consider it to be inside or outside your mind?"
One of the monks replied: "from the Buddhist viewpoint everything is an objectification of mind, so I would say that the stone is inside my mind."
"Your head must feel very heavy," observed Hogen, "if you are carrying around a stone like that in your mind."11

We carry our homeland on our backs without knowing it, so how should we know how to put it down and walk on without the heavy weight? Perhaps to play this new music, we must first forget what we think music is. Henri Matisse once wrote that "There is nothing more difficult for a truly creative painter than to paint a rose, because before he can do so he has first to forget all the roses that were ever painted."12 You need to forget what you know in order to leave room for a new thought.

And yet how valuable can such a "new thought" really be to us when delivered through translation? Walter Benjamin tells us in "The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction" that art is a crafted product of the individual genius revealing its own unique aura. It is by definition "original," not reproduced, and certainly not created through the ventriloquism of translation in which you are working with already-written words. In the economy of art collection, works of art hemorrhage value when they are duplicated, which is why photographers and printmakers must sell their work for less than painters sell theirs, and why translators get less respect than creative writers. The act of translation brings great authorial disquiet, since the authority of the text becomes blurred when authors write over the words of other authors, creating an original text out of pre-texts that gesture towards other contexts and inter-texts. For that reason many writers deny their sources in order to give their translations and imitations the authority and prestige of originality, as in the instance of Yeats' famous poem "When You Are Old," which like many of his early poems is a loose and lovely, but unacknowledged, imitation of a 16th-century Ronsard sonnet.13 As I observe elsewhere:

Paradoxically, the farther away from the original the translator travels, the more authority the poem gathers into itself. When Yeats transforms Ronsard's sonnet "Quand vous serez bien vieille" into his own poem, "When you are very old," he moves progressively further away from the original, and creates a new ending for the poem. No longer a standard carpe diem poem in which the poet tells the woman to love him before she grows old, it becomes a poem in which love itself has fled the planet, like the God leaving Antony, and has "paced upon the mountain overhead / And hid his face amid a crowd of stars." As the translation mutates and transforms, as it grows feet and crawls for the first time onto the land, it takes on a life different from its old one, breathes a different air, swims in a different element, wonders at a different sky. It is a new creature on the face of the earth.14

In any translation, the shadow of the original poem is gathered around the feet of the new poem created in the new language. At its worst, the shadow of the original denies the new poem its solidity, identity, or to use Walter Benjamin's term, its "aura," and then the translation becomes the shadow, a vague form through which we glimpse the lineaments of an absent wholeness. This is the troll under the bridge of literary translation, always threatening to snatch away the life of the translated poem. We are practitioners of a medieval art, in which the master teaches the apprentice the craft, and the apprentice paints in the details on a painting that takes the master's name. Often, as translators, we are painted over. Perhaps we need to leave our cultural lenses behind so that they distort the original as little as possible, but if—out of a sense of misguided craft or loyalty—we merely make in English a trot for reading the original in the source language, instead of an independent work of art, our work becomes diminished and secondary. We should try to leave our preconceptions behind, but not at the expense of the validity of the translation as a work of art in and of itself.

Our role is to be invisible, not ourselves the truth, but a window onto the truth of the original. Yet even the finest glass distorts. And thank the muses that this is the case, because within each bubble in the glass, each refraction and magnification of the light of the original, lies the art—not the craft—of the literary translator. The fact that translation is an art invisible to most readers doesn't mean that it is not an art. All texts are transitory and open and multivalent, but if there were such a thing as a stable original, and if it were possible for translators to transmit it magically without distortion in a word-for-word translation in which nothing was lost—then we would be interlingual fax machines and there would be no art to translation. Think of the printmaker who inked a corpse and ran it through his press, trying to achieve the ultimate mimesis, the ultimate fidelity to the dead man; such fidelity can also be a desecration, if it doesn't translate the poem back into life. So Walt Whitman advises his readers, "You shall listen to all sides and filter them from your self" (Song of Myself 3.24) and so William Blake in his "Proverbs of Hell" advises us to "drive your cart and your plow over the bones of the dead."15

On the other hand, "The author may be dead, as Foucault has said, but as I see it there is no reason to trample on the corpse."16 All translations are mistranslations, but there are ways to be true to "the poem behind the poem."17 To do so one must translate the machine of the poem. My idea here comes from a famous statement that William Carlos Williams wrote in 1944, that a poem "is a small (or large) machine made out of words."18 It was not a new idea, but it was a powerful one. So Paul Valery wrote that "A poem is really a kind of machine for producing the poetic state of mind by means of words,"19 and Gino Severini wrote in 1916 that "the process of the construction of a machine is analogous to the constructive process of art."20

If a poem is a machine, then it is meant to function, to perform a particular task. As I.A. Richards put it in 1924, "A book is a machine to think with,"21 and Emerson once observed that "Words are also actions, and actions are a kind of words."22 In The Postmodern Condition, Jean-François Lyotard makes a distinction that may be of use here. Drawing on the work of J. L. Austin and J. R. Searle, he distinguishes between "demonstrative" utterances and "performative" speech. Whereas demonstrative statements are carriers of information, transmitting preexisting knowledge from the position of the speaker to that of the listener, performative statements, such as a wedding vow or a judge's sentence, enact their meaning in the process of utterance.23 As Williams writes in a 1944 letter to Marianne Moore, "I believe we all expect our verses and our pictures and our music to do work."24

Poetry is language that does something extraordinary to the reader, or else it is simply nice-sounding prose cut up into lines. What good does it do to translate the demonstrative meaning, if the performative engine that makes it poetry is left behind? Therefore, in working from a source text to create a translation, first you need to find the poem. That is, before you write your new poem, you need to figure out what the source poem does to you, how its machine functions, so that you can translate into your poem not necessarily the original text word-for-word, but a version of the original mental, literary, and spiritual motion. In literary translation, we need, I think, to have a complex notion of what the "original" poem is. The original poem exists not in words on a page but in the interaction of those words with a human brain. The literary translator seeks not to translate the words, but the works.

However, as I noted earlier, all texts are transitory and open and multivalent. Languages constantly evolve, and the semantic shadow cast by any one word can change radically from decade to decade, century to century. There is no stable original text, and there can be no one stable interpretation of what makes a text function, from reader to reader or even day to day. Thus, translation may seem to be a mission impossible, since as in the television show of that name, the messages delivered to us are constantly self-destructing. Although I would argue that literary translators translate actions (not words), effects (not a sequence of sentences), inevitably the actions and effects they translate will be those to which they respond as individual readers. How, we asked before, can the work of a printmaker who inks a template and runs copies off the original be as valuable as the unique work of a painter? Once we understand that what happens in translation is not reproduction, and that the literary translator is an original creator, first as a reader and later as a writer, then the activity may take on more value.

Yet the literary world has yet to give translators the credit they are due—there is no Nobel, Pulitzer, National Book Award, National Book Critics Circle, Lannan, or Lilly Prize in translation, no annual volume of Best American Translation, no Translator's Market for sale in the writing section of any bookstore. Perhaps we should take our cue from the art world. The art world has long since passed beyond the model of art that Benjamin articulated. With the advent of photography came an art form in which the genius of the artist lies not in painting a surface upon emptiness but in pointing a machine at the world's chaos of images and capturing a still moment in a silver spell within the frame. Certainly Marcel Duchamp was thinking along these lines when he defended his submission of a urinal which he had signed "R. Mutt" to the 1917 exhibit of the New York Society of Independent Artists, declaring that though he had not created the urinal he had chosen it. Duchamp's term for such a found object that could be considered art merely through a change in perspective was the "readymade."

Readymades like Duchamp's urinal, or like Picasso's joining together of a bicycle seat and handle bars into a sculpture of a bull's head, are first and foremost translations. They translate machines from one context to another: the urinal has a different meaning in an art gallery or museum than in the museum bathroom. Such readymades also translate machines out of their functionality. You can't ride Picasso's bull, nor should you urinate in Duchamp's urinal, which is, after all disconnected from the plumbing. But when translating the poem-machine, shouldn't the translator maintain that functionality, even if he or she is untrue to other aspects of the poem? After all, what is being translated starts out as a work of art, so the work that it does is esthetic work. So, speaking of his bicycle readymade in a 1945 interview, Picasso said, "Suppose my bull's head is thrown on the scrap heap. Perhaps some day a fellow will come along and say, 'Why there's something that would come in very handy for the handle bars of my bicycle....' And so a double metamorphosis would have been achieved,"25 and the bicycle transformed back into use again.26

On the other hand, Duchamp defends the readymade artist precisely because "He took an ordinary article of life, placed it so that its useful significance disappeared under the new title and point of view—(and) created a new thought for that object."27 Well, the interest of the urinal you might say is actually heightened when "its useful significance disappear(s)" and we see it as an esthetic object, a rounded biomorphic porcelain form, like a sea anemone, or a white conch shell. The readymade gives us one answer to the question posed earlier, "What good is a piece of unrhymed, unmetered American free verse that masquerades as a classical Chinese poem, when the original was written in a form as rigorously measured and rhymed as any villanelle?" Like a readymade, Chinese poetry, removed from its formal roots and made Western, helped poets like Pound to find modern forms of free verse that were nonetheless structured by parallelism. Several significant strands of modernism-from Apollinaire's Calligrammes to Pound's ideogrammatic method to the resonant and chaste images of Imagism-were created by a willful mistranslation of classical Chinese poetry. The machines didn't work properly in English, but they made a "new thought," in Duchamp's term.

At times, such misprision becomes so important to the tradition into which the poem is translated, that it is actually preferable to an accurate translation of the poem's function. Often a translation can actually improve the poem that is being translated. A non-exceptional poem written in a standard mode, such as a classical Chinese letter-poem to a friend sent into exile, may seem extraordinarily fresh, touching, and innovative simply because in English such poems are rare. The moldiest old cliche, such as the Chinese phrase "river of stars," can seem a startling metaphor in English, just as the equivalent English cliche "the Milky Way" might seem quite interesting if translated into Chinese. When with my poor Spanish I told a farmer in the north of Spain the old joke, "Why did the chicken cross the road?," he laughed as if it were the funniest thing he had ever heard. Isn't it in fact precisely in search of such a "new thought" that we translate? Most poet-translators that I know translate in order (through a kind of linguistic sonar) to discover the sunken continent of their own as-yet-undiscovered voice. What, after all, is the "new thought" but new "aura" attached to the machine, an aura of originality created by misprision, and by the simple fact that the machine functions differently in a different context?

There it is before him (Satan), hanging from Paradise on a golden chain: a new world, our world. But to get there he must navigate the realm of the uncreated, where Chaos dwells, and Discord, and Confusion, and Rumor and Chance and Night.


However, I worry that translators too often use the change of context as a shield to hide behind, as an excuse to translate foreign work into comfortable domestic esthetics. Consider the sonnets of Jorge Luis Borges, which are usually translated into free verse in English. When I translated several of Borges's sonnets, I tried to recreate them as sonnets in English. It was difficult. More importantly, it was revelatory. Here is one of my translations, a poem about the Greek god of mutability, "Proteus":


Antes que los remeros de Odiseo
Fatigaran el mar color de vino
Las inasibles formas adivino
De aquel dios cuyo nombre fue Proteo.
Pastor de los rebaños de los mares
Y poseedor del don de profecía,
Preferí­a ocultar lo que sabí­a
Y entretejer oráculos dispares.
Urgido por las gentes asumí­a
La forma de un león o de una hoguera
O de árbol que da sombra a la ribera
O de agua que en el agua se perdía.
De Proteo el egipcio no te asombres,
Tú, que eres uno y eres muchos hombres.


Before the oarsmen of Odysseus
strained their arms against the wine dark sea,
I can divine the physiognomy
of that strange god whose name is Proteus.
He was the herdsman tending to the seas
and had the gift of reading omens too,
but he preferred to hide most things he knew
and wove odd scraps into his auguries.
When people urged him on, he would change from
a lion to a bonfire, then deliver
shade as a tree that spread above the river
into which, turned to water, he'd succumb.
Don't shrink from Proteus the Egyptian.
You too are one, and yet are many men.

Prior to translating Borges, I had always considered myself an indifferent sonneteer. I could write in the form, but preferred free verse. All my sonnets had a pervasive enjambment and use of slant rhyme that caused them to masquerade as fourteen lines of free verse. I preferred my poems to be like the god, Protean, formless, or hiding their form in other forms. Then, strangely, in reading Borges's sonnets, I found myself admiring the fearless archaism of his use of form. Instead of finding them jingly, I enjoyed his true rhymes. I especially enjoyed the way he fit the argument of his poem so neatly into the sonnet form, end-stopping his lines to mark the end of each quatrain, placing his rhetorical turn neatly after the 8th line, and summing it all up with a pithy Shakespearean couplet.28 As it turns out, this translation is at times very close to a word-for-word translation, but as I was trying to work the translated words into rhyming iambic pentameter, I was necessarily more concerned with phrase order than with word order. Similarly, I was more concerned with sentence rhythm than phrase order because much of the elegance of the poem, I thought, emerged from the congruence of three long sentences to the three quatrains and one short sentence to the couplet. Freud believed that writers allow readers to experience the pleasures of daydreaming without guilt. It is a shallow notion of literary pleasure. The electric shock, the discharge of literary pleasure, can come from so many sources. To my taste, the masterful use of form and rhetoric are the machine of the Borges sonnets; they are what make the poems go. To give the reader Borges without form would be like selling a motorcycle without an engine. By abandoning my esthetic predilections, I came closer to allowing Borges to speak through me, and Borges, to show his appreciation, gave me a gift in return. He taught me how to write a sonnet, an unembarrassed sonnet, in all its rhyming and rhetorical glory.

Umberto Eco writes that "(a) text is a lazy machine that appeals to the reader to do some of its work."29 Good translation demands good readers, if the work is to be done, readers comfortable in the space between languages, who can stand outside the self enough to find a bit of detachment and glimpse the interlocking workings of consciousness and language in the poem. One might call that inspiration. It takes an inspired reader to triangulate between two languages-to detect, dismantle, and lay out the parts of the literary machine, learning the principles of its construction. And it takes an inspired writer to assemble an equivalent machine in the target language, out of new materials but built to work by the same principles, something that will engage a new set of readers, whose gears and flywheels are organized in a different fashion. Perhaps this machine will be a sound machine, meant to create a music that sings like the original, as in the Borges sonnet, or as in a metrical translation of a classical Chinese regulated verse poem. Perhaps it will ignore sound and be a conceptual machine, meant to organize syntax and image into interwoven parallelisms, as in this couplet from "Night Rain" by Bai Juyi, co-translated by Chou Ping and myself:

The early cricket chirps, then silence.
The lamp sputters out, flares up again.30

Perhaps it will be a translation merely of sensory images, attempting to create a machine that processes the imagination of the reader to create intense sensory effects, as in the use of extraordinary synesthesia in Su Shi's "Written On the North Tower Wall after Snow":

In yellow dusk the slender rain still falls,
but the calm night comes windless and harsh.

My bedclothes feel like splashed water.
I don't know the courtyard is buried in salt.

Light dampens the study curtains before dawn.
With cold sound, half a moon falls from the painted eaves.

As I sweep the north tower I see Horse Ear Peak
buried except for two tips.31

Which road is the right road, which the road not to be taken? A critic of the Qing Dynasty named Fangsi wrote that "Poetry is a dragon: head, tail, claws, horns, scales and whiskers. If one is absent, it's not a dragon." In response, another Chinese writer scoffed: "But poetry is a magic dragon: when you see its head, you don't see its tail. Or, wreathed in clouds, it might reveal a claw or a scale. (You cannot) see the whole body."32 Maybe a translation of classical Chinese formal verse that doesn't include all of the above—sound, meter, conceptual parallelism, and sensory suggestiveness—simply doesn't add up to a dragon or to a Chinese poem? Or maybe it does. Inevitably, all translations are incomplete, like a dragon that exists partially in one world and partially in another. The question reminds me of a definition of haiku I have heard attributed to Gary Snyder: "A haiku is a short poem divided into three lines with a syllable count of 5/7/5... written in Japanese." Really, it's not a Chinese poem unless it is written in Chinese, so the question really is what to call these poems in English inspired in various ways by the Chinese example?

Instead of pretending to be able to answer this question, let me give you another fast Zen parable, called "Joshu's Zen":

A student once asked (Joshu:) "If I haven't anything in my mind, what shall I do?"
Joshu replied: "Throw it out."
"But if I haven't anything, how can I throw it out?" continued the questioner.
"Well," said Joshu, "then carry it out."33

This, in Buddhism, is called the doctrine of "expedient means," and we might propose a similar doctrine in translation. It doesn't matter which road you use to get there, and so it even matters little what your translation process is: Ezra Pound translated great Chinese poems into great poems in English by cribbing from the English versions of Japanese translations of the Chinese originals; Kenneth Rexroth made fine versions of Chinese poetry by translating via the French, or in collaboration with a Chinese scholar; the contemporary poet Arthur Sze makes a shorter bridge across Chaos: as an important writer in English and an accomplished scholar of Chinese, it all happens magically within the universe of his head. Similarly, it doesn't matter whether your translation is rhymed and metered like the Chinese translations of Vikram Seth, or free verse like those of most of the rest, whether or not it always reflects the caesura and parallelism of the original. What matters is whether you have created a machine that performs in the new language.

In this essay, I have suggested that the translator makes such decisions by journeying to a place between languages, the prelingual, the uncreated, realm of Chaos and discord. But do I really believe in such a place? I don't know. At one time the notion that all languages share linguistic universals was widespread, but as Noam Chomsky writes (in Aspects of the Theory of Syntax): "The existence of deep-seated formal universals... implies that all languages are cut to the same pattern, but does not imply that there is any point by point correspondence between particular languages. It does not, for example, imply that there must be some reasonable procedure for translating between languages."34 Still, if I may speak from personal experience, I do know that when I write poems in my sleep I do so without words, not with a "surface grammar" but with a "depth grammar,"35 so yes, I believe the prelingual exists.

However, as Steiner writes, "Try to draw up the creature from the deeps of the sea, and it will disintegrate or change form grotesquely,"36 and so he doubts whether any such positing of an inter- or sub-lingual universal "will contribute much to our understanding of natural speech and hearing .... Hence the need of looking in directions which are... more impressionistic and far less amenable to formal codification."37 My job as a writer is impressionistic and a bit random, like that of Whitman's noiseless patient spider, who launches forth filament, after filament, after filament out of itself till the thread it flings catches somewhere and allows it to spin a web. If then, this discussion presents no holistic system of translation, no greater web upon which all future translators should pattern their efforts, this is because the esthetics of translation are in fact rooted in an "impressionistic" mathematics, a systemless system that is not "amenable to formal codification." Perhaps my job is also to give you a comforting homily with one hand, and then to use my other hand to smash it with a darker irony. You have to use an ax to carve an ax handle, and there is a violence in this form of creation. This, as it turns out, is not That.

The space between languages where the poem disrobes and then puts on the clothing of its new language is what Steiner calls a "fiction of isolation," or, to use Wallace Stevens's phrase, "a necessary fiction." It tells us that we can cross a bridge to another world, and glimpse something there that is marvelous, like crossing to New York City over the Queensboro Bridge in The Great Gatsby: "the city rises up across the river in white heaps and sugar lumps all built with a wish out of non-olfactory money. The city seen from the Queensboro Bridge is always the city seen for the first time, in its first wild promise of all the mystery and the beauty in the world."38 Of course, the way from the Hamptons to the City passes through the wasteland of dust and ashes, but believing that there is a bridge back to the "fresh green breast of the New World,"39 and that the past can come back to life again, is Gatsby's necessary fiction. Translation is just such a necessary fiction. It lulls us into a willing suspension of disbelief, then lies to us, telling us we are reading Chinese lu shi poetry, or a sonnet by Borges, and that nothing was lost in the wasteland under the eyes of Dr. T.J. Eckleberg. It tells us that humanity has not been shattered into fragments along with the Tower of Babel, that it is Whitman who speaks through Octavio Paz and it is Lorca who speaks through James Wright. It tells me that the poets whom I love enough to have translated—Lorca, Borges, Neruda, Vallejo, Ghalib, Wang Wei, Du Fu, Li Bai, Li Qingzhao, and many others—are speaking through my tongue, and that underground all of the roots interconnect. It tells us that translation is possible. This lie is necessary because in the economy of literature we do not fetishize texts produced by a plural author. Thus, if translation is not possible, we would have to come to the difficult conclusion that Seamus Heaney's Beowulf is an epic poem in English by Heaney, and Robert Pinsky's Inferno is an epic poem by Pinsky, or even worse, imagine some composite author, some Dantesky or Heaneywulf. The fiction of translation is necessary because it kills the messenger and reassures us that the author is alive in these words. With smoke and thunder and flashing lights, the machine of translation tells us, "The Great Oz has spoken! Pay no attention to that man behind the curtain!"


Tony Barnstone is a Professor of English at Whittier College His eleven books include The Golem of Los Angeles (Red Hen, 2008); Chinese Erotic Poems (Everyman, 2007); Sad Jazz: Sonnets (Sheep Meadow, 2005); and The Anchor Book of Chinese Poetry (Anchor, 2005). His website is


  1. Edmund Carpenter, They Became What They Beheld, Photographs by Ken Heyman (New York: Outerbridge & Dienstfrey, 1970).
  2. Tony Barnstone and Chou Ping, The Art of Writing: Teachings of the Chinese Masters (Boston: Shambhala Publishers, 1996): 7.
  3. Robert Wallace and Michelle Boisseau, Writing Poems, 4th Ed (New York: HarperCollinsCollegePublishers, 1996): 4.
  4. The Upanishads, Juan Mascaro, ed (New York: Penguin Classics, 1965): 21.
  5. George Steiner, After Babel: Aspects of Language and Translation, 3rd ed. (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1998): 115.
  6. Kenneth Rexroth, "The Poet as Translator," in World Outside the Window: Selected Essays of Kenneth Rexroth, Bradford Morrow, ed. (NY: New Directions, 1987): 190.
  7. Marshall McLuhan, Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man (London and New York: Routledge, 2001): 62.
  8. William Carlos Williams, A Recognizable Image: William Carlos Williams on Art and Artists, Bram Dijkstra, ed. (New York: New Directions, 1978): 17.
  9. Barnstone and Chou, The Art of Writing, 7-10.
  10. McLuhan, Understanding Media, 67.
  11. Paul Reps, tr., Zen Flesh, Zen Bones (Rutland, VT and Tokyo: Charles E. Tuttle Co., Inc., 1989). Reprinted in Willis Barnstone and Tony Barnstone, ed, The Literatures of Asia, Africa and Latin America: From Antiquity to the Present (Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice Hall, 1999): 561.
  12. Robert Andrews, The Columbia Dictionary of Quotations (New York: Columbia University Press, 1993): 58.
  13. Willis Barnstone, The Poetics of Translation: History, Theory, Practice (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1993): 96.
  14. Tony Barnstone, "The Cannibal at Work: Five Discourses on Translation, Transformation, Imitation, and Transmutation," Jacket 32 (April 2007) (accessed May 10, 2008).
  15. William Blake, The Complete Poetry and Prose of William Blake, David V. Erdman and Harold Bloom, ed. (Berkeley, University of California Press): 1982. For fuller discussions of Benjamín, Blake, translation, and the anxiety of authorship, see Tony Barnstone, "Translation as Forgery: Comments from the Editor," in Out of the Howling Storm: The New Chinese Poetry (Middletown: Wesleyan University Press, 1993): xv–xviii, and Rebecca Seiferle, "An E-view with Tony Barnstone," The Drunken Boat 4 (Winter 2000-2001) (accessed May 10, 2008).
  16. Tony Barnstone, Out of the Howling Storm: The New Chinese Poetry (Middletown, CT: Wesleyan University Press, 1993): xviii.
  17. The term comes from an earlier article, to which this is article a sequel: Tony Barnstone, "The Poem Behind the Poem: Literary Translation as English-Language Poetry," in The Anchor Book of Chinese Poetry: From Ancient to Contemporary, The Full 3000 Year Tradition, ed. Tony Barnstone and Chou Ping (NY: Anchor Books, 2005): xxxix–liii.
  18. William Carlos Williams, The Collected Poems of William Carlos Williams: Volume II 19391962, Christopher MacGowan, ed. (New York: New Directions, 1988): 54.
  19. Paul Valery, The Art of Poetry, Denise Folliot, tr., Jackson Mathews, ed., introduction by T.S. Eliot, Vol. 7 of The Collected Works of Paul Valery, Bollingen Series XLV (New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 1985): 79.
  20. Quoted in Enrico Prampolini, "The Aesthetic of the Machine and Mechanical Introspection in Art," Broom 3.3 (October 1922): 235.
  21. I.A. Richards, Principles of Literary Criticism, 5th ed. (New York: Harcourt, Brace and Co., 1934): 1.
  22. Ralph Waldo Emerson, Selected Writings of Ralph Waldo Emerson, William H. Gilman, ed (New York & Scarborough, Ontario: Signet, 1983): 309.
  23. Jean-Francois Lyotard, The Postmodern Condition: A Report on Knowledge, Geoff Bennington and Brian Massumi, tr. Series: Theory and History of Literature, Vol. 10 (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1989): 9. See J. L. Austin, How to Do Things with Words (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1962); J. R. Searle, Speech Acts (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1969).
  24. William Carlos Williams, The Selected Letters of William Carlos Williams, John C. Thirlwall, ed. (New York: New Directions: 1957): 231.
  25. Herschel B Chipp, Theories of Modern Art: A Source Book by Artists and Critics, With Contributions by Peter Selz and Joshua C. Taylor (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1968): 274.
  26. For a somewhat different take on Duchamp's readymades and Picasso's bull's head, see Tony Barnstone, "The Cannibal at Work: Five Discourses on Translation, Transformation, Imitation, and Transmutation," Jacket 32 (April 2007), (accessed May10, 2008).
  27. Marcel Duchamp, "The Richard Mutt Case," The Blind Man 2 (May 1917): 5.
  28. As I note in "The Cannibal at Work": Five Discourses on Translation, Transformation, Imitation, and Transmutation":

    In the Spanish, Borges does some interesting things with the meter: using Petrarchan a-b-b-a quatrains and ending with a Shakespearean couplet; using trochaic substitution in the second and last lines, using widespread elision, and shifting from pentameter to alexandrines in the final section. It's a somewhat loosened metrical scheme. However, one of the pleasures of this poem is just how unapologetic it is about its sonnet structure. It is happy to place a clear volta after the octave, and it asserts its Shakespearean roots with a strong second turn in the couplet. Its form is argumentative and dialectical: thesis, antithesis, synthesis. Furthermore, it fills each stanza with a single sentence, thus easing the tension between form and speech and moving the mind with each sentence just the distance of one stanza.
    In this poem, Borges is thinking of the sonnet in terms of a series of stanza-length rhetorical movements. I like the way Rhina Espalliat described this effect in a panel on the sonnet at the West Chester Poetry Conference in 2005: the sonnet is a chest of drawers, with each stanza a drawer that pulls out to reveal its own content. There is something elegant about a good chest of drawers. The drawers hold things, open and close smoothly, and keep things organized. Without a chest of drawers, we are left with those contents piled in the middle of the bedroom floor.

  29. Umberto Eco, Six Walks in the Fictional Woods, The Charles Eliot Norton Lectures (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1994): 49.
  30. Tony Barnstone and Chou Ping, The Anchor Book of Chinese Poetry: The Full 3000 Year Tradition (New York: Anchor Books, 2005): 167.
  31. Ibid., 247.
  32. Barnstone and Chou, The Art of Writing, 89.
  33. Reps, Zen Flesh, Zen Bones, 560.
  34. Quoted in George Steiner, After Babel: Aspects of Language and Translation, 3rd ed. (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1998): 105–106.
  35. The terminology is Wittgenstein's. Quoted in George Steiner, After Babel: Aspects of Language and Translation, 3rd ed. (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1998): 100.
  36. Steiner, After Babel, 101.
  37. Ibid., 107, 108.
  38. F. Scott Fitzgerald, The Great Gatsby (New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1925, 1953): 73.
  39. Ibid., 217.

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