What Sparks Poetry is a serialized feature in which we invite poets to explore experiences and ideas that spark new poems. 

In our series focused on Translation, we invite poet-translators to share seminal experiences in their practices, bringing poems from one language into another. How does the work of translating feel essential to the writing of one’s own poetry? Our contributors reflect on inspiring moments as intricate as a grammatical quirk and as wide-ranging as the history or politics of another place. 

Wong May on In the Same Light

Poetry is what keeps a language alive.
By the translation of poetry one hopes to carry “the spirit that liveth” from one language to another, to convey it as best as one can. To deliver the charge.

“Shall these bones live?”
The story of the Tibetan Princess who resurrected her brother by placing a lotus leaf on each dismembered part is one I never got tired of in childhood. To hear it told slowly, as slowly as possible, to be by the pond, see how the leaves were placed each time.
Do the leaves move?
A Tang quatrain is more than bones. The words are flesh & blood seen through the stricture of the classical form, blithely, oftentimes.
You need but read it, to resuscitate the poetry.

To regenerate the classics, a new generation of readers is needed. I must say I did not undertake In the Same Light for scholars or academics.

The fact is, no anthology of translations can do justice to the full splendor of Tang poetry. All translators must fall short in different ways: but any poem may become a portal for the reader.
This is already a lot to hope for, to attempt.

As for the perils of “the letter that killeth”:
Li Shangyin handed you a poem, live. As a result of the encounter, you want to give him back a Tang poem in English—live. Is it acceptable? Will he approve? It is anything but simple, this one-to-one exchange, a translator’s work-a-day life, barter of poems & books.

So why does one read poetry? The question can come—it does, with any language.
One reads poems for the poetry. One translates for much the same reason.
How you read determines how you translate.

In this business, musicians have an unfair advantage. A performer of classics can do their utmost in being expressive. No one is going to accuse them of not being faithful to Bach or not playing Chopin, while a translator will be charged with treason, as the saying goes, traduttore, traditore.

“Treason”? I beg to go further. Writing poetry or reading a poem is by nature a transgressive act.
You are transgressing a stranger’s consciousness. This stranger may be yourself.
Translating an ancient text & you are transgressing above all against Time.
When the work goes well, you are translating without acknowledging Time.

But doesn’t one translate the moment one acquires language, the moment one opens one’s mouth?
Yes, one goes on being a more-or-less adequate translator, daily, all one’s life.
So you are a good or bad, mediocre translator of yourself, of a chair, a chair-leg that you tripped over, the intricate pattern of the cut section of a purple cabbage is likewise untranslatable. You wake up human, the world is foreign. Can you ask for a regular coffee with conviction?

“What have I got in common with the Jews? I have nothing in common with myself, & should stand very quietly in a corner, content that I can breathe.”
When I came across this sentence in a book laid open on the library table in 1969, at the University of Iowa, I knew that winter day I was going to read every sentence by this writer.
The writer was Franz Kafka. It was a big picture-book of a sombre city called Prague. From him I learnt that you may wake up a beetle & require translation.

What triggers one to translate is ultimately the same as what triggers one to write;
I would say translating is an act of reading a poem for the first time, twice.
What the world is to the poet, the original text must seem to the translator, herein the hope, & the despair.

Writing Prompt

Wong May observes that the words of a “A Tang quatrain… are flesh & blood seen through the stricture of the classical form.” She also observes, “one translates the moment one acquires language, the moment one opens one’s mouth [….] So you are a good or bad, mediocre translator of yourself, of a chair, a chair-leg that you tripped over [….] What triggers one to translate is ultimately the same as what triggers one to write.”

Try translating Wong May’s English translation of Wang Wei’s “Farwell” into a new poem of your own, in which you attend to an everyday experience in which, as Wong May writes, “you wake up human” and “the world is foreign.”

Begin by noticing the “strictures” of the form Wong May offers in her own translation. The translation is formed, for example, symmetrically, around a couplet, followed by a tercet, followed by a quatrain, then a tercet, and a couplet, each separated by a double line-space. Notice that she allows herself to vary the form of the tercets and couplets and the effect of these variations. Note the short “i” and “d” sounds of the final words of three of the first four lines, “dismount,” “drink,” “discontent,” and how these words, linked together in sound, effect the opening of the poem. Notice, too, that she works with rhyme throughout, how the long “i” sound of “wine,” “mountainside,” “why,” “why,” “White,” and “by” thread through the poem, connecting its question, “why ask why,” with the landscape and human action. Do you hear other sound patterns?

Draft your poem following and adapting the formal constraints that interest you in Wong May’s translation: stanza pattern, line length and placement, sound patterning,—perhaps you want to adopt the very syntax she uses, placing nouns where she has nouns, prepositions where she has prepositions, verbs where she has verbs.

As you draft, attend to the human experience you want to expose, the chair leg, the cabbage sliced, in the suddenly foreign world.

Poetry Daily

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Wong May

Wong May was born in China’s wartime capital, Chongqing, in 1944. She was brought up in Singapore by her mother, a classical Chinese poet; studied English Literature at the University of Singapore with the poet D.J. Enright; from 1966 to 1968 she was at the Iowa Writers Workshop. Soon after, she left the USA for Europe. Her fourth book of poems, Picasso’s Tears: Poems, 1978-2013, was published by Octopus Poetry. In 2022, she received the Windham Campbell Prize. Wong May currently lives in Dublin. She paints under the name Ittrium Coey, and has exhibited her work in Dublin and Grenoble.