mjj (flemmings) wrote,

You know what sort of makes my day these days? That bit in the latest Gaiden where Goujun says Naraba houkoku wo ("If so, report," where report is the object of a non-stated verb- you see why foreigners have trouble with this language?) and Tenpou *and* Kenren without consultation both at once click their heels and salute and... report their resignations. Kenren, right, who a bit back couldn't abide Goujun's commanding officer's ways and did everything he could to get his goat? Evidently having a bunch of keys tossed to him while his arms are in irons has softened his opinion of the man- er, dragon. It's that kind of subtle detail I despair of doing in English prose.

kickinpants sent me a collection of Du Fu's poems with facing-page translation. Du Fu, or at least the Du Fu I've looked at, turns out to be surprisingly easy to read, in a 'But I *know* all those hanzi' way. Yes, well, I know all those hanzi: I know what they mean. I don't know what they say, and from what I hear neither do modern Chinese, especially if they speak mandarin, because a couple of tones that Du Fu used in his rhyme and/or rhythm schemes have dropped out of mandarin. But at least Chinese speakers have an idea of what Du Fu might sound like, as modern English speakers know sort of what Chaucer sounds like even if they don't know middle English. Sort of- there's a real difference to my ear between When that April with its showers sweet and pre-vowel shift Whanne that Aprille with its shoures swete. Middle English is much softer than modern.

It's a real oddity, being a Japanese reader reading Chinese poetry. You have meaning, but none of the rest. And since when has a poet's genius resided in his meaning? My mother thought Shakespeare totally over-rated, and I think it's because when she was young she probably thought in French. So that for her

Full many a glorious morning have I seen
Flatter the mountain tops with sovereign eye,
Kissing with golden face the meadows green,
Gilding pale streams with heavenly alchemy;

got mentally transposed into French, where it doubtless didn't mean anything at all and couldn't have sounded as good as it does in English.

Thus for me Chinese poetry is raw material to make an English poem of, and not much else. It's puzzle-like enough: a string of words with no grammatical connection beyond the very obvious- if you have 'wind' and 'blow' together you must assume it's the wind blowing. To put the five or eight basic hanzi/concepts of a line of poetry into English requires a great deal of grammatical expansion, which can't be left out but which must be kept to a minimum if it isn't to overwhelm the oh hell why not 'lapidary' simplicity of the original. I know of one translator who expresses the compact meanings of Chinese lines by means of odd typography: two subjects written one over the other followed by the verb and then two objects written the same way, with curly brackets to show they belong together. That's getting tricky, of course, and anyway I thought it was Japanese poetry that does the 'two possible meanings to this line, both intended but utterly different' thing. But Chinese poetry does it too. The basics are there in the hanzi; there's just several ways they can go together when you come to expand them into English, with its tiresome insistence on having subjects and verbs always where other languages just say 'houkoku wo.'
Tags: dragons, saiyuki_gaiden, verse

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