The Tail in the Forest: On Translating Ouyang Jianghe

Austin Woerner on translating Ouyang Jianghe

Illustration by Legend Hou Chun-Ming

It is tempting to imagine that, as a translator working directly with a living author, one might be able to circumvent the written words entirely and delve straight into the author's imagination, digesting the work back into its basic inspirational impulses and reassembling it, alive and breathing, in one's own language.

When I first strode through the gates of Ouyang Jianghe's neo-Gothic apartment tower in northeast Beijing, I couldn't help harboring this fantasy. I imagined that by picking apart these dense, inscrutable poems line by line with their creator, I might unlock the mystery that flashes temptingly through the words, animate my versions with Ouyang's original creative spark. I might even—perish the thought!—create translations as faithful to Ouyang's vision as the originals.

For almost two weeks we met every day in Ouyang's airy calligraphy-hung flat. Sipping green tea out of an Irish coffee glass, I would listen to Ouyang, a slight man with close-cropped hair and the gift of energetic, serious gab, discourse at length about the failure of the Chinese literary tradition to grapple with the physical world, or point out myriad connections between small details in his poems: look, here's an upward motion, here's a downward one; here's light, here's dark; here's white, here's black. But when I pressed him too hard about what lay behind the words—what they might hint at, imply, evoke—he would bristle impatiently.

"Listen, you don't have to get everything. Just translate the words. Sometimes the reader isn't supposed to know."

I found it hard to believe that a Chinese poet with an encyclopedic knowledge of Western poetry, encountered mostly in translation (Pound, Stevens, and St. John Perse are deep influences) could seriously believe it was possible to "just translate the words." Take, for example, this "literal" version of a line of "Station in the Air" (空中小站 Kong Zhong Xiao Zhan):

Faces of spies deepen in colorlike rainwater in the ink of a sketch.
Sounds poetic, but what is this image meant to convey? Are the spies angry? Ashamed? How can their faces be like rainwater, and how can rainwater deepen in color? It's hard to visualize, and more importantly, its emotional import is unclear. Is it supposed to be sinister? Does the image of rainwater in ink imply permanence or impermanence? It seemed crucial to me to grasp the poetic argument of the lines—and for that I'd need a glimpse of its meaning, of Ouyang's intent. So one day I came prepared to win him over with what I thought was a killer analogy.

"Imagine," I said, readying pen and paper, "that you want me to make a painting. You tell me the painting is of a forest, and peeking from behind one of the trees is a tail. I ask you what kind of animal is hiding behind the trees. You say you don't want to tell me, because you don't want me to paint the whole animal.

"But if I paint a tail, I can't not make a decision about what kind of animal it might be. It might look like this...

or this...  or this."

"Ah-hah!" Ouyang said, grabbing the pen. "That's where you're wrong. This is the tail I want you to paint."

This seemed to end the debate.

The "Tail in the Forest" analogy became a touchstone for me and Ouyang. It is, perhaps, the foundation upon which my technique for translating him is built. To use a metaphor Ouyang is fond of, language is like glass. A more concrete, traditional poem—one with a single implied narrative, or scene—is like a lens through which the reader sees a thing. The translator's job is to create a new lens through which readers in his language can see the same thing. But Ouyang's poetry—like the best "abstract" or "difficult" modern Western poetry, and like some of the most powerful traditional Chinese poetry—functions more like a prism or kaleidoscope. It bends, refracts, and sometimes scatters the light of meaning. What the reader sees is less important than the manner in which the prism bends the light. My role is to replicate the shape of the prism. In other words, it's to just translate the words.

But to just translate the words—to leave the animal behind the trees as undefined as possible—is trickier than it sounds. Translating from Chinese to English forces the translator to make all kinds of decisions the Chinese writer can leave ambiguous. Minute decisions about articles, verb tense, or word order can turn what should be a multidimensional utterance into a flat one. Take, for example, two possible takes on the first two lines of "Key to Sunday" (星期日的钥匙 Xingqiri de Yaoshi):

A key glints in the Sunday morning light.Someone returning at night could not get back into his home. 


A key glints in the Sunday morning light.A returning traveler is locked out in the dark. 
The version on top is a simple recounting of events; the one on the bottom could be a philosophical aphorism, an argument by paradox in the tradition of Zhuangzi. Both are possible, given the lack of explicit verb tense in Chinese. By choosing the bottom version, I force the reader into a temporal disjunction allowed but not required by the original, situating the reader at a crossroads of meaning instead of along a path: we could be talking about one traveler and one lost key, or about several sets of keys and travelers, separated by space and time. We could be talking about a general pattern of loss and return acted out by all travelers. It's this kind of resonance that's most in danger of being lost when poetry like Ouyang's is translated, and which I must labor to preserve—or recreate.

Think of this search for multiplicity of meaning as a subtractive process, à la Ouyang's Picasso: to strip away the definite, maximize white space, say both as little and as much as possible. Line by line I must ponder Ouyang's statements and choose the reading that opens up the widest labyrinth of possible interpretations. In doing so I strive—like Ouyang himself—to turn the poem into an abstract vessel, a bare room to be furnished by the reader's imagination. I must invite the reader to see any animal they wish lurking behind the trees.

Adapted from the introduction to Doubled Shadows: Selected Poetry of Ouyang Jianghe, due in bookstores in Mar 2012.

Click here for more information about the book.

Click here to read four poems from Ouyang Jianghe's Doubled Shadows, translated by Austin Woerner.

Click here to read the Special Feature: Wolfgang Kubin on Ouyang Jianghe.