I Have Forsaken Heaven and Earth
you have been residing like a hermit in my wound
I have forsaken Heaven and Earth
but have never forsaken you
I’ll let you say goodbye
to the thousands of mountains and rivers that run
through my life
Of worldly affairs
all is trivial
but life and death
Whose heart is not laid bare at the moment of death?
Flowers buried with the dead bloom and wither
Fruits falling from the Bodhi Tree echo in the deep mountains
how many memorial days are especially saved for me
they were marked by your footprints hidden under the fallen leaves:
they are the only days in which I am free
Youth’s Love Is Inexhaustible
one shot is enough to lighten the mind’s burden
The plank bridge
built in advance of the afternoon
is torn in a woman’s
dream before dawn
A gradual enlightenment or an instant epiphany
Who can tell
how many lovers died
by the blade of the sword?
I Sit Alone on Top of Mount Meru
One plays the melodious qin in the snow
the other understands its meaning
I sit alone on top of Mount Meru
seeing through the thousands of miles of floating clouds
The rest are those who dare
not miss the milestones of their lives
The rocks on their shoulders diminish them
they exhaust their entire lives in the telling of a lie
With only one lie
it stops snowing
On the snow-covered ground shine
a few cherries left from the previous life
The Spring Sprouts Green All Their Way to My Pillow
How many pretty women and herbs are needed
to tame an ambitious heart?
Horse hoofs trample on hell’s roof.
Maneuvers and strategies are abandoned in the wilderness.
Some people are worn out by others
only live extravagantly on liquor and sex
and only the one who chooses the uphill path
goes on walking towards death step by step with fortune
Yet inside and outside of Buddhism
one is no different from the other
The moment I think of this
the sprouts green all their way to my pillow
The Moment I Left
The moment I left
the mountain became empty
the birds flew in the opposite direction
I was concealed in the mortal world
Turning against it knocked me down
Since then I spoke and acted vaguely
not knowing who I was
Those who were in the public eye
died mostly of clichés
Some even died of virtue
When I saw no pilgrims at the shortcut
I became enlightened in a drop of nectar
我 一 走
He Fades with the Thawing Mountain of Snow
Snowflakes fly about the sky making it light
as light as love in the breeze
The person buried in poetry and made unknown
once again returns to his imagination before dawn
He pauses at the end of a poem
and thinks of the Potala Palace
Only one step forward
he fades with the thawing mountain of snow
The Potala Palace
The nothingness of the Four Elements
People Who Can’t Afford Poverty Are Everywhere
Living on imagined food
the poet basks in wild flowers and indulges in wandering
If trapped in misfortune man and woman love less
the billowy sea of people becomes suddenly shallow
Those who died with open eyes remain objective
Those who do not follow norms prick their ears and appear attentive
You and I are no different–
people who can’t afford poverty are everywhere
As soon as I think life is unpredictable
the snow-capped mountain becomes white with terror
At first I forget one person Then a group
Only when I look up do I realize
I am lower than everything in front of my eyes
The Dual Role of Translator and Poet
The seven poems unfolding here are my English translation of MA Hui’s Mandarin version. MA’s poems were based on various translations of the Tibetan original authored by the sixth Dalai Lama, Tsangyang Gyatso (1683-1706). His rendition of Gyatso’s poetry, in other words, results not from his competence in Tibetan—he doesn’t speak the language—but from his interest in Tibetan Buddhism, its history, and perhaps the sixth Dalai Lama’s surreptitious life, and love poems he wrote in Tibetan vernacular, which transformed the genre’s classic form. In this sense, my translation of MA’s poems comes from MA’s rewriting of the existing Mandarin translations of Gyatso’s poetry. To stay loyal to MA’s bold artistic spirit, I decided that it would be best to be creative in my rendering of his poems for English-speaking readers. I hope this freer way of translation helps retain the appeal of the charming imagery and the Buddhist wisdom in MA’s version. If the creative nature of poetry translation grants authorship to the translator, in my case such authorship flags the translator’s faithfulness to the original, her understanding of literature as a form of representation, and her disobedience to the myth that poetry is untranslatable.
MA’s poetry reimagines the life of a leader of the Tibetan nation and his poetic aspirations, and endeavours to capture the beauty, heroism, melancholy, magic, wisdom, and conflict in their Mandarin recreation. This representation of Gyatso’s poetry resonates strongly with MA’s contemporaries—the Chinese audience living in their country’s post-Socialist era. In their diligent pursuit of wealth since the early 1980s when China opened its door to Capitalist influences, MA’s readers perhaps feel the same sense of alienation, the same yearning for the joy of love, and the same agony of splitting between responsibilities and freedom. These shared poetic sensibilities among the sixth Dalai Lama, MA Hui, and present-day Chinese readers are perhaps what makes MA’s Mandarin version a success. MA’s reproduction of seventeenth- and eighteenth-century Tibetan poetry embodies his journey into another culture, religion, and history. His representation of Gyatso’s poetry allows Chinese readers to connect with a people and culture that is allegedly barbarian.
To me, a Canadian with a Chinese background and a fascination for transcultural experiences, MA’s artistic endeavour matters. I follow his example in translating his poetry into English. I believe the imagined spirit of the sixth Dalai Lama in MA’s poetry also speaks to English-speaking readers through my translation, which, I hope, offers readers similar wonder and inspiration, as well as the chance to connect with other cultures through imagination and empathy.
I am not unaware that I’m undertaking a presumably impossible task—translating from my mother tongue to an additional language, or what Ekaterina Petrova would call “reverse translation.” I understand the challenges but see this as a trail that opens to an intimate relationship with English: translating MA Hui turns out to be a productive way of learning the genre of poetry—poetic figures of speech, mechanisms of spacing, punctuating, rhyming—which expands my horizon of the literary field. My first book was published in English. Publishing translations in English shouldn’t be too hard to imagine.
So, here am I. Committed, on the one hand, to translating the spirit of MA’s poetic representation—or maintaining “the integrity of the source culture” as Bill Johnson would say (Morgenstern-Clarren), and on the other to making the verses aesthetically appealing to English-speaking readers, I decided to play boldly the dual role of a poet and a translator. I have shortened all the titles. In the Mandarin version, the titles are long and stand on their own as complete sentences. In the English translation, I make them concise and catchy. So, “I Sit Alone on Top of Mount Meru, Seeing through Thousands of Miles of Floating Clouds” becomes “I Sit Alone on Top of Mount Meru”; “The Moment I Think of You, the Sprouts Green All Their Way to My Pillow” becomes “The Sprouts Green All Their Way to My Pillow”; “The Moment I Left, the Mountain Became Empty” is changed to “The Moment I left” in English; and “Only One Step forward, He Fades with the Thawing Mountain of Snow” becomes “He Fades with the Thawing Mountain of Snow.”
The translation of titles also bears my critical understanding of the representations of Tsangyang Gyatso. “我放下过天地，却从未放下过你” translated literally into “I Have Forsaken Heaven and Earth, But Have Never Forsaken You” perhaps best speaks to the Mandarin readers’ imagination of Gyatso as being a lavish lover. But who knows to what extent such imagination romanticizes the Tibetan leader? A sentimental title like that is surely meant to concoct a sensational appeal. English readers may have also seen “the erotic verse of the sixth Dalai Lama” (Williams). Not knowing Tibetan, I cannot research the archives to study Gyatso more closely, yet I can see that the themes of MA Hui’s collection of 70 poems pertain to not only romantic love but also to life and death, to war, Buddhism, to the art of poetry and much more. And I can be a conscientious translator, choosing not to keep “but Never Forsaken You” in the title to avoid disseminating a Tibetan stereotype. The choice the translator makes denotes “epistemic humility”—an ethical commitment I will not forsake as a responsible translator (qtd. in Chen 35).
Spacing in the English translation presents another creative effort. I am often mesmerized by MA’s poetic language and the density of its meanings: “residing like a hermit in my wound,” “enlightened in a drop of nectar,” “on the snow-covered ground shine / a few cherries from the previous life.” Keeping the lines sparse seems to give the reader more space to process the enchanting imagery. The one-stanza Mandarin version of “Youth’s Love is Inexhaustible” conveys the fire of passion of love; the English version may work better in a combination of couplets and 3-and-4-line stanzas to allow the reader to savour the magic of the verses.
The creative rendition of idioms in translation is an old story for literary translators, and it is also an obligation in my translation of MA Hui. Take the first poem “I Have Forsaken Heaven and Earth” for example. “回光返照” in the original version describes the strange moment before one’s death: the person may have been ill in bed for years, but suddenly behaves like someone healthy and robust, when in reality the person is dying. MA appropriates this idiom and the meaning changes as a result. It still carries the connotation of impending death, but “回光” is the light shining not on the person as denoted in the idiom, but on the secrets hidden in the person’s heart. So, the English version of “谁的隐私不被回光返照” becomes “whose heart is not laid bare at the moment of death?” A rigidly faithful translation of this line would make no sense.
Careful readers will notice that the question mark is an addition in the above translation. The Mandarin line, “谁的隐私不被回光返照,” conveys affirmation in the form of a question. In other words, it is a question to which the answer “yes” is implied. To put this line in English, I needed to add a question mark and make the sentence a rhetorical question so that, as in the Mandarin line, it can mean “everyone’s heart is laid bare at the moment of death.” Taking away the question mark would clone an English twin of the Mandarin line, but so doing, it would fragment this line grammatically as a dangling attributive clause with nothing to modify, and thus leave the reader wondering whose heart the poet refers to. Using a question instead of a statement to convey affirmative meanings is one of the prominent characteristics of MA’s poetry. In Mandarin the absence of the question mark effectively signifies the question with a definite answer, but the English version requires the punctuation mark to articulate the equivalent.
This creative translation process required to navigate in the labyrinth of the linguistic difference also includes altering the order of the lines. Translating the last four lines in “I Have Forsaken Heaven and Earth” is an example. The original version goes like this:
The question word “多少”—how many—appears in the latter part of the Mandarin sentence: “你藏在落叶下的那些脚印 / 暗示着多少祭日.”English syntax requires that “how many” stand at the beginning to form a question. Hence “how many memorial days are especially saved for me / marked by your footprints hidden under the fallen leaves”—a complete reversal of the second and third line in the original stanza.
A well-known Chinese scholar, QIAN Zhongshu (钱钟书), once said, “Translation is like dancing with shackles.” (许渊冲) His words vividly describe the role of the translator. Translating MA Hui’s rewriting of the Mandarin translations of Tsangyang Gyatso, I feel myself dancing as a creative artist. The shackles are my translator’s choice out of the commitment to loyalty to the spirit of the original, to a critical understanding of the source and target cultures, and to my faith in connecting between languages, cultures, and histories.
Note: I wish to thank Julie C. Robinson profusely for her advice on the English version of the poems.
Chen, Leilei. Re-Orienting China: Travel Writing and Cross-cultural Understanding. U of Regina P. 2016.
Morgenstern-Clarren, Rachel. “The Translator Relay: Bill Johnston.” Words without Borders. https://www.wordswithoutborders.org/dispatches/article/the-translator-relay-bill-johnston. Accessed on 12 November 2020.
Petrova, Ekaterina. “Neither Here and There: The Misery and Splendor of (Reverse) Translation.” Reading in Translation. https://readingintranslation.com/2020/07/28/neither-here-and-there-the-misery-and-splendor-of-reverse-translation/?fbclid=IwAR3KTDxsErHBwVH17bX1XDjnBlcg4NWetKnQxtPm1oBLdGp-FELylmwjrFQ. Accessed on 12 November 2020.
Williams, Paul. Songs of Love, Poems of Sadness. I. B. Tauris, 2005.
“许渊冲”凤凰卫视，2017年5月24日。http://phtv.ifeng.com/a/20170524/44625607_1.shtml. Accessed on 13 November 2020.