As I read In the Same Light: 200 Tang Poems for Our Century, translated by Wong May, I remind myself that they were written about 1,200 years ago, spanning more than 250 years, longer than the age of the U.S. I know they will include different literary styles and socio-political environments, all of which may be obscured by translation.

“Chinese poetry is unique in world literature in that it was written for the best part of 3,000 years by exiles and refugees. In this anthology, we meet Du Fu, Li Bai, Wang Wei, and others less familiar to readers in English,” reads the publisher’s book description.

“Known as the Golden Age of Poetry, the Tang Dynasty was a time when poems were bartered for wine and tea, posted in temples and taverns; the words of poets unmissable as street art and signage. Monks, courtiers, courtesans, woodsmen, and farmhands alike were all fluent in poetry. More than reading matter, it was a common currency — whether as a necessity or luxury in times of rampant warfare, droughts, famine, plague, man-made and natural disasters…”

“A bird translates silence,” the extraordinarily thorough and utterly original afterword begins. A historical study of ancient literature has never felt so alive and timeless. 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. She is a poet, artist, and translator. She’s lived in U.S. and now lives in Dublin.

As I read this book, I experienced the poems through Wong’s eyes and brain. I can try to imagine myself in the Tang times when the poems were written. But then, can I really imagine a world 1,200 years ago? Especially a war torn world, in which two thirds of the population died?

The book title suggests that we can also choose to read these poems through our modern eyes, that the poets’ concerns are not that different from ours, that despite the time and cultural distances, we share common human joys, sorrows, and aspirations.

When I know the original Chinese poem, I want the translation to have a “good” degree of correspondence with the original, in words, meters, and rhyme schemes. “Good” is subjective, as a translator makes many trade-offs, especially when trying to capture meaning and feeling, those amorphous and personal qualities that depend on the reader’s life experiences.

We filter our experiences, such as love, relationships, thoughts, and dreams through language. A brilliant translation creates room for the reader to experience the world of the poet. I think in all these regards, Wong has achieved a remarkable feat.

As I read, if I don’t recognize the poem, I face two choices: experience the translation as if it were a stand-alone poem in English, or find the original Chinese to compare with the translation. Wong says, “Poetry comes into being as you read… What is untranslatable is the rapture of reading, when it happens.”

Sometimes I experience rapture when reading a translation, too.

When I do recognize the poem, I’m delighted when Wong’s translation suggests a different and beautiful way to read it, like the times I hike with a friend who points out a vista I haven’t seen before or a flower I’d have missed.

To say Wong May is the translator of this collection is an understatement. She has also created this book experience by selecting the 200 poems out of thousands. She writes the deeply insightful, intensely personal 99-page afterword. To me, she is more the artist/director who “shut myself in with a poet until his poem speaks to me,” and breathes out an original work of art in English.

Li Bai’s “Night Thought” is one of the most famous Tang poems. Wong’s translation is a tour de force in its economy, choice of words, and rhythmic momentum. “Sitting Alone on Jing Ting Mountain” delivers a surprise like the original Chinese. Wong says, “Chinese grammar is not rule bound but sensed.” “Not Seeing Li Bai” offers two forms of kill: “To kill”, “Be killed”, perhaps reflecting this ambiguity in Chinese syntax. In “Enjoying Flowers on a Walk Alone on the Riverbank,” the beautiful imagery of the original comes across:

“The peach blossoms all out

All at once

To the last bud

With no one to mind them”

Wong takes different approaches to translation: Some are literal, almost word for word; some form interesting spatial arrangement of words, like poems of e e cummings, in contrast to the regular looking Chinese poems often made of rectangular blocks of characters.

The translation portion of the book ends with an anonymous poem next to its Chinese original. I love having the Chinese original right there, so I can see the patterns of the characters. In that moment, I wish I had the Chinese originals of all 200 poems. Of course that’s an impractical wish, as the book would be twice as thick.

I also sometimes wish Wong had included more context about the poems, explanations about  the people and places to which the poems refer. Though perhaps then the reading experience would be more laborious, less direct and joyful. These editorial and artistic choices are thoughtful and respectful, whether the reader agrees with them or not.

Onto the afterword, which is a masterpiece that gives context to many poems. Wong sheds a multicolored light on her process of translation. She shares ways of grouping or categorizing poems into themes, such as escape, solitude, roaming, drinking, sadness, nature, beauty, nostalgia, homesickness, loss, banishment, duty, age, remembrance, friendship, soundscape, and flora and fauna.

She makes and defends the provocative observation that “In Chinese landscape painting, as well as in classical poetry, the perspective is that of time. In the West since the renaissance, it has always been the perspective of space.” With an extensive array of insights, the afterward is a revealing glimpse into Wong’s mind as a translator, historian and artist.

If this remarkable anthology serves as a gateway to Chinese poetry or literature, then Wong has succeeded. If a poem touches you, then Wong has succeeded. 

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