Faithful Ambiguity

Calligrapher: Wei Qilin / 书法:魏棋林

Can a voice from over a thousand years ago speak to us in our language? Chloe Garcia Roberts makes a persuasive case that it can. Her new translation of Li Shangyin’s selected verse, published in a bilingual edition by NYRB Poets, has made one of the titans of China’s literary tradition freshly available in English. A poet in her own right and managing editor of the Harvard Review, Garcia Roberts has published a book of verse titled The Reveal, as well as an earlier chapbook of Li Shangyin’s minor poems called Derangements of My Contemporaries. She reaches across the centuries to bring Li startlingly close, and the figure that emerges is contemporary but irreducibly enigmatic, always withdrawing beyond our grasp.


千百年前的诗句,还能和我们隔空对话吗?

Chloe Garcia Roberts 觉得是可以的,她给出了一个有说服力的例子。由 Chloe 新译、NYRB Poets 出版的双语版诗选,向世人介绍了中国文学传统中最重要的诗人之一:李商隐。作为译者的 Chloe 在任《哈佛评论》(Harvard Review)的执行主编,并且她自己就是诗人,已有出版著作《The Reveal》和一本李商隐的小诗册《Derangements of My Contemporaries》(意为“我同时代人的烦恼”)。在她笔下,早已作古的诗人李商隐,仿佛就立于我们面前,充满魅力,却又神秘莫测。

Li Shangyin (813-858), also known by his literary name, Yi Shan, lived toward the end of the Tang dynasty. Over the course of his short life, he penned a series of strikingly beautiful compositions regarded as enigmatic even by the standards of his day. Tang poets such as Wang Wei, Li Bai, and Du Fu—to name the three most familiar to Western readers—prized suggestion and evocation; Li Shangyin, writing nearly a century after them, pushed this tendency to an extreme, and added a sensuality and allusiveness all his own. If poetry from this tradition is always hard to render in English, Li Shangyin poses unique challenges.

Garcia Roberts identifies two: “The first challenge is the language itself. The divide between poetic Classical Chinese and modern English is vast, particularly in sentence structure, the sparsity of pronouns, the layered symbolism and allusion,” she explains. “The second is Li Shangyin’s particular poetics. He is not by any means a poet who moves completely in tandem with the currents of his tongue. Instead he is constantly playing with, pushing against, subverting the language he writes in.” Translating him entails capturing not only the meaning, but also the occasional strangeness of his words.


李商隐(813 – 858),字义山,生于中唐,其诗作风格成于晚唐,虽然生命未足半百,却产出了惊人的作品,即使按当时的评判标准,这些作品也算是深奥莫测在晚唐,李商隐算是最具代表性的诗人之一,与另一同时期的诗人杜牧合称“小李杜”。

而西方读者最为熟悉的三位诗人:王维、李白和杜甫,皆出自盛唐时期,各具风格,把唐诗推向了前所未有的盛名之巅;晚他们一个世纪后出现的诗人李商隐,则将唐诗又推向一个高峰,他的诗作富含典故,且更具感官冲击。如果说唐诗这一传统的题材,已经很难用英语来诠释,那么义山诗更是一个极大的挑战。

Chloe Garcia Roberts 也认同这个观点:第一个挑战就是语言本身。古汉语诗歌和现代英语的分野很大,尤其是在行文结构、代词使用、层层递进的象征和典故等方面。她解释道。其二,就是李商隐独特的诗学思想。他决不是个随波逐流的诗人。相反,他不断地斟酌、反驳、颠覆他所写的字句。因此要译他的诗,不仅要抓住他的意思,而且要突出他的奇文瑰句。

Even readers who don’t understand Chinese will be struck by how different the two versions look. The original poems are compact blocks of text, often just a few lines in length, with a uniform number of characters per line (five or seven). The translations, by contrast, typically run twice as long and have shaggily uneven verses.

Classical Chinese has a conciseness that’s nearly impossible to replicate in English, and this poses a dilemma for the translator: do you try to capture the brevity through a string of isolated monosyllables, or fill in the spaces with explanation that’s absent in the original? Garcia Roberts seeks to steer a course between the two extremes. “Where I could, I tried to shave down the English to its sparest possible form,” she says. “However, I did try to maintain a balance, to avoid veering into a parody of the economy of language on one side or over effusion in rendering the lushness of Li’s images on the other.”


即使是不懂中文的读者,看到原诗和译文后,想必也会为这两个版本所震撼。原诗是对仗整齐的五言或七言诗,常见为四句(绝句)和八句(律诗)。而相较之下,英译诗的长度则通常是原来的两倍,而且长短不一。

古汉语的简明性,英语几乎不可能原样复制,这就给译者带来了一个两难的问题:是要用一串孤立的单音节词来重塑简洁,还是加入原文中所没有的释义?Chloe 试图在两者之间找到平衡点。如果可以的话,我试着把英语尽可能精简了。她说,不过我确实努力保持中立,一方面避免陷入对古文‘惜字如金’的拙劣模仿,一方面避免过度渲染义山诗的靡丽幽婉。

An example of her approach is “Retirement,” a short meditation on yearning for home. Here’s the original, followed by her translation.

端居

远书归梦两悠悠
只有空床敌素秋
阶下青苔与红树
雨中寥落月中愁

Retirement

Distant letters, dreams of returning
Both are few and far away.

All I have: an empty bed
Set against a pale autumn.

Down the steps:
Green moss, red trees.

Inside the rain: sinking emptiness.
Inside the moon: anguish.

The English version expands the original’s four lines into four stanzas, yet it still feels pared-down. Garcia Roberts achieves this not by using shorter words or being overly clipped, but by eliminating verbs: the poem consists of sentence fragments linked by colons. In this, she finds a clever substitute for the original’s succinctness, a sort of mirror that obliquely reflects a feature with no obvious equivalent in English.


例如《端居》一诗,抒发诗人滞留异乡,远别亲故之情。下为中英两版对照:

端居

远书归梦两悠悠
只有空床敌素秋
阶下青苔与红树
雨中寥落月中愁

Retirement

Distant letters, dreams of returning
Both are few and far away.

All I have: an empty bed
Set against a pale autumn.

Down the steps:
Green moss, red trees.

Inside the rain: sinking emptiness.
Inside the moon: anguish.

 

英文版将原文的四行扩展为四小节,但依然感觉篇幅精简。Chloe 此举的成功,并不是因为使用了较短的、或是删减的单词,而是因为剔除了动词:这首译诗,通篇都由冒号连接的句子片段组成。在这一点上,她找到了一个巧妙替代原著简洁性的方法:即通过“:”这个简单的标点符号,代替原文中的隐喻方式,在英语中反映古诗词里并没有直接说明的意象。

If brevity is one challenge Li Shangyin poses, ambiguity is another. Often his poems are open to multiple readings—not just differing interpretations, or even various translation possibilities, but distinct ways of parsing the text. Take the first two lines of one of his many untitled pieces:

来是空言去绝踪
月斜楼上五更钟

Come is a hollow word.
Go severs all traces.
Moon slants over building roofs.
Bells of the fifth watch.

This is a literal rendering of the Chinese, almost a gloss, yet it’s not necessarily the most self-evident translation. Compare the very different lines by A.C. Graham, in one of many alternate versions of various poems included in an appendix:

Coming was an empty promise, you have gone, and left no footprint:
The moonlight slants above the roof, already the fifth watch sounds.

Graham starts from a very different understanding of the poem: you said you’d come but didn’t, now you’ve disappeared without a trace. By adding “you” and putting the verbs in the past tense, he sketches out a miniature narrative. Garcia Roberts, by contrast, takes come and go to refer to the words themselves, not actions taken by anyone in particular. She avoids creating an explicit backstory, trusting readers to draw their own connections.

The difference between these translations doesn’t lie in their fidelity: both are plausible readings of the poem. It’s a question of how explicit they make what’s implicit, and which aspects of the original they seek to convey—the meaning of the lines, or their brevity, their elusiveness.


如果说保持“简洁性”是对翻译者的一大挑战,那么对李商隐诗中似是而非的“歧义性”就是另一座大山。他的诗被反复阅读——不仅沿伸出对其内容的不同阐释、不同译本,还有对文本进行解析的不同方式。在他众多名为“无题”的作品中,此诗的前两行就可视为佐证之一:

来是空言去绝踪
月斜楼上五更钟

Come is a hollow word.
Go severs all traces.
Moon slants over building roofs.
Bells of the fifth watch.

这四行字句是汉语的直译,几乎是注解,然而解读含义却尚不明确。比较 A.C. Graham 的译本,在他的附录中,对这句诗就有不同的翻译:

Coming was an empty promise, you have gone, and left no footprint:
The moonlight slants above the roof, already the fifth watch sounds.

A.C. Graham 的翻译,源于对这首诗截然不同的理解,即:你说你会来,但却没有来,现在你消失得无影无踪。通过添加主语、用动词的过去时态,A.C. Graham 把简单的两句话勾勒出了一个微型故事。相比之下,Chloe 则着重诗中的“来”“去”二字本身,而没有特指任何人。Chloe 避免构建一个明确的故事背景,她信任读者,让他们和词句产生自己的联系。

这些译本之间的区别,并不在于它们是否忠实于原作:他们都是对原作合理的解读。区别在于,翻译的人想要揭示多少背后的隐喻,想要侧重对哪一方面的阐释——是语句的含义,还是它们的简洁性,或是其朦胧的妙处。

This “elusive and haunting quality” is what first drew Garcia Roberts to Li’s poetry. His lines are often tantalizingly hard to pin down, even with China’s long tradition of exegesis. “Maybe similar to the exercise of taking apart an engine to see how it works, my translations at first were simply attempts to better learn, from the inside out, how his poetry could be at once so moving and so unknowable.”

Her versions don’t dispel that unknowability but instead bring it admirably into English. This is no simple task, as a vague sentence is often much harder to render than one whose meaning is precise. “The cryptic nature of his work was an element that I wanted to recreate in the English,” she explains. “There are certainly instances where ambiguity of meaning made my job easier, but there were also instances where the task of rebuilding such ambiguity in an approximation of the exact way it exists in the Chinese cost me a lot of anguish.”


Chloe 说,李商隐诗中的只可意会不可言传”之感,就是最初吸引她的原因。义山的措辞往往让人感觉难以诠释,即使文言中早已着悠久的训诂传统。我的翻译起初只是试着更好地学习他的诗,从内而外地学习,这些又动人肺腑又难以言喻的诗句,他究竟怎么做到的。就像拆开一个引擎来看看它是如何工作的那样。

她的翻译没有消除李商隐诗中的朦胧感,反而将这点充分体现在英文中。这并不简单,因为模棱两可的语句,往往比意义明确的句子更难翻译。他诗作的神秘性,正是我想用英语来重现的一个元素。她解释说,在某些情况下,暧昧的意义确实让翻译更容易一些。但也有一些情况,要重现文言文中模糊的词义,简直让我绞尽脑汁。

Calligrapher: Wei Qilin / 书法:魏棋林
Calligrapher: Wei Qilin / 书法:魏棋林

The hardest poem to translate, she says, was “Night Rain Sent North.” Not coincidentally, it’s also one of the simplest. “I’ve always thought of this poem as a perfect Möbius strip of time. It is typical of Li Shangyin in his poetry to move his reader across vast distances, both temporal and physical, but in the last line of this poem he does this so quickly as to almost give us whiplash.” Once again the original is a short block of text, while the English version unwinds into several lines.

夜雨寄北

君问归期未有期
巴山夜雨涨秋池
何当共剪西窗烛
却话巴山夜雨时

Night Rain Sent North

You ask the date of my return.
No date is set.
The autumn pools on Ba Mountain
Welling with night rain.

How will that moment ever be: Together,
Trimming a candle at the west window,
And me, recounting
This rainy spell on Ba Mountain?

In just a few short lines, poem seems to flip time upside down: the speaker, on a rainy night on Ba Mountain, longs to return to a loved one—often understood to be the poet’s wife—and is carried away by that longing to imagine a future moment when they’ll both be together and looking back, not without nostalgia, on this same rainy night. Longing bleeds into memory, and the poem ends where it began.


而 Chloe 说最难翻译的诗,就是《夜雨寄北》。好巧不巧,它也正是最简单的一首之一。我一直认为这首诗是像完美的莫比乌斯连环,环环相扣。通过诗句,李商隐会带着读者穿越时空的距离,这很典型。但在这首诗的最后一行,他又把人们拉回了现实,短短几行,时速之快,几乎像是鞭挞驱赶着人们在时空中穿行。原文又是一小段文字,而英文版则再次分成了几个小节。

夜雨寄北

君问归期未有期
巴山夜雨涨秋池
何当共剪西窗烛
却话巴山夜雨时

Night Rain Sent North

You ask the date of my return.
No date is set.
The autumn pools on Ba Mountain
Welling with night rain.

How will that moment ever be: Together,
Trimming a candle at the west window,
And me, recounting
This rainy spell on Ba Mountain?

寥寥的几行诗,却似乎颠倒了时间框架:在巴山的一个雨夜,倾诉者切切地盼望着,想要回到爱人——也许是友人——的身边,这种情感如此深切,以至于他想象出一个未来的场景:他终于回到故地,两人重聚,一起回首这个雨夜。这种渴望渗透记忆,而诗结尾的地方,又与开头相连。

Li Shangyin has found a distinct and compelling voice in Garcia Roberts. Rather than explaining away his ambiguities, she presents him in all his seductive, suggestive charm. The fragments of meaning she offers, like shards of a glass for the reader to piece together, reflect a flitting, disarmingly beautiful light.


通过 Chloe Garcia Roberts 的译诗,李商隐的作品在当下仍然引人入胜,别具一格。她的译本没有过度诠释诗的幽隐意蕴,反而将这种诱人的魅力完全呈现出来。她提供了一些有意义的碎片,却像是吉光片羽,让读者试图把它们拼凑在一起,反射出一种瞬息即逝的、令人无法抗拒的美丽光芒。

Websitechloegarciaroberts.com

 

Contributor: Allen Young
Photographer: Xu Anrong


网站chloegarciaroberts.com

 

供稿人: Allen Young
摄影师: Xu Anrong