Wednesday, January 05, 2005

If you check the archives of this site, you will find a number of classical Chinese poems translated by my friend Jonathan Chaves. Not being a speaker of the language myself, I rely on scholar-poets like Jonathan to give a taste in English of one of the world's great literatures. Even the best English translations can be misleading though. The Chinese classics come to us in English as free verse, tightly compressed, with striking images. What we monolinguals miss is that the Chinese originals were written in formal schemes of rhyme and word stress suitable for singing, in accordance with rules sometimes dating back a thousand years. While there are great translations out there, there has been little effort made convey this side of Chinese verse in English. Jonathan has been quietly working on more "formal" English translations of Chinese poems with the goal of expanding our experience of this great literature. As part of that effort he has been flexing his skills by writing light verse and topical satire, sort of a poet's warm up five finger exercise. At times though he takes on more serious subjects. It was traditional for Chinese poets to combine painting with writing, and the poem written in response to a painting (often inscribed on the painting itself) was an important part of the cultural dialogue. Jonathan has taken a step towards bringing this tradition into a western setting with Four Poems in Paint; a series of poems displayed together with the paintings that inspired them on the website for the online journal Praesidium.