In his book Destination Zero, Sam Hamill, an American Zen Buddhist poet, wrote a poem called "A Rose for Solitude" which contained a stanza that has always stuck with me:
And if, as I pass,
I should look you in the eye,
do not be afraid. I want
only to glimpse the emptiness
at the center of your heart,
I want to reach for you
because I know,
as you do,
we might never have met.
I discovered Hamill's book Endless River: Li Po and Tu Fu: A Friendship in Poetry in a small bookstore twenty-two years ago. I picked up this pocket-sized book from a basket near the register, a glance through turned into absorption, and I sat cross-legged right there on the floor and read the whole thing before buying it. I've returned to it countless times over the years, enough so that the binding has loosened and pages have started to fall out. I can still recite many of the poems from memory, including one of my absolute favorites by Li Po, "On Dragon Hill":
Drunk on Dragon Hill tonight,
that banished immortal, Great White,
turns among yellow flowers,
his smile spread wide
as his hat sails off on the wind
and he dances away in the moonlight.
("Great White" was his courtesy name, and "banished immortal" was one of his many nicknames — more explanation here for anyone interested.)
For me, that is such a perfectly contained image, almost haiku-like. Innocent, intoxicated joy, surrendering to the moment, while subtly hinting at the tragic, fleeting nature of existence. I marvel at it every time I revisit it. And yet, where does Li Po end and Hamill, as a translator, begin?
Here's the same poem as translated by David Hinton in Classical Chinese Poetry: An Anthology, with the alternate title "9/9, Out Drinking on Dragon Mountain":
9/9, out drinking on Dragon Mountain,
I'm an exile among yellow blossoms smiling.
Soon drunk, I watch my cap tumble in wind,
dance in love — a guest the moon invites.
Now, granted, I'm not a scholar, but speaking just as a sentient being with a rudimentary sense of appreciation for rhetorical rhythm and imagery, what the hell is that? I'm tempted to say that Google Translate could have made it sound less awkward and stilted. And granted, I probably imprinted on Hamill's versions of these poems to the point where I could never be fair to any competing translations, but I don't see how anyone could honestly prefer Hinton's. If Hamill's version conveys graceful, flowing, dance-like movement, Hinton's steps on its own shoelaces and does a faceplant.
It's frustrating as a lay reader, having to depend on intermediaries for interpretation. The tendency upon finding a translation that resonates deeply is to cling to it like a drowning man to a life preserver. I don't want anything to spoil what feels to me like revealed truth. Similarly, with Anita Barrows and Joanna Macy's majestic translation of Rilke's Book of Hours, I've refused to even look at any other versions. How could they improve on perfection? Even if you told me that neither Barrows or Macy knew how to read German and actually made up their "translations" out of thin air (like Stephen Mitchell's version of the Tao Te Ching), I'd shrug and reimagine the poems as Barrows and Macy's work "as inspired by" Rilke. I still wouldn't care enough to go read an "authentic" version to see what he really meant.
I kid — sort of — but I do shudder to think what I might have missed had I read Hinton's translations first and concluded that Li Po was too much of a tongue-tied dimwit to bother with. So much beauty in that book, so much recurring joy those poems have given me, and yet, like the man said, we so easily might never have met.