Translator's notes

Tribe of Palaeopithecus

By Jiang Tao

How to make a poem something more than an assembly of unrelated lines? That’s the challenge that faces every translator of poetry: what are the hidden springs that will make your ‘contraption of words’ hum? Jiang Tao’s poem looked at first sight as if it were simply the free verse that is the default mode for much contemporary Chinese poetry, but it proved to have a delicately set-out and understated rhyme scheme, and the sort of conversational iambic rhythm into which Chinese naturally falls. Now, Chinese rhymes much more readily than English does, and it is all too easy to mangle a Chinese poem by forcing it into a rhyme scheme, with results which are beyond parody. I chose to use a rhythm which aimed to be natural yet slightly tighter than normal conversation, and I chose alliteration as my main cohesive tool. There is an F-structure that begins with a bang in line 1, and fades away as we go through the poem, to be replaced by the M-structure which begins in line 4 and reaches its climax in line 19, and there are other more local alliterations, and more dispersed T-, L-, S-, and N-structures, all of which work to bind the lines together into a musical unit. (Robert Louis Stevenson’s essay ‘On Some Technical Elements of Style in Literature’ is the essential reference for translators considering the musicality of English.)

The first drafts, the interrogation of Jiang Tao’s text - “Could it mean this?” – were done with the talented young Hong Kong translator Lee Man-Kay, who produced the first literal; our work was then dissected by the poet Yang Lian, a master of his craft: his job was to ensure our English poem didn’t stray too far from Jiang Tao’s. I then took over the task of polishing the revised draft into a functioning poem, and I was aided in the final stages of this by the Dundee poet W.N. Herbert, who cast his devilishly ingenious eye over my work, and made helpful suggestions. I thank all three of them here: the final English poem bears all their fingerprints.

Tribe of Palaeopithecus was chosen by Yang Lian for inclusion in the forthcoming Bloodaxe anthology of contemporary Chinese poetry, Jade Ladder, of which he and I and W.N. Herbert are the editors.  It is due out in April 2012.

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