Monday, March 16, 2009

Thoughts on the Two-Headed Bird

The historic translator's conference in Bir, India now begins in earnest, and I have been thinking about the tension between translation and interpretation.

About ten years ago, I wrote a book wherein I commented on the Vietnamese Buddhist poet Su Vai Ban Koi, or the "Potato Monk." Around the turn of the 20th century, in 1901-1902, he traveled along the Vinh Te canal--- occasionally disguised as a nun--- selling potatos and distributing poetry. The French, who then occupied Cochinchina much as China now occupies Tibet, found his poetry subversive in character, and to meet this literary threat to internal security, actually engaged in "counter-poetry."

To demonstrate how difficult this must have been, I took a simple passage from Nguyen Gia Thieu's 18th century Cung oan ngam khac, considered a masterpiece of lyric poetry, and showed how it fared under four different hands. I hope Vietnamese readers will excuse me, but I don't have the means to present this with the tone markers (diacriticals) intact:

Trai vach que, gio vang hiu hat,
Manh vu-y lanh ngat nhu dong.
Oan chi nhung khach tieu phong?
Ma xui phan bac nam trong ma dao.

Duyen da may, co sao lai rui?
Nghi nguon con do doi sao dang.
Vi dau nen noi do dang?
Nghi minh, minh lai them thuong noi minh.

So, here is Vu Trung Lap's translation:

In the autumnal breeze, I stay in the King's harem,
Wrapped in a feather vest, still I seem to be frozen.
Oh Heaven, why do you hate us, these confined mates,
So that, frail creatures, we must endure this ill-fate?

WHy did my auspicious love become a trial?
I think, and find that my life is in trouble.
Then what caused my romance to be unsolved?
The more I think, the more I complain for my own self.

Now, Huynh Sanh Thuong's translation:

All through the moonlight sighs an autumn wind:
her dancing gown feels frigid, metal cold.
Does Heaven hate a harem inmate so
he will condemn her rosy cheeks to grief?

Why has all her good fortune now turned bad?
How can she bear to probe and search the past?
What's happened to destroy it all midway?
She muses on herself and mourns her fate.

Here is the literal translation (mine):

The experience of walled life, a golden breeze;
a feather jacket, cold like metal.
The trapped guest of the scented room is frustrated?
In rosy cheeks lays senseless misfortune.

Why did auspicious love already become unlucky?
Thinking that a star disappeared when a pond rose into a tempest.
A situation came apart, but from what cause, where?
Selfish thoughts, thinking more thoughts of selfish love!

Finally, my own interpretation:

Behind harem walls, I've learned from the experience of autumn winds,
That even soft finery can become cold, like metal.
I was welcomed as a guest to decorated rooms,
only to become a prisoner of frustration?
My rosy cheeks were the cause of my undeserved misfortune.

Why does a thing begun so well end so badly?
Our love was just born; a faint suggestion of a star,
Then in an instant it disappeared,
When my small, safe pond was tempest-tossed.
Again and again, I look for the reasons.
I think repeatedly of my sad life and lost love.

So, what does 18th century Vietnamese lyric poetry have to do with the Dharma translator's conference in Bir, you ask? Well, each of the above more or less accurately translates the original, yet each is a slightly different interpretation. We are here dealing with a romantic scene: a concubine in the king's harem bemoans her fate. Once, the king favored her, but he comes no more. Here she sits, day after day. This is a matter of the heart, but what shall we say to those who interpret matters of mind? How are we to know that our Dharma translations are not only technically accurate but interpretively sound?

The answer comes from direct experience.

If only one thing comes out of the Bir conference, I hope it is this: the notion that Dharma translation is like the difference between the deities as they arise, and the pictures one sees painted on sized cloth.

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