Words Open Doors: Night on the Great River (Three Translations)
by Dr. Holly Ordway
Translation is impossible.
Exact translation, at any rate. Even the words that are seemingly the most straightforward, with ordinary dictionary definitions (like bread, or day) have roots of meaning and history that make each language’s word for something have a slightly different flavor.
Looking at three English translations of Meng Hao-jan’s “Night on the Great River,” I am struck by the richness of the words in the first two lines of this short poem.
The little island on the river: what is it like? And the narrator: what does he feel?
William Carlos Williams calls it a “misty islet,” Kenneth Rexroth a “hazy island,” Gary Snider a “misty island.” Is it misty, in the sense of a cool, fine mist of water hanging in the air, a veil of mist that glows in the last rays of the setting sun? Or is it a heat-haze, the air stultifying and still, making the very air feel heavy as one breathes?
And then there is the poet-narrator’s response to the scene: “my sorrows grow”; “I am overwhelmed with nostalgia”; “my loneliness comes again.”
These three very different translations open up the complexity of emotion. Sadness, like happiness, or love, or peace, or anger, or any emotion, comes in many forms and has many nuances. One of the gifts of poetry is to provide meaning for the words we use to talk about these states of the soul, of the heart.
Sorrows: one gets the sense that the poet-narrator is reflecting on all the things that trouble him, perhaps things that he can’t do anything about, but wishes that he could. Or perhaps things that he himself has failed at. Nostalgia is a different kind of sorrow: a sweet pain, a memory of a golden, happy time or place that is now past. There is a sense of loss in nostalgia, but also within the reach of that mood is the recognition that there was goodness in that remembered moment, and the goodness was real and enduring even though the moment has passed. Loneliness: a very different kind of sorrow, a sorrow of missing pieces, of feeling disconnected from the life of friends, of community.
All of this could have been in the heart of the poet-narrator, in that quiet moment on the Great River; or evoked by the poet’s words in the imagination of the translators; what each translation does is to body forth Hao-jan’s images into English words, so that we too can drift by the island and be moved by the moon coming close to the earth, and thereby to share something of Hao-jan’s vision.
Translation is impossible; this is part of the poet’s magic. Every word, every different word, opens a door.