Tuesday, 13 December 2011

China: work, talk, travel, more food, and later more music

Our literary task is to translate each other's poems. By the time we arrive L and K have translated two or three of ours each, we haven't done anything, for how could we? So how will this work? We decide the mornings will be given to translation (eventually some four mornings are).

So we come down in the morning and sit with our poets, L or K, with an English speaking postgrad student present to talk us through potential communication problems. Talking means taking notes, but there are so many notes and revisions of notes that within five minutes my notes become illegible with crossings-out and super- and subscripting. We start from zero so this setting down of the foundations is a long process. I wonder why we are not provided with a simple gloss or literal version with footnotes and marginalia, and then do the talking. Miraculously, by working late ad night and early in the morning we produce versions that read well in English. How close to the Chinese we cannot say nor guess. (And neither can our splendid poets, not really.) Then we take the translations to market at our first Fudan event.

Professor C introduces. I go first. I read the sonnet 'Water' followed by translation by L and a newish short poem 'We Love Life Whenever We Can' after - quite a long way after, in that it is set in England - Mahmoud Darwish, followed by translation by K. This being the department of Comparative Literature, both poets read translations of the same poem by P, then they read their own with translations by P and myself. THis is followed by discussions between ourselves on the nature of poetry and of translation, then it's open to the floor. One student asks about iambic pentameters - I recite a few lines from Gray's Elegy by way of answer - another wonders about the possibility of translating poetry at all. We agree it's impossible which is why we do it.

It all goes swimmingly, much enthusiasm, but we have to hurry as a minibus is waiting to drive us to Jin Zé (see Pascale's beautiful photographs), a village some hour and a half away. We are to stay there the night. It is dark and cold when we arrive, but the house we are driven to is extraordinary. A factory some ten years ago it is now a complex of traditional Chinese rooms, workshops and two small theatres and much more. The whole is set next to the river and a shallow decorative stream runs through it. Our room is immense and while traditional equipped with luxurious modern items such as a jacuzzi and a toilet whose lid lifts automatically. The water in the basin smells and tastes of sulphur so we have big thermos flasks of boiled water.

First we have to dash into the village for some food. That is to be obtained in a small rudimentary restaurant with a single plain room filled by one round table. The food, as ever, is excellent, as is the yellow wine. Z, one of the Chinese PhD students - an English speaker - has come with us. We drink toasts and try to write down a rough translation of the classical Chinese poem we are to translate, but it doesn't get far. On the way home we cross an ancient rainbow bridge, that is to say one continuous arch, with no rail. It is wet and steep and dark, the river rushes under. C slips but is OK.

Next morning it's sunny and cold so we walk into the village. The bridges are ancient and round, the tiny houses very basic but the river that runs through it is beautiful. We enter two temples, one that used to be dedicated to the master of the village, the other Buddhist with a huge gingko tree in the yard (again see Pascale's blog). We pass through a narrow poor shopping street-market selling essential items. On the way back we bump into L who has booked a boat. P and C don't fancy it, but Z and I get in and we go up and down the river and under some of the bridges.

Lunch is communal. Then K gives us a lightning tour of the premises that truly are extraordinary. There are gardens and vast rooms - the size of a minor cinema, filled with craft objects of all sorts. And ancient beds. And furniture. And costume. There are young people working in the costume department. In one of the vast rooms an ancient woman and her daughter are working at traditional looms. Just when you think there can't be more you go up another flight of stairs and are in another hall. Perhaps we are getting a tour of the whole of China. But China must be a billion times this. It is quite inconceivable.

The notes in my head blacken with crossings out, superscripts and subscripts. I must try to translate my own fingers into hands, my toes into feet, and my head into sense.

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