This book is the result of a near decade-long translation adventure between UK and Chinese poets. It began in 2004 when Yang Lian came to Cove Park and he and I worked together on a translation of his poem Where the River Turns. I had come across Lian’s work in his book Where the Sea Stands Still, translated by Brian Holton, with an introduction that expressed the difficulties of translating a poet when one is not a poet. It went into some detail about the magnificent challenges Chinese poetry brings to the translator in general and Yang Lian’s exponentially layered imagery and nuance in particular. In this translation I saw, despite the difficulties Holton outlined, a kindred poetic spirit, something that both Lian and I were trying to get to in our writing: an exploration of alienation from oneself. This alienation was for vastly different reasons and from opposite perspectives, but the journey and the questions were – thrillingly – the same. Here was a poet I could learn from, and had a hope of truly understanding. The true purpose of poetry for me was realised in that first translation – that of an attempt at authentic communication. Such a communication is possible – through poetry – across all barriers of language, culture and gender. The discovery that this was so, that translation of another’s poem could be this, was nothing short of transforming.
The initial translation took four days to accomplish, as I spoke no Chinese and Lian’s English was not fluent then. Its success depended simply on painstaking stilted discussion, combing through dictionaries and the desire to give over all the time necessary to enable this authentic communication to happen. It depended also on the poets and the poem being up to the job. Most of all it depended on a poetic sympathy, a sense of being able to grasp meaning before having the word.
When after our four days we stumbled into the sunlight on the shore of Loch Long, we knew something wonderful had been accomplished. My translation of this poem appears in my second book of poems Take Me With You and is, in my view a near-perfect fusion of Yang Lian’s imagination and my own, to create a version of his poem that could only have come from the both of us.
The success of this led us to want to bring in others, and so I invited Bill Herbert, Pascale Petit, and Antony Dunn to join in a Poet to Poet translation exchange with the poets Lian knew in China: Xi Chuan, Zhai Yong Ming, Xi Chuan and Zhou Zhan. The Scottish Arts Council funded me to go to China to develop the idea of the exchange and to find an equivalent Centre to Cove Park in China where we could work and the following year we obtained funding to make the project happen.
Since that first exchange, more poets have joined in and Yang Lian and Bill Herbert have grown the idea of Poet to Poet into festivals, competitions, and a kind of cultural exchange between our two countries which has been wonderfully far-reaching – exactly as I would have hoped from that first germination of an idea at Cove Park.
This beautiful book brings together a sample of the translations across all the years and poets and is a testament to what is possible when poets meet and somehow find themselves in each other.