Saturday, December 11, 2010

Liu Xiaobo: "Experiencing Death"

Liu Xiaobo
(Image from Wikipedia)

Interpreting poetry in translation is always treacherous, as close analysis invariably misleads. We're not reading the poet's own, carefully chosen words, so we can't see precisely what the poem is doing. We can't follow John Ciardi's advice in How Does a Poem Mean? How can one ask how when the how is gone? We have to step back and read with a bit of distance, or accept that we're reading the translator's poem as much as the original poet's poem.

I don't know Chinese, nor do I know much about Liu Xiaobo, whom I'd not even heard of until he was recently awarded the Nobel Peace Prize, and I learned only yesterday from reading the International Herald Tribune (IHT) that he is not solely a human rights activist imprisoned in China for his role in composing Charter 08, he is also a poet. A selection from his poem "Experiencing Death" appears in the IHT and also the New York Times ("Words a Cell Can't Hold," December 8, 2010), translated by Jeffrey Yang, from which I've excerpted the first two stanzas:
I had imagined being there beneath sunlight
with the procession of martyrs
using just the one thin bone
to uphold a true conviction
And yet, the heavenly void
will not plate the sacrificed in gold
A pack of wolves well-fed full of corpses
celebrate in the warm noon air
aflood with joy

Faraway place
I've exiled my life to
this place without sun
to flee the era of Christ's birth
I cannot face the blinding vision on the cross
From a wisp of smoke to a little heap of ash
I've drained the drink of the martyrs, sense spring's
about to break into the brocade-brilliance of myriad flowers
How curious, this use of martyr imagery, as though Liu intends to draw on Catholic symbolism to understand his own kind of martyrdom, his exile in a dark cell, but cannot bring himself to take up his cross and follow Christ into what he considers the heavenly void, where no golden glory will cover a martyr's bones, for Liu lacks conviction to offer up even one sacrificial relic bone . . . though he has drained the martyr's drink of suffering.

But see how treacherous this is, this sort of reading, the attempt at making connections in translation, where individual words also matter?

I therefore turn to the experts, should any be reading this. What's Liu doing in this poem? Why the use of Christian imagery? I've found nothing to link Liu directly to Christianity, so how are we to read these allusions?

Perhaps someone will respond?

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At 12:48 AM, Anonymous Peter James said...

Funny I wondered something like that when I read these lines in the Times that day. What the translator has rendered could be taken a couple of ways. Too bad, I also lack knowledge of the original language.

What I read sounded as though the speaker exalted Christ, though driven off by His brightness...yet honest enough to say so...almost regretting the choice.

At 3:46 AM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

I'm glad that I wasn't the only one who wondered. Somewhere, there must be an individual who can read Chinese and has the answer . . .

Jeffery Hodges

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