Claire Huot, Sinologist with the University of Calgary in Canada. [Courtesy of Claire Huot]
What's common between the ancient Hebrew rabbinical texts and an iconic Tang Dynasty poem like Wang Wei's "Lu Chai" (Deer Park)? What makes a series of colophons by Bada Shanren, the late 17th century Chinese ink brush artist, lend themselves to be arranged in the form of a 85-letter constraint on textured gold foil - the sort sometimes used in traditional funerals in South-east Asian cultures - so that they look like a rectangular patch, plotted with letters, equidistant from and apparently unrelated to one another?
Tang Dynasty poet Wang Wei's poem "Deer Park" translated by Robert Majzels.
The translated poems run vertically and are usually read from right to left, although there are no set rules as to how they might be read. In fact, a student of the translators, Claire Huot and Robert Majzels, read the translated poems backwards and managed to make perfect sense.
If the translations of Chinese classical texts into English, as visually represented by Huot and Majzels, both academics with the University of Calgary in Canada, seem like a riddle, it's because they want the reader to work hard. They have challenged linear reading. Majzels, a novelist, and Huot, a Sinologist, have launched a sustained rebellion against English translations that inevitably seem to dilute the essence of the original Chinese, trying to break down and lay out each syllable contained in the lines in a compact form to simplified elements, in the name of preserving authenticity. The duo is trying to restore the element of enigma in their translations of Chinese poetry, in a totally new incarnation. The effort, essentially, is directed towards finding alternatives to the way the West often reads China, on its own terms.
"We like operating on the edge of several disciplines, combining, ancient Western and postmodern philosophies, translation theory, Chinese scholarship, contemporary poetics and visual art," says Robert Majzels, who does most of the translations while Huot's job is to interpret the mystic quality of the original, compare notes with classical literature scholars in China and ensure that the translations are fundamentally accurate.
The translations they write are displayed in galleries, stenciled on walls, inscribed on small wooden blocks and stuck on the kitchen door and printed on acetate sheets and hung in shopping malls. Poets, non-literary people and children are invited to make sense of writing that, at the first glance, seem to be letters strewn on a rectangular black patch. The latter category is often found to have a better success rate, not being bogged down by years of literary and social conditioning.
Dissatisfied with the set forms and conventions practiced in literature, Majzels was drawn to the ancient Hebrew Talmud (200-280 BC) and the Torah scroll, looking for answers to the question: What is a book? The Talmud's answer: A book was a book if it contained a minimum of 85 letters, and deserved to be saved. That's how Majzels zeroed in on the magic figure of 85.
The similarity in ethos between the ancient Aramaic-Hebrew texts that might contain a world of meanings in a single sentence and a Tang poem, which Majzels says, "is like a small stone that drops into a still pond" did not take long to strike him. Reading a Tang poem, he says, conjures up "a single subtle image, which goes on to create ripples in the reader's mind, gradually expanding into ever-wider circles of meaning and feeling". He experimented with trying to fit in his translations of Tang poems into an 85-letter constraint, hacking at and chipping away an article here and a word too many, till the material at hand was reduced to its bare minimal state, in a form so transparent, porous and open-ended, that sunlight might pass through it.
"The poems I chose to translate are permeated by a combination of longing, of disappointment in the state of the world, a renunciation of worldly things, a release from the self. The poem is about the struggle for release, the tension between the desire to dwell in the world and the desire to be free of it," says Majzels, adding that a similar tension marks the ink-brush paintings and inscriptions done by Bada Shanren. The 17th-century hermit painter-poet's inscriptions, points out Huot, are marked by "self-mockery and brooding". The calligraphy, done mostly using the Chinese indelible red ink, straddles cultural traditions, combining the old and the modern, especially when one looks at the artist's abundant use of blank space.
The minimalism in the works of Bada Shanren and the Tang poets tie up beautifully with the Hebrew tradition, in which the Kabbalist thinkers struggle to retreat from the world by involving themselves in complex meditative practices even as they talk about more worldly matters such as marriage, dietary habits, financial deals, legal issues and sex. Indeed, so do a lot of Tang poems, like Meng Haoran's Spring Morning, or Du Fu's Lodging at the Magistrate's, which Majzels has translated. But the constraint of 85 characters has necessitated whittling down an already compact form to its bare essentials, and it would take a reader the extreme patience of a chess player, to locate the nuances, the detail and the possibilities latent in the text, which might elude him in the blink of an eye.
Majzels and Huot are now toying with the idea of linking the works of the Tang Dynasty poet Xue Tao and the contemporary Sichuan poet Zhai Yongming. "We believe the latter's work is influenced by Xue Tao's poetry and we want to break away from the historicizing practice of isolating periods, whether Tang or Song or Ming, etc, to combine a very contemporary writer with an ancient voice, to find commonalities in attitude and feeling between women poets that bridge time," says Majzels.
Essentially, what the Majzels-Huot duo is trying to highlight is the limiting nature of receiving Chinese culture in English. The effort assumes extra significance especially now, since the West is making a renewed attempt at trying to make sense of China and its culture. The point the academics from Calgary are trying to make is that it's not an easy job.
"Let's struggle with it," says Majzels, "so that newer possibilities open up." At the end of the day, he says, "we know so little about China. We can only try and build bridges across cultures."
(China Daily June 5, 2009)