Zhang Er, Verses on Bird
Review by Steve Bradbury

Of the many fine poets now writing on the cutting edge of Chinese poetry, none has more or finer poets translating them into English than Zhang Er. Most Chinese poets would probably give their eyeteeth to have one good poet among their translators; Zhang Er has seven, four of whom have done their mothers proud in this superb new bilingual collection from Zephyr Press. True, not one of them can read more than a word or two of Chinese. But Zhang, who is very much at home in the English language and a fine translator herself, works so closely with her translators that their lack of Chinese hardly seems to matter in the end, where it counts, in the poetic rewriting that can spell the world of difference between a page of lineated prose and one of poetry in translation. Sinologists are wont to turn up their learned noses at those who take a bold approach to the task of the translator. But the fact remains that there are so many structural differences between the Chinese and English languages that some degree of rewriting, poetic or otherwise, is usually called for in translating just about anything from Chinese into English. And when it comes to translating the work of this Beijing poet, for whom language itself is “THE BIG TOPIC,” rewriting is simply unavoidable even in the case of relatively simple sentences, such as this one from the end of Section IV of the volume’s long title poem:

bird(s) write/wrote poem(s)/poetry, using one vowel

As my gloss suggests, Chinese nouns are not normally inflected for number or provided with articles or other nominal specifiers unless they are being emphasized, as in the modifying clause here. Thus we cannot tell from the sentence alone whether niao refers to one bird or many birds, “a bird” or “the bird,” or some general concept represented by the term “bird.” For the same reason, we cannot tell if shi refers to one poem, many poems, or poetry in general. At the same time, because Chinese verbs are not inflected for tense, even the time of this avian writing is as much an open question as the number of niao and shi involved. To be sure, context tends to provide answers to such questions, but in the context of this poem, which plays off just these ambiguities, almost any conventional answer runs the great risk of drastically delimiting the interpretive freedom wherein lies so much of the pleasure of reading Zhang Er’s poetry in her mother tongue.

Most translators who could actually read the Chinese text, but were not poets themselves, would be tempted to take the easy way out by rendering the line in a manner that stayed as close as possible to the letter of the Chinese text but was provided with the grammatical inflections needed to avoid creating the impression the translator’s command of English left something to be desired—for example, as the general statement: “Birds write poetry, using a single vowel.” Fortunately for us, Zhang’s translators are made of sterner stuff and, armed with the author’s glosses and their own interpretive insights, are willing to make the bold moves that will take us into the text and not just across its slippery surface. Vide this inspired rendering of the line from Eleni Sikelianos’s translation of section IV, which I quote in full:

The river is moving. The blackbird must be flying.
From classical fugues to Romanticism, this effort
—– produced
Schubert. When storms attack, the nightjar’s cry
Swells. The noble revolution will require great
Sacrifice, yet do not ask me to capture this process
—– on the black
And white keys, nor to switch to another tone.

I could not find two birds with identical pitch.

With nothing to induce it, innocence makes me walk
Into rushing water as if I were brave. Empty space is
—– great, but nothing
Repeats itself there. Whether I do
Or whether I don’t; from each, the sum of the piano’s
—– voice will rise.
Not to be doubted: bird writes poem, one vowel
—– at a time.

Sikelianos’s “bird writes poem, one vowel at a time” is absolutely brilliant. The verbal concision of the main clause has all the lapidary quality of Zhang’s Chinese, even as it asserts itself across the gulf between languages with the telegraphic urgency of a newspaper headline. Like Pound’s famous dictum that “poetry is news that stays news,” it declares the writing of a poem a news-breaking event, a headliner in the here and now of “Making It New,” as Pound would say. But since the subject of the sentence is “bird” and not poet, we know this is more than just a neo-modernist affirmation of poetry’s newsworthiness. By rendering niao in the singular form without a nominal specifier—by representing the word in its dictionary form, as it were—Sikelianos invites us to look at the term “bird” as if for the first time, at which point the word begins to resonate with any number of interpretive possibilities germane to Zhang’s project.

Is this the indexical “bird” of the infant child at the birth of language attaching names to the inhabitants of its Adamic world? If so, is Zhang reminding us of both the arbitrariness of language and its astonishingly generative power, the same power that enables “birds [to] fall from the heavens and turn into sparrows or chickens,” to quote from Leonard Schwartz’s equally inspired translation of “Bird’s-eye View,” a four-part poem inspired by a photograph of a Lhasa Skyburial Platform and included in Verses on Bird as an overture or prequel to the title poem? Or is it the cynical “bird” of the world-weary adult who, nauseated by the “prison house of language,” calls a beloved pet by the name of the generic species to which it belongs in a gesture as pathetically endearing as it is sarcastic? If so, is Zhang pointing out the “helplessness of language when facing the world [that] separates [us] from the bird,” to quote elsewhere from the same translation? Or is “bird” something beyond language, an idealization of a sort of Zen-like “mindfulness” that seeks to “turn up the volume in the ear” in the effort to establish a relationship with the world as direct and unmediated in its responsiveness as the songs of the birds the speaker so admires? Here we begin to see the poetic logic underlying Sikelianos’s rewriting of the line’s dependent clause, for the primal “om” that resonates in the half-rhyme of the words “poem” and “time” draws attention to the intermediate word “vowel” in one of those elegant fits between form and content that invariably reminds us of both the oral basis of poetic speech and the aesthetic desire to transcend it.

The interpretive possibilities don’t end here; they only begin. Zhang’s “bird” is so alive with cultural and symbolic content and her “Verses on Bird” so hermeneutically open that it constantly invites us to reassess our relationship to language and of language’s relationship to the world. The wonder of this volume is that most of the translations by the four poets who contributed to it—Eleni Sikelianos and Leonard Schwartz, whom I have mentioned, and Rachel Levitsky and Timothy Liu, whom I have not—are nearly as engaging as the poems they represent. This is no small achievement, and it is a credit to the publisher to have gathered so many fine translations under one cover and to have gone to the no-small expense of presenting them in a bilingual format. I do have one small criticism with Verses on Bird, however, and that is the absence of introductions. While both the poems and translations can stand on their own, it would have been nice to have had a general introduction to Zhang Er’s project as well as personal statements from the translators. What drew them to her work? What prompted them to translate these particular poems? What it was like working with her? I suspect their answers would be very interesting.


Zhang Er’s Verses on Bird is avalable at Zephyr Press ($12.95).


Steve Bradbury lives in Taiwan. He translated Fusion Kitsch: Poems from the Chinese of Hsia Yu (Zephyr Press, 2001) and Poems from the Prison Diary of Ho Chi Minh (Tinfish, 2003).