[EXCLUSIVE] “Kidnapping a Beloved Ancestor from Their Home Timeline: On Translating Chinese Poets from the Tang and Song Dynasties” by Joshua Ip

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Seven Poems


The genesis of these translations was an intellectual property snafu. In 2020, I threw myself into a project to translate 30 poems—by a pioneer Singapore poet who wrote exclusively in classical Chinese forms—into formal English poetry. I made the horrendous mistake of completing the work before seeking the rights, which turned out to be unobtainable. The poet passed away close to two decades ago, but the poems’ publication rights were mired in complications. I thus resolved that my next translation project would focus on poets who had died long enough ago that their rights have passed into the public domain, which in most countries begins several decades after their death. To be safe, I added several centuries onto this figure, and started working on Chinese poets from the Tang and Song Dynasties.

Friedrich Schleiermacher

The German translation theorist Friedrich Schleiermacher famously conceived a binary of translation strategies: either one brings the writer to the reader, or the reader to the writer.[1] Yet I have often wondered if physical distance was not the only parameter in the art of “carrying across”. After all, Schleiermacher’s reference to physical distance was ultimately a metaphor for cultural distance—the difference between two cultures that had to be bridged by sensitive translation. But what if these two cultures were not separated by distance, but instead by time? What if a translator adopting a strategy of domestication decided against the common practice of shipping a bewildered foreign poet to a local reader like so much intercontinental freight, but instead partook of the far more exciting time heist of kidnapping a beloved ancestor from their home timeline, dressing them up in new clothes, handing them an iPhone, and pushing them into the limelight before a contemporary audience?

During a digital poetry reading held as part of the circuit-breaker/lockdown in Singapore, poet Tan Chee Lay posted an image of Du Fu’s Tang Dynasty poem “送远”. He captioned it in Chinese as “This evening, let us use a war poem to combat this war”, by which he was referring to the fight against Covid-19. (I include a literal translation below.)

Having been served a metaphor on a plate (of armour), I decided to translate the piece. I transformed Du Fu’s armoured warriors into medical workers in masks and scrubs, and likened the barrenness of war to the emptiness of a city under quarantine. Rural China’s grass and trees, mountains and rivers, lying withered and cold as metaphors for desolation, morphed into my city’s empty vegetable markets and clean-swept streets. And instead of repeating Du Fu’s reflexive self-regard eliciting a deeper sense of sorrow, I essentially footnoted his piece in a translation of itself. The Dutch translator Wilt L. Idema has found Du Fu’s work challenging to translate because of the lack of fitting expressions in Dutch for the poet’s incessant desire to serve the emperor and realm.[2] But as someone in Singapore in close contact with many involved in the national war against a deadly scourge, the sentiments in the poem felt natural and familiar. If Pound was able to write Cathay, what Kenner somewhat bizarrely calls “the most durable of all poetic responses to World War I”[3], using ancient Chinese poetry as a source—why not a response to a pandemic drawing on Du Fu? Hence this piece:

Anachronism in translation, normally seen as an error, found new value for me in the poem’s title. The idea of sending off a friend echoes across the ages with the modern connection of a text message. The physical distance in the former scenario, with all the dangers implicit, translates in its own way to the digital distance of having a text message “taking longer than usual to send”. The distance between cultures modern and ancient adds new meaning in the space between them—in the words of the American art historian Ernest Fenollosa, “two things added together do not produce a third thing but suggest a fundamental relationship between them”.[4] I began to find creative possibility for poetry as well as translation, by situating the target text in a space of equal freedom and generative possibility as the source text.

So I continued to write more of these pieces, hijacking more of my ancestors into the fraught plane of 2020—not just a world of Covid-19, but a world of handphones and screens and filters and group chats, of capitalism and consumerism—yet also a world of loneliness and alienation, of human beings struggling to relate to each other, desperate to relate to each other in vignettes of longing and parting and aching. 

I deliberately chose pieces that are more well known. Many of these are poems that Chinese schoolchildren can (or should be able to) recite by heart. My target reader is ostensibly bilingual—I want them to know the original Chinese piece, and if possible, have it play in the background of their mind while they read the English, almost as if on a backing track or an interlinear gloss. I want the experience of the poem to exist in that third space, with as much bilingual, bicultural, bigenerational code-switching in a moment as is necessary to live as a Chinese person in an English-speaking world.

This particular selection here was chosen by Cha editor Tammy Lai-Ming Ho and myself—I have tried to string together pieces that showcase the different approaches taken in the larger manuscript. Some of these poems work, as mentioned, on the translation of a metaphor across time and space. Empty mountains for a quiet group chat. A wall between the listener and the listened-to becomes a modern social media commentary. And the brightest light we share turns from the moon to the handphone screen, a Zoom room. Others lean overtly into or even completely discard the original sense for comic or satirical effect, whether rolling with the drunken, rowdy spirit of the original king of drunkards, or subverting the nationalistic fervour and dignity of a legendary patriot, or morphing a martial arts hero into a mousy bureaucrat. A finger pointed at an object of derision usually hides some number of fingers pointed back at the subject, as it does in these cases.

I want to linger on the last piece, “susurrus”, for a moment—I have chosen to privilege the sound over the sense while not utterly abandoning the latter, in the spirit of Louis Zukofsky’s homophonic translations of Catullus. The musics of the poem can also translate, whether as a direct map of onomatopoeic effect, or an exercise in alliterative excess—the source text, 声声慢, by Song Dynasty poet Li Qingzhao, is a ci (lyric) rather than shi (poem), after all, and most known for its explosion of relentlessly repeated characters in the first fourteen lines of the poem: “寻寻觅觅,冷冷清清,凄凄惨惨戚戚.” I have rendered these as sibilant gerunds never wandering far from the internal consonances and assonances of the former: “searching, seeking; surging, shivering; seizing, sundering, ceasing”. In my mind, it would be an offence against poetry to translate those 14 characters without the sounds of the words foremost in mind.

Translators are often vexed by the seemingly untranslatable—the cultural allusion or sonic pun in the source text. So if one is experimenting with rebalancing the primacy of source and target texts, the appropriate revenge would be to insert one of those untranslatables in the target text—where the original had none. Li Qingzhao ends her poem with “这次第,怎一个、愁字了得。”, which I have rendered as: “this fucking day— how will I ever make it to rhyme with ‘sorrow’?” Perhaps Li might even appreciate the dual translation there: of not being able to make it till tomorrow, of lingering on the word “sorrow”, and perhaps redeeming one of the most abused feminine rhymed pairings in the English language. But the translation choice made here underlines the spirit of this project—of dialling back the slavish deference to the superiority of the source text, and recognising that the target text presents its own possibilities and room for craft. A translation can stand, if not on its own, but alongside the original as an equal work of art, rather than as a misshapen derivative that one constantly has to apologise for in polite company.

Haroldo de Campos

I will confess to having in mind throughout this entire process the Brazilian translator and poet Haroldo de Campos’s idea of transcreation as modern cannibalism—appropriating the European distaste for anthropophagy for the use of a postcolonial uprising where former servant ingests the master and/or his tools on its own terms.[5] But when applied to this project, the source text is not the domain of a colonial master, but to a distant ancestor who still wields a unique and significant source of cultural and historical power, relative to a displaced ethnically Chinese Singaporean who thinks and dreams in English rather than their government-mandated “mother tongue”.

So what is a diasporic writer to do with his ancestors? Ingest them, of course. Digest them, as well. Filter their thoughts through the wall of his gut, through the intestinal walls of his languages, his Englishes and Chineses and everything between and without, through centuries of peristalsis. Where he can begin to slowly reincorporate these digested strands into his multicultural self. Begin the act of bringing them far south, across a stormy ocean, in search of a future. To a familiar yet unfamiliar new home away from home.


Fenollosa, Ernest and Ezra Pound. The Chinese Written Character as a Medium for Poetry: A Critical Edition. Eds. Haun Saussy, Jonathan Stalling and Lucas Klein. New York: Fordham University Press, 2008.

Idema, Wilt L. “On the Translation of Classical Chinese Poetry.” In Chinese Poetry and Translation: Rights and Wrongs. Eds. Maghiel Van Crevel and Lucas Klein. Amsterdam: Amsterdam University Press, 2019. 89-109.

Kenner, Hugh. The Pound Era. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1971.

Schleiermacher, Friedrich “On the Different Methods of Translating.” In The Translation Studies Reader, 3rd ed., edited by Lawrence Venuti, 43-63. New York: Routledge, 2012.

Vieira, E.R.P. “Liberating Calibans: Readings of Antropofagia and Haroldo de Campos’ Poetics of transcreation.” In Postcolonial Translation: Theory and Practice. Eds. Susan Bassnett and Harish Triverdi. London: Routledge, 1999. 95-113.

[1] Frederick Schleiermacher, “On the Different Methods of Translating,” in Translation Studies Reader, 51-52.

[2] Wilt L. Idema, “On the Translation of Classical Chinese Poetry”, in Chinese Poetry and Translation: Rights and Wrongs, eds. Maghiel Van Crevel and Lucas Klein (Amsterdam: Amsterdam University Press, 2019) 99.

[3] Hugh Kenner, The Pound Era, (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1971) 202.

[4] Ernest Fenollosa and Ezra Pound, The Chinese Written Character as a Medium for Poetry: A Critical Edition, ed. Haun Saussy, Jonathan Stalling, and Lucas Klein (New York: Fordham University Press, 2008) 46.

[5] E.R.P. Vieira, “Liberating Calibans: Readings of Antropofagia and Haroldo de Campos’ Poetics of transcreation”, in Post-colonial Translation: Theory and Practice, ed. Susan Bassnett and Harish Triverdi (London: Routledge, 1999) 107.


How to cite: Ip, Joshua. “Kidnapping a Beloved Ancestor from Their Home Timeline: On Translating Chinese Poets from the Tang and Song Dynasties.” Cha: An Asian Literary Journal, 06 Feb. 2021, https://chajournal.blog/2021/02/06/tang-and-song-dynasties/.

Joshua Ip is a Singaporean poet, editor and literary organiser. He has published four poetry collections, edited ten anthologies, and co-founded Sing Lit Station, an over-active literary charity. His latest collection of anachronistic translations of Tang Poetry, translations to the tanglish, is forthcoming with Math Paper Press in 2021. Visit his website for more information.

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