Not the Actual But the Perceived: Translating the Poetics of Li Shangyin

Li Shangyin

Li Shangyin
PHOTO: Wikimedia Commons


Translator’s Note

Li Shangyin (813-859), was a late Tang poet whose works are famous for their lush and obscure imagery. During his lifetime, he held various posts as a low-level government official, and though his poetry and prose were appreciated within certain literary circles, his status as one of the most important poets of his time was not recognized until after his death. To read his work is to encounter a classical Chinese lyricism rich with mysterious juxtapositions of the immediate and the imagined. His poems are written in accreting layers, smears of memories, and symbolic remnants of an imagistic language for which the code has been lost, leading the reader into a world of cryptic and autonomous interiority.

His poems are written in accreting layers, smears of memories, and symbolic remnants of an imagistic language for which the code has been lost, leading the reader into a world of cryptic and autonomous interiority.

What is important in Li Shangyin’s poetry is not the actual but the perceived. Any attempt on the part of the reader to impose exterior logic on this glimpsed interiority will yield no clarity but actually inhibit the cumulative argument of the author’s poetics. Unlike in reality where the poet is perpetually surrounded by restrictions of position, mortality, and society, in these poems all existence, remembered and immediate, is aligned with the poet’s emotions and ruminations, and the border between the two is presented as transparent and yet impermeable as glass. Li Shangyin’s poems force the reader to succumb to a world where explanation is not provided and meaning is instead acquired through the layering of seemingly fragmented images, which when viewed from an inclusive vantage point blend together to form an emotional whole.

Any poem is a unique constellation of specific coordinates, intersections of the poet’s own voice and the language she exploits. The translation of such demands a certain amount of paring as only some facets of the original can be transplanted in the destination language; many must be left behind as they are inextractable from their native tongue. In translating poems as dense as these, I had three priorities: preserving the imagery created by Li Shangyin and inherent in the classical Chinese, highlighting the philosophical aspects of the form, and reconstructing the larger emotional landscape. These three elements when braided together recreate Li Shangyin’s unique brand of classical Chinese cubism, a poetic pastiche of image fragments traversable only through the sensory perceptions of the poems’ speaker.


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