Living on “Ilha Formosa” and being one of those translators who likes to get to know his authors before he represents them overseas, I don’t often translate poetry from mainland China, but I couldn’t resist translating Yu Jian's “Beethoven Chronology” and “Immanuel Kant.” Although these poems are often paired, they were written years apart. “A Beethoven Chronology” was composed in January 1984, when the Yunnan-based poet, who was then in his early thirties, fell under the hypnotic spell of Jean-Christophe, Romain Rolland’s ten-volume saga of the trials and tribulations of a composer modeled after Ludwig van Beethoven. Like the subject of his poem, Yu Jian, who suffers from hearing loss, struggled in obscurity for years before attaining his now-lofty status as one of the founding fathers of post-Soviet Chinese poetry. I can’t say I care much for the music of Beethoven, but I love the way this poem flickers between thoughts of the past and observations of an insistent present that keeps breaking into consciousness as if to say the milestones in the lives of the great men of history are no more (nor less) important than the highlights of an unseasonably pleasant winter day in Yu Jian’s hometown of Kunming. I also love the repetition and enjambment of “on a certain day in a certain month of the Enlightenment.” The Chinese actually says “on a certain day in a certain month of the eighteenth century,” which rather puzzled me since so many of the events Yu Jian mentions did not occur until the following century. But then I realized the poet was using the term (both here and in the companion poem on Immanuel Kant) as a synonym for the Enlightenment.
Composed in the sprawling Whitmanic manner of Yu Jian’s middle period, “Immanuel Kant” was authored eight years after “A Beethoven Chronology” and is, I think, one of the most interesting poems ever written on an Enlightenment subject. I had read snippets of Kant in graduate school, but all I could remember was his pithy distinction between the sublime and the beautiful—”The sublime moves, the beautiful charms”—and this curious maxim from Idea for a General History with a Cosmopolitan Purpose: “Out of the crooked timber of humanity no straight thing was ever made.” The more I read of Kant’s life and influence on the world we have inherited from the Enlightenment thinkers, the more I came to feel this maxim would have made an apt epigraph to Yu Jian’s portrait of the man who “built a saddle/ to master the world.”
I should perhaps say something about the Latin quotation in line eighteen: the original phrase, which roughly means “Don’t gorge on gourmet food,” is taken from the Analects, a two-thousand-year-old compendium of Confucian wisdom and practical advice on life and career management, fashion and “real-life” makeovers, healthy living, education, parenting, and food—to wit, a classical precursor to Yahoo!’s Shine. My first impulse was to translate the quotation into English, but then it occurred to me that the meaning of the phrase, which is written in classical Chinese, is probably less significant than the act of citing a canonical text enshrined in a language that once ruled half the planet but is now as dead as Latin. (A sobering thought for any translator.) I agonized over how to render this line for days until I happened to recall someone mentioning that the Jesuits, who were the first Europeans to acquire fluency in classical Chinese, had translated many of the Confucian classics into Latin, a language that Kant wrote in as fluently as German and was wont to quote during his table talk and lectures. By chance a Google search turned up a very competent version of the Analects by the Jesuit priest and sinologist Angelo Zottoli (1826–1920). Zottoli was one of the first and only Europeans to have passed the grueling Chinese Imperial exam, which even in the closing years of the nineteenth century was written entirely in classical Chinese and based, by and large, on the Confucian classics. I was thus not surprised to find his rendering of the phrase in question was as elegant as it was faithful. But lest readers think that Yu Jian was quoting a text written in Latin, I took the liberty of adding the reference to Confucius.