Poetry in Translation Issue
Volume 16:3, Summer 2015
Rhapsody in Black and White
I like black-faced Mazu exposing white teeth
I like asphalt melted into snowflakes
I like a black mouse chasing a white cat
I like black sesame seeds sprinkled over white rice
I like a black umbrella unfurled into a white peony
I like flicking white granulated sugar from the Bible’s black-lettered pages
I like white doves belching from a black chimney
I like writing vernacular Chinese with black ink
I like black ants traversing a white lighthouse
I like black gloves enveloping white castles in the air
I like a black-clad bishop jousting with a pale-faced young scholar
I like Black Friday scaring away White Terror
I like Kurosawa falling for the liar Ah Chi.
I like Hegel pigging out on chopped white chicken
I like the Black Flag Army sleepwalking across the Bering Sea
I like the Black Dragon River converging with White Horse Lake
I like black earth sprouting white blood cells
I like a black forest concealing Snow White
I like a black ape reading the Legend of the White Snake
I like black flies debating whether a white horse is a horse
Line 1: Mazu (媽祖,”mother ancestor”) is the Chinese goddess of the sea who is said to protect fishermen and sailors, and is an important deity in Taiwan.
Line 8: Bai hua wen (白話文), written vernacular Chinese (the first letter, bai, means white), refers to forms of written Chinese based on the vernacular language, in contrast to Classical Chinese, the written standard used during imperial China to the early twentieth century.
Line 13: Hei ze ming (黑澤明) is the Chinese name of Japanese film director Akira Kurosawa; the first letter, hei, means black. The liar Ah Chi is the English translation of Bai zei qi (白賊七), the Chinese name of a trickster from a well-known folklore in Taiwan, who codifies the moral teachings on the consequences of deceiving and lying; it is also the name of a film based on the folklore by renowned Taiwanese film director Lee Hsing; the first letter, bai, means white.
Line 14: Hei ge er (黑格爾) is the Chinese name of German philosopher Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel; the first letter, hei, means black.
Line 19: The Legend of the White Snake is a popular Chinese legend which existed in oral tradition long before any written compilation.
Line 20: A white horse is not a horse (白馬非馬, bai ma fei ma), also known as the White Horse Dialogue (白馬論, bai ma lun), refers to a famous paradox in Chinese philosophy dating back to circa 300 BCE revolving around a dialectic analysis of the question Can it be that a white horse is not a horse?
Chen Li (陳黎), born in 1954 in Taiwan, is the author of 14 books of poetry and a prolific prose writer. He has published some 20 volumes of poetry in Chinese translation, including the poetry of Sylvia Plath, Seamus Heaney, Pablo Neruda, Octavio Paz, and Wislawa Szymborska. Chen Li has taught creative writing at National Dong Hwa University and is the organizer of the Pacific Poetry Festival.
A native Mandarin speaker, Ting Wang discovered her passion for literary translation while studying American and British literature in Mainland China. Her translations are published or forthcoming in Your Impossible Voice and Asymptote. She holds a Ph.D. from the School of Communication at Northwestern University, and lives and works in the Washington metropolitan area.