In the forest, wind blows one way or
but the path’s straight down the middle.
If I’m the one walking
it seems I don't move.
The winds of time blow too,
but slower, past to future,
from where I stand
the middle way unclear.
If thoughts move toward each other,
the greatest velocity
blows toward the past.
I hear it in these trees,
then those. One grove
swells loud, one goes silent.
These are some of the lines from “Wind in the Forest,” one of the 124 poems in Capriccio on the Way to Buy Salt, a collection of representative works from Han Dong. Translated by Diane Shi and George O’Connell, the bilingual Chinese-English edition was published by Phoenix Publishing and Media Group (PPMG) in April. Han’s earlier work Miracle, which won the Lu Xun Literature Prize for Poetry in 2022, forms a major part of this new collection.
Han, born in Nanjing in 1961, is one of China’s most important contemporary poets and is also known for his essays, novels, and short stories. His first novel, Banished!, longlisted for the 2008 Man Asian Literary Prize, was published by the University of Hawaii Press and went on to win the PEN Translation Award, while his novella A Tabby Cat’s Tale was published by Frisch and Co. in 2016.
O’Connell, an American poet, translator, and editor who has taught creative writing and literature in China, cotranslated Han’s works back in 2005 during his Fulbright professorship at Peking University. “Han Dong’s art is distinctive for its intensely focused and economical surfaces,” O’Connell says. “Many of his poems bear a wry but muted humor, drily ironic, and relished by sophisticated readers.”
Some of the poems “are unflinchingly direct, recalling episodes of youth, restoring vanished companions to life—and thus into our own memories—while others take us into the trivialness and dailiness of family domesticity,” O’Connell says. Han is “a poet who greets the prospect of transcendence with typically quiet acknowledgment in one poem while walking through the evening rain to the supermarket for a bag of salt. His poems, subtle yet striking in depth and breadth, come from decades of reflective art.”
Editor Wang Yuyao, who first worked on Han’s poems more than a decade ago at PPMG, shares O’Connell’s sentiments. “I only had his black-and-white cover photo at that time,” Wang says. “But that artistic portrait spoke volumes of restraint and gentleness, which were totally consistent with the temperament of the manuscript in my hand. Since then, I have seen him in the studio, at the podium, around the dining table, interacting with junior editors, and meeting top executives, and in all these events, he is always calm, casual, and gentle. And these characteristics, along with his precise cognition and control of the language, make him the masterful poet that he is.”
But editing poems and translating them into another language are two vastly different tasks, which Han understands very well. “Translating contemporary Chinese literature into other languages is a great undertaking and can be even more challenging,” he says. “For instance, if we read in a novel that has been translated into English about characters staying in a hotel, we can understand it right away because we have stayed in hotels before and hotels everywhere operate somewhat similarly.”
This is the natural result of globalization, whereby certain ways of life have been homogenized, Han says. “But if you translate the traditional Chinese horse and chariot inn into English, it may not be as easy to understand or visualize and would require the additional clarification that it is essentially a motel with a parking area for wagons and horses. However, it is hard for contemporary Chinese writers to avoid referring to some traditional and historical facts when writing about Chinese customs and things.”
And this is especially true in translating poems, Han says. “Robert Frost once remarked that poetry is what gets lost in translation while Jorge Luis Borges argued that great works can traverse the fire of typographical errors. The key lies in finding good and serious translators. No matter how well my poems are written, Diane and George’s translation definitely lends more color and flavor to the lines.”
Groupo Editor Latinoamericano will publish the Spanish edition of Capriccio on the Way to Buy Salt in 2024.