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autumn rain/ autumn wind/ i die unfulfilled

Poetry translation is never an exact science. Taking a concept, rich with metaphors, from one language and somehow then discovering a similar meaning in another has challenges. How does one find that original essence – the core of what the poet was trying to say – in an alien tongue? I have always found translation to be a synthesis of everything that has been done before my attempt and then a smoothing out of all the rough bits into something that sings to me. If there was a philosophy to this it’d go: be illiterate in all languages, just resonate with the soul of what is being said. I suppose that is the difference between professionals and amateurs. I will always be an amateur. To misquote the Japanese haiku poet Issa: “there will always be farmers/ laboring in the fields/ I don’t feel guilty.”

Today I turn my attention to the Chinese radical feminist, revolutionary and martyr, Ch’iu Chin (better known through modern translation as Qiu Jin). If you’ve never heard her name before just know this: she was a lesbian poet who tried to overthrow the Qing dynasty in 1907 and then was executed, beheaded. One day someone will translate all her poetry, essays and speeches into English and that will be a blessing. Just now I am only looking at her last words, her death poem. They’re simple, they look like this:


Technology fails us. According to Google Translate we get, “Autumn autumn rain sad people.” which are at least English words strung together in some sort of order. And yet they fail to capture any meaning of these words. First let me reprint the best translation that I’ve found:

Autumn rain, autumn wind/ I die of sorrow.
[from the documentary, Autumn Gem]

Now let me tell you why this is so good. Ch’iu Chin’s name literally translates into, “Autumn Gem,” and the ‘autumn’ is the metaphor that works in this poem. By the time of her capture she was burned out, depressed and had realized that her revolutionary goals would never happen. She let herself be captured and executed so that she could become one of the Chinese heroines of myth who rose up to fight for women during times of oppression.

As one says, there are no bad translations, just different interpretations. I point out these simply because they were faithful to the words on the page but the translators did not seem to know why the words were written:

O Autumn Winds chilly, O Autumn Rains chilly, (Why you are spilling)
Frank C Yue

Autumn wind autumn rain makes one gloomy
Lu Yin, from Imagining Sisterhood in Modern Chinese Texts, 1890–1937

For whom does the autumn rain and wind lament?

All of which, out of context, still works. Getting executed would make one gloomy. Then there is the fact that Ch’iu Chin became a symbol for the 1911 Revolution and her words were used to express the woes of other people, and thus we get the royal ‘we’

Autumn wind and rain have brought overwhelming grief to many
Albert Chan

The sorrow of autumn wind and autumn rain kills
China Heritage Quarterly

Again, this is all just a matter of interpretation of what comes before. Like I said, I can’t read Chinese, I can just guesstimate from the works of others. If I’m wrong … then I’m wrong and this was just a curious post won’t mean anything. Still, I love the poetry of Qiu Jin and if I can be part of helping her find an English audience then my day is good. Two translations that I think are kind of marvelous:

Autumn wind and autumn rain often bring forth unbearable sorrow
Alan Cykok

The autumn wind and autumn rain agonize me so much.
Badass Women of Asia