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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 they fail to capture
any meaning of this poem. 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 arrest 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 this out simply because these are faithful to the word but the translators did not seem to know why
they 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

For whom does the autumn rain and wind lament?


All of which, out of context, still works. Getting
executed would make one gloomy and spill. 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

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 that 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 let us say that my day was good. Two translations that I think are kind
of marvelous:

Autumn wind and autumn rain often bring forth unbearable

Alan Cykok

The autumn wind and autumn rain agonize me so much.

Badass Women of Asia