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I’ve been particularly interested in the translation of poetry ever since I took a World Lit class in college. I was especially drawn to the Russian poet, Anna Akhmatova, who wrote hauntingly beautiful poetry. In the class, I was exposed to a few different English versions of her poems and was intrigued and a little disturbed by the slight differences in word choice that seemed to change so much the overall effect of the poems. A couple of years later, I experimented a bit in “translating” some Chinese poems. I use the term in its loosest sense here, because I took so many liberties. Really, I was trying to take the most exact, literal translation of a Chinese poem (only a word or two in English for each character) and use it to create an essentially new poem all together. It was an eye-opening (but enjoyable) exercise. The following poem was one of my efforts.

Chinese Watermark

Inspired by Yu Ch’an (c. 286-339)
“The 3rd Day of the 3rd Month at the Meandering River”


clouds pose fat and purple with bright lungs
the sky behind them pink
lavender air cooling
especially at the water
a feeling of newness around behind my head
something has come: life stooping at the edge of water


my hands chill under brightly clean water
they look so young
my ring burns with soft light from the sky
I turn my hands over—palm then back, palm then back
interlock fingers washing between them
then rubbing palms together—
pick dirt from under my nails
and wash it away in winter’s runoff
that comes a little too close to the grassy edge


fishes’ scales
glint fading light
from the deepening sky
jumping to catch
tiny flies
silver mouths wide out of water
catching families of gnats in one gulp


misty river sprays
fine particles settle
on my eyelashes
I open my mouth
wide like the silver fishes
wide to gulp the air
my smiling eyes closed



I am a children's librarian. I have 2 kids. I have a professor for a husband. I obsess about writing and about making things.

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  1. John says:

    I don’t think that poetry can be translated, only re-created. When I took a classical Japanese poetry class, I loved reading the poems in their original form as well as in translation, but there were different things that appealed in each, and they felt very different.

    I wonder if “mutation” isn’t a better term than “translation.” Like genetic mutation, the second is based strongly on the first, but becomes something very different. Sometimes the result is good, and it is adapted to life in a new context, but sometimes it fails utterly.

    The word is probably too full of negative connotations.

    Anyhow, thank you for sharing this evocative new creation/translation/mutation.

  2. Deborah says:

    One of the reasons I wish I were bilingual . . .

    I have a number of Korean students. One boy told me he read a several of Shakespeare plays in Korean translation this summer. I’m fascinated. How is Shakespeare translated? What happens to iambic pentameter and rhyme scheme? I find myself drawn to particular poet “translators.'” I love Rumi — but only when Coleman Barks is the conduit.

    Brooke, Have you ever looked at David Rosenberg’s “The Poet’s Bible”? — which recreates portions of Isaiah, Ruth, Psalms, etc.

  3. jana says:


    Like you, I am a big fan of Akhmatova. Have we talked about her poetry before? I can’t remember. If not, we should! 🙂

    When I was in China I tried to find an English language bookstore that had Chinese poetry in translation. No one seemed able to help me find one. It as rather frustrating. Can you recommend some good Chinese poetry in English?

    Can you talk a bit more about the translation process–do you discuss the poem with someone who knows the language well to catch the nuances, or do you work with a dictionary

  4. Caroline says:

    Brooke, your translations are beautiful!

  5. Brooke says:

    John, I agree that a translation really can be a completely new thing from the original. That is probably why I felt so liberated in my own experiments with it.

    Deborah, I also wish I were bilingual. I’m not…quite. So, to answer one of Jana’s questions, I actually used a book by Wai-Lim Yip called Chinese Poetry: An Anthology of Major Modes and Genres. If you search inside, you can see he gives two translations of each poem. One more “literal” (the version I used as a springboard) and one where he tries to create more of a poem that is “true” to the original (and I avoided looking at this version until I had finished my own version). I really liked this book because of the two versions right alongside the original. Jana, you can borrow it anytime.

    As for nuances and cultural/historical context, etc. I had no idea about most of those kinds of things when I wrote this. I was selfishly interested in the muse of the sparse images and in creating my own thing.

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