Li Shangyin was taken aback on first reading my translation of The Hill We Climb.
“Your structure is completely off!’ he protested, “There are rules!”
He was referring to the traditional 7 character per line poetry that is prevalent in classical Chinese poetry.
“Your rules are too complex,” I protested. “We live in a different time. I wanted to use free verse but still use 7 characters per line … an homage to classical tradition of sorts. And it just feels good!”
He scratched his little goatee, and clinked the ice cubes in his martini.
“You know,” he sighed, “In the Tang dynasty, ice is reserved for emperors and the very wealthy. They also used it in the summer to ward of mosquitos. Fascinating!”
“Amanda Gorman’s poem also discusses democracy and slavery, two defining aspects of American history.”
“Yes, we had slaves too. But democracy was always strange to me. I think one just has to have a good emperor. Many Chinese think this way. A strong man who makes quick decisions, no ifs, ands or buts! There were rumors about this democracy from some foreigners who arrived in Chang. They spoke with great admiration of their system. To me it seemed so messy.”
I kept quiet. Shangyin continued.
“They whispered it of course. Everyone was afraid of informers and the Imperial Police, even in the Great Market of Chang An where everything seemed so free. Indeed, where freedom is apparent therein lies its greatest enemy. Anyway, China without emperors is like a dragon without scales!”
Afterwards, I ruminated a bit. Translation is interpretation. Amanda Gorman’s poem ‘The Hill We Climb’, is like a piece of classical music. It has rhythm, sings and is subtle. Like classical music, it can easily seem too long, and make people sleep. Yet, it refuses to be pigeon-holed and, like substantial works of art, is understood on multiple levels.
The general contours are clear. At its core, rhythm and melody, make it musical. In writing it in Chinese, the translator becomes an interpreter who in turn morphs into a musician. I had several goals: to indulge myself, to share art with others, to posit questions about the Black American experience, to illustrate the shifting phases of democracy, and to prove that there is no such thing as a definitive translation. In the end, my objectives were not objective.
I am an American by coincidence. I rove beyond its borders, and following my own path is exceptionally American. We are united by big myths, revealed in perennial and cohabiting contradictions. Democracy and jingoism. Human rights and slavery. Equality and rigid economic fragmentation. Empathy and immense callousness. Fairness and cheating. Loyalty to the flag and political backstabbing. The poem is not only a paean to nationalism, but also lionizes the underdog. It has empathy. It is hotly liberal. I resonate with its tone of Nietzschean exhortation – that call to change, to become a mutant, even a superhero.
Prior to interpreting the poem, I read a string of newspaper articles about cultural appropriation, including the startling thesis that only black people should interpret Gorman’s poem. The fracas raised a variety of questions that deserved to be aired, even if there was no answer. For example: does the industry employ equitable numbers of black translators? When are accusations of cultural appropriation excessive? While I welcome diverse workplaces, I dislike slogans that stop people thinking, or contemplating the nuances and spectra of good ideas. As I pondered the Chinese, I admired her poem more and more, and learned more about the intricacies and beauties of free verse.
My studies of the poetry of Chu Yuan, Li Shangyin and Li He inspired me to choose 7 character verse, and use rhyming and certain classical particles. Many Chinese love poetry, but unfortunately it is drummed into them through incessant memorization from very early schooling, more as drill than a passion. Yet the result is a pervasive literacy. Even the street sweeper on Jingtian road can recite Li Shangyin or Master Kong (Confucius). The American experience is not a black and white cotton carpet, but a Turkish tapestry. Systemic racism and the contortions of democracy are too easily turned into stereotypes and slogans. May an Asian audience understand that more fully.
Many thanks to my friends in China for their suggestions and insights into refining the final interpretation. Enjoy!
The Hill We Climb
When day comes we ask ourselves,
where can we find light in this never-ending shade?
The loss we carry,
a sea we must wade.
We’ve braved the belly of the beast,
We’ve learned that quiet isn’t always peace，
and the norms and notions
of what just is
isn’t always just-ice.
And yet the dawn is ours
before we knew it.
Somehow we do it.
Somehow we’ve weathered and witnessed a nation that isn’t broken,
but simply unfinished.
We the successors of a country and a time
where a skinny Black girl
descended from slaves and raised by a single mother
can dream of becoming president
only to find herself reciting for one
And yes we are far from polished.
Far from pristine.
But that doesn’t mean we are
striving to form a union that is perfect.
We are striving to forge a union with purpose,
to compose a country committed to all cultures,
colors, characters and
conditions of man。
And so we lift our gazes not to
what stands between us,
but what stands before us.
We close the divide because we know, to put our future first
we must first put our differences aside。
We lay down our arms
so we can reach out our arms
to one another。
We seek harm to none and harmony for all.
Let the globe, if nothing else, say this is true,
that even as we grieved, we grew,
that even as we hurt, we hoped,
that even as we tired, we tried
that we’ll forever be tied together, victorious.
Not because we will never again know defeat,
but because we will never again sow division.
Scripture tells us to envision
that everyone shall sit under their own vine and fig tree
and no one shall make them afraid.
If we’re to live up to our own time,
then victory won’t lie in the blade.
But in all the bridges we’ve made,
that is the promise to glade,
the hill we climb.
If only we dare.
It’s because being American is more than a pride we inherit,
it’s the past we step into
and how we repair it.
We’ve seen a force that would shatter our nation
rather than share it.
Would destroy our country if it meant delaying democracy.
And this effort very nearly succeeded.
But while democracy can be periodically delayed,
it can never be permanently defeated.
In this truth,
in this faith we trust
For while we have our eyes on the future,
history has its eyes on us.
This is the era of just redemption
we feared at its inception.
We did not feel prepared to be the heirs of such a terrifying hour
but within it we found the power
to author a new chapter.
To offer hope and laughter to ourselves.
So while once we asked,
how could we possibly prevail over catastrophe
Now we assert,
How could catastrophe possibly prevail over us?
We will not march back to what was,
but move to what shall be.
A country that is bruised but whole,
benevolent but bold,
fierce and free.
We will not be turned around
or interrupted by intimidation,
because we know our inaction and inertia
will be the inheritance of the next generation.
Our blunders become their burdens.
But one thing is certain,
If we merge mercy with might,
and might with right,
then love becomes our legacy,
and change our children’s birthright.
So let us leave behind a country
better than the one we were left with.
Every breath from my bronze-pounded chest,
we will raise this wounded world into a wondrous one.
We will rise from the gold-limbed hills of the west.
We will rise from the windswept northeast,
where our forefathers first realized revolution.
We will rise from the lake-rimmed cities of the mid-western states.
We will rise from the sunbaked south.
We will rebuild, reconcile and recover.
And every known nook of our nation and
every corner called our country,
our people diverse and beautiful will emerge,
battered and beautiful.
When day comes we step out of the shade,
aflame and unafraid,
the new dawn blooms as we free it.
For there is always light,
if only we’re brave enough to see it.
If only we’re brave enough to be it.
 The 山character can represent a mountain, hill, or hillock. The metaphor refers to a hill and the process, not the completion, of climbing.
 More literally the dawn.
 I use the analogy of a tiger’s mouth, rather than the Western beast. A typical Western analogy would be Jonas in the belly of the whale. In China, the tiger is not only feared, but is also a symbol of courage and bravery. For example, a picture of a boy riding a tiger is represents filial piety, as he rides the tiger to divert it from his father.
 Just is and just-ice are a challenge to translate, so I used the word for established rules/tradition 成规, twice.
 Literally (physically) skinny and weak, (mentally) tough and tenacious
 Lit. separates us
 The classical allusion from Confucius’ Analects refers to persons of noble character who agree to disagree, peacefully. It brings to mind the declaration Sometimes things just got to play hard (The Wire, Season 1, Ep.13).
 Lit. Unclench the fist, open the palm. The image of opening one’s palm or clenching one’s fist has a long history, reaching even back to the Old Testament. For example, babies are born with clenched fists, as if to grasp and possess, and the dead open their palms, as if to let go their earthly belongings.
 Lit. Grapes and vines. The character for fig was a little long and I omitted it.
 The 兮 character is characteristic of the poetry of Chu Yuan (c. 340-278 BC), and represents a sigh or songful utterance.
 Lit. inspired us
 Lit. how could we fail?
 As an African American, I don’t mind considering my bronze skin as brown (褐色) instead. I say this tongue in cheek.
 Lit. mixed colors, various sizes
 Lit. Face it
 Lit. do it, become it
[i] Lit. golden mountains