Politics

Li Shangyin reads Amanda Gorman’s poem The Hill We Climb

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

翻越着的山丘[1]

When day comes we ask ourselves,

天欲晓咱们自问,[2]

where can we find light in this never-ending shade?

漫漫长夜哪曙光?

The loss we carry,

a sea we must wade.

所失无尽跨海寻。

We’ve braved the belly of the beast,

我们已虎口脱险,[3] 

We’ve learned that quiet isn’t always peace,

悟安静不总安泰,

and the norms and notions

of what just is

isn’t always just-ice.

墨守成规不成规。[4]

And yet the dawn is ours

before we knew it.

未知晨晓已到来。

Somehow we do it.

不知何故都会做。

Somehow we’ve weathered and witnessed a nation that isn’t broken,

but simply unfinished.

不知何故国与家,

我们幸存并见证,

绵延依旧未完成。

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

国和时代之后裔

奴隶家庭的后代

单亲母亲抚养大

瘦弱坚韧黑女孩[5]

梦想一日成总统

今为总统诗朗诵! 

And yes we are far from polished.

是的我们不完美。

Far from pristine.

远非洁净纯如一。

But that doesn’t mean we are

striving to form a union that is perfect.

非为联邦完美至。

We are striving to forge a union with purpose,

但求联邦有目标,

to compose a country committed to all cultures,

缔造容世全肤色,

人性国度多元化。

colors, characters and

conditions of man。

And so we lift our gazes not to

what stands between us,

抬头注目瞩望视

不见你我相隔阂,[6]

but what stands before us.

而我们注视前方。

We close the divide because we know, to put our future first

we must first put our differences aside。

知道未来最重要,

君子和而不同也。[7]

We lay down our arms

so we can reach out our arms

to one another。

收起拳头张开臂。[8]

We seek harm to none and harmony for all.

追求和平弃伤害。

Let the globe, if nothing else, say this is true,

世界述说此真理,

that even as we grieved, we grew,

即使我们曾悲伤,

我们仍然长大了,

that even as we hurt, we hoped,

即使我们被伤害,

我们仍然有希望,

that even as we tired, we tried

即使我们累倒了,

我们已竭尽所能,

永远一起求胜利。

that we’ll forever be tied together, victorious.

Not because we will never again know defeat,

but because we will never again sow division.

并非因不知失败,

但为不制造分裂。

Scripture tells us to envision

that everyone shall sit under their own vine and fig tree

and no one shall make them afraid.

坐在自家葡藤荫[9]

经文指引深思寻,

抛弃胆怯勇敢对。

If we’re to live up to our own time,

then victory won’t lie in the blade.

时代目标不辜负,

抛弃锋利剑和鞘。

But in all the bridges we’ve made,

that is the promise to glade,

the hill we climb.

一掠过兮建路桥,

践诺言兮翻山岭。[10]

If only we dare.

只要我们敢做了。

It’s because being American is more than a pride we inherit,

it’s the past we step into

and how we repair it.

因为身为美国人,

继承不仅是骄傲,

过去步入的境况,

需要我们去修复。

We’ve seen a force that would shatter our nation

rather than share it.

我们看到割国的

是不能共享的力。

Would destroy our country if it meant delaying democracy.

民主迟到会破囯。

And this effort very nearly succeeded.

这次几乎成功了。

But while democracy can be periodically delayed,

it can never be permanently defeated.

民主偶尔会暂停,

但永远不会缺席。

In this truth,

in this faith we trust

在这真理都相信,

信念至真永无憾。

For while we have our eyes on the future,

history has its eyes on us.

当我们凝视未来,

历史便注视我们。

This is the era of just redemption

we feared at its inception.

这是初时的害怕

救赎时代的来临。

We did not feel prepared to be the heirs of such a terrifying hour

尚无准备来承受

恶意时刻随时来。

but within it we found the power

鼓励我们谱新篇。[11]

to author a new chapter.

To offer hope and laughter to ourselves.

给我们开心希望。

So while once we asked,

how could we possibly prevail over catastrophe

曾问如何能自存,

Now we assert,

How could catastrophe possibly prevail over us?

今定说怎能失败?[12]

We will not march back to what was,

but move to what shall be.

我们向前不回归。

A country that is bruised but whole,

受伤而完整的国,

benevolent but bold,

fierce and free.

仁慈勇敢悍自由。

We will not be turned around

or interrupted by intimidation,

我们不会被逆转

或者被恐吓打断,

because we know our inaction and inertia

will be the inheritance of the next generation.

我们悟不动无为

Our blunders become their burdens.

于子孙殃及无辜。

But one thing is certain,

有一事可以确定,

If we merge mercy with might,

and might with right,

赋怜悯正义力量,

让爱心得以传承,

then love becomes our legacy,

and change our children’s birthright.

改后世生之权力,

去旧世界之遗风,

大美兮未来更好。

So let us leave behind a country

better than the one we were left with.

Every breath from my bronze-pounded chest,

褐色胸膛深呼吸,[13]

风雨过后见彩虹。

we will raise this wounded world into a wondrous one.

激发我们重新起,

改变残世奇妙来。

We will rise from the gold-limbed hills of the west.

从金山西坡起来。[i]

We will rise from the windswept northeast,

从烈风东北起来,

where our forefathers first realized revolution.

那老祖的革命地。

We will rise from the lake-rimmed cities of the mid-western states.

从环湖城中起来。

We will rise from the sunbaked south.

从炎炎南方起来。

We will rebuild, reconcile and recover.

重建和解与重生。

And every known nook of our nation and

every corner called our country,

我国每一个角落

我们一起的国家,

our people diverse and beautiful will emerge,

吾民杂色而多姿,[14]

继往开来竞风骚。

battered and beautiful.

When day comes we step out of the shade,

晨曦初现黑夜退,

aflame and unafraid,

激情四射不惧怕,

the new dawn blooms as we free it.

我们释放新朝辉。

For there is always light,

总是到处有光明,

if only we’re brave enough to see it.

只要勇敢去面对。[15]

If only we’re brave enough to be it.

只要勇敢去作为。[16]


Chopin: Ballade No. 1 in g minor, Op. 23
Mark Obama Ndesandjo, Pianist
Live from Steinway Hall, GZ, 2021

[1] The 山character can represent a mountain, hill, or hillock. The metaphor refers to a hill and the process, not the completion, of climbing.

[2] More literally the dawn.

[3] 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.

[4] Just is and just-ice are a challenge to translate, so I used the word for established rules/tradition 成规, twice.

[5] Literally (physically) skinny and weak, (mentally) tough and tenacious

[6] Lit. separates us

[7] 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).

[8] 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.

[9] Lit. Grapes and vines. The character for fig was a little long and I omitted it.

[10] The 兮 character is characteristic of the poetry of Chu Yuan (c. 340-278 BC), and represents a sigh or songful utterance.

[11] Lit. inspired us

[12] Lit. how could we fail?

[13] As an African American, I don’t mind considering my bronze skin as brown (褐色) instead. I say this tongue in cheek.

[14] Lit. mixed colors, various sizes

[15] Lit. Face it

[16] Lit. do it, become it


[i] Lit. golden mountains

2 thoughts on “Li Shangyin reads Amanda Gorman’s poem The Hill We Climb

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