The translation of poetry and literature has a history of being overlooked and discounted as a valid art form—even today academic institutions do not acknowledge a translated work as worthy of consideration in the tenure process. In the world outside of academia, translation is still often seen as an impossibility or an exercise in invisibility or inferiority, or both. In this essay I investigate, through discrete connections and lyrical inquiry, some of the qualities that define the art of translation. While Walter Benjamin so eloquently expressed the translator’s task a century ago, I have echoed his original title with a luminous rhyme, and consider the figure of the mask as a vital aspect of the translator’s art—a mask that manifests the difference between translator and writer, faithfulness and interpretation, self and subjectivity. At the heart of the essay I have attempted to translate a poem by the southern Song poet Lu You brushed repeatedly by my grandfather as way to discuss the strategies and choices, doubts and questions, involved in the process of translation. A co-translation of a contemporary Chinese poet by one who doesn’t know the source language brings up sticky issues of over-identification and paradox. Certain subjective examples of vibrant translations are considered as models to emulate and learn from. Whatever ineffable mysteries mold the mask of a translator substantiates its art.
KEYWORDS: translation, poetry, Lu You, classical Chinese literature, masks, interpretation, subjectivity, philosophy of translation, hermeneutics, art