Tag Archives: Zhao Yi

(Mis)translating Zhao Yi

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Jim Cornette is on the left… probably comparing somebody’s physique to that of a “baked potato.”

 

“It’s so old, it’s new again.”

Jim Cornette once said this about the new NWA Internet wrestling show Powerrr. Yes, you read that correctly; the name is spelled with three Rs. I blame the Internet phenomenon of purposefully misspelling things in the name of copyrights: Flickr, Fiverr, and so on. As professional wrestling organizations go, the NWA is one of the oldest there is in America. Then, Vince McMahon ran everybody out of business and had a defacto monopoly on sports entertainment for 20 years.

That has changed with the rising popularity of independent, alternative wrestling. A big part of that was the recent launch of Cody Rhodes and Tony Khan’s AEW on the cable channel TNT. That was to directly confront WWE. There have been other smaller promotions grinding niches for themselves. A few years ago, Smashing Pumpkins front man Billy Corgan bought the NWA with the idea of doing something new and different: studio wrestling. He likely paid a minuscule fraction of what it may have been worth 60 years ago — if you adjust for inflation. Only, studio wrestling is not all that new.

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Now.
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GCW, many decades ago.

In the annals of pro wrestling, “studio wrestling” used to be a staple on TV. This was partly due to how cheap it was to produce. Basically, a ring was set up in a television studio, a small audience would be brought in, and matches happened. It was a more intimate setting than the arena shows WWE would later profit off of. There was a long, rich history of this type of TV program, but in  the course of the 1980’s the concept ceased to be. As stated earlier, McMahon killed the territory system and ushered in a new, micro-managed, corporate era. As much as I love professional wrestling, there is something else about Cornette’s words that interests me.

“It’s so old it’s new again.” The 1980’s is experiencing a nostalgic resurgence. You see it with TV shows like GLOW, Stranger Things, and the current season of American Horror Story. Now, it’s popping up again with an Internet wrestling show made to look like it came from the 80’s. Nostalgia cycles are not a new phenomenon by any stretch. Here’s a frightening thought: 40 years from now, somebody will wistfully look back at 2019 and will make an entertainment product about it. While I am currently in my mid 40s, that scares the crap out of me.

This is well and fine, but why am I pontificating on this on a blog about Changzhou? Seriously? I highly doubt Jim Cornette even knows the city of Changzhou exists. Most Americans probably don’t. Well, the connection in my brain is because of this guy.

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This is Zhao Yi, and he was from Changzhou. He was a poet, historian, and literary critic during the Qing Dynasty. His former residence is downtown in the Qianbeihou historic area near the Wenhuagong subway station

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I had always been curious as to who Zhao Yi was, because I have been walking by this place for years. Just because there is a historical preservation marker doesn’t mean that it’s actually open to the public as a museum. The one time I did poke my head through an open door, it looked like people actually live here, still.

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But let me be clear about something. I am not comparing the delightfully foul mouthed, tennis racket wielding, legendary wrestling manager from Kentucky with a Chinese poet of the 18th and 19th Centuries. As a juxtaposition, that’s just too far of a stretch — even though Zhao was considered unconventional by some of his contemporaries. Or am I just doing that?

None of Zhao’s verses has been translated into English. Given that I have an MFA in poetry — and a deep desire to learn Chinese — translating Chinese poetry into English  seemed like something I would eventually try my hand at. Only, I was too afraid to take that leap. I did so anyway. Recently, I realized that I was being too ambitious with disastrous results. Maybe I should start by focusing on really short verses, I thought? So, I settled on this as my first real attempt:

满眼生机转化钧,天工人巧日争新。

预支五百年新意,到了千年又觉陈。

Mǎnyǎn shēngjī zhuǎnhuà jūn, tiān gōngrén qiǎo rì zhēng xīn. Yùzhī wǔbǎi nián xīnyì, dàole qiānnián yòu jué chén.

This comes from a sequence called 论诗. That translates as “On Poetry.” The sequence itself can be classed as “meta poetry“  — poetry about poetry. Or so to speak, using the art of language sound to comment on that exact art. So, my first crack at translating just those two sentences led to this:

 

One’s life and vitality abounds and changes you;

Heaven’s workers daily vie for something new.

 

Advance 500 years into a future of new meanings;

In the end, a thousand years can still feel stale.

 

Before I get back to Jim Cornette, let me reinforce something. This is my first attempt at trying to translate anything into English. I’m hyper aware that I’m missing something or there is a nuance going over my head.

In know this because of three particular characters in the original Chinese: 天工人. If you stuff Zhao Yi’s words into Baidu Translate, you get “workers of the sky.” That’s just fantastical. It’s almost like something you would expect from Tsui Hark’s special effects bonanza “Zu Warriors from the Magic Mountain.”

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Google Translate stated that 天工人 meant “day workers.” That’s actually funny because of the proletarian bent of how that just sounds..

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And thus, my first real conundrum of trying to translate from Chinese to English happens. The character  is problematic because it can mean so many different things. There is no true equivalent in English. That character can mean anything from day to heaven and god and more.  Recently, to some of my students, I compared it to how 宅男 and 宅女 are not adequate translations of nerd.The Chinese implies somebody who spends most of their time at home ala “house man” or “house woman.”  In English, both nerd and geek have taken on positive, non-derogatory meanings. Both are words for socially awkward people, but those words also now imply expert. As in: poetry nerd, drama nerd, technology geek, and so on. As far as I can tell in my discussions with my students, the Chinese translation doesn’t have that “specialist” meaning attached to it.

So, allow me to get back to Jim Cornette. Both he and Zhoa Yi are talking about cycles of time. Cornette, whether he realizes it or not, is touching the nature of nostalgia and people who age. Things do get so old that they feel brand new again — and this is after two decades of being force fed Vince McMahon’s vision of what American professional wrestling should be. You also see this with music and how it falls in and out of fashion. At one moment, disco is vogue and at another, it’s abhorrent and kitsch. Zhao Yi is more devastating than Cornette. That nostalgia curve goes away, eventually, and it’s gone for good.

Everything is destined to become antiquated. Things not only age, but they become stale in their age. What was once innovative becomes passe and boring. Don’t believe me? Ask most of the high school students that are forced to perform Romeo and Juliet in front of their peers during their English classes — or the Chinese students who are required to memorize the poems of Li Bai.

There are exceptions, of course. There are people like me who actually enjoy dissecting Shakespeare’s metaphors. Or, who think it’s fun to conjure up a silly line connecting American pro wrestling to Chinese poetry. Either way, I found the challenge of translating Zhao Yi somewhat gratifying and stimulating, even if my version of his verses may not be the best. I look forward to trying it many more times with many more poets.