Poetry, Translation

In the Rain4 min read

Two poems by Liu Xiaobo – translation by Ming Di

Translator’s Note: In memory of Liu Xiaobo’s sudden death of cancer this last summer, I had intended to compile a small collection of poems from China in his memory, to be titled An Ocean of Grief. But I realized that translating them would reveal the identities of the Chinese poets and cause them trouble. In these dark times, translators can be traitors. Instead I have translated two poems by Liu Xiaobo himself, so we can commemorate him by reading him.
Liu Xiaobo and Liu Xia met in 1982 in a Beijing cafeteria (per Liu Xia) and became good friends through literary gatherings. Xiaobo was divorced in 1990 due to his imprisonment and fell in love with Liu Xia in 1991. During the 21 years of their marriage from 1996 to 2017, Liu Xiaobo was in prison for 11 of those years, from October 1996 to October 1999 and from December 2008 to his death on July 13, 2017. ‘In the Rain’ was the first poem he dedicated to Liu Xia, in which he talked about his thin body disappearing before the sun rises and about being fearful of heroism. He is dead now, before the sun has risen. He is a hero whether he liked it or not, and his death has awakened many people in China and around the world.
But there is no grave that we can visit, as he expected in ‘To Liu Xia, a Letter from Camille Claudel’. Liu Xiaobo wrote many poems from prison in the name of other writers and artists that he and Liu Xia admired. Through the reference to Camille Claudel, a French sculptor and artist (1864-1943), Liu Xiaobo seems to be saying that his life of politics and prison has shaped Liu Xia into who she is (“more tragic than [him]”). He himself became a poet because of Liu Xia, who started publishing poetry in 1982, much earlier than him. We grieve the loss of him not only because he was a poet and a Nobel laureate. We cannot say why he was so important to us. All our unsayable words are, like the umbrellas below, “muted cries.” – Ming Di

In the Rain

– For Xia

It’s raining
and the rain drops penetrate the sun rays.
Pushed to the edge of the world
I’m stunned, inadequately obedient.
The rain is not cruel
but dangerous in its gentleness.

I’m alone, bare-bodied—
the only naked body in the rain.
In the rain.
How puzzling the wet colors look to me.
All the umbrellas are muted cries, lost
in the rain-soaked hours.

What I long for is to fall apart
in the rain, my thin body disappearing
before the sun rises.
I’m so fearful of any quiet changes,
but even more so of grand,
heroic actions.
To catch the attention of God?
No. It’s wishful self-torture.
Any wisdom to profane?
No. I can do nothing but
light a cigarette.


To Liu Xia, A Letter from Camille Claudel

– For my wife

The woman more fortunate than me
must be a hundred times crazier
than me and tear my carve-twisted body
into pieces to fill in the grave of love.
The crazy love held long and in vain
will be fed by what’s rotten.

The woman more tragic than me
must be a hundred times more sober
than me, forgiving the betrayal of sun to daylight,
believing in the front gate of hell
that will not conceal
the small statues of thinkers.

Who is disturbing the dead tranquility
in my grave?
Is that you, the woman who cries for me?
My dear stranger, is that you?
It must be you.
The cold comfort makes me happy.
For the first time I recall our passion.
The first time since my death.

Who is willing to bear my sins?
You, the woman touched by me?
It’s you! I recognize you by the mud.
It’s you! I reclaim you by the bronze.
I’ve used my hands to shape mud and bronze,
and shape sufferings and betrayals—
too much.
My hands are rough enough to rub your bones.

My dear stranger, my bosom-friend.
I beg you not to write poems for my wounds.
Sprinkle some sharp-edged salt on me
if you have enough mercy.
Let me finish the unfinished sacrifice
in the sober pain and burning.

I beg you again.
To be firm is to walk firmly toward resistance.
To be eternal is to walk eternally toward immortality.
Let me engrave our love on the cross
with my carving knife and my raving hands.
Shame to death.
No glorified resurrection.

You are the woman I have shaped
who has also shaped me
into who I am. ∎
Translated from the Chinese by Ming Di
Ming Di also translated two other poems by Liu Xiaobo and Liu Xia in the September issue of the New York Review of Books, which can be accessed from their table of contents. We will not forget.
The image for this post is of Liu Xiaobo and Liu Xia in Qingdao, 2005, courtesy of Sun Wenguang