If I had a time machine and perfect language skills and were bound by some geas to use them only to answer weird literary questions, one of the first things I’d do would be go back to the Tang dynasty and ask Li Bai’s opinion about pronouns.
Here’s a great Li Bai poem, called 静夜思, which renders as “Silent Night Thoughts,” but the poem’s so iconic that if you ask Google to translate a page with that poem title, it’ll just read “Nostalgia”—the poem stands in for the whole experience. Anyway, here goes.
For those of you who don’t do Chinese, here’s a simple, bad translation, courtesy of me:
Bright moon shines beside the bed
Like frost on soil
I raise my head and watch the moon
I lower my head and think of home.
Now, to continue this essay I’m about to do the thing you should never do, which is offer a character-by-character reading of a Chinese poem—thereby falling into the old Ezra Pound “Chinese is a language free of grammar, it consists of beautiful pure images!” trap. I’m doing this because anyone reading my blog at least speaks English, and while most English-speaking readers can look at, say, a Spanish poem and extract a little meaning, since the languages share common roots, they can’t often do the same with Chinese poetry. So, understand that there is grammar at work here, even though my character-by-character rendering will obscure that. Okay? Okay.
chuang2 qian2 ming2 yue4 guang1, yi2 shi4 di4 shang shuang1.
bed-before-bright-moon-shine, as-if earth-(on top of)-frost.
ju3 tou2 wang4 ming2 yue4, di1 tou2 si4 gu4 xiang1
As you can see, my super-lightweight translation falls short. For example, to preserve English syntax I switched the image-order in the first two lines; I haven’t come up with a way to land the lines on “moonlight” and “frost-shimmer” respectively that doesn’t make the English read stilted. (That’s not to say such a rendering doesn’t exist.)
But I did greater violence to Li Bai’s original—or did I?—when I inserted ‘I’ and ‘my’ into the second couplet. The original poem does not, so far as I can tell, indicate that the speaker is the person raising his or her head. Nor, of course, does the original language indicate the gender of the speaker. (Fun fax: spoken Chinese doesn’t gender the third-person pronoun, and written Chinese didn’t gender the third person pronoun until IIRC the Westernization and modernization pushes of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Hooray! Wait. [Though to be ‘fair’ you could read this as erasure, too.] ) To create an English version of Silent Night Thoughts, the writer has to decide: is the poet speaking? Is the poet describing someone else? If so, what’s that person’s gender? (He raises his head? She raises her head?) Is the poet addressing the reader? (“You raise your head”?)
And this is where I want my time machine. In English, this indeterminacy seems deliberate. You’ll rarely write a person-indeterminate English sentence without meaning to. But in Chinese poetry, that’s a straightforward task. In fact, formal restrictions can require it. So: would Li Bai’s readers have read an ‘I’ into the poem? A ‘he’? A ‘she’? A ‘you’? Would the indeterminacy operate for them the way it seems to operate in English, allowing the reader to flow freely through the poem, choosing to see it from the subject’s point of view or from an outsider’s, or from the point of view of a person in the Old Country thinking of his exiled lover? Or is this an artifact of differences in language construction? Would a contemporary reader even have recognized this indeterminacy?
And yes, the author is dead, and yes, Sapir-Whorf doesn’t work, but—how dead is the author really? Translating from a language I learned far too late to experience natively, I find myself asking all the time: is this what the author wanted to say? (Or, is this what the author’s intended audience would have read, which seems like the same question seen from the other angle…) And how false is Sapir-Whorf, when the translation process is nothing but wrestling with thoughts that are trivial to frame in certain languages, and nigh-impossible in others?
I am all but certain monographs exist on this subject. I haven’t read them; I don’t know what they would say. But whatever they do record, all the people to whom this poem was first delivered are over a thousand years dead—any experience of the poem they didn’t write down, we’re at a loss to reconstruct. And, depending on their linguistic background, it may not have even occurred to them to think about this issue.
I don’t know.
Hence, the time machine.