Poems of Meng Jiao
Empty City's Sparrows
One sparrow enters the public granary.
Eating here, he can't do much harm.
The problem is this tendency toward destruction.
In the end, the granary will be no more.
Fish nets aren't spread in the sky.
Bird nets aren't stretched in the river.
Pecking grain is part of their nature.
Maybe they belong in this empty city.
This is the kind of poem translators skip over. It disrupts the fantasy of charming chinoiserie. The translator can't connect those two lines about nets to anything in our modern experience. What did the nets mean to Meng Jiao? We can't know. In a way, everything in our translations is anachronistic. We are making a present sense of what was often intended otherwise in a largely opaque past. Where we can connect is in the realities of this, our only world: the sparrows, empty cities, love, sadness. This common realm endures. And the greater our own understanding of it, the more we can perceive of what these poets truly understood. The rest, all that is excluded from this shareable realm, in their time and in ours, is mere historical idiom and unimportant.