Untranslatable poems: Codes scattered in the city

by on Thursday, 29 April 2010 7585 hits Comments
Rate this item
(0 votes)

When I think of poetry in the city, two films immediately spring to mind. The first is Sofia Coppola's 2003 film Lost in Translation, the other Wim Wenders 1987 film Wings of Desire (Der Himmel über Berlin). The first one is set in contemporary Japan, the other in post cold war Berlin (complete with the Wall). In both films, the city in question appears to be observed from the eyes of the outsider. In Lost in Translation, Charlotte and Bob's destinies cross paths in Tokyo. They both feel alienated and ill-fit in their surrogate society; they are both outsiders and loneliness brings them together. Their chance encounter takes place in multicoloured Tokyo, yet like two floating reeds passing by, Tokyo is also where they must part, such is their wandering impermanence. In contrast, The Angels Among Us, is seen through the eyes of an angel; quietly, calmly, observing the human world that he so adores. He adores it enough to be willing to descend into the human world; however, living a different type of existence he is completely unable to transcend the role of observer. He hears every humans' secrets, he is captivated, fascinated by the joy, the love, the rage, the sadness;  the fullness and variety of their emotions. Therefore he eventually leaves his position as an onlooker in heaven, to become a mortal human of flesh and blood...

Of course the subject matter that make up these two films are present in many other literary works;  however, the image created in Lost in Translation is much closer to classical Chinese poetry,  specifically the poets who wrote of their drifting from place to place as the outsider, or sighed the tragedies of separation and death.  For example, when Bob and Charlotte are about to part,  standing on the street embracing, there is a sense that they may never meet again, which for me brings to mind the words of two Chinese poets: Li Shangyin, a Tang Dynasty poet "Though this moment will turn into a precious memory, I cannot help but be devastated at its passing" and Northern Song poet Liu Yong's poem - Yu Linling "The smorgasbord of emotions in times of parting has always caused a world of pain". It's an unfulfilled love story,  no doubt dooming them to separation and feelings of loss, and as Charlottes tears roll down, the two of them keep rolling on. Wings of Desire, in contrast, is a piece of western theology, a reinterpretation of Christianity's fallen angel. When the film starts, a poem is read:

When the child was a child 
It walked with its arms swinging, 
wanted the brook to be a river, 
the river to be a torrent, 
and this puddle to be the sea.

When the child was a child, 
it didn’t know that it was a child, 
everything was soulful, 
and all souls were one.

When the child was a child, 
it had no opinion about anything, 
had no habits, 
it often sat cross-legged, 
took off running, 
had a cowlick in its hair, 
and made no faces when photographed.


Als das Kind Kind war, 
ging es mit hängenden Armen, 
wollte der Bach sei ein Fluß, 
der Fluß sei ein Strom, 
und diese Pfütze das Meer.

Als das Kind Kind war, 
wußte es nicht, daß es Kind war, 
alles war ihm beseelt, 
und alle Seelen waren eins.

Als das Kind Kind war, 
hatte es von nichts eine Meinung, 
hatte keine Gewohnheit, 
saß oft im Schneidersitz, 
lief aus dem Stand, 
hatte einen Wirbel im Haar 
und machte kein Gesicht beim fotografieren.

The original German version from the film is in fact read by the main actor Damiel (Bruno Ganz). The poem is called Lied Vom Kindsein (Song of Childhood) and was written by Peter Handke, a poet and scriptwriter. He got his inspiration from another German poet, Rainer Maria Rilke's great work Duineser Elegien (Duino Elegies).

There is a subtle metaphor here: before the angel fell down to earth, he could maintain the innocent eyes of the observer, like the purity of a child without any preinstalled beliefs or standpoints. However when he becomes human, it's just like when Adam and Eve ate the forbidden fruit; they became aware of their naked bodies and had to find leaves to cover themselves, they then began to nurture a sense of shame and thus had to endure human suffering. This notion stems from a biblical allusion and although the words used in the poem aren't especially profound, what they represent is far deeper than what meets the eye. Another interesting aspect of this film is that when the angel transcends to the human world, the frame switches from black and white to a colour. His head is bleeding as he encounters a pedestrian and asks his first question as a human: "Is this the colour red?" This echoes the meaning in the poem, that whilst he was still an angel he did not possess the human sensory system; after humanisation he felt pain, but he also saw colour. This is the beauty and the tragedy of being human. For him however, it's all worth it, because he experiences love.

Wings of Desire is set in pre-unification Berlin, with many of the city's landmarks appearing in scene. The angel often stands on the famous Siegessäule overlooking the bleak, desolate post-war Berlin. The huge Berlin wall encircles and demarcates the isolated island of democracy that was West Berlin. For those, like myself, that have never been to Berlin, it matches the image of Berlin we imagine, a numbing chill hanging in the air, freezing all the poetry and songs we mutter to ourselves. Perhaps, if I eventually visit Berlin, I will look up, searching to see if there really are angels occupying the skies. Going back to Lost in Translation, the hustle and bustle of modern Tokyo, is in great contrast to the lonely souls of the two protagonists who have nowhere to anchor. Is this not indeed a feeling that all drifters, travellers living as outsiders in a foreign land have, as they walk alone down a road full of traffic? Another Tang Dynasty poem written by Zhang Ji comes to mind:

The moon descends and the birds call, through the frosty midnight bite

Fishing lamps and maple trees lining the riverside accompany my anxiety induced insomnia.

From the Han Mountain Temple outside the Suzhou city walls,

An echo descends from the midnight gongs all the way to this passenger boat

Even if these two examples couldn't be further apart in time and setting, they nonetheless express the same emotions; one follows the insomnia of the drunken immortal Zhang Xu on a boat in ancient Suzhou, the other has Bob and Charlotte lying sleeplessly on their beds in a deluxe hotel in modern Japan; the nostalgic feeling that the moonlight is always brighter in your hometown.

Ida_UntranslatablePoems05Another way the film shows the changes in Charlottes state of mind is that at the beginning, after she visits a temple, she rings a friend and tells her: "Today I visited a temple. Monks were reciting passages, but I didn't feel anything." Finally at the end of the film she takes a high speed rail to Kyoto, moving from one city to another. Transport is a very important setting for travellers and contemporary urban nomads. Staring out of the window onto the ever changing sceneries has a mysterious charm. In the same way life is like a drama, scene after scene, one appears temporarily but then eventually all scenes come to an end. Fittingly, the accompanying background music for this part is 'Alone in Kyoto' provided by the French duo Air. And for me, her time spent in Kyoto is the most poetic of the whole film; strolling the temples of Kyoto, Charlotte eyes catch a newlywed couple passing by, dressed in traditional wedding garb. As she stops and watches them, the groom takes his partner by the hand and the lens slides over to Charlottes face. She is no longer the girl who didn't feel anything; subtle changes in her expressions show us that where she used to only feel a cold alienation, she now feels warmth.

In big cities, one constantly encounters different people; sometimes these can become true lasting relationships, other times we just brush by transient visitors. And this, this is the fatal attraction of the city. People are just words and the streets just phrases, freely interweaving together to create a huge fantastical poem. And every city is a poem, regardless of all the tiny words whirling and dancing within. And every encounter between two of these tiny characters can kindle a moving story, and every story can be a poem;  some disappointing, some tragic, some helpless, some soul destroying; yet some heroic, some romantic, ecstatic and tantalising!

Translated from Chinese by Nicholas Coulson

(Top photo by Ida Yang/ Bottom left photo provided by AtMovies)

Last modified on Wednesday, 08 January 2014 17:34
Ida Yang (楊詩涵)

Currently studying a Masters in Art Criticism at National Taipei University of Education.
Undergraduate at Fu Jen Catholic University, Department of French Language and Literature.


Help us!

Help us keep the content of eRenlai free: take five minutes to make a donation


Join our FB Group

Browse by Date

« August 2020 »
Mon Tue Wed Thu Fri Sat Sun
          1 2
3 4 5 6 7 8 9
10 11 12 13 14 15 16
17 18 19 20 21 22 23
24 25 26 27 28 29 30

We have 9804 guests and no members online