Sonnet 27

by Feng Zhi | trans. Emily Goedde

In flooding, formless water,

someone dips down to dip one oval pitcher,

and the water obtains one set form.

Look, a flag rippling in autumn wind,


holding what cannot be held.

Let distant light, distant dark night,

the thriving and withering of a few distant plants,

and a rushing toward endless intention,


be held, a moment, in this flag.

空空 we hear a night’s windsound,

空 we see a day’s grasses yellow, its leaves redden,


Where can we put down our thought, thinking?

If only these poems were flags full of wind,

holding a little of what cannot be held.


從一片泛濫無形的水裡 ,

取水人取來橢圓的一瓶 ,

這點水就得到一個定形 ﹔

看 ,在秋風裡飄揚的風旗 ,


它把住些把不住的事體 ,

讓遠方的光 、遠方的黑夜

和些遠方的草木的榮謝 ,

還有個奔向無窮的心意 ,


都保留一些在這面旗上 。

我們空空聽過一夜風聲 ,

空看了一天的草黃葉紅 ,


向何處安排我們的思 、想 ?


把住一些把不住的事體 。


Translator reflections:


  1. 1. empty; 2. lacking substance
  2. sky
  3. in vain

(from Oxford Chinese Dictionary)


空空 we hear a night’s windsound.

空 we see a day’s grasses yellow, its leaves redden


kōngkōng we hear a night’s windsound

kōng we see a day’s grasses yellow, its leaves redden


Empty, we hear a windsound,

Empty, we see a day’s grasses yellow, its leaves redden,


Empty, we can put our thoughts into new forms. By leaving 空 kōng in my translation, I create space for new thoughts and ideas.



Feng Zhi in Shanghai, at work on his German typewriter, c. 1938
Source: The Paper

Feng Zhi wrote a cycle of 27 sonnets in 1941, when he was living in Kunming, China. At the time, Kunming was subject to frequent air raids (空襲 kongxi) by the Japanese Air Force. In my work I explore ways in which to translate Chinese poets’ descriptions of air raids that help the reader learn how to listen to wartime experiences.

My inclusion of Chinese characters within my English translations asks what we can learn from babel or a multiplicity of languages. It asks what is lost in monolingualism. It asks why we think we should know all the words in the first place, and what we learn when we don’t. Although my translations may initially seem to include moments of babel, this practice of opening our ears to new language configurations allows us to consider the poets’ personal explorations of air raids during World War II, as well as to explore the poem as an aesthetic work. In other words, the Chinese characters are there, not only to engage the sounds of the words—although this cue to open up the ears and listen is certainly important—but also to press against the limits of what is known and unknown. In a sense, not knowing how to read, or hear, or say the characters is precisely the point. The questions and concerns this provokes are the spurs, the pricks, the sparks that ask us to reach toward a new understanding of the poetry, of translation and of our own positions as listeners. As readers, we can learn most from translation when it challenges us to embrace the impossible.

~ Emily Goedde


Feng Zhi (馮至1905-1993) was a Chinese poet, novelist and essayist as well as highly-acclaimed translator and scholar of German literature, who specialized in Nietzsche, Schiller, Rilke and Goethe. For his work with the German Language, he was awarded the Goethe Medal in 1983. This poem was the 27th and final sonnet from his collection, entitled simply Sonnets 十四行集 from which Sonnet 27 is taken.

Emily Goedde has a PhD from the Department of Comparative Literature at the University of Michigan and an MFA in literary translation from the University of Iowa. She is a literary translator and teaches at the Community College of Philadelphia.

Lead image (detail): Wang Wu. 魚躍窗外 (Fish Leaping Out the Window). 2006. 30 x 30 cm. Courtesy the artist

A printed broadside of Sonnet 27, with Wang Wu’s illustration is available from harlequin creature for $5. Your purchase helps to support contributor honorariums

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