Over at the Poetry Foundation's blog, poet D. A. Powell comments about time in Mandarin:
DA Powell: Every sentence written in English contains some anxiety about time. I’d love to write a poem that was Time-Free. Is that possible?
ME [Rachel Zucker]: Why? Is this particular to English?
DA: I don’t think English is necessarily the only language in which time is embedded in the verbs. But I know that in Mandarin it’s easy to make a sentence that doesn’t tell you at what time things happened. And I wish that were possible in English. A sentence in English begins and ends; it has direction; it carries you, relentlessly, toward a period, a place of death. It’s why I avoided sentences for so long in my poems–because I didn’t want to feel like I was living out a sentence.
Almost boastingly, Chinese language teachers used to tell us hapless learners of Mandarin that "Chinese has no tense." Similarly, our professors of Chinese culture used to proudly inform us that "China has no religion, only philosophy." Thankfully, nowadays no teacher worth their salt would make such outlandish claims.
If a Chinese speaker wants to be clear about when something happened, happens, or will happen, there are plenty of resources in the language for doing so. If, on the other hand, he wishes to be vague about time and tense, that is possible as well. As to whether it is easier for a Chinese poet to be vague about time and tense than it is for a poet writing in English, I leave that to Language Log readers to wrangle over.
First, however, here is one of my favorite Chinese poems (by Ma Zhiyuan [1250?-1323?]):
"Tiān jìng shā · qiūsī” Mǎ Zhìyuǎn
And this is my English translation:
Tune: "Heaven-Cleansed Sands"
Withered wisteria, old tree, darkling crows –
Little bridge over flowing water by someone's house –
Emaciated horse on an ancient road in the western wind –
Evening sun setting in the west –
Broken-hearted man on the horizon.
Does the English translation fail to convey the timelessness of the Chinese original? When I read this poem — whether in Chinese or in English — I often think of the images as existing in an eternal present.
[A tip of the hat to Joanna Reisberg]