and Lost in Translation
The New Directions
Anthology of Classical Chinese Poetry, ed. Eliot Weinberge
(242pp, £12.95, Anvil)
Mountain Home: the Wilderness Poetry of Ancient China, tr. David Hinton
(295pp, £12.95, Anvil)
Selected Poems, Mai
Cheng, tr. Denis Mair (140pp, £9.95, Shearsman)
While my hair
was still cut straight across my forehead
about the front gate, pulling flowers.
You came by
on bamboo stilts, playing horse,
about my seat, playing with blue plums.
And we went
on living in the village of Chokan:
people, without dislike or suspicion.
Pound's translation of Li Po's (or Li Bai's; every Chinese person I've talked
with about Li Po knows him as Li Bai) 8th century poem (which Pound called
'The River-Merchant's Wife: A Letter') is so remarkably and famously
beautiful it's easy to neglect one or two interesting facts. For example,
that William Carlos Williams translated the same poem, which he called 'Long
Bannister Lane' and begins
When my hair
was first trimmed across my forehead,
I played in
front of my door, picking flowers.
riding a bamboo stilt for a horse…
and as David Hinton has pointed out, 'there is no reason to think the husband
is a river-merchant. The wandering Li Po was likely thinking figuratively
of his own wife.'
As further example, Pound's translations from the Chinese have always upset
the purists - that is, the Sinologists and the pedants - because he knew no
Chinese, was working from Ernest Fenollosa's papers, and Fenellosa knew as
much Chinese as Pound and was assisted by Japanese translators, and that
Fenollosa and his team's grasp of what constituted poetry was perhaps
tenuous, and that the whole performance is strewn with 'errors' as far as
translation may go…
And yet, of course, we still have 'The River-Merchant's Wife: A Letter', and
it is wonderful. So who cares about the provenance and the so-called errors?
Here's the great poem, 'the modernist masterpiece', and it exists in the world
just as Li Bai's original poem exists in the world. And you and I, unless we
are adept and fluent in Chinese, will never 'get' Li Bai's original, so let's
take what we have and be happy.
And I hope that here's the answer, or something of the sort, to what's been
bothering me of late, as I've been immersed in translations from the Chinese
to English. Perhaps all I have to do is read what's in front of me and not
worry too much about how true or faithful or how much in the right ball-park
the poem I'm reading is in relation to the original.
To a degree, anyway. I still worry.
I have no idea about the translation of poems, really, except I think I can
say quite safely that it's actually most of the time probably a thankless
task, and all one can hope for is something that goes some way to capturing
the essence of the original. And, as readers who, when it comes to Chinese,
are likely to have no sense of the original at all, we can then only trust
the translator. Or, we can be happy if the translator happens to be a great
poet and we'll go along with what they give us and hang the finer points.
Perhaps life's too short to quibble.
And so with the marvellous 'New Directions' anthology we have translations by
Pound, William Carlos Williams, Kenneth Rexroth and Gary Snyder, along with
David Hinton, and one can compare versions if one so wishes. I don't know
where it gets you. The poems are marvellous, and some (I'm thinking of
Snyder's translations of Han Shan in particular) are beyond marvellous and
well into tremendous, and the only thing that's ever going to bother me is if
I for some reason don't like the sound of a particular configuration of
words. With these guys, big guns as they are, that just doesn't happen. I may
prefer Kenneth Rexroth's
I can hear
the evening bell
mountain temple ringing
voices of people
the ferry at
to David Hinton's
As the day
fades into dusk, the bell at a mountain temple sounds.
Island is loud with people clamouring at the ferry
but so it goes. I'm happy to have both of them. Comparisons here are odious
and tedious and unnecessary, although they may be interesting.
The great thing about this poetry, of course, and it's the thing that the
Americans found in their various ways, and which has become a given, is its
ideogrammic quality. In his excellent introduction to the 'New Directions'
anthology, Eliot Weinberger mentions Henri Michaux's remark that
the Chinese language does not draw any conclusions
of its own,
but lets itself be read.
and, further, points out that here is a language where each element - 'thing
and action and its description' - becomes in turn 'an element, without
Western rhetorical glue, in the succession of characters in a line of
poetry.' Which I think accounts for the tone of this poetry, which for me
has always been one of remarkable apparent simplicity and unfathomable
These two anthologies have particular interest for me since I've lived and
worked in China for two years and all that time felt a little guilty that my
knowledge of Chinese poetry was limited to the obvious stuff like Pound's
'Cathay' and Arthur Waley's translations (which I've not read for ages). And
as I'm heading back to live there, and as I'm up to my neck in trying to
learn the language, I'm grateful to have these two books so I can begin to
anthology of 'wilderness poetry', which covers some of the same ground as the
'New Direction' anthology but is actually wholly concerned with poetry from
the classical 'rivers and mountains' tradition, comes with scholarly
commentary about the tradition itself and the individual poets.
I have to say that some of the finer distinctions that Hinton makes between
the poets has so far eluded me. Hinton does his best to explain Taoist and
Buddhist beliefs that are essential to the poems, but he's got a dumb pupil
in someone like me when it comes to that stuff. I cling on with my fingertips
a lot of the time. And when I'm told that Meng Hao-Jan's poems 'survive as
silence, that most perfect literary embodiment of wilderness', or that in Wei
Ying-Wu's poems 'loss and absence often seem indistinguishable from the
emptiness of enlightenment' I have to believe the guy because I'm sure he
knows what he's talking about. I just love the poems, which I think is enough
to be going on with:
on Stone-Gate Mountain. We leave no tracks.
icy mists are thick with incense fragrance,
and in the
courtyard, cold birds descend on scraps of food.
robe hangs in a tree. The old monk's gone now.
('Entering the Carnelian Mountains Together' by Wei Ying-wu)
and I'll let the finer points come to me as and when. I have time and can
These are two quite marvellous, even tremendous books.
I wish I could say the same about the third book here, which although by a
contemporary Chinese poet I'm including in the same piece as the classical
poetry because of the questions it raises about translation.
Now, I could
be on dodgy ground here, because the translator of Mai Cheng's poems, Denis
Mair, is a reputed Chinese scholar and translator and he knows more about the
language and the culture than I will ever know, for sure. But this is about
poetry, and I don't have many friends anyway, so here goes.
I took Mai Cheng's poems to China with me at Easter. It's a bilingual
edition, and I know enough Chinese to be able to read some of the originals
in part, but not enough to 'get' them. As a learning exercise, I went through
the first poem in the book - 'In the Act of Writing, I Meet with the
Silhouettes of Tang Xiaodu and Mang Ke' - and after some laboured recourse to
my dictionary because I didn't know all the Chinese characters I had a pinyin
(Romanised) version of the poem
in front of me. In the process it became clear to me - at least, I thought it
did - that Mai Cheng's poetry uses fairly straightforward everyday language,
and that, on the face of it, this might well be a poetry that, had it been in
English, I'd have been able to get on with. I also have to say that I have a
pretty good idea how it sounds because (1) I can say it in the Chinese,
albeit with poor pronunciation and (2) my friend Dong Ying read the poem to
me one afternoon in my hotel room, where we discussed the poem and its
language. She agreed with me that it uses fairly simple and straightforward
words, and she went on to say that behind its apparent simplicity were complexities
and resonances that were difficult to explain. That's ok. I like simple
sounding poems that aren't so simple.
What worries me is what is on the page opposite the Chinese original. For
Such a lovely
from an exchange of words
chopsticks of our dinner
placed on our evening plates
before the future
I picked up a
Dialed [sic] two strategies of writing
to the two of them
has recently been promoted
Now, I'd say that you have to be bloody good (if not god-like) to be able to
use the words 'pertain' and 'promoted' in a sentence in a poem and make it
sound ok. Denis Mair may be very clever, but he isn't that clever. Those last
two lines sound horrible, and take my word for it, the Chinese doesn't sound
horrible, even to my quite untrained ear. And this is not the only example of
what I'd insist is a woeful lack of feeling for and understanding of the way
a poet with a sense of their living language might say something. Here's
profile of living
Said to a man
named Jiang Jian
of Zhao Ye's receding form
'Night, Let Me Put It This Way')
'My low profile of living'? Dong Ying explained her understanding of this in
the Chinese as quiet, unassuming and modest. Well, anything's got to be
better than 'low profile of living', which is simply clumsy and inelegant.
Not until page 89, and the poem 'In Pieces', did I feel that a poem was not
marred by an example of awkward usage or phrasing. That's over half way
through the book. And I'm so distracted by the impossibility of reading these
translations without wincing
that I'm at a loss to say anything about Mai Cheng as a poet because I
feel that something's come between us that I can't get over.