Found 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
     I played about the front gate, pulling flowers.
     You came by on bamboo stilts, playing horse,
     You walked about my seat, playing with blue plums.
     And we went on living in the village of Chokan:
     Two small 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.
     You came 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
     In the mountain temple ringing
     Above the voices of people
     Calling for the ferry at
     Fisherman's Crossing

to David Hinton's

     As the day fades into dusk, the bell at a mountain temple sounds.
     Fish-Bridge 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

     Like nature, 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 beautiful  resonance.

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 catch up.

David Hinton's 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:

     It's snowing on Stone-Gate Mountain. We leave no tracks.
     Pine Valley's icy mists are thick with incense fragrance,

     and in the courtyard, cold birds descend on scraps of food.
     A tattered 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 wait.

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 example:

     Such a lovely invitation
     Was plucked from an exchange of words
     By the chopsticks of our dinner
     And lightly placed on our evening plates
     One day before the future
     I picked up a telephone
     Dialed [sic]
two strategies of writing
     That pertain to the two of them
     Whose friendship 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 another:

     My low profile of living
     Said to a man named Jiang Jian
     The aftermath of Zhao Ye's receding form
     Will become our underworld
          (from '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.

          © Martin Stannard, 2008