The two latest translations of the I Ching couldn’t be more unalike; they are a complementary yin and yang of approaches. John Minford is a scholar best known for his work on the magnificent five-volume translation of The Story of the Stone … His I Ching, obviously the result of many years of study, is over eight hundred pages long, much of it in small type, and encyclopedic … It is a tour de force of erudition, almost a microcosm of Chinese civilization, much as the I Ching itself was traditionally seen.
David Hinton is, with Arthur Waley and Burton Watson, the rare example of a literary Sinologist—that is, a classical scholar thoroughly conversant with, and connected to, contemporary literature in English … Hinton’s I Ching is equally inventive. It is quite short, with only two pages allotted to each hexagram … Rather than consulted, it is meant to be read cover to cover, like a book of modern poetry—though it should be quickly said that this is very much a translation, and not an “imitation” or a postmodern elaboration.
And here’s how it ends:
One could say that the I Ching is a mirror of one’s own concerns or expectations. But it’s like one of the bronze mirrors from the Shang dynasty, now covered in a dark blue-green patina so that it doesn’t reflect at all … In the I Ching, the same word means both “war prisoner” and “sincerity.” There is no book that has gone through as many changes as the Book of Change.
Jerome Rothenberg will be releasing an expanded version of his foundational anthology Technicians of the Sacred, and it will include an excerpt from a new translation of Qu Yuan 屈原 by Wai-lim Yip 葉維廉. Rotheberg has published a preview on his blog at Jacket2, where he writes:
The Nine Songs by Qu Yuan (332–296 B.C.), excerpts from which appeared in the earlier editions of Technicians of the Sacred in Arthur Waley’s well-known & text-only translation, was in its origins a clear example of poetry as an act of “total performance.” Writes Wai-lim Yip as translator: “Recent scholarship, particularly the work of the poet-scholar Wen Yiduo, sees Qu Yuan’s The Nine Songs as a collection of songs of folk and oral nature used in ancient shamanistic ritualistic dramas performed near Dongting Lake in Hu’nan Province. The songs as they appear in the Chu Ci or The Songs of the South (consisting of one single, ambiguous voice and in the form of poems) are believed to have been greatly worked over by Qu Yuan. Wen Yiduo, himself a famous modern Chinese poet of the 1920s, in addition to his many essays tracing the poem to relevant origins, reconstructs The Nine Songs into a performable structure. The present translation is a slightly modified version based on his reconstruction.”
A section from the translation reads:
Riding a white turtle, chasing spotted fishes,
I will roam with you among the small islets
As swollen waters come tumbling down.
With crossed hands, I will go with you to the East,
To escort my beautiful one to the Southern Shore.
Reading his short article on dreaming in Eastern literature (“Some Far Eastern Dreams”), it is difficult not to think about translation—this despite the fact that, at no point in the article does Waley himself make this connection. If anything, one of the most mysterious parts of “Some Far Eastern Dreams” is how persistently it refrains from the elaboration that comes so naturally to people when they talk about dreams. Like a scholar in a Borges story, Waley speaks with rigorously lowered eyebrows, uttering sentences that, taken seriously, would blast holes in most peoples’ views of how reality works. Some of these sentences sound like they have been taken from an instruction manual for an alien board game. “Dreams can be bought and sold, or stolen.” “Anyone who hears a dream and has a good enough memory to repeat it word for word can rob the dreamer of its benefits.”
The more we read, the more we get the sense that what Waley is really talking about here is his own work, and the dreamlike knack it has for opening questions that we thought had been settled.
The Poetry Matters blog has run an article titled “Han-shan and the Cult of Translation,” reading the various translations by Red Pine (Bill Porter), J P Seaton, Gary Snyder, Arthur Waley, and Burton Watson of a poem by medieval recluse poet(s) Cold Mountain / Han-shan 寒山. The poem in question is, in Chinese,
人問寒山道 寒山路不通 夏天冰未釋 日出霧朦朧 似我何由屆 與君心不同 君心若似我 還得到其中
and the article concludes,
This poem, as succinctly as few others, provides the link between these two distinct threads of Han-shan’s journey. It can also be said that, so attractive as a man apart from the world of men, this poem gives voice to Han-shan’s own personal contemplations on the matter, naming, as it were, what he himself felt about his social standing. This insight provides a toehold for those attempting to summit Cold Mountain and commune with its lone inhabitant.
What is about Chinese poetry, especially the poetry of the T’ang Dynasty (618-907 CE), that has drawn so many translators over the years, such as Ezra Pound, Arthur Waley, Kenneth Rexroth, and Bill Porter, to name only a few? … Li Po’s “Questions Answered” offers a good example of that “depth and clarity and delicacy”:
You ask why I live
alone in the mountain forest,
and I smile and am silent
until even my soul grows quiet.
The peach trees blossom.
The water continues to flow.
I live in the other world,
one that lies beyond the human.
The diversity and richness of contemporary Chinese poetry defy description. As Zang Di understatedly puts it in “Cosmo-Sceneriology”, “We seem / to have come to a new place”, but the place itself is multiple. In “100 Years of Solitude for the New Poetry”, the same poet suggests that poetry “has dismissed language” and finds that “yes, for an instant, it was almost not written by you”. To the reader coming newly to the subject, or with the competing translatorial templates of Ezra Pound and Arthur Waley in mind, these are exciting declarations, even as, or maybe because, they resist confident analysis.
O’Brien also singles out Xi Chuan for mention, with an interesting observation that dovetails with some of what he writes about Chinese and Eastern European literature in the afterword to Notes on the Mosquito, “The Tradition This Instant” 传统在此时此刻:
A western reader is likely to be reminded here of Mandelstam’s ill-fated “Stalin Epigram“. Although Mao is seen posthumously by a poet born in 1960, subsequent Chinese administrations have proved just as interested in the ideological demeanour of the arts as were Kruschev and his successors in Russia. Xi Chuan’s “Commandments” could be a poem from the eastern bloc of the 1950s (in this translation it recalls Zbigniew Herbert): “you shall not covet / so it’s not a bad idea to crown yourself king in a dark room / and why not cut a skeleton key and carry it in your hand? / walk, stop, turn: in that capital city under the light of your sun / you will disdain to open each rusted lock”.
The version of “Commandments” 戒律 quoted here is Holton’s from Jade Ladder. My version is included in Notes on the Mosquito.