Josh Billings on Arthur Waley

As part of a series called “Lives of the Translators,” Asymptote has published Josh Billings’s essay “I Have Changed Nothing: Seven Paradoxes in Pursuit of Arthur Waley.”

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.

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Han-shan and the Cult of Translation

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.

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Hamill’s Crossing the Yellow River Reviewed

crossingyellowriverJohn Bradley has reviewed Sam Hamill’s Crossing the Yellow River: Three Hundred Poems from the Chinese (Tiger Bark Press) at Rain Taxi. He writes:

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.

Click the image for the full review.

Sean O’Brien reviews Jade Ladder

The Guardian has published Sean O’Brien’s review of Jade Ladder: Contemporary Chinese Poetry, edited by Yang Lian 杨炼, W N Herbert, Brian Holton, and Qin Xiaoyu 秦晓宇. It’s a fine and enthusiastic take written by an obviously engaged reader conversant with the current goings-on of poetry worldwide. Here’s how it begins:

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.