For American translator and writer Eliot Weinberger, this is all part of the charm of the job. Weinberger has collected different versions of “The Deer Park” from all over the world, and in his book 19 Ways of Looking at Wang Wei, chose a select number to introduce and review, from simple transliterations to Kenneth Rexroth’s highly loose interpretation. As Octavio Paz writes in an afterword to the book: “Eliot Weinberger’s commentary on the successive translations of Wang Wei’s little poem illustrates, with succinct clarity, not only the evolution of the art of translation in the modern period but, at the same time, the changes in poetic sensibility.”
Now, Weinberger’s book has been translated back into Chinese, and published by the Commercial Press. Whether you are interested in Chinese poetry, or simply curious about the vagaries of translation, it comes highly recommended.
Matt Turner reviews The Collected Poems of Li He 李賀, translated by J.D. Frodsham, and Li Shangyin 李商隱, edited by Chloe Garcia Roberts with translations by Roberts, Lucas Klein, and A.C. Graham, for Music & Literature. His piece begins:
Most American readers of Chinese poetry come to it through classic translations by Ezra Pound, Gary Snyder, Burton Watson, and a few others. With some notable exceptions, those translations have tended to focus on the poetic triumvirate of the Tang dynasty (618–907 CE): Li Bai (Li Po), Du Fu (Tu Fu), and Wang Wei. The literary context in which those three Tang poets are placed—in China as well as the U.S.—is part of a long, ascendant tradition in Chinese letters, beginning to certain degree with the early anthology that Confucius assembled … The poems of the Shijing, which often seem little more than folk ditties, span seven centuries during the fabled Zhou dynasty (1046–256 BCE)—the time, according to Confucius in his Analects, when politics and society were ordered as they should be. In China, the Zhou and Tang periods are acknowledged as two golden ages, exemplars of what is best in the Chinese tradition. A trajectory of one to the other is easily assumed.
But poetry from the period is as little in imitation of the Shijing as the politics of the Tang were a repetition of Zhou politics.
Enter Li Shangyin and Li He … These later-Tang dynasty poets sit even more uncomfortably within the Confucian tradition than Li Bai. Both flaunted their dissipation, and their work calls to mind Ashbery-like discontinuities of image that seem to utterly lack the edifications of orthodox, Confucian letters. If we consider that one of the key Confucian tenets was zhengming, the fixing of qualities or relationships in language in order to demonstrate the Confucian worldview (i.e., a lord has the “lordly” attribute of benevolence, whereas a lord who is malicious cannot be recognized as one; a poem was a means to education, whereas a poetry that disregarded pedagogy could not be called poetry, but only be regarded as nonsense), then Li He and Li Shangyin were then obviously bad guys who disregarded order, proper behavior, and other concerns of literary orthodoxy. Their nonconformism was strong enough for Li He to be omitted from the classic anthology Three Hundred Tang Poems, and for Li Shangyin, though still anthologized, to be classed as only a distant cousin of the three greats: Li Bai, Wang Wei, and Du Fu. Today, their literary legacies are explored primarily by edgy scholars and poets, so the existence of these recent English-language editions is fairly remarkable.
particular attention to translation:
This collected edition is a necessary addition to the growing body of Chinese poetry in English translation, as well as a corrective to the Poundian tradition of Chinese poetry as plain-spoken and full of imagistic language and tropes. It’s unfortunate that, although a collected edition, it is not dual-language—especially since Frodsham’s translations sometimes seem a bit musty next to the few pieces done by Graham … Nevertheless, Li He was definitely singing a “weird tune,” one which comes through the static of the English.
And in Li Shangyin,
The NYRB Poets edition lets the reader refer to the Chinese-language original as well as compare different English-language versions. This is especially important for a poet like Li Shangyin, where so much of his writing is in soft-focus, even in the Chinese. Multiple translations offer us differing glimpses of the same poem—not only as translations, but also as parts of the kaleidoscopic world the original alludes to. For example, one poem in versions by all three translators lets the reader consider the poem’s world as it is disclosed upon our own, in a cascade of synesthetic appearances.
As readers, whether or not we can read Chinese and regardless of our familiarity with that tradition, we might ask ourselves what worlds we want our poetry to invoke or create for us, and what we want from Chinese poetry in particular. These editions of Li He and Li Shangyin will probably thwart those assumptions, evoking worlds we are not entirely familiar with. One reason for that is not the quality of the translations, but our distance from the world of the later Tang. Another reason is that the poetry was, simply, always a bit off. It’s good to know that, sometimes, things don’t change.
What makes a Chinese poem “Chinese”? Some call modern Chinese poetry insufficiently Chinese, saying it is so influenced by foreign texts that it has lost the essence of Chinese culture as known in premodern poetry. Yet that argument overlooks how premodern regulated verse was itself created in imitation of foreign poetics. Looking at Bian Zhilin 卞之琳 and Yang Lian 楊煉 in the twentieth century alongside medieval Chinese poets such as Wang Wei 王維, Du Fu 杜甫, and Li Shangyin 李商隱, The Organization of Distance applies the notions of foreignization and nativization to Chinese poetry to argue that the impression of poetic Chineseness has long been a product of translation, from forces both abroad and in the past.
M.A. Orthofer at the Complete Review has reviewed the re-release of Eliot Weinberger’s 19 Ways of Looking at Wang Wei. Here’s an excerpt:
These more than two-dozen variations on the text — and Weinberger’s brief observations of what they get particularly wrong (and also what they seem to get right) — also serve, in sum, as an excellent gloss on the poem. Of course, part of the exercise is to demonstrate the obvious, that there can be no ‘perfect’ 1:1 mapping of the poem — a useful lesson for those who all too readily rely on single translations of their favorite foreign poems and poets … — but beyond that the different perspectives — which is how the translation-attempts can also be seen –, from the most literal attempts to Kenneth Rexroth’s (“perhaps more ‘imitation’ than translation”), also reveal a great deal more about the original to those for whom the Chinese itself remains inaccessible.
Helpfully, Weinberger does not shy away from judging (harshly, where need be) — while giving his reasons for what went right (or oh so wrong) — a reminder, too, of how the often unknowing reader is at the mercy of what is available at the local bookstore or library, or what happens to fall into their hands.
The addition of ‘more ways’ to the original collection is also of interest, as it is not just more of the same: as Weinberger notes: “most or all of the English-language translators were aware of the book”, and presumably were influenced in their own takes at least in part by that, writing (or rather translating) in response to Weinberger as well.
In honor of Burton Watson’s passing, I am collecting statements and memories from friends and fans, to be posted as they come in. The following remembrance is by John Bradley, from his review of Salutations; a Festschrift for Burton Watson (Ahadada / Ekleksographia, 2015), originally published in Rain Taxi #81 (21.1, Spring 2016):
Empty hills, no one in sight, only the sound of someone talking; late sunlight enters the deep wood, shining over the green moss again.
This famous poem by Chinese poet Wang Wei displays the craft not only of the author but also—we all too often forget—of the translator. Burton Watson translated this poem with such craft that some may say “That’s it?” as indeed a student of Lucas Klein’s did, as he relates in his essay “Translation and Translucence in the Work of Burton Watson,” one of the offerings in this festschrift.
Watson certainly deserves acclaim for the quality and the breadth of his Asian translators. His works are much too long to list here, but a few titles will give an idea of his productivity: Cold Mountain: 100 Poems by the T’ang Poet Han-shan, The Selected Poems of Du Fu, and the Complete Works of Chuang Tzu. These are just a fraction of his translations from classical Chinese works. Some of his translation from classical and modern Japanese literature include: From the Country of Eight Islands: An Anthology of Japanese Poetry (collaborating with Hiroaki Sato), Ryokan: Zen Monk-Poet of Japan, and Saigyo: Poems of a Mountain Home.
Salutations offers seventeen contributions, each by a different writer, with some of the texts consisting of scholarly papers on Asian literature, and others offering personal reminiscences of Burton Watson or poems dedicated to him. The scholarly papers cover such topics as “a cultural history of Wenren,” which, as Victor H. Mair and Timothy Clifford explain, refers to a “literary man” (22). While these papers would have interest to Asian scholars, for the non-specialist the personal memories of encounters with Burton Watson are more engaging.
… Perhaps the best remedy will be to turn to one of Burton Watson’s many Asian translations and savor his skill.
Contact me if you would like to add your own remembrance.
Perry Link at the New York Review of Booksreviews the expanded re-release of 19 Ways of Looking at Wang Wei, by Eliot Weinberger. Link writes:
Some of the art of classical Chinese poetry must simply be set aside as untranslatable … Weinberger knows all of this and sensibly begins his inquiry at step two—after all the untranslatables have been set aside. Now the question becomes: How can one make another poem from the twenty bundles of meaning that the Chinese characters offer? Weinberger criticizes, astutely if sometimes unkindly, almost every translator he cites … Although he is critical of nearly everyone’s translation in Nineteen Ways, Weinberger wisely adopts the position that “quite a few possible readings” can all be “equally ‘correct.’” Dilemmas about translation do not have definitive right answers (although there can be unambiguously wrong ones if misreadings of the original are involved). Any translation (except machine translation, a different case) must pass through the mind of a translator, and that mind inevitably contains its own store of perceptions, memories, and values.
Link also gives a China-centered take on Weinberger’s new essay collection, The Ghosts of Birds: “Weinberger’s sensitivity to words and gift for clear thinking underlie nearly every page in Nineteen Ways, but in The Ghosts of Birds they spout like a geyser.”
Click the image above for the (paywalled) review in full.
The article is also now available on ChinaFile for free.
A persuasive theory equates the English-language poets of the Elizabethan age (Shakespeare, Wyatt, Surrey, Sidney, Marlowe, Raleigh, Campion, and others) with the Chinese-language poets of the T’ang (or Tang) dynasty (618 to 907) which is often considered to be the Golden Age of Chinese poetry. Poets like Wang Wei, Tu Fu, Li Bai (or Li Po), and later poets like Su Shih, have in common with the Elizabethan poets and with many modern American poets that they were highly-educated and at the same time virtually unemployable. The emphasis on academic qualifications and the impossibility of attaining proper employment haunt these three eras: the Elizabethan Age, the Tang Period, and the modern American age.This means that many scholars from those three periods are highly trained in the various branches of rhetoric, yet afflicted with a world-view that is highly complex, negative, and painfully aware of the likelihood of unemployment.
The picture we in the west have of Li Bai is that of cheerful mastery through excess: he wrote millions of poems, threw most of them away, drank lots of alcohol and drowned on a drunken swim, trying to catch the reflection of the moon in the water. So legend has it.
The online mag. I recently came across an old page on Hilobrow, starting with this:
The Taiyi summit nears the seat of heaven
linked mountains stretch to brink of sea
The Taiyi summit nears the seat of heaven;
linked mountains stretch to brink of sea.
Two versions of the opening couplet of a Wang Wei 王維 poem by Hilobrow cofounder Matthew Battles, the second in the style of David Hinton. “We’re always struggling with the apparent multivalence of classical Chinese poetry,” Battles writes, “the way the openness of the language seems to permit so many readings, combined with the difficulty of translocating the tonal, lexical, and ideographic effects of the originals into alphabetically-styled verse without either losing much of the force or going all specious with talk about picture-writing and orientalist exoticism”—and he mentions books by Eliot Weinberger and Yunte Huang to shore up his point. But in the end, after a weekend on Maine’s Mount Katahdin,
In the Wang Wei I found echoes of the work the mountain did on me: the braided vistas merging, the gulfs and abysses seducing, the zones of forest succession merging and disappearing into one another as one moves up and down slope.