Perry Link has an excellent NYRB review of two books by Eliot Weinberger, 19 Ways of Looking at Wang Wei (with More Ways) and The Ghosts of Birds. The first presents a four-line poem by Wang Wei in Chinese characters, in a transliteration into modern Mandarin, in a character-by-character literal translation, and in thirty-four ways translators have tried to put it into English, French, Spanish, or German. (I note, with some indignation, the lack of a transliteration into Middle Chinese, the language in which the poem was composed; it’s as if Pangur Bán were presented only in Modern Irish, or Cædmon’s Hymn only in Modern English. You lose all the poetry.) The title of the poem is “Deer Fence” (or Deer Park, Deer Enclosure, Deer Forest Hermitage, etc.); here’s Weinberger’s literal translation:
Empty/mountain(s) [or] hill(s)/(negative)/to see/person [or] people
But/to hear/person [or] people/words or conversation/sound [or] to echo
To return/bright(ness) [or] shadow(s)/to enter/deep/forest
To return/to shine/green/moss/above
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. […]
Broadly speaking, the problems for a translator, especially of poetry, and especially between languages as different as Chinese and English, are two: What do I think the poetic line says? And then, once I think I understand it, how can I put it into English? Differences in translations sometimes arise from the first problem; most, though, come from the second, where the impossibility of perfect answers spawns endless debate. The letter-versus-spirit dilemma is almost always at the center.
At the literalist extreme, there is a school of Western Sinology that aims to ferret out and dissect every conceivable detail about the language of an original. The dissection, though, normally does to the art of a poem approximately what the scalpel of an anatomy instructor does to the life of a frog. Peter A. Boodberg, a distinguished Sinologist at Berkeley fifty years ago, translates Wang Wei’s poem this way:
DEER WATTLE (HERMITAGE)
The empty mountain; to see no men,
Barely earminded of men talking—countertones
And antistrophic lights-and- shadows incoming deeper the deep-treed grove
Once more to glowlight the blue-green mosses—going up
(The empty mountain…)
Kudos for making fun of Boodberg (whom I made fun of back in 2008), and greater kudos for this discussion of Pound:
Weinberger is contemptuous of the Boodberg approach (“sounds like Gerard Manley Hopkins on LSD”) and is closer to, but not an extremist in, an approach that puts art at the center. He admires Ezra Pound’s versions of classical Chinese poems in Cathay, published in 1915. Pound learned some Chinese characters later in his life but in 1915 could base Cathay only on translations that others had done. His genius for language apparently got him close enough to the spirit of Chinese originals that he could correct mistakes in other translations “intuitively,” as Weinberger puts it. He stops short of calling Pound’s work “translation”; he endorses a phrase by T.S. Eliot, who leavened the question with gentle ambiguity when he said that Pound was “the inventor of Chinese poetry in our time.” Whether translations or inventions, though, Weinberger finds Pound’s renditions “some of the most beautiful poems in the English language.”
In the 1930s Pound became obsessed with the Book of Odes, China’s most ancient collection of poetry and song (and, some say, guide to government). Convinced that the existing English translations of the Odes were “appalling” and “intolerable,” and that there must be a great pearl inside the closed oyster if only he could get there, Pound, then over fifty years old, began to study Chinese characters. He could now “play the game of pretending to read Chinese,” as Weinberger puts it, and unleashed his fecund imagination upon “pictographic” characters in ways that serious Sinologists knew to be utterly groundless. Professors wrote articles exposing Pound’s errors in both interpretation of characters and translations of poems.
Weinberger’s implicit riposte, which I support, is: But do you do better? One can acknowledge a long list of Pound’s technical errors (Weinberger has some, too) and still point out that phrases like Boodberg’s “antistrophic lights-and-shadows” leave a reader much further from a Wang Wei poem than Pound does. Wai-lim Yip, a scholar of poetry who knows both English and Chinese well, notes that, despite the literal errors, in Pound “the ‘cuts and turns’ of the mind in the originals are largely preserved” and the “essential poems” are “luminous.” Could one say that of Boodberg? Options in the translation of poetry are complexly interconnected, and gaining something in one place almost inevitably means losing something in another. So here is a good rule of thumb: anyone who criticizes a given translation should be ready to offer an alternative that, all things considered, works better.
There’s a fine discussion of the problems presented to translators by Chinese “absences of subject, number, and tense” and praise of the essays in The Ghosts of Birds that makes me want the book, but I’ve quoted quite enough already. Thanks, Trevor!