Tribunals of Erudition and Taste.

I can go for years without posting about Chinese poetry, and then boom, twice in a few days. I don’t even know which bits to quote from Lucas Klein’s long and thoughtful LARB essay “Tribunals of Erudition and Taste: or, Why Translations of Premodern Chinese Poetry Are Having a Moment Right Now”; he covers so much ground, and provides so many enlightening and entertaining examples, I’m tempted to just say “Go read it.” But here’s a paragraph about a longstanding academic argument:

Today, around the globe, even the general public now agrees with Arnold: translation, like the understanding of other cultures, should aspire to scholarship, and scholarly judgment is the best judgment for translation. Of course, scholars are often as misled by their own cross-cultural fantasies as they are devoted to hard science. Nor do they necessarily agree about how to represent their erudition in translation, a trait illustrated by an argument between two academic specialists in medieval Chinese poetry almost 40 years ago: when Paul Kroll criticized Stephen Owen’s “imprecision in translation,” including his “tendency to translate hendiadys by a single word,” Owen replied that Kroll’s sense of poetry was “a bizarre and erroneous one in which all Chinese poetry sounds like early Wallace Stevens.” More objectively, Owen continued, “Kroll feels that I am insensitive to Chinese poetic language; I feel that he is; we simply have different views of what Chinese poetry is.” And since “American sinology seems roughly divided” between convictions that “at times seem to approach the religious, and are not susceptible to rational persuasion,” this conflict may never be brokered. (The dispute kept the two most respected scholars of Tang poetry in North America from cooperating or even speaking with each other for decades.) There is much room for disagreement inside the agreement that translation should satisfy scholars.

(And I will take this opportunity to express my gratitude to Stephen Owen for being the only member of the Yale faculty to behave decently to a budding Sinologist I cared a lot about, forty years ago.) And here’s a passage about a change I hadn’t been consciously aware of (although seeing it spelled out, I realize it makes sense based on things I’ve read):

And then something shifted. In the late 1970s, Snyder wrote a poem describing his translation and continuation of a Chinese poetic tradition as shaping the handle of an axe “By checking the handle / Of the axe we cut with […] shaping again, model / And tool, craft of culture, / How we go on.” By the early 1980s, this was replaced with another vision of “China,” such as Bob Perelman’s, which gets no closer to believing in the possibility of representing China than saying, “We live on the third world from the sun. Number three. Nobody tells us what to do.” China in the vanguard of American poetry no longer meant classical poetry, if it even meant anything that could be represented in poetry at all.

Avant-gardists’ turn away from classical China meant a turn toward premodern China by American poets of more conservative aesthetics. Academics continued to translate — most notably Burton Watson — as did poet translators with scholarly training in classical Chinese, such as David Hinton and Red Pine. But after Rexroth and Snyder, premodern Chinese influence dissipated through the work of American poets less interested in creating an avant-garde. Some holdovers continued, with François Cheng’s Chinese Poetic Writing translated from French in 1982 (with translations of Tang dynasty poetry by J. P. Seaton), and Eliot Weinberger’s 19 Ways of Looking at Wang Wei appearing in 1987, but even there we can sense the sea change: Weinberger’s narrative stops in 1978, and despite its popularity, it has never been reprinted. As of the 1980s, classical China stopped making it new.

On the axe handles, see this LH post from 2009. And thanks for the link, Trevor!

Comments

  1. To comment on one of the earlier paragraphs:

    Today, around the globe, even the general public now agrees with Arnold: translation, like the understanding of other cultures, should aspire to scholarship, and scholarly judgment is the best judgment for translation.

    I honestly don’t think this is true. The general public hates things they perceive as “scholarly,” and that includes translation. (Although perhaps not quite as much, or as universally, as publishers think they do.) What the general public wants translation to aspire to is authenticity. You don’t want a scholarly translation of Tolstoy — just imagine how boring that would be! All those footnotes and niggling pedantry around verb tenses! No, you want something lively and artistic, obviously quite beyond the capabilities of a mere scholar. But it must also be absolutely authentic in recreating the experience of reading the original in Russian, or you might as well just get drunk on vodka and read the Wikipedia synopsis for all the good it’ll do you. Sort of the Lonely Planet phenomenon gone literary.

    Incidentally, does anyone know how to actually download this new 3000-page complete works of Du Fu? All I can find are download links for individual sections…

  2. Bathrobe says:

    Mei-Mei Berssenbrugge is a wonderful name.

  3. I honestly don’t think this is true. The general public hates things they perceive as “scholarly,” and that includes translation.

    Yeah, I had the same reaction.

    Mei-Mei Berssenbrugge is a wonderful name.

    It certainly is!

  4. Veering off topic, I have a funny story about the first time I learned about Du Fu. My father and I used to go through the old Encyclopedia Britainica to try to find false entries, and we found the one for “Tu Fu,” which was extremely amusing. It discussed how, after being dismissed from the royal court, he “became a successful swineherd.” Halfway through the article, the poet was accosted by bandits, “robbed, beaten, and left for dead.” My father, who was reading the entry aloud, thought the whole thing was so absurd by that point that he read instead that Tu Fu was “robbed, beaten, and eaten.” We laughed, and we only laughed harder when, at the end of the article, we learned Du Fu had actually died when he ate so much that his stomach ruptured (after having been trapped in an empty temple without food for two weeks during a flood).

    After reading all this, we put the volume of the encyclopedia away and promptly forgot the name “Tu Fu.” When I wanted to show the absurd entry to somebody, I couldn’t. It was only two years later that I thought to look up the entry for Li Po (whose name I did remember) and look up everyone else mentioned in that article, which led me back to Tu Fu pretty easily.

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