West Wind Keen.

Back in 2018 the Paris Review published a piece by Anthony Madrid called Guy Davenport’s Translation of Mao that’s so irresistible I can barely resist quoting the whole thing. But I am strong, so I will just quote the start:

In 1979, Guy Davenport’s second book of “stories” appeared: Da Vinci’s Bicycle. He was fifty-one. I put quotation marks around the word stories because almost nothing happens in any of them. When they’re good, they’re good for other reasons.

Davenport was a disciple of Ezra Pound and James Joyce, and like everyone answering that description, he was a supreme crank. The main problem with all of these guys is that they vastly overestimate the value of literary allusion. And I know all about it, ’cuz I was ruined in my youth by these lizard-eating weirdos. Davenport certainly did his part.

They were all brilliant. They could write sentences that stick with you forever. Most people never write even one; these guys could practically cut them off by the yard. Yet, none of ’em knew when to stop. They always, always got carried away. My hypothesis is that too much of their motivation for writing was to enshrine their crankitudes. They were always trying to get away with something.

Zoom in on Davenport. Let me ask you: How much Chinese do you suppose he knew? I think the smart money is on “very little.” He probably knew about as much as I do—which is to say, as much as can be learned from one semester of study, augmented by the eager observation of one or two native speakers reciting a handful of classic poems.

But a supreme crank knows how to exploit every little drop of whatever he or she knows. […] Armed with this thought, he did a translation of a famous poem by Mao Zedong. The form of his translation is unique in American letters: The text is set up as quatrains (that’s normal enough), but the individual lines have only three syllables each. Davenport knew that this did not accurately reflect the original Chinese, but—and this is where the brilliance comes in—it does get across (like nothing else available in English) the collapsed syntax and staccato pacing of classical shi poetry.

And here’s the start of the poem:

West wind keen,
[Up] steep sky
Wild geese cry
For dawn moon.

I’m skipping over the hilarious setting of the translation (a deadpan account of Nixon’s visit to the People’s Republic of China) and the original poem (not a shi but a ci) and two other translations of the same poem and leaving you to visit the link for them; here’s one last snippet:

But there’s the pity of it, Iago! Davenport’s version is misleading, damnably misleading, if our object is to “work towards the Chairman” and his particular poem. But! If we want to be led to a more general truth about what most Chinese poems were bound to sound like, both to Nixon and to Davenport as native speakers of English, then “West wind keen, / Up steep sky / Wild geese cry / For dawn moon” blows the other translations out of the water.

And I am forced to add that I made the mistake of clicking on the link for Madrid’s name and finding this page of his contributions to the Review, and they’re all just as delightful. Here he investigates the origin of the famous saying “Alexander wept, seeing as he had no more worlds to conquer” (“‘In what ancient text does that passage appear?’ Answer: it appears nowhere”), and here he raves about “Russia’s Dr. Seuss,” Kornei Chukovsky, throwing in a caricature by Mayakovsky and a clip of Chukovsky reading his own “Telephone” (1926). He also quotes the first stanza of “Putanitsa” (“The Muddle”), adding the Google Translate version:

The kittens were crocked:
“I’m tired of meowing!
We want, like a pig,

“The line ‘We want, like a pig, grunt!’—especially if performed with a strong Russian accent—has great charm and authority, and has indeed acquired, in my household, the status of a classic line, like something out of Virgil.”

OK, I’m off to spend the rest of the day investigating his past contributions and cackling. Enjoy!


  1. The Paris Review article appears to have a typo, which has been dutifully copied here. As the later excerpt indicates, the second line of the translated poem is: “Up steep sky” (which indeed has three syllables).

  2. Good catch, and I’ve fixed it.

  3. David Marjanović says

    “Alexander wept, seeing as he had no more worlds to conquer” (“‘In what ancient text does that passage appear?’ Answer: it appears nowhere”)

    I was going to say! Caesar wept, seeing as he still hadn’t conquered the world at Alexander’s age. Then he went and conquered Gaul out of pure spite.

  4. And Britain in a fit of absence of mind.

  5. Bloody Romans, coming over ‘ere with their superior construction methods and their fancy cuisine. What’s wrong with drinking mead in leaky wattle-and-daub huts and eating weasels? I think the Romans should stay in Rome and feed Christians to the lions, not come over ‘ere and connect the country with perfectly straight roads that last two thousand years. Bloody Romans!

  6. Delightful. But if Nixon/Davenport are allowed to interpret poetry in tsr style as a three-by-fourth, I want to bring your attention to the following pearl of Russian poetry

    Дыр бул щыл
    убеш щур
    вы со бу
    р л эз

    Which we can loosely translate as

    Dyr bul schyl
    ubesh schur
    vy so bu
    r l ehz

    But the best choice would be to translate it to IPA. Alas, my knowledge of that language is very limited.

  7. An excellent comparison. I’m surprised no one has called it a version of a Chinese poem before.

  8. An excellent tribute to Эз.

  9. The wind, the geese, and Davenport made me think of “Scél lem duib”, https://bokane.tumblr.com/image/74649198587. Flann O’Brien’s translation here: https://books.google.com/books?id=8JVSDwAAQBAJ&pg=PA55&lpg=PA55&dq=%22shapes+are+hidden%22+scel+lem+duib#v=onepage&q=%22shapes%20are%20hidden%22%20scel%20lem%20duib&f=false

    Sadly, I was unable to get Google Translate to produce crocked kittens (with either U.K. or U.S. English set as the language Chrome translates pages into); I always got “Kittens meowed”. After removing the linebreaks, I got Kittens meowed: “tired of meowing! We want to grunt like piglets!” Generally, I’ve noticed that getting rid of the line breaks inside paragraphs helps.

  10. Jen in Edinburgh says

    I misread that as crooked kittens – presumably the offspring of the cat who caught a crooked mouse.

  11. The Internet is such a merry-go-round that you keep coming across things you’ve read before. I’d read this one, thought it was really interesting, and even vaguely remember passing it on to someone — but it obviously wasn’t LanguageHat.

    Chinese poetry is excellent material for making what you want of it, especially if you don’t understand the scholar-official mindset that lies behind it.

  12. Kruchenykh deserves to be read in the original.

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