28 jun. 2007

Classical Chinese poetry is extremely constrainty. For example, a word (character) is not repeated in the same poem. There are complex rules for repetition of tones and syntactic parallelism is obligatory in pairs of lines. Rhyme is just one of many constraints.

What I find interesting is the idea that the reader of Chinese poetry in translation is presumed to be uninterested in this aspect of the poetry. In other words, that is not a criterion (or a pleasure) that enters into play at all, in all the wonderful (and non-wonderful) translations from the Chinese into "English poetry." The idea of reproducing or reinventing a set of complex rules in English is seen as totally non-interesting. Instead we have themes, ideas, philosophy in an orientalist lyricism.

10 comentarios:

Jay dijo...

Excellent point! As a frequent reader of Chinese poetry in translation, I've often wondered about exactly this problem: Readers of Chinese poetry in translation are presumed (wrongly, I think) to be uninterested in the complex rules governing its composition in Chinese. The result is that Chinese poetry in English often has a certain consistent flatness, which I doubt it has in Chinese.

I recall an interesting post that you wrote some time ago about surrogates or proxies for the formal requirements that cannot be exactly replicated in translation -- for example, I think, rules on the gender of line endings in Spanish poetry. And I recall that you discussed translators' using *other* formal requirements in the target language to approximate the formal requirements in the source language. I don't recall how successful you considered that approach. But I'm extremely curious about the extent to which English translators of Chinese poetry have tried it.

And, just for the record, my favorite English translators of Chinese poetry are the early Pound (Cathay) and Kenneth Rexroth. Are there any you recommend?

Thanks for a great post!

Jonathan dijo...

Witter Bynner is good, along with Pound. (I can't stand Rexroth's translations, frankly.) Yip uses a more literal method that is a valuable perspective. And there's always Arthur Waley. I just tend to read all the translations and split the differences.

Emily Lloyd dijo...

"What I find interesting is the idea..."

Not just interesting--utterly bizarre.

gary barwin dijo...

In haiku, likewise, though the syllable count is sometimes adhered to (which is a bit of an arbitrary constraint in English, though useful as a structuring, formal device, and one that certainly echoes the Japanese) other elements, such as "cutting words" are often ignored or dealt with as punctuation which has a very different effect. The cutting word "separates and yet joins the expressions before and after. It is punctuation that marks a transition — a particle of anticipation." (http://www.bopsecrets.org/gateway/passages/basho-frog.htm) Also, in Japanese haiku (and, I'm guessing, in Chinese poetry) the use of various formal elements in particular ways refers to ways in which the elements have been used in the tradition in general and by a specific poet or poem. The context invoked by the formal device is a big part of the pleasure and/or reception of the poem. Of course, in English our translations tend to invoke past traditions of translation as well as the tradition of the original text.

Perhaps it is helpful to remember than translations backwards is snoitalsnart.

Gary Barwin

John dijo...

I don't know Chinese, but David Hinton and J. P. Seaton's are terrific English and highly regarded. Vikram Seth translated three Tang era poets into rhyme; he also wrote a travel book of China (which I haven't read), recounting his wanderings when he passed as a member of a Chinese ethnic minority. He scoffs at Pound's Chinese translations.

A woman I know won't read verse translations of poetry. Prose versions only. It's not that she's not interested in the poetic constraints, it's that she doesn't trust any translator to do it justice.

Jonathan dijo...

I don't like Hinton's work. I wish I did but it's just not to my taste. It compares unfavorably with Bynner.

Anyone who scoffs at Pound's Cathay should be scoffed at in turn.

There is not really a "syllable count" in Japanese, but a count of morae. For example the word "hon" book has two morae. That's a common misperception of Japanese poetry.

John dijo...

"The famous translations of Ezra Pound, compounded as they are of ignorance of Chinese and valiant self-indulgence, have remained before me as a warning of what to shun."

It's witty scoffing.

I like Waley. I like Pound too, and don't know enough to know how far they stray from the originals. Aren't they rewrites of translations from Japanese translations? Calling Li Bai (a/k/a Li Po) "Rihaku" is a stretch.

gary barwin dijo...

In terms of Japanese prosody, I was using "syllable count" as a short way of talking about it. There's a really interesting article about emulating / taking into account Japanese haiku metrics in English haiku. It also explains other metric things that are going on in the haiku beyond the mora. It's at http://www.iyume.com/metrics/total2.html



Jonathan dijo...

It's easy enough to check Pound against a half-dozen other translations of the same poem by Li Po. I've done it in fact. If he is that inaccurate, then why does his version say pretty much what all the others do? There isn't a whole lot of semantic variation among various translations of the same classic poem, some done by those with a lot of Chinese, others done by those with none.

On the other hand, Pound was not only translating Li Po, but also inventing a new style of English-language poetry in the process. So his reasonably accurate version is also much better poetically than all the others, in most cases.

John dijo...

Cathay's most famous poem is probably "The River Merchant's Wife: a Letter." According to David Hinton, there's nothing in the poem to indicate that the husband is a river merchant. Hinton's title has the word "Song" rather than "Letter" -- very different connotations. And Hinton's closing is much tangy-er -- the implication is that the wife won't go very far to meet the husband. Pound's closing is ambiguous on this point, and his stilted diction makes it hard (for me) to get a grip on it.

As Jordan pointed out in a Bemsha Swing comment a week or 2 ago, inventing a new style -- Jordan usefully spoke of "differentiators" -- even a hugely influential style, like Pound's, is no guarantee of aesthetic success-in-itself. Following Jordan, I disagree with your conclusion that Pound's superiority follows from his inventiveness. As it turns out, I prefer Hinton on Li Po.