Eliot Weinberger takes big strides across literary history in his genuinely breathtaking short work, 19 Ways of Looking at Wang Wei, tracking translations of a short ancient Chinese poem from the publication of Ezra Pound’s Cathay in 1915 to Gary Snyder’s translations in the late ’70s. This new edition from New Directions Publishing includes an addition Weinberger wrote this past year, covering more recent efforts by sinologists in the twenty-first century in English, French, and German.

The poem in question is Wang Wei’s “Deer Park,” written sometime in the 700s CE. For reference, here is Gary Snyder’s translation, which fittingly is the last of the original 19 ways:

Empty mountains;
no one to be seen.
human sounds and echoes.
Returning sunlight
enters the dark woods;
Again shining
on the green moss, above.

Weinberger makes short work of the early twentieth-century practices of versifying the poems, rendering them in eloquent nineteenth-century language, and “improving” the original with unwarranted additions. Most of the translations reviewed are torn to bits in the space of a few paragraphs, or less. For instance, his evaluation of Liu’s 1962 verse translation: “. . . the first two lines heave, the third gasps, and the fourth falls with a thud on the rhyming mossy ground.” Weinberger tears apart “the corset of traditional verse forms,” allowing the very intentional style of the Chinese to show itself.

But he also turns an equally sharp and penetrating critical eye to more modern attempts. He is attentive enough to the imagery to point out, for example, that a fair few recent translators have rendered the poem inaccurately by imagining the wrong species of the moss in the fourth line.

A single word—such as zhao, “reflected,” or shang, “above”—is refracted between poems through the whole study, its varying English glosses held up against the image constructed by Wang’s original. The reader thus spends most of the book in Wang’s place, standing in the empty mountains, straining to hear the faint echoes of the original, and analyzing each translation as though examining a patch of moss from different angles in the light of the setting sun.

Weinberger easily grasps, over the course of this history, the essential elements of Wang Wei’s original poem: namely, the long-established Chinese propensity for parallelism, and the Buddhist idea of emptiness. Not very difficult to take cognizance of, but equally easy to miss; and those who do miss it are rightly panned as unfaithful to the original. For anyone with some Chinese reading ability, it is shockingly, visibly apparent which translations are close to the original and which aren’t, which is part of what makes this work so powerful and persuasive.

It becomes clear that it is American modernism, characterized by “absolute precision, concision, and the use of everyday speech,” which is best suited to classical Chinese poetry in its deliberate simplicity. Hence the success of the translations of Burton Watson and Snyder (above), the tacit “winners” of Weinberger’s wide-ranging judgment.

Ever conscious of the Buddhist thrust of Wang’s poem, Weinberger turns out a very Buddhist conclusion: “translation is dependent on the dissolution of the translator’s ego.” This work is surely the manifesto of the modern—silent—translator.

Comments are disabled for this article.


Nineteen Ways of Looking at Wang Wei
By Eliot Weinberger
Reviewed by Russell Guilbault
64 pages, paperback
ISBN: 9780811226202
Fragile Travelers
Fragile Travelers by Jovanka Živanović
Reviewed by Damian Kelleher

In Gustave Flaubert’s Madame Bovary, Flaubert attempted to highlight the ordinary, tired, and often crass nature of common expressions by italicising them within the text. When Charles, Emma Bovary’s mediocre husband, expresses himself in a manner akin to that of. . .

Read More >

Nineteen Ways of Looking at Wang Wei
Nineteen Ways of Looking at Wang Wei by Eliot Weinberger
Reviewed by Russell Guilbault

Eliot Weinberger takes big strides across literary history in his genuinely breathtaking short work, 19 Ways of Looking at Wang Wei, tracking translations of a short ancient Chinese poem from the publication of Ezra Pound’s Cathay in 1915 to Gary. . .

Read More >

Radio: Wireless Poem in Thirteen Messages
Radio: Wireless Poem in Thirteen Messages by Kyn Taniya
Reviewed by Vincent Francone

Prose translators will likely disagree, but I believe translating poetry requires a significant level of talent, a commitment to the text, and near mania, all of which suggests that the undertaking is the greatest possible challenge. The task is to. . .

Read More >

The Subsidiary
The Subsidiary by Matías Celedón
Reviewed by Vincent Francone

The biggest issues with books like The Subsidiary often have to do with their underpinnings—when we learn that Georges Perec wrote La Disparition without once using the letter E, we are impressed. Imagine such a task! It takes a high. . .

Read More >

Thus Bad Begins
Thus Bad Begins by Javier Marías
Reviewed by Kristel Thornell

Following The Infatuations, Javier Marías’s latest novel seems, like those that have preceded it, an experiment to test fiction’s capacity to mesmerize with sombre-sexy atmospheres and ruminative elongated sentences stretched across windowless walls of paragraphs. Thus Bad Begins offers his. . .

Read More >

Death by Water
Death by Water by Kenzaburo Oe
Reviewed by Will Eells

Death by Water, Kenzaburo Oe’s latest novel to be translated into English, practically begs you to read it as autobiography. Like The Changeling, as well as many other works not yet released in English, Death by Water is narrated in. . .

Read More >

Twenty-One Cardinals
Twenty-One Cardinals by Jocelyne Saucier
Reviewed by Natalya Tausanovitch

Jocelyne Saucier’s Twenty-One Cardinals is about the type of unique, indestructible, and often tragic loyalty only found in families. For a brief but stunningly mesmerizing 169 pages, Twenty-One Cardinals invited me in to the haunting and intimate world of the. . .

Read More >