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:
no one to be seen.
human sounds and echoes.
enters the dark woods;
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.
A Greater Music is the first in a line of steady and much-anticipated releases by Bae Suah from key indie presses (this one published by Open Letter). Building off of the interest of 2016 Best Translated Book Award longlist nominee. . .
The dislocation of individuals from the countries of their birth has long been a common theme in contemporary literature. These two short novels recently translated into English appear firmly rooted in this tradition of ex-pat literature, but their authors eschew. . .
In Melancholy, Hungarian author, critic, and art theorist László Földényi presents a panorama of more than two thousand years of Western historical and cultural perspectives on the human condition known as melancholia. In nine chapters, Földényi contrasts the hero worship. . .
Pascal Quignard’s __The Hatred of Music_ is the densest, most arcane, most complex book I’ve read in ages. It’s also a book that covers a topic so basic, so universal—almost primordial—that just about any reader will be perversely thrilled by. . .
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. . .
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. . .
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. . .