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.
Yet—hear—
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
$10.95
Kingdom Cons
Kingdom Cons by Yuri Herrera
Reviewed by Sarah Booker

Yuri Herrera is overwhelming in the way that he sucks readers into his worlds, transporting them to a borderland that is at once mythical in its construction and powerfully recognizable as a reflection of its modern-day counterpart. Kingdom Cons, originally. . .

Read More >

The Invented Part
The Invented Part by Rodrigo Fresán
Reviewed by Tiffany Nichols

Imagine reading a work that suddenly and very accurately calls out you, the reader, for not providing your full attention to the act of reading. Imagine how embarrassing it is when you, the reader, believe that you are engrossed in. . .

Read More >

A Simple Story: The Last Malambo
A Simple Story: The Last Malambo by Leila Guerriero
Reviewed by Emilee Brecht

Leila Guerriero’s A Simple Story: The Last Malambo chronicles the unique ferocity of a national dance competition in Argentina. The dance, called the malambo, pushes the physical and mental limits of male competitors striving to become champions of not only. . .

Read More >

The Little Buddhist Monk & The Proof
The Little Buddhist Monk & The Proof by Cesar Aira
Reviewed by Will Eells

Aira continues to surprise and delight in his latest release from New Directions, which collects two novellas: the first, The Little Buddhist Monk, a fairly recent work from 2005, and The Proof, an earlier work from 1989. There are a. . .

Read More >

Agnes
Agnes by Peter Stamm
Reviewed by Dorian Stuber

The narrator of Peter Stamm’s first novel, Agnes, originally published in 1998 and now available in the U.S. in an able translation by Michael Hofmann, is a young Swiss writer who has come to Chicago to research a book on. . .

Read More >

Class
Class by Francesco Pacifico
Reviewed by Vincent Francone

The thing about Class is that I don’t know what the hell to think about it, yet I can’t stop thinking about it. I’ll begin by dispensing with the usual info that one may want to know when considering adding. . .

Read More >

The Dispossessed
The Dispossessed by Szilárd Borbély
Reviewed by Jason Newport

To be, or not to be?

Hamlet’s enduring question is one that Szilárd Borbély, acclaimed Hungarian poet, verse-playwright, librettist, essayist, literary critic, short-story writer, and, finally, novelist, answered sadly in the negative, through his suicide in 2014, at the. . .

Read More >