Tribunals of Erudition and Taste: or, Why Translations of Premodern Chinese Poetry Are Having a Moment Right Now

By Lucas KleinJuly 14, 2016

Tribunals of Erudition and Taste: or, Why Translations of Premodern Chinese Poetry Are Having a Moment Right Now
POETRY TRANSLATION, though Americans generally pay little attention to it, is a contentious domain. Consider Matthew Arnold and Francis W. Newman’s argument about the essence of a translated literary work, and whether taste or scholarship should determine poetry translations. In “The Translator’s Tribunal” (1861), right after the Second Opium War (1856–’60) and the British army’s burning of the Summer Palaces in Beijing, Arnold wrote against popular and popularizing poetry translations such as Alexander Pope’s of Homer (1715–1720, 1726), claiming that the translator “is to try to satisfy scholars, because scholars alone have the means of really judging him.” Newman responded nearly a decade later, in 1870, that scholars may constitute “the tribunal of Erudition, but of Taste the educated but unlearned public is the only rightful judge.” Though they were not writing in direct reference to Chinese literature, or even imperialism and trade, their debate nevertheless has shaped much current thinking not only about translation, but also about China.

Today, around the globe, even the general public now agrees with Arnold: translation, like the understanding of other cultures, should aspire to scholarship, and scholarly judgment is the best judgment for translation. Of course, scholars are often as misled by their own cross-cultural fantasies as they are devoted to hard science. Nor do they necessarily agree about how to represent their erudition in translation, a trait illustrated by an argument between two academic specialists in medieval Chinese poetry almost 40 years ago: when Paul Kroll criticized Stephen Owen’s “imprecision in translation,” including his “tendency to translate hendiadys by a single word,” Owen replied that Kroll’s sense of poetry was “a bizarre and erroneous one in which all Chinese poetry sounds like early Wallace Stevens.” More objectively, Owen continued, “Kroll feels that I am insensitive to Chinese poetic language; I feel that he is; we simply have different views of what Chinese poetry is.” And since “American sinology seems roughly divided” between convictions that “at times seem to approach the religious, and are not susceptible to rational persuasion,” this conflict may never be brokered. (The dispute kept the two most respected scholars of Tang poetry in North America from cooperating or even speaking with each other for decades.) There is much room for disagreement inside the agreement that translation should satisfy scholars.

The idea that translation is primarily academic has its apostates and adversaries among poets, of course, but it’s more interesting to see how poet translators have attempted to reconcile the two sides, blending aspects of scholarly rigor with the poetic tastes of their day. One example is Cathay, Ezra Pound’s 1915 translations of classical Chinese poetry, now republished by New Directions in a facsimile edition with a foreword by Pound’s daughter, Mary de Rachewiltz, and an introduction by Zhaoming Qian, as well as the transcribed notes of Ernest Fenollosa from which Pound worked. Though Pound followed the method of Pope’s Odyssey, working with and from those who knew the source language better, he borrowed the means Arnold advocated, finding the beauty in an understated and unadorned scholarly idiom, producing translations in a language that presented itself as able to withstand replication and review. As T. S. Eliot explained in his introduction to Pound’s New Selected Poems and Translations (1928), “modern scholarly translations […] do not give us what the Tudors gave,” but when “a foreign poet is successfully done into the idiom of our own language and our own time, we believe that he has been ‘translated’; we believe that through this translation we really at last get the original.” Pound’s translations, said Eliot, “seem to be — and that is the test of excellence — translucencies: we think we are closer to the Chinese,” even though we cannot be. Indeed, generations of scholars have critiqued Pound’s translations for not being able to withstand scholarly review.

But what matters for poetry translation overall is Pound’s blending of the pretense of scholarly accuracy with the idiom of poetic taste. In the process he created a taste for avant-garde poetry — as William Wordsworth said, “Every great and original writer […] must himself create the taste by which he is to be relished.” Or as Pound said, “Make it new.” This is what Eliot meant by calling Pound “the inventor of Chinese poetry for our time.” And Pound’s inventions for Chinese translation — the modest musicality, the presentations of parataxis, the free verse dramatic monologues (also present in Spoon River Anthology by Edgar Lee Masters, likewise from 1915) — helped change poetic taste in English.

For generations these changes in poetic taste fed back into Chinese. Not only did Pound change the translation style of scholars like Arthur Waley and those who came after (including both Kroll and Owen); the call to make it new became so associated with classical Chinese that avant-gardists and experimentalists from Amy Lowell to William Carlos Williams to Kenneth Rexroth to Gary Snyder published translations of Chinese poetry that are inseparable from their own progressive works.

And then something shifted. In the late 1970s, Snyder wrote a poem describing his translation and continuation of a Chinese poetic tradition as shaping the handle of an axe “By checking the handle / Of the axe we cut with […] shaping again, model / And tool, craft of culture, / How we go on.” By the early 1980s, this was replaced with another vision of “China,” such as Bob Perelman’s, which gets no closer to believing in the possibility of representing China than saying, “We live on the third world from the sun. Number three. Nobody tells us what to do.” China in the vanguard of American poetry no longer meant classical poetry, if it even meant anything that could be represented in poetry at all.

Avant-gardists’ turn away from classical China meant a turn toward premodern China by American poets of more conservative aesthetics. Academics continued to translate — most notably Burton Watson — as did poet translators with scholarly training in classical Chinese, such as David Hinton and Red Pine. But after Rexroth and Snyder, premodern Chinese influence dissipated through the work of American poets less interested in creating an avant-garde. Some holdovers continued, with François Cheng’s Chinese Poetic Writing translated from French in 1982 (with translations of Tang dynasty poetry by J. P. Seaton), and Eliot Weinberger’s 19 Ways of Looking at Wang Wei appearing in 1987, but even there we can sense the sea change: Weinberger’s narrative stops in 1978, and despite its popularity, it has never been reprinted. As of the 1980s, classical China stopped making it new.

The benefit is increased attention by what is now called American poetry’s “post-avant” to writing from contemporary China. In 2015 poets Bei Dao 北岛, Ouyang Jianghe 欧阳江河, Xi Chuan 西川, Zhai Yongming 翟永明, and Zhou Zan 周瓒 gave a reading at a packed St. John’s cathedral in Manhattan with Charles Bernstein, Mei-Mei Berssenbrugge, Pierre Joris, and others. And while no single-author collections by poets living in mainland China were published in English until 2008 (in contrast to at least 11 anthologies of contemporary Chinese poetry since 1990 and a sizable number of books by Taiwanese poets or Chinese writers in exile), since then we have been living in a golden age of contemporary Chinese poetry in English translation, with three presses in particular — New Directions, University of Oklahoma, and Zephyr — putting out the most and the best titles (I have been a participant in this resurgence myself, translating poetry books for two of these presses). But the drawback has been relegating premodern China to “tradition,” even as expressed in American poetry.

Noticing how premodern China had been left out of the push for the new in contemporary writing in English, I edited a special issue of the literary journal Cha, highlighting Asian antiquity. “Whereas an earlier network of writers interested in ‘making it new’ looked at ancient Asia,” I wrote in the introductory editorial, “since the end of the Vietnam War, Chairman Mao’s Cultural Revolution and Indira Gandhi’s State of Emergency, those who want to ‘make it new’ in English have looked more to contemporary Asia.” That was December 2013. Yet since then, something seems to have shifted again: the year Cathay turned 100, Burton Watson won the PEN/Ralph Manheim Medal for lifetime achievement in translation; two new translations of the bronze-age I Ching have appeared, one of which was shortlisted for the 2015 PEN translation prize; Chinese University Press and New York Review Books have co-issued a series called Calligrams: Writings from and on China that features reprints of otherwise unavailable works; and more.

And then there is the poetry.

The small rebirth of the poetic vanguard of Chinese poetry translation started with Derangements of My Contemporaries (New Directions, 2014), a slim book of lists by late Tang dynasty poet Li Shangyin 李商隱 (c. 813–’58) translated by Chloe Garcia Roberts. Not considered poetry in the poet’s lifetime, yet not prose (and in China it is included in neither his collected poems nor his collected prose writings), Derangements is a translation of Li Shangyin’s Za Zuan 雜纂, or “random compilations.” Considered by some scholars a precedent for The Pillow Book of Japanese court lady Sei Shōnagon 清少納言 (c. 966–1017/1025), it offers a look at Tang China beyond its ossified image as a cultural “golden age” (the double standards of its “Instructions on Raising a Son” and “Instructions on Raising a Daughter,” for instance). It is also a perfect reintroduction to medieval China by a generation of poetry readers that learned to read with Perelman’s disjunctive “China.” Roberts’s title comes from one of its compiled lists:

Escalating Derangements of My Contemporaries

For no reason, feeling bitter envy and lingering resentment toward others
Drunkenly calling on ghosts and spirits
Grieving sons reciting song lyrics
Dressing in deep mourning at a cock fight or horse race
Enemies reminiscing
Grown men flying kites in the wind
Enabling the wanderings of vagrants
Selling land or businesses in fortune, misfortune
People in dire straits casting divination blocks
Mortgaging land and houses
Married women cursing and scolding in streets and alleyways

The small volume includes sparse notes — “divination blocks: 柸筊 (peijiao; a variant of 柸珓) are crescent-shaped fortune-telling objects made of wood or other materials, which are cast in pairs and then ‘read’ to divine the thrower’s future” — and the translator’s brief afterword, demonstrating the translation’s simultaneous aspirations as a work of poetry and of scholarship. Garcia Roberts is a relatively young poet, but she taps into a number of poetic traditions in her translations. She is based in Boston where she is managing editor for the Harvard Review, but her immediate precedents have spent years in the wilderness — literally and metaphorically. David Hinton has translated a veritable library of classical Chinese poetry and philosophy (he is the first translator since James Legge in Victorian England to translate the Confucian Analects, the Mencius, the Chuang Tzu, and the Tao Te Ching, not to mention his recent I Ching). Living in the Vermont mountains, his best translations are of poets who, like him, made an active choice to live outside the urban bustle. His newest book of poetry, The Late Poems of Wang An-Shih (New Directions, 2015), is such a book, but Hinton’s continuation of Snyder’s writing of the idyll that is not an idol has made his poetics seem hard to place. His publisher’s website even promotes the book by saying Wang An-shih enters English with a “deeply ecological approach […] sure to resonate with fans of Gary Snyder, Mary Oliver, and Hayden Carruth” — certainly the first time New Directions has pitched itself to readers of Mary Oliver! But Hinton’s versions are vanguard even as the image of the world they present is not.

The book presents the poems of Wang An-Shih 王安石 (1021–1086), “one of the most powerful and controversial statesmen in Chinese history” who nevertheless “remained frugal almost to a fault and completely immune, even hostile, to the grandeur of high office and political power” after he retired to Zhongshan, or Bell Mountain, in Jiangsu province, to live as a recluse and to spend “his last decade wandering among the mountains and Ch’an (Zen) Buddhist monasteries of southeast China, writing the poetry that made him one of the greatest poets in a great poetic age.” But rather than plain pastorals, Hinton’s translations are Bell Mountain meets Black Mountain: the translations look like they were composed to James Laughlin’s typewriter metric, where each line can be no more than one space longer or shorter than the line before it:

Sent to Candor-Sky 寄蔡天啟

I follow a creek, goosefoot walking-stick in hand, then set out
across bridges. Can anyone share autumn’s depths of crystalline

quiet? I linger on East Ridge and wonder, wonder. Here, it’s all
ravaged grasses, clouds gone cold, evening distances, distances.

杖藜緣塹複穿橋 誰與高秋共寂寥 佇立東岡一搔首 冷雲衰草暮迢迢

Nothing in the Chinese necessitates the enjambment: premodern poems were published unpunctuated and without line breaks, so lines needed to be end-stopped and grammatical to ensure readers understood them. Yet, “set out / across bridges” pushes momentum forward, while the break between “crystalline” and “quiet” introduces skepticism. Does the quiet bring quietude? The weeds and cold clouds in the last line suggest not. Also, the repetition of “distances, distances” is Wang’s, but its parallelism with “wonder, wonder” is Hinton’s own contribution; a mundane rendition closer to the Chinese would translate it as “a scratch of the head.” Introducing an offset parallelism, taken from other formal prescriptiveness in classical Chinese, Hinton creates an aesthetic device in English poetics as an extension of his scholarly knowledge of Chinese.

On the other side of the country, but also in the wilderness, is translator Red Pine. The pen name of Bill Porter, he was living on food stamps until his travel writing started selling well in Chinese translation. His poetics are less radical than Hinton’s (his newest book is dedicated to W. S. Merwin), but he has also been in the wilderness with respect to the society of American poetry: though his books have had their readers, they have not exerted the poetic influence generally due to writers of their output and aptitude. Finding Them Gone: Visiting China’s Poets of the Past (Copper Canyon Press, 2016), a new anthology of classical Chinese poetry interspersing records of Porter’s trips to the poets’ graves, has been promoted more thoroughly (it was reviewed here by Justin Wadland). The book begins with Porter speeding in a taxi to the station in Beijing to catch a bullet train to other parts of China, where he will make pilgrimages to classical poets’ graves to read their poems and drink bourbon. For every poet whose grave or landmark he finds, we get a translated poem. The first in the book is by Ch’en Tzu-ang 陳子昂 (661–702):

Climbing Youchou Tower Song 登幽州臺歌

I don’t see the ancients who came before me
I don’t see those yet to come
facing the endlessness of Heaven and Earth
I am so overcome I cry

前不見古人 後不見來者 念天地之悠悠   獨愴然而涕下

This is, in the original Chinese, my least favorite famous poem in the tradition. Centuries of readers have been moved by the weight of metaphysical and moral loneliness overwhelming the poet, who is moved to tears. But without the emotional and ideological attachment to that cultural background, I just find it schmaltzy. In Red Pine’s translation, though, it has a simplicity and understatement that almost charms me.

The travelogues as put down in Finding Them Gone are likewise understatedly delightful. It’s easy to mystify China or wax portentous about its discarded glories, but Porter remains plainspoken, low-key, and sympathetic when describing his guides and the people who try to give him directions to less-traveled tourist sites. Nor does he moralize about China’s lost essences when writing about hotels, traffic jams, and bullet trains (pollution, of course, merits an occasional aside).

For this reason, “Youchou Tower” is a strange poem to start with: though Porter’s journey begins in Beijing and Ch’en Tzu-ang wrote his poem near there, the chronicles are of a China that sees the past through its poetry but also the future. The book’s title, which comes from poems written for friends not there to receive the poets who wrote them, nicely brings the oxymoron of classical Chinese poetry’s absent presence to the fore. But within its pages, the book shows more finding, less gone.

Porter embeds the annotations, explications, and critical apparatus in his travel narrative. But while literary translation has been at pains to come off as rigorous, scholarship on Chinese poetry in English has avoided confronting translation as such. Stanford professor Ronald Egan’s The Burden of Female Talent, a masterful study of the works and days of Li Qingzhao 李清照 (1084–c. 1151), which should reset many of China’s misleading myths about her, only once mentions the 1979 Kenneth Rexroth and Ling Chung translation of premodern China’s greatest woman poet, and only to say the insights of its scholarship “had little impact, since the volume presents itself primarily as literary translation rather than as a scholarly study.” I would have thought that a scholarly argument made to a nonspecialist audience would have had more impact.

Yet serious readers of poetry have never been averse to scholarship, within translation or without. Earlier scholarly translations and explications of classical Chinese poetry, such as A. C. Graham’s 1965 Poems of the Late T’ang, David Hawkes’s A Little Primer of Tu Fu from 1967, and François Cheng’s aforementioned writings in French, were all influential to American poets from Charles Reznikoff to Stanley Kunitz to Gustaf Sobin. This is why The Poetry of Du Fu (De Gruyter, 2015), Stephen Owen’s translation of the complete extant output of China’s most canonical poet, Du Fu 杜甫 (712–770), is so significant — or should be.

At six volumes totaling almost 3,000 pages, it is to my knowledge the first English translation of the complete poetic output of any individual Chinese poet in history. It is also available for free download. The first publication in the new Library of Chinese Humanities, begun by Owen and Paul Kroll (who have, thankfully, resolved their quarrel from nearly four decades ago), its readership should not want for breadth or for depth. As poetry, however, Owen translates for Arnoldian scholarship, without accommodating much contemporary Newmanish poetic taste. “Although these translations can be used by general readers,” he explains, “the primary audience are those who have some level of Chinese, but whose Chinese is not up to reading Du Fu.”

This strategy makes sense, but it is disappointing. Since Owen then adds, “I’m not sure anyone’s Chinese is up to reading Du Fu,” I’d expect, or at least desire, an English version that tries to be intense and bold and fluid as he is in Chinese. Instead, here is Owen with one of Du Fu’s most famous poems:

View in Spring 春望

The state broken, its mountains and rivers remain,
the city turns spring, deep with plants and trees.
Stirred by the time, flowers, sprinkling tears,
hating parting, birds, alarm the heart.
Beacon fires stretch through three months,
a letter from family worth ten thousand in silver.
I’ve scratched my white hair even shorter,
pretty much to the point where it won’t hold a hatpin.

國破山河在 城春草木深 感時花濺淚 恨別鳥驚心
烽火連三月 家書抵萬金 白頭搔更短 渾欲不勝簪

Owen is obviously attempting poetry here, but his reach exceeds his grasp. Following the conventional punctuation in modern editions, the first couplet gives Owen a comma splice. Du Fu’s second couplet is notorious for its ambiguity about who is doing what to whom: is the poet sprinkling tears on the flowers because he’s stirred by the time, or the flowers who, themselves stirred, are crying with rain or dew? Likewise, who hates parting, the birds or the poet? And are the birds’ heart (or hearts?) alarmed or the poet’s? Owen’s lines reflect the confusion but do not reproduce the polyvalence, and we get a sentence that suggests an enjambed catalog without ever giving us a conjugated verb. The following couplet begins well, but why not “a letter from my family”? And why “ten thousand in silver,” when the Chinese reads gold? And none of this poetic effect plays well against the underwhelming last line. And yet, despite its deficiencies, I do hope Owen’s Du Fu inspires poets, whether they know classical Chinese or not, to continue Owen’s work with their own reinventions.

Will it? Will this recent burst of classical Chinese poetry in English translation end up but a blip, or will it start a new sea swell of American poetry freshly inspired by an old Chinese seen anew? (Not that there is any need to limit the purview to American poetry: Shearsman has just published Staunin Ma Lane, a collection of classical Chinese poems translated into Scots by Brian Holton — wonderful to read perhaps especially for those of us who do not know Scots!)

If classical Chinese poetry is going to reinvigorate English anew, though, it will need to come to terms with Ezra Pound’s Chinese, and what his translations and poetry did for poetry and translation, as well as for our understanding of China. Pound was a fascist and anti-Semite and translated from Asian poetry without knowing the language in question, so it makes sense that an uneasiness would come from both curmudgeonly specialists in Asian literature repeating the Arnold line of displeasure at his inaccuracies, as well as from Newman-like purveyors of poetic taste who’d rather deny that Pound’s contributions to English have anything to do with his representations of other cultures. Some might even imply that the discursive style into which East Asian poetry has been translated since Pound only reveals the racism behind the enterprise of translating Chinese into English (how many times was Pound mentioned, for instance, as paving the way for “Yi-Fen Chou” and Calvin Trillin’s New Yorker poem?).

Biographer Ira Nadel’s Cathay: Ezra Pound’s Orient (Penguin, 2015), in honor (if that is the word for it) of the centenary of Pound’s translations, is a case in point. This is not the book to help anyone resolve cross-cultural queasiness. In an interview, Nadel said, “Cathay is definitely NOT a translation.” It’s too bad that Penguin couldn’t have published such an accessible, introductory study about Pound and Cathay by someone who actually knew something about translation and its history of contentious redefinitions, in particular the understanding that translation has not always been defined according to our contemporary philological constriction (I expect next year’s Cathay: A Critical Edition, edited by Timothy Billings for Fordham University Press, will be better, if not too academic for general readers). Throughout, Nadel scare-quotes Pound’s “‘translations’” and speaks of his poetic contribution only as an act confined within the tradition of writing in English, never as a matter of intercultural communication or representation.

Translation, for Nadel, is effectively impossible, and he parrots Robert Kern’s influential yet similarly flawed 1996 study in his assertion that Pound embraces Ralph Waldo Emerson’s “ideas about language and poetry uniting Western and Eastern concepts. Chinese for Pound partly meant the recovery or reinvention of the innocent speech of Adam, returning to a world that Emerson idealised.” Nadel gives no evidence of this, of course, as Pound’s project was in fact antithetical to transcendentalism, based rather on forging a new poetics, not an old idealism; as Zhaoming Qian points out, “Pound detested abstractions,” and as Pound’s daughter puts it, invoking her father, “Good poetry is good currency if kept in circulation.” Nadel’s disparagement of Pound’s attempts to create a new language for translation that would also be a new language for poetry is most evident in his subtitular reference to Pound’s “Orient”: one of the unintended consequences of Edward Said’s nearly 40-year-old book is how accusations of Orientalism have ended up discouraging Americans from learning about other cultures. We should all be introspective and critical of whatever impulses we have either to belittle or idealize our cultural others, but we should not let fear of such introspection stand in the way of our attempts to know other cultures to the extent possible, and from such knowledge build translations.

The stakes of poetry translation from Chinese are indeed the stakes both of how we understand translation and how we in the English-speaking world understand China. Translation is neither simply a matter for scholars to judge, nor is it something that can be left to the unaccountable imaginings of revelers in poetry — any more than China should be something only specialists or tourists alone can pronounce upon. Rather, bringing expertise and excitement together, translation can help expand our conceptions of poetry and of China, demanding more from ourselves, and more from it. The contentiousness may remain, but it can motivate us to create new and better representations.

So will American poetry turn outward again, and in the process help redefine China as more than a strategic competitor, accused of currency manipulation by presidential candidates, or more than a polluted manufacturer to which we outsource abuses of human rights and labor? Will Chinese literature prove an old repository of poetic presentation from which the United States can both learn and create new beauty? Certainly larger historical and socioeconomic forces will determine the directions our poetry turns, but insofar as what we publish has any role, I see reasons for optimism — and in that optimism, a readiness to engage in the tensions of global and local that inhere in translation.

The recent poetry collections covered in this essay demonstrate a hunger for new ways of understanding and appreciating China, and more are coming soon. Eliot Weinberger’s 19 Ways of Looking at Wang Wei is being republished in an expanded edition by New Directions later this year, and New York Review Books’s Calligrams line, which Weinberger edits, will reprint Hawkes’s A Little Primer of Tu Fu and Donald Riggs’s translation of Cheng’s Chinese Poetic Writing. With these additions reaching new audiences, we may see premodern Chinese poetry making it new once again.


Lucas Klein is assistant professor at the University of Hong Kong. His translation Notes on the Mosquito: Selected Poems of Xi Chuan won the 2013 Lucien Stryk Prize, and his October Dedications, translations of the poetry of Mang Ke, is forthcoming from Zephyr and Chinese University Press.

LARB Contributor

Lucas Klein’s work has appeared in JacketRain TaxiCLEARComparative Literature Studies, and PMLA, and from Fordham, Black Widow, Zephyr, and New Directions. Assistant professor at the University of Hong Kong, his translation Notes on the Mosquito: Selected Poems of Xi Chuan won the 2013 Lucien Stryk Prize, and his October Dedications, translations of the poetry of Mang Ke, is forthcoming from Zephyr and Chinese University Press.


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