Cantos: A New Directions Blog

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Translations of classical Chinese poems

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Just last month, we released our two new selections of Kenneth Rexroth’s translations, Written on the Sky: Poems from the Japanese and Songs of Love, Moon, and Wind: Poems from the Chinese.

About a week or so ago, I received an email from one bookseller commenting on the books, saying that he generally found Rexroth’s Chinese translations more interesting than the Japanese ones but also expressing an ambivalence about a certain flatness of tone in Rexroth’s translation. Not knowing any Chinese, I asked one of the editors who speaks and reads Chinese. The editor replied that the bookseller was correct, that there is a certain flatness in Rexroth’s translations but it was that exact quality which he liked so much in Rexroth’s translations. However, he went on to say that he knew poets who preferred David Hinton’s translations.

I’ve been meaning to hunt down a Chinese poem translated by various translators to do a comparison…so I turned to The New Directions Anthology of Classical Chinese Poetry. New Directions has a long history of publishing poems from the Chinese since they first published Ezra Pound’s translations which Pound worked through to arrive at his Ideogrammic method of poetry. Many of the classic Chinese poems that are being translated today are the same poems that were translated by Ezra Pound and William Carlos Williams.

In light of the email, here are some comparison translations of a poem by Meng Hao-Jen:

William Carlos Williams’ translation:

Steering my little boat towards a misty islet,
I watch the sun descent while my sorrows grow:
In the vast night the sky hangs lower than the treetops,
But in the blue lake the moon is coming close.

Kenneth Rexroth’s translation:

Night on the Great River

We anchor the boat alongside a hazy island.
As the sun sets I am overwhelmed with nostalgia.
The plain stretches away without limit.
The sky is just above the tree tops.
The river flows quietly by.
The moon comes down amongst men.

Gary Snyder’s translation:

Mooring on Chien-Te River

The boat rocks at anchor by the misty island
Sunset, my loneliness comes again.
In these vast wilds the sky arches down to the trees.
In the clear river water, the moon draws near.

How personal and interpretative, a rewriting in essence, a translation can be is revealed in these variations. In the first translation, Williams leaves the poem untitled while Snyder and Rexroth give quite different meanings to the title. Rexroth’s Night on the Great River is quiet and static while Snyder’s uses the verb “mooring”. I was struck by how both Williams and Snyder used the word “misty” while Rexroth used “hazy.” Additionally, Rexroth’s choice of “nostalgia” has a very different tone than Snyder’s loneliness or Williams’ more dramatic “sorrow.” Rexroth’s translation is looser, less condensed. While not quite vernacular, there is an almost everydayness to Rexroth’s language.

And here’s the same poem by Li Po translated respectively by Ezra Pound and David Hinton:

Ezra Pound’s translation:

Separation on the River Kiang

Ko-jin goes west from Ko-kaku-ro,
The smoke-flowers are blurred over the river.
His lone sail blots the far sky.
And now I see only the river,
The long Kiang, reaching heaven.

David Hinton’s translation:

On Yellow-Crane Tower, Farewell to Meng Hao-Jan Who’s Leaving for Yang-Chou

From Yellow-Crane Tower, my old friend leaves the west.
Downstream to Yang-chou, late spring a haze of blossoms,

distant glints of lone sail vanish into emerald-green air:
nothing left but a river flowing on the borders of heaven.

In this poem by Li Po, if I didn’t see the two translations set side by side, I would think that they were actually two different poems. Pound’s translation embodies much of the musicality in his Cantos, and I assume that he’s freestyling much more than Hinton in order to achieve alliteration. While the difference between the two can be seen (the short title by Pound and the long title by Hinton), it is most obvious when reading the translations out loud. Pound’s short lines and muscular language makes for a more staccato read while Hinton’s word choices which are heavier on vowels forces the tongue to slow down.

By the way, even though the translations are by various translators, it’s worth mentioning that The New Directions Anthology of Classical Chinese Poetry, Written on the Sky, as well as Songs of Love, Moon and Wind were all put together by the singular Eliot Weinberger.

~Soo Jin

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