“You’re stepping on my shadow, please back off,” she said.

Sun Yisheng / Nicky Harman

TNR article on classical Chinese poetry

http://www.tnr.com/politics/story.html?id=cd5b73e0-bb67-4c8c-b986-14998b4382b9

The ideograms, which Pound turned into an obsession, that make up some (though far from all) Chinese characters; the very notion of words as single characters, rather than permutations of an alphabet; the tones that determine the meaning of words, and whose patterning is a central element of Chinese verse; the attenuation or absence of many features of English grammar, including pronouns and tenses--all these factors make it impossible for the reader of an English translation to have any accurate sense of how a Chinese poem sounds, moves, and feels to a Chinese reader.

Comments

# 1.   

I'm exhausted with this requisite trope of "translation is impossible." That notwithstanding, this is an impressively sophisticated review of Chinese poetry in English translation. Quite an achievement for the New Republic, which is not a publication known in the circles I travel in for the breadth of their view of poetry.

Lucas

Lucas , May 14, 2009, 2:22p.m.

# 2.   

"...all these factors make it impossible for the reader of an English translation to have any accurate sense of how a Chinese poem sounds, moves, and feels to a Chinese reader."

Personally, I would generally agree. And I felt the same way when I read Baudelaire when studying in France.

What is much more important, it seems to me, is to render translated poetry in a way that feels like poetry to those of us on the other side of the divide.

Many people do not believe that Chinese poetry can be meaningfully translated into European languages. And not a few people believe that all poetry is untranslatable.

Which is why I salute those who undertake it nonetheless. Looking forward to more breakthroughs!

Chinese Books, English Reviews
www.bruce-humes.com

 Bruce Humes, May 15, 2009, 4a.m.

# 3.   

So how could a contemporary English reader suspect that to a T'ang-era reader, in Owen's words, this poem also "violates basic decorum," because it contains "too many trees and at least two streams"? Or that the opening couplet is a "serious fault" because "a poem should begin with the general scene or an indication of the occasion," not with a specific detail like the dog barking, which "should be placed where the 'evidence trope' belongs, in the middle couplets, where its ingenuity can be muted by a parallel"?

When so much information is missing--and how could it be included?--from even a skillful translation, can an English reader be said to be reading Li Po at all?

Swap in "Chinese" for "English" in that statement and it would be just as valid. That the poetry works for today's Chinese reader in the absence of the more obscure technical considerations is encouraging for someone who hopes to capture it in translation.

jdmartinsen, May 15, 2009, 4:11a.m.

# 4.   

And as a corollary to Joel's point that the intricacies of Chinese classical poetry are just as opaque to contemporary Chinese readers as they are to contemporary western readers:

I don't believe that classical English sonnets - either in the original or in translation - are any less enjoyable to readers who don't know about rhyme schemes or the differences between Shakespearean and Petrarchan sonnets. We can never hope to read 18th-century poetry the way 18th-century readers did, and we certainly won't experience Heian-era haiku the way Heian-era Japanese readers did. That doesn't mean we can't understand the poems, or translate them well, or ensure their survival.

Cindy M. Carter, May 17, 2009, 7:51a.m.

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