Adam Kirsch’s review of David Hinton’s Classical Chinese Poetry: An Anthology begins with a brief retrospective of Ezra Pound’s work as the first serious translator of 中国古诗. Its use is primarily rhetorical. Though Kirsch is careful to note the obvious care with which Pound handled his task, he spends the greater portion of his word limit in describing the seemingly insuperable gaps in expertise that separated the translator from his subject. This allows him, when he gets to Hinton, to endow the reader with a sense of perspective as well as a vague idea of progress. I say rhetorical because the most dependable avenue by which Kirsch might have been able to derive substantial conclusions regarding Hinton’s relative merits—direct textual analysis—he leaves entirely alone. This may be due to lack of confidence in his own ability to critique pieces whose originals he can’t read, or because he believes that evaluation is a task better left to the reader. Both are worthy considerations.
I’m not interested in writing a review of a review; I’m not qualified for that anyway. I merely wish to do the work that his opening has left for us to do, or not.
The poem Kirsch cites is Li Bai’s《玉阶怨》, the original version of which runs thus:
Scansion, if it’s helpful:
Pound’s translation, titled “The Jewel Stairs’ Grievance”:
The jeweled steps are already quite
white with dew,
It is so late that the dew soaks my
And I let down the crystal curtain
And watch the moon through the
Like I said, when Kirsch gets to Hinton’s version (titled “Jade-Staircase Grievance”), he leaves it standing without any attempt at constructive comparison beyond: “…the striking thing is that Hinton’s version…is not very different from Pound’s.”
Night long on the jade staircase, white
dew appears, soaks through gauze
She lets down crystalline blinds,
through jewel lacework at the autumn
But what I find striking is not that they are “not very different”—as translations, they are very different—but rather that Hinton, who has “volumes of translations” under his belt and who “certainly knows infinitely more about Chinese language, culture, [sic] and literature than Pound ever did,” was somehow unable to produce a measurably better poem.
There are three possible fundamental questions that one can choose to ask about any two translations of a poem. Are they good poems in English? Do they transmit the poetry within the original? Are they faithful to the original text? The poet asks the first question, the philosopher asks the second, the scholar the third. The poor translator we make answerable to all of them.
Having read the original, I admit I have a hard time reading the translations with a clean ear. Memory is distracting. Yet differences between the versions are noticeable notwithstanding. Pound’s version is clearer and easier to read; it has fewer free-standing clauses, a consistent subject-verb-object syntactical structure and a unifying first-person voice. In the first half of Pound’s version, time, character, sequence and keystone image—the stairs white with dew—are all presented and connected. The same lines in Hinton’s version are confusing by comparison: the dew not necessarily on the stairs, no subject, gauze stockings without feet. Hinton’s version also contains some straight-up awkward language: “crystalline blinds,” “Night long,” “white dew appears.” It sounds forced. Go back to Pound, where white with dew/gauze stockings/crystal curtain/clear autumn fall in a euphony—like a crystal curtain.
Where Hinton achieves better success than Pound did lies in his preservation of the impersonality in the original narrative, the pure devotion to the image which effaces the speaker completely and leaves the poem with that characteristic feeling of permanence. He does so by establishing (quietly) the third-person voice, refusing to fill in a subject where one isn’t urgently required and using far fewer syllables (35 to EP’s 42). The poet may not think of math, but math certainly thinks of the poet. By comparison, Pound’s unifying “I” is too Western and too loud; it asserts too central a position in the narrative and drowns out the rest of the scene. With twenty characters, time is too short to talk.
Another question of transmission and tone is of course music. THE problem. We would have to read the poem in Cantonese to get an approximation of its authoritative pronunciation in Li Bai’s lifetime (the Tang court spoke Cantonese), and then it would only be an approximation. And the native sounds of words, tied to themselves, have always been any language’s most stubbornly local beauty: you can rhyme 玲 with “ring” or “sing,” but there is no word in English that will flute the same earfeel as 玲珑. I know this seems painfully obvious, but I think it bears repeating.
As for rhythm, similarly native, both Pound and Hinton made constructive, original decisions on how to suggest it across the divide: they crafted rhythms in English that were consistent yet unobtrusive, so that the image could be clarified instead of twisted by its framework. On the one hand, Pound’s version seems more consistently calculated than Hinton’s: even distributions of 9 and 3 syllables, that amphimacer (three-beat foot with two stresses sandwiching an unstressed) as a rhythmic stake at the end of each line and nearly invisible iambs everywhere else. It scans out with alarming consistency, and when you read it, the words don’t stamp as they go by.
But is it permanent enough? Hinton’s words call attention to themselves because they are heavy and stand-alone; he has manipulated a contemporary poet’s trick to suit his translator’s purpose, i.e., chosen words that stand up independently the way Chinese characters do. Look at all the stresses in his lines: “white/dew appears, soaks through gauze/stockings ( \ \ - \, \ \ \ \ - ).” The poem haunts along with heavy step. Although when scanned it actually appears as regular as Pound’s, perhaps even more so when one considers that the full stop at line three more strongly suggests the feeling of 对联, one of the realities of the original. 首联成“对”，尾联亦成“对”. That I would call progress: something Pound didn’t do because he couldn’t know, something Chinese newly represented in English. Yet the word I used up top was still “music.” The original is at least as mellifluous as it is weighty, if not more so. Did Hinton’s precision render more musical results than Pound’s “approximation”?
I feel burdened by the demand to come to a substantial conclusion here. I don’t think it’s necessary, so I won’t try—except to point out that editions produced by the translator who was eighty percent poet don’t necessarily quail when compared to those produced by a twenty-five percent poet, for all the latter’s familiarity with the subject. This says something very definite about the ear.