David Hinton and Ezra Pound: from TNR

By Canaan Morse, published

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
gauze stockings,
And I let down the crystal curtain
And watch the moon through the
clear autumn.

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,
gazes out
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 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,尾联亦成”. 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.


# 1.   

Very interesting, Canaan. Because of your "non-review" of the review, I am now interested!

But I would point out one thing: If you want to answer the first question -- Is it a "good" poem? -- then you shouldn't read the Chinese first. Really. Any text that I work on with more than one version means I must first make a deliberate choice: Which will I read first?

As the saying goes in Chinese: 先入为主

If you read the Chinese first, the English version will inevitably read differently for you. It might seem better (unlikely), but its inadequacies will be highlighted for you in a way that is not the case for the "English only" reader.

 Bruce, June 29, 2009, 7:05a.m.

# 2.   

Great post, Canaan--

I'd like to say more, but before I do, I have two little--and related--quibbles.

The first is that the Tang court did not speak Cantonese. They spoke what linguists call Middle Chinese 中古漢語, which was a language with many similarities to modern Cantonese (such as the entering tone 入聲), but not the same. Both modern Mandarin and Cantonese descend from Middle Chinese.

Along those lines, here's my transcription of the Li Bai poem, according to the Hugh Stimson transliteration system. Important to note might be that the æ is a flat "a," as in "hat," and the α is like the "o" in "cot," while ε is like the "e" in "bet" and e the "é" in "café." Aside from entering tones (words ending in -p, -t, -k), words without tone markers should be read in first-tone (level tone 平聲), while third-tone (rising tone 上聲) and fourth-tone (departing tone 去聲) markers should read as they would in pinyin.

ngiok gæi shræng bhæk lò ià giǒu tsim lα miæt kiαk hà shuǐ tziεng liεm leng-lung miαng tsiou ngiuæt

But from what you can tell with this transcription laid out is that--while your level-oblique 平仄 scansion is right (aside from a divergence with miαng, which could also be read with a departing tone), this is not a Regulated Quatrain 律絕 but rather a "Music Bureau" 樂府, as indicated by its category in, for instance, the 300 Tang Poems 唐詩三百首.

What that means, in effect, is that the tonal scansion doesn't matter. The poem would have been sung (as opposed to chanted, like Regulated Verse 律詩 poems), and--think about how singing in Mandarin overrides tones today--the level or oblique tones of the words wouldn't have been audible, let alone noticeable to Middle Chinese-speakers who probably had never considered that they were speaking a tonal language.

I don't know if that changes how we approach the translation of the poem, or if we prefer DH or EP, but it does change how we read the Li Bai quatrain, I think.

more soon.


Lucas , June 29, 2009, 4:19p.m.

# 3.   

Something else I just noticed... because the end-words for lines two and four are entering tones (miæt & ngiuæt ), which almost never came at the end of a line (because for large part they were harder to rhyme, but also because they could not be extended and sung well), this poem would have sounded particularly undecorous and jarring to the Tang-dynasty courtly ear. I think that adds something to the off-putting sorrow of the poem. And this might affect how we translate the poem, and if we think that Pound's or Hinton's rhythms in English capture it better.


Lucas , June 29, 2009, 4:27p.m.

# 4.   

I enthusiastically agree with Lucas above. Additionally, Yuefu tradition means something different than regulated verse, and to my mind pushes this poem towards the erotic and the personal.

Comparing Hinton to Pound, to me, is worthwhile only in that both value their own world over the world of the original -- Hinton's website says that classical Chinese culture "is thoroughly empirical and basically accords with modern scientific understanding; it is deeply ecological, weaving the human into the "natural world" in the most fundamental way; and it is radically feminist: a primal cosmology oriented around earth's mysterious generative force..." which sounds, I think, like a quote that Edward Said would just fall all over. Like what the translator /wants/ instead of what he /sees/. Pound, I think, was very clear about having the same attitude: the tradition was useful to the extent that it allowed us to 'make it new' in English poetry.

The differences between Pound and Hinton, though, are important too: first and foremost, that Hinton does really claim to be an experienced translator, even though he's all over the place with regards to respect for parallelism, the order of images, etc. I think that one of the reasons the Pound poem is better is because it's closer to Li Bai's order of thinking -- it proceeds, sort of, as he proceeded. But Pound never really claimed to know what he was doing: much the opposite, in fact.

The second difference is basically that Pound was a world historical poet in his own right, and Hinton's non-translation work is basically one volume of concrete poems released to little fanfare.

Anyway, I'm glad this discussion came up on Google for me, especially since it's been on my mind since the David Young book on Du Fu (which I recommend above Hinton, even though Young doesn't do Chinese) came out.

Dave, June 29, 2009, 9:49p.m.

# 5.   

Great discussion, particularly Lucas' background on the sources of origins of Chinese.

This reminds me a bit of when I (briefly) decided to study Tang dynasty poetry with a 70-year old tutor in Taipei. I told her I wanted to do one poem a day, first covering the 宏观 aspects, then the 微观 aspects. I was hoping to eventually earn a degree in comparative literature. First day of class ended on a polite note.

The next day she was absent. They told me at the desk that she wouldn't be teaching me. I called her. She said: "Bruce, I'm sorry but I cannot be your tutor. I don't really understand about "hongguan" and "weiguan" analysis. I'm an old woman now, and the only thing I can 'teach' you is about experiencing poetry."

Best teacher I ever had, as it turned out.

 Bruce, June 29, 2009, 11:35p.m.

# 6.   

On important points of fact, I stand corrected and informed. The anecdote about the Tang court speaking Cantonese was an incorrectly interpreted piece of information, which remained from conversations with a couple of my more literary college friends in China. There is enough information packed into Lucas' post to make a man dizzy.

While I don't think I ever asserted that it was a 律绝体, I still assert that 《玉阶怨has a recognizable structure a la 近体诗. As to whether or not Li Bai invented this particular form I do not know (interestingly the Chinese analysis I found in print suggests that it is, in fact, a 奇活偶定 declension of a 五绝 rubric). Still, I don't think splitting hairs is necessary if we can agree, without mistaking a new form for an absolute law, that the poem is formal (and yes, this is an ahistorical reading). Both Pound and Hinton saw form and worked from it.

Dave, the aim of my posting was to put aside peripheral questions of character and look at the poems themselves. It seems to me that the study of craft and practice in translation is as important as it is in music, and scholarship which diverges from the texts themselves, though it be informative, sharply diminishes in utility. That is to say, I don't necessarily disagree with your arguments, but I was hoping for this to be a practical exercise.

 Canaan Morse, June 30, 2009, 5:39a.m.

# 7.   

Hi, Canaan--

I think that when it comes to translations, I see your three questions--"Are they good poems in English? Do they transmit the poetry within the original? Are they faithful to the original text?"--as one. A very complicated question, but one question nonetheless. When I read a translation, I want something that can engage me on these levels: it both fulfills and challenges my ideas of what a "good poem" can be; it gives me a sense both of how poems were read in its language in its time, and of how poems are read in my language and in my time; it makes me want to believe that the translator and the original poet have merged for a moment.

These are complicated demands, to be sure, and knowing the source language of the translations complicates them even more. And the more you know about the source language and the source poetry, those complications expound even further. That seems to be the issue here. So you didn't say that the poem was a Regulated Verse poem, but what you are looking at in this poem are things that Regulated Verse poems have. That is, you're looking at scansion (level-oblique tonal patterns) and parallelism, both of which are actually two aspects of the same thing in a Regulated Verse poem. For instance, in Li Bai's 送友人, you have the couplet:



This is a Regulated Verse poem, and you can tell because the second and fourth words of the lines alternate against each other in terms of level or oblique tones: shān / shuǐ (MC: shrεn / shuǐ) and běi / dōng (bək / dung), but also semantically (mountains : water and north : east). In this couplet, we have an especially nice example because all the other words match up according to the same parallelism, but at least speaking phonetically, the even-numbered positions in the line are the only ones where such strictures are required). But you will almost always see paired with , because while is level, is oblique, which means that could not be paired against either 西 or (as they are all level tones), although would be phonetically parallel with any of them.

word limit reached. more below.

Lucas , June 30, 2009, 8:53p.m.

# 8.   

With 玉階怨, however, I see phonetic parallelism in the first couplet, but not the second couplet. I also don't see semantic parallelism anywhere. And we shouldn't, because it's not a Regulated Verse poem (though I should admit right now that I have no idea what 奇活偶定 might mean). Now, saying that it's not a Regulated Verse poem doesn't mean it doesn't have form: all poems have form--you can't avoid it. This just means that the matter of level and oblique doesn't really matter to this poem--except in the case of the rhyming words. If you sing a song, you want to rhyme on words where you can draw out the rhythm. With entering tones, you can't: they're clipped and staccato and are almost never used at the end of a rhyming line. But the fact that Li Bai put them here means something to the form of the poem, how his audience in the Tang would have read / heard the poem, and how we might want to judge a translation of the poem today. And it's that last bit that I'm interested in.

I've known of Pound's translation much longer, and so of course it means more to me. Hinton's reads more awkwardly to me, but because of that, and because Li Bai's poem was to a certain extent supposed to occur to its listeners as awkward, I might think that Hinton's is therefore the superior translation. Here, however, we are getting at the question of style, and the relationship between Li Bai's style and EP's style and Hinton's style. One of the things that has long impressed me about Cathay is how Pound came close to eliminating his own style within it, so as to approximate the wholly different style of a different language and a different era. It's that self-suppressing style that invented the language of classical Chinese translation in English, and out of which David Hinton comes, and against which he rebels. Eliot Weinberger's New Directions Anthology of Classical Chinese Poetry, with translations by Pound, William Carlos Williams, Kenneth Rexroth, Gary Snyder, and Hinton, goes far in showing how this discourse has developed over the past century. But in the dissemination of this styleless style, Pound was at an advantage in having developed a style in his own poems and translations from other languages; Hinton, having only one book of his own poems in publication, doesn't benefit from the same kind of comparison-making.

Of course, the development of a styleless style through the poems of Li Bai is an ironical move, because Li Bai is so known in the Chinese tradition for his own stylistics, for--in some ways like Pound--breaking all the rules. Even in 送友人, where he achieved the perfect Regulated Verse couplet, he did it not in the center of the poem, where it would have been expected, but in the opening two lines.


Lucas , June 30, 2009, 8:54p.m.

# 9.   

I'm no native speaker of English so I can't really tell which translation is the best, but I find it interesting that both translators obviously thinks that the gauze is important and needs to be there, while the tiny seems to have disappeared.

Anna Chen, July 1, 2009, 8:55a.m.

# 10.   

I think it says a lot for Ezra Pound that no matter how much people poo poo him, he just won't go away

Jeff, July 17, 2009, 3:28a.m.


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