Wednesday, December 17, 2014

On Ezra Pound’s Translation of Ancient Chinese Poetry

Can one translate poetry without knowing the source language?  Certainly that was what Ezra Pound did.  In his volume Cathay (1915), Pound translates a total of 19 pieces of ancient Chinese poetry, spanning a period from the 11th Century B.C. to 4th Century A.D.  But of course he couldn’t have done it without help from someone who had knowledge of the Chinese language, in this case Ernest Fenollosa, an American orientalist. The unusual situation, however, was that Pound was approached by Fenollosa’s wife after the man’s death.  At the time, in the 1910s-20s, English information about Chinese poetry must have been scarce, thus Pound’s only basis for the translation was Fenollosa’s meticulous unpublished notes. In addition to providing a word-by-word mapping between Japanese and English, the notes also include line-by-line draft translation into English.
Given Pound’s lack of knowledge of Chinese at the time, it is probably not a big surprise that Cathay contains quite a few citation errors. For example, the first poem in the collection, “Son of the Bowman of Shu,” is cited by Pound as from Kustugen (the Japanese name for Qu Yuan) in the 4th Century B.C., however it in fact is an anonymous work collected in Shijing (also known as Book of Songs), the earliest known volume of Chinese poetry.   Another example is the third poem, the famous “River Song.” Though correctly cited as from Li Bai (whom the Japanese called “Rihaku”), one of the most acclaimed poets in the Tang Dynasty, Pound had mistaken two poems as one.  The first 22 lines of “The River Song” correspond to a poem titled “江上吟” (“Humming on the River”), while the rest, starting from “The east wind brings the green color…”, correspond to a different poem by Li Bai titled “侍从宜春苑奉诏赋龙池柳色初青听新莺百嗽歌”, meaning literally “Following orders to write about listening to new birds singing in early spring, while serving the Emperor in Yichun Park.” Two completely different occasions in distinct settings.  It is curious that Pound would regard their contents as fitting perfectly in a single poem. There are a few other minor errors that I will skip here.
If the above errors are merely technical, wherever Fenollosa had missed the original Chinese meaning (though such occasions were few), the same problem also transferred into Pound’s “translation.”  Take “The River Merchant’s Wife: A Letter” as an example. In Li Bai's original poem, "长干行," there is this famous line that has since become a timeless allusion known as "bamboo horse and green plums":  
郎骑竹马来,绕床弄青梅。
Which Pound translated as (underlines are mine):
You came by on bamboo stilts, playing horse,
You walked about my seat, playing with blue plums.

Here, the word “” usually means “bed,” but in ancient Chinese it also means the fence of a backyard well. The latter meaning happens to be what Li Bai is referring to in this poem. Such language nuance can present difficulties for even a native speaker, not to mention a foreigner. Curiously, In Fenollosa’s notes the word is translated as “seat” instead of the usual meaning “bed.” He might not have known the other, less-common meaning of the word, and felt that “bed” wouldn’t have made sense: the first part of the line obviously refers to an outdoor setting.  Either “you walked about my seat” or “you walked about my bed” wouldn’t read right, but apparently Fenollosa went for the less nonsensical.  Pound might or might not have noticed this inconsistency, but there was not much he could do about it, being unable to read the original text. In any case, a glitch like this could probably be explained away by “poetic license.” So the error is kept.  In the same line, “blue plums” should actually be “green plums,” indicating the fruits are unripe, a metaphor for the young girl and boy.  This metaphor is completely lost in the translation.  
Another interesting thing to note is that the original poem alludes to an allegory known as “Holding-pillar faith,” which originates from a book by ancient Chinese philosopher Zhuangzi. The allegory goes like this:  a man is waiting for his female date under a bridge. Before the woman arrives, however, the river water unexpectedly rises. To be faithful to his promise, the man doesn’t leave; he holds onto a pillar of the bridge until he drowns.  The moral of this allegory is one can place love above his own life. Li Bai's lines that allude to this

十五始展眉,愿同尘与灰。
常存抱柱信,岂上望夫台。

were translated by Pound as

At fifteen I stopped scowling, 
I desired my dust to be mingled with yours 
Forever and forever and forever. 
Why should I climb the look out? 

In Fenollosa's notes, he had written a draft translation “I always had in me the faith of holding to pillars / And why should I think of climbing the husband looking out terrace.”  This is quite accurate literally; however it is unclear whether he was aware of the allusion. In any case he did not explain it. At this point Pound, who had faithfully followed Fenollosa’s translation so far, took the liberty to exclude that line completely, probably because he couldn’t make sense of it.  In its place he put “Forever and forever and forever.” The meaning of “forever” was indeed implied by Li Bai in his poem, but the great Chinese poet would never have said it so tritely; that would not be his poetic style. 
This example is one of a few places where Pound's translation departs from Fenollosa’s notes.  Reading the two men’s translations side by side for this poem, one can see that Pound  copied Fenollosa’s complete lines more often than not. T.S. Eliot said in a 1928 essay that “There is as much as to say that Chinese poetry, as we know it today, is something invented by Ezra Pound.”  It seems to me in that statement Ernest Fenollosa’s name should have at least been in line with, if not replacing, Ezra Pound’s.
Interestingly, Pound’s translation of the Chinese poetry – or should I say Fenollosa’s translation instead? – especially of the longer poems, often reads more fluid than what I’ve seen from ethnic Chinese translators.  Let’s compare two different translations of the first poem included in Cathay
---------------------------------------
The Chinese original:
采薇

采薇采薇 薇亦作止
曰归曰归 岁亦莫止
靡室靡家 玁狁之故
不遑启居 玁狁之故

采薇采薇 薇亦柔止
曰归曰归 心亦忧止
忧心烈烈 载饥载渴
我戍未定 靡使归聘

采薇采薇 薇亦刚止
曰归曰归 岁亦阳止
王事靡盬 不遑启处
忧心孔疚 我行不来

彼尔维何 维常之华
彼路斯何 君子之车
戎车既驾 四牡业业
岂敢定居 一月三捷

驾彼四牡 四牡骙骙
君子所依 小人所腓
四牡翼翼 象弭鱼服
岂不日戒 玁狁孔棘

昔我往矣 杨柳依依
今我来思 雨雪霏霏
行道迟迟 载渴载饥
我心伤悲 莫知我哀
---------------------------------
Ezra Pound's translation:
SONG OF THE BOWMAN OF SHU

Here we are, picking the first fern-shoots 
And saying: When shall we get back to our country? 
Here we are because we have the Ken-nin for our foemen, 
We have no comfort because of these Mongols. 

We grub the soft fern-shoots, 
When anyone says "Return," the others are full of sorrow. 
Sorrowful minds, sorrow is strong, we are hungry and thirsty. 
Our defense is not yet made sure, no one can let his friend return. 

We grub the old fern-stalks. 
We say: Will we be let to go back in October? 
There is no ease in royal affairs, we have no comfort. 
Our sorrow is bitter, but we would not return to our country. 

What flower has come into blossom? 
Whose chariot? The General's. 
Horses, his horses even, are tired. They were strong. 
We have no rest, three battles a month.

By heaven, his horses are tired. 
The generals are on them, the soldiers are by them. 
The horses are well trained, the generals have ivory arrows and quivers ornamented with   fish-skin. 
The enemy is swift, we must be careful. 

When we set out, the willows were drooping with spring, 
We come back in the snow, 
We go slowly, we are hungry and thirsty,
Our mind is full of sorrow, who will know of our grief?
--------------------------------

A translation by Yang Yixian and Dai Naidie, from A Choice Selection of Ancient PoemsChinese—English, published by Foreign Language Press in China:

We Gather Vetch

We gather vetch, gather vetch,
While the young shoots are springing;
Oh, to go back, go back;
But the year is ending.
We have no house, no home,
Because of the Huns.
We cannot sit or take rest,
Because of the Huns.

We gather vetch, gather vetch,
While the shoots are tender;
Oh, to go back, go back;
Our hearts are sad.
Our sad hearts burn,
And we hunger and thirst;
But our garrison duty drags on,
And no messenger goes to take news home.

We gather vetch, gather vetch,
But the shoots are tough;
Oh, to go back, go back;
The tenth month is here again,
But the king’s business is unending;
We cannot sit or take rest;
Our sad hearts are racked with pain,
And no one comes to comfort us on our march.

What splendid blossom is that?
It is the blossom of the cherry tree.
What great chariot is that?
It is the chariot of a nobleman.
His war-chariot stands ready yoked
With four proud stallions;
How can we settle in one place?
We march to three different posts in a month.
           
The four stallions are yoked
To make a sturdy team;
The nobleman rides in the chariot,
We take cover behind;
Four stately stallions,
Ivory bow-ends and a fish-skin quiver;
Every day we must be on our guard,
We are hard-pressed by the Huns.

When we left home
The willows were softly swaying;
Now as we turn back
Snowflakes fly.
Our road is a long one
And we thirst and hunger,
Our hearts are filled with sorrow;
But who knows our misery?
--------------------
The translators were/are all literary experts in their own native language.  However, when it comes to translation, neither party appears to have sufficient knowledge of the nuance of the other language.  Though both translations are fairly accurate in meaning, they read quite differently as poetry.
This Chinese poem, "采薇," from the 11th Century B.C., laments soldiers’ homesickness as they guard their kingdom’s border against nomad invaders from spring to winter. Its meaning is straightforward and there are no allusions, but like other poems in Shijing, this one maintains a singing/chanting rhythm throughout, in which a refrain occurs often, not only between stanzas but also within a line.    
The Chinese translators certainly understood the form and meaning of this poem better than Pound, and their translation attempts to render the folk song quality with the refrain pattern.  However their English is not nuanced enough to match their Chinese level of artistic quality.  For example, admittedly nitpicking: using “to go back” without context is a common Chinglish way of expressing “returning home.” It is rather unclear here and could lead to basic misunderstanding of the literal meaning. In comparison, Pound’s translation has lost the original poem’s style and folk-song quality, but reads much more fluid and natural (and "get back to our country" quite clear).  This is to say, each translation has its own strengths and weaknesses. This also implies that, it is possible to keep the strength of each and avoiding many of the weaknesses by combining the two.
Consider a modified version that blends the above two translations and fixes their errors. For the sake of the sounds, I'm adopting the word "vetch" for , since there are so many interpretations for what this wild vegetable actually is/was – spinach, wild peas, fern shoots, vetch, etc., you name it – and I have no way to tell which is most accurate. For similar reasons, I'm keeping "Xianyun" from the original poem for the name of the "foemen" tribe.

Picking vetch, picking vetch, the first shoots are springing
Saying “Return,” saying “Return,” the year is already ending
No family, no home, because of Xianyun the foemen
No rest, no comfort, because of Xianyun the foemen

Picking vetch, picking vetch, the shoots are soft and fresh
Saying “Return,” saying “Return,” our hearts are full of sorrow
Sorrowful minds, sorrow is burning us, so is hunger, so is thirst
Our defense is not yet certain, no one can be sent home

Picking vetch, picking vetch, the shoots are getting tough
Saying “Return,” saying “Return,” it is October already the tenth moon
No ease in the king’s affairs, no break for us
Our hearts pain with sorrow, we still can’t go home 

What fabulous blossom is that?  It is the cherry tree’s
Whose great chariot is that? It is the general’s
The war-chariot is yoked, the four horses are tall
No one dares rest, three battles a month

Four horses are driving the chariot, four strong horses
The higher men are on them, the lower men are by them 
The horses are well trained, bows of ivory, quivers ornamented with fish-skin 
No one dares relax, the enemy is swift 

When we set out, the willows were drooping with spring 
When we come back, snowflakes fly everywhere
We go slowly, we are hungry and thirsty
Our mind is full of sorrow, who will know our misery?

If my modified version above is indeed an improvement in the translation, then a case can be made that better literary translation would be a cooperative project between two translators, one a native speaker and expert of the source language, and the other the target language.  Only in this way, can the nuances in both languages could be captured and presented in the translation.  This, of course, is mainly for the benefit of readers and the quality of the translated literature.  I do understand that not every translator would be willing to share his or her work or cooperate with another translator.
            

Monday, February 10, 2014

What Foreigners Do in China

(Also published on LARB's China Blog)

In the remote mountains of Yunnan Province, China, a middle-aged European ecologist gave up his high-level international program manager job and made his home with a local woman. Together, they set forth to reestablish the rainforests destroyed by rubber tree plantations, cultivated a garden — a seed bank — that “was home to more species than all of Germany,” reintroduced indigenous plant species to China, and homeschooled two bright young children with knowledge, poise and manners belying their age. In 2010, the extraordinary life of the ecologist, along with the draft of an unconventional paper that could “be of enormous value to mankind,” was cut short by a heart attack.

This story about Josef Margraf, written by journalist Jonathan Watts, is not a news report or profile but rather an essay, moving for both Watts’ own introspection and his sketch of Margraf’s life. I read it in the anthology Unsavory Elements —Stories of Foreigners on the Loose in China, in which editor Tom Carter has assembled 28 short contributions by a variety of expat writers. I had opened the book with the intention of browsing through it quickly. Though I was curious about how expats live in China, and why there are so many of them now, as a Chinese writer with a certain cynicism, I did not expect to find anything truly surprising. But surprised I was, and my own stereotypical presumptions stand corrected.

In 1971, when I was a middle school student in the city of Chongqing, recruiters dressed in military uniforms from the faraway Yunnan Production and Construction Corps — a more attractive name, I suppose, than “rubber plantations” to teenagers at the time — arrived at my campus and called on students to join them “guarding the frontier and cultivating the borderland.” Many of us, me included, applied with youthful enthusiasm, and almost everyone I knew who applied got their wish. I was spared because I was under-aged and also because some insightful adults, who viewed higher education as more important than planting rubber trees, stood in my way. In all, about 100,000 middle school students were collected from the cities of Beijing, Shanghai, Chongqing, Chengdu, and Kunming and sent to labor in Yunnan’s rubber plantations. The collective name for those young people was “Zhiqing,” or “Educated Youth.” Seven years of hardship and many tragic stories later, in the winter of 1978-79, those Zhiqing launched a spontaneous mass rally that has since been termed the “big return-to-city storm,” which eventually did bring them home. By then I, as one of the lucky few, had entered my second year in university, but my middle school friends who went to Yunnan missed their chance not only for university, but even for a high school education.

I had thought that the wasted youth of my 100,000 contemporaries qualified as the biggest damage caused by the rubber plantations, and that an end had been put to the practice in early 1979. Not until reading Watts’ chapter did I realize with a shock that the rubber plantations have been expanding during China’s recent economic boom and have gone on to become one of “China’s greatest ecological disasters.” The invasive species eats away at the region’s fertility and diversity, changes weather conditions and rainfall, and threatens to wipe out China’s only tropical rainforest. Many friends from my youth, through their goodwill and hard work, had unknowingly contributed to the disaster while also bringing short-term benefits to China’s industries.

In his essay titled “Invasive Species,” Watts also points out that, ironically, it was Europeans who brought rubber trees and monocultural practices to China more than a century ago. As a European himself, Josef Margraf’s effort thus could be viewed as “looking to the future by making up for the past wrongs.” “I think Josef has achieved more than any foreigner I had met,” says Watts, who also wonders loudly, “weren’t we too part of a kind of invasive species?”

Nowadays, there are over one million foreigners living in China, “many of whom are in effect economic refugees,” says Tom Carter in his introduction. The exponential growth of foreign residents compared to the late 1980s, when I first met my American husband in Chengdu, alone illustrates the now tried and true cliché “look how much China has changed!” Chinese readers of my generation, however, might also find in the book more than a few things that are unchanged, sometimes in unexpected corners. Dominic Stevenson, who fits more into the category of adventurer than economic refugee, left a comfortable life in Bangkok for China, but ended up spending two years in a Shanghai prison for being a hash smuggler along the ancient Silk Road. Stevenson’s essay, titled “Thinking Reports,” provides a rare glance at life as a foreign prisoner. A bizarrely familiar scene described in the chapter is probably unfamiliar to today’s young generation of Chinese: Stevenson and his cellmates are required to write “thought reports,” a maddening practice prevalent in the Cultural Revolution years that had “reformed” more than a few otherwise noble men into despicable informants betraying their friends. The suspense of Stevenson’s story is thus how he, a liberal-minded foreigner, will react to such a request. I can only hope the practice of “thought reporting” preserved in a prison is not going to reappear in Chinese society at large, a dreadful outlook no longer unthinkable under Xi Jinping’s rule.

But I might be too pessimistic. Simon Winchester takes my emotional ride with the expat experiences to a high point in his epilogue, where he is stuck in the void of western China’s desert alone with his dead car, toying with the prospect of perishing. “Except.” Following this emphatic pause is a cellphone signal, and his rescue because of it. “The Chinese build their infrastructure well these days, and one of the first things they have created in making their new nationwide transportation system — long before finishing the roads — is a cell phone network.” I might not agree with the author’s conclusion that China has become so successful today “precisely because it [is] not a casually planned society any more,” but that does not stop me from being in a celebratory mood when reading about a man’s life saved by China’s modern telecommunication infrastructure. This despite my own support for a neighborhood protest against the building of another cellular tower in our Boston suburb.

While my contradictory attitude might be explained away by the Chinese adage This is one time, that was another, Graham Earnshaw’s chapter “Playing in the Gray” tells a story eerily reminiscent of an earlier time. In 1872, a British businessman named Ernest Major launched one of the first and most prominent Chinese newspapers, Shen Pao, in Shanghai, which went on to lay the foundation for modern Chinese newspapers and continued publication for 77 years, until the Communists took over Shanghai in May 1949. Half a century later, in 1998, Earnshaw, again a Briton, again in Shanghai, founded “the first independent weekly English-language newspaper to be produced in Shanghai since the communist takeover in 1949.” “Sure, it was illegal. It had no publication license, its content was not reviewed by the Propaganda Bureau ahead of publication, and we had no right to print or distribute. But we did it anyway.” This fascinating experience led Earnshaw to believe China is a place where “nothing is allowed but everything is possible.”

Perhaps that is one of the major attractions of the Middle Kingdom. In an interview with Business Insider, Tom Carter was asked, “Do you think that the influence of foreigners on China is a good thing?” and he answered, “All things considered, I think China is more of an influence on the expats who live here than we are on it…” Circling back to the story about Josef Margraf, the influences work both ways, and every person has a different story to tell. I ended up reading through Unsavory Elements page by page, story by story, on the train to work in the morning and, when I was lucky enough to find a seat, on the way home in the evening as well. It is an uneven book, as might be expected of any anthology. There are a few stories that come across as condescending, sentimental, or dull. But the majority of them are captivating and, as a whole, the book is unexpectedly wide-ranging, thought-provoking, and entertaining.