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about Chinese poetry must have been scarce, thus Pound’s only basis for the translation was Fenollosa’s meticulous unpublished notes.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":
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 “床” 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
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:
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 Poems（Chinese—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
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 薇, 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 might 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 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.
Made a small change in the translation toward the end.
This is lovely work. I have to study more.
@Zhang Luo: 谢谢。 我的母语是中文。英文成为主要语言是在而立之年以后。
Really interesting work here! I'm a student at NYU Shanghai studying Ezra Pound's "translations" and all his idealisation of the Chinese ideology and culture, and it's a pleasure to read this post when working on my essay to be published. Inspired me a lot, especially the comparative analysis on the two versions of “采薇”. Translation is such an esoteric yet stimulating field to explore!
Glad it helped!
I'm reading through Ezra Pound's "Confucius to Cummings". Thank you for describing the back story of how these translations came to be! My reading is enriched with that context now, although I still struggle to follow the narrative of these poems often.
Bed - fence. The dual meaning suggests to me a double entendre in this context....
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