A Magician of Chinese Poetry

Some people, and I am one, feel that Tang (618–907 CE) poetry is the finest literary art they have ever read. But does one need to learn Chinese in order to have such a view, or can classical Chinese poetry be adequately translated?

In 1987 Eliot Weinberger, who has written brilliant essays on topics as various as the mystical I Ching (Book of Change), Buddha as “impostor,” Albanian Islam, and a connection between Michel Foucault and George W. Bush—and who has translated Chinese poetry, too—published a little book with Octavio Paz called Nineteen Ways of Looking at Wang Wei. There Weinberger and Paz choose a four-line poem by Wang Wei, one of the best Tang poets, and present it many ways: in Chinese characters, in a transliteration into modern Mandarin, in a character-by-character literal translation, and in seventeen different ways translators have tried to put it into English, French, or Spanish.

They find that none of the translations is perfect (there is no such thing as “perfect” in such matters), but that some are very worthwhile as poems on their own. Weinberger writes that a good poem contains “living matter” that “functions somewhat like DNA, spinning out individual translations that are relatives, not clones, of the original.” Now, in 2016, we have an updated version of the book, called Nineteen Ways of Looking at Wang Wei (with More Ways), that offers sixteen additional offspring, three in German, for a total of thirty-four.

The title of the poem is “Deer Fence” (or Deer Park, Deer Enclosure, Deer Forest Hermitage, and others). Weinberger’s literal translation reflects the five-characters-per-line of the original:

Empty/mountain(s) [or] hill(s)/(negative)/to see/person [or] people
But/to hear/person [or] people/words or conversation/sound [or] to echo
To return/bright(ness) [or] shadow(s)/to enter/deep/forest
To return/to shine/green/moss/above

Of the finished translations, this one by Burton Watson is among Weinberger’s favorites:

Empty hills, no one in sight,
only the sound of someone talking;
late sunlight enters the deep wood,
shining over the green moss again.

How good are the good translations? How much of the original do we get?

Some of the art of classical Chinese poetry must simply be set aside as untranslatable. The internal structure of Chinese characters has a beauty of its own, and the calligraphy in which classical poems were written is another important but untranslatable dimension.1 Since Chinese characters do not vary in length, and because there are exactly five characters per line in a poem like this, another untranslatable feature is that the written result, hung on a wall, presents a rectangle. Translators into languages whose word lengths vary can reproduce such an effect only at the risk of fatal awkwardness. (Watson’s translation, above, does about as well as one can do; instead of five characters per line it gives us six English words per line.)

Another imponderable is how to imitate the 1-2, 1-2-3 rhythm in which five-syllable lines in classical Chinese poems normally are read. Chinese characters are pronounced in one syllable apiece, so producing such rhythms in Chinese is not hard and the results are unobtrusive; but any imitation in a Western language is almost inevitably stilted and distracting. Even less translatable are the patterns of tone arrangement in classical Chinese poetry. Each syllable (character) belongs to one of two categories determined by the pitch contour in which it is read; in a classical Chinese poem the patterns of alternation of the two categories exhibit parallelism and mirroring.

Weinberger knows all of this and sensibly begins his inquiry at step two—after all the untranslatables have been set aside. Now the question becomes: How can one make another poem from the twenty bundles of meaning that the Chinese characters offer? Weinberger criticizes, astutely if sometimes unkindly, almost every translator he cites. He says the images in Wang Wei’s poem are more “specific” than they are in a translation by Witter Bynner, and he has a point, but does he need to write that Bynner sees Wang Wei as “watching the world through a haze of opium”? Sometimes, too, Weinberger’s standards seem not to apply uniformly. He scolds Chang Yin-nan and Lewis Walmsley for writing that the voices in the hills are “faint” and “drift on the air.” These characterizations are not in the original, and for Weinberger are “a classic example of the translator attempting to ‘improve’ the original” and even show “a kind of unspoken contempt for the foreign poet.”

In contrast, Weinberger congratulates Kenneth Rexroth, whose translation inserts much more than Chang and Walmsley’s does, for producing a “real poem” that is closest “to the spirit, if not the letter, of the original.” Most translators will agree that we should not try to improve and also that loyalty to spirit must sometimes outweigh loyalty to letter. But to look at a specific addition to a poem and decide which of these things it is doing is very difficult.

Broadly speaking, the problems for a translator, especially of poetry, and especially between languages as different as Chinese and English, are two: What do I think the poetic line says? And then, once I think I understand it, how can I put it into English? Differences in translations sometimes arise from the first problem; most, though, come from the second, where the impossibility of perfect answers spawns endless debate. The letter-versus-spirit dilemma is almost always at the center.

At the literalist extreme, there is a school of Western Sinology that aims to ferret out and dissect every conceivable detail about the language of an original. The dissection, though, normally does to the art of a poem approximately what the scalpel of an anatomy instructor does to the life of a frog. Peter A. Boodberg, a distinguished Sinologist at Berkeley fifty years ago, translates Wang Wei’s poem this way:



The empty mountain; to see no men,
Barely earminded of men talking—countertones
And antistrophic lights-and- shadows incoming deeper the deep-treed grove
Once more to glowlight the blue-green mosses—going up
(The empty mountain…)

Boodberg’s is an extreme example, but it illustrates the principle in this school of Sinology that the further one goes with philology and literal translation, the closer one gets to the Chinese original. About a decade ago I heard a Sinologist at Princeton rise to express the view that only in translation can the deepest meaning of a Tang poem be brought to light. (The issue was dropped after someone else asked if the reverse were also true: Does Shakespeare’s profundity emerge only in Chinese translation?)

Weinberger is contemptuous of the Boodberg approach (“sounds like Gerard Manley Hopkins on LSD”) and is closer to, but not an extremist in, an approach that puts art at the center. He admires Ezra Pound’s versions of classical Chinese poems in Cathay, published in 1915. Pound learned some Chinese characters later in his life but in 1915 could base Cathay only on translations that others had done. His genius for language apparently got him close enough to the spirit of Chinese originals that he could correct mistakes in other translations “intuitively,” as Weinberger puts it. He stops short of calling Pound’s work “translation”; he endorses a phrase by T.S. Eliot, who leavened the question with gentle ambiguity when he said that Pound was “the inventor of Chinese poetry in our time.” Whether translations or inventions, though, Weinberger finds Pound’s renditions “some of the most beautiful poems in the English language.”

In the 1930s Pound became obsessed with the Book of Odes, China’s most ancient collection of poetry and song (and, some say, guide to government). Convinced that the existing English translations of the Odes were “appalling” and “intolerable,” and that there must be a great pearl inside the closed oyster if only he could get there, Pound, then over fifty years old, began to study Chinese characters. He could now “play the game of pretending to read Chinese,” as Weinberger puts it, and unleashed his fecund imagination upon “pictographic” characters in ways that serious Sinologists knew to be utterly groundless. Professors wrote articles exposing Pound’s errors in both interpretation of characters and translations of poems.

Weinberger’s implicit riposte, which I support, is: But do you do better? One can acknowledge a long list of Pound’s technical errors (Weinberger has some, too) and still point out that phrases like Boodberg’s “antistrophic lights-and-shadows” leave a reader much further from a Wang Wei poem than Pound does. Wai-lim Yip, a scholar of poetry who knows both English and Chinese well, notes that, despite the literal errors, in Pound “the ‘cuts and turns’ of the mind in the originals are largely preserved” and the “essential poems” are “luminous.” Could one say that of Boodberg? Options in the translation of poetry are complexly interconnected, and gaining something in one place almost inevitably means losing something in another. So here is a good rule of thumb: anyone who criticizes a given translation should be ready to offer an alternative that, all things considered, works better.

Pound’s approach to Chinese poetry was deeply influenced by Ernest Fenollosa, an American who in the late 1870s and 1880s taught Western philosophy in Tokyo, where he developed a consuming interest in Chinese and Japanese poetry and art. Fenollosa died of a heart attack in 1908, and in 1913 his widow, Mary, agreed to hand all his private papers and manuscripts over to Pound. One of those papers, called “The Chinese Written Character as a Medium for Poetry,” was the progenitor of some of Pound’s more durable views on the Chinese language. Fenollosa, and Pound following him, grossly exaggerated the extent to which characters are “thought pictures.”

More usefully, though, the Fenollosa essay showed Pound what it could mean for poets that Chinese characters are free from inflections for number, tense, voice, and gender that are mandatory in Western languages. It seemed to Fenollosa that in Chinese, bundles of meaning just came along side by side. Grammar still had a place, in some simple rules of word order, but it did not affect the characters themselves and left much more room for poetic ambiguity. The meanings of Chinese characters, wrote Fenollosa, could “be like the mingling of the fringes of feathered banners.” Or:

A word is like a sun, with its corona and chromosphere; words crowd upon words, and wrap each other in their luminous envelopes until sentences become clear, continuous light-bands.

For Pound, “luminous” became an important word, and later a Fenollosan understanding of Chinese poetry, through Pound, influenced the Anglo-American Imagist movement of Hilda Doolittle, Richard Aldington, and others. Later, it also had an effect on the American poets Gary Snyder and Allen Ginsberg.

The advantages of Chinese characters in avoiding grammatical specificity (advantages to poets, not necessarily to scientists or lawyers) can be analyzed primarily as absences of subject, number, and tense. Each of these three is worth a look.

Subjectlessness. It is the norm in classical Chinese poetry, and common even in modern Chinese prose, to omit subjects. The reader or listener infers a subject. In the first line of our Wang Wei poem (“empty mountain no see person”), only a perverse reader would say that “empty mountain” should be the subject because it is a noun and comes first. Common sense hears the phrase adverbially and infers the subject to be an unstated human viewer. But how can one put this effect into Western languages that ask by grammatical rule that subjects always be stated? Most of the translators in Nineteen Ways supply an “I.” Weinberger points out, though, that when “I” is inserted a “controlling individual mind of the poet” enters and destroys the effect of the Chinese line. Without a subject, he writes, “the experience becomes both universal and immediate to the reader.” This point is correct and very important.

Another way to handle the subjectlessness, which Wai-lim Yip chooses, is to use the passive voice in English: “no man is seen.” But this, at least to my ear, again particularizes the experience too much. That marvelous sense of “both universal and immediate” remains lost. A third alternative is to leave the voice active and, following the Chinese, name no subject: “in empty mountains, see no person,” or something like that. But this often sounds broken or childlike, which the Chinese line certainly does not. Burton Watson’s “empty hills, no one in sight” is about as good as one can do.

Numberlessness. Nouns have no number in Chinese. Weinberger notes that “rose is a rose is all roses,” but that formulation still leaves us too far inside Western-language number habits. “All roses” in English means the summation of individual roses, whereas in Chinese meigui, or “rose” is more like “roseness” or “rosehood.” (If you want to talk in Chinese about one rose, you may, but then you use a “measure word” to say “one blossom-of roseness.”) So, in the first line of Wang Wei’s poem, it is not quite right to think of shan as either singular or plural, either hill or hills. The concept is more abstract. But what can a translator write? Hillness sounds odd and hillhood almost funny. Any attempt of this kind tends to exoticize, but the supple Chinese line is not at all exotic. (It is worth noting that Western views of Eastern expression as quaint have often originated not in Eastern languages themselves but in the awkwardness that results when rules of Western languages are applied.)

Tenselessness. There are several ways in Chinese to specify when something happened or will happen, but verb tense is not one of them. For poets, the great advantage of tenselessness is the ambiguity it opens up. Did I see no one in the hills? Or am I now seeing no one? Am I imagining what it would be like to see no one? All these, and others, are possible. Weinberger’s insight about subjectlessness—that it produces an effect “both universal and immediate”—applies to timelessness as well.

But the effect isn’t possible in a Western language, where grammar always forces a choice of one tense or another. For this reason I will quibble with Weinberger’s choice of English infinitives as his glosses for Chinese verbs. He lists ru as “to enter,” zhao as “to shine,” and so on, but I am afraid that that little “to,” which comes from English grammar, subtly reinforces the mistaken notion that Chinese verbs are, or should be, conjugatable things, when in fact they are not. Moreover, infinitives in Western languages can be nouns. On stage at the Met, to enter is to shine—one noun is another. I would prefer to say ru is “enter” and zhao “shine.”

Although he is critical of nearly everyone’s translation in Nineteen Ways, Weinberger wisely adopts the position that “quite a few possible readings” can all be “equally ‘correct.’” Dilemmas about translation do not have definitive right answers (although there can be unambiguously wrong ones if misreadings of the original are involved). Any translation (except machine translation, a different case) must pass through the mind of a translator, and that mind inevitably contains its own store of perceptions, memories, and values.

Weinberger—rightly, in my view—pushes this insight further when he writes that “every reading of every poem, regardless of language, is an act of translation: translation into the reader’s intellectual and emotional life.” Then he goes still further: because a reader’s mental life shifts over time, there is a sense in which “the same poem cannot be read twice.” Here, too, I agree. But I feel Weinberger goes a bit too far when he writes that the possible word combinations in a translation are “infinite.” Perhaps we can say that possible interpretations in receiving minds are infinite, since gradations of their differences can be infinitesimal. But “word combinations” in a translation cannot be infinite.

Weinberger’s sensitivity to words and gift for clear thinking underlie nearly every page in Nineteen Ways, but in The Ghosts of Birds they spout like a geyser. The essays (some should be called poems) in this book have been published before or are continuations of a project begun before, but it is very good to have them in one place. The range of Weinberger’s interests in human cultures might be summarized as “everything everywhere from the beginning until now,” and he writes with erudition and charm. A horse in a painting from China’s “horse-obsessed” Tang era is “almost ridiculously plump, like a candied apple on four sticks.” His details often seem uncanny—perhaps fiction, a reader might wonder?—but they are not fiction. He does not footnote his sources, but when I checked his China stories I found good (not error-free, but good) bases for all of them.

A warm humanism pervades The Ghosts of Birds, and Weinberger has ways of making clear that it is universal. Sometimes, as in a gripping piece on Charles Reznikoff’s book-length poem Testimony, a particular case glows so intensely that the reader feels the universality intuitively; it could not be otherwise. Elsewhere, the sense of commonality arises as Weinberger finds something the same across a wide range of cases. “A Calendar of Stones,” for example, collects dozens of pieces of text that show how human beings from the ancient Greeks to the Jains to Buddhist monks to “the Orixás—Yoruba gods who are called ‘saints’ in Brazil,” among others, have interacted with stones. No matter where he draws an example from, Weinberger’s attitude is that human beings are amusing creatures.

Another piece, called “Changs Dreaming,” recounts the dreams, collected from Chinese texts of different sorts and times over centuries, of eighteen unrelated people all surnamed Chang. There is self-satire in the conception of the piece. Surnames do not matter in the genesis of dreams, and to suggest even briefly that they do is sufficiently eccentric to remind us that the truth is the opposite: all of us humans dream. To find so many dreaming Changs is not, moreover, as odd as seems implied. The surname Chang (now often spelled Zhang, but the same name) has always been extremely common in China; today only about fifteen countries in the world have more people than China has Changs.

In “The Story of Adam and Eve,” Weinberger goes beyond the Bible to present a surprising variety of versions of the story from Armenian, Georgian, Greek, Slavonic, Latin, Ge’ez (Ethiopian), and other sources. Every account is vulnerable to his playful barbs. In the Garden of Eden, for example, when Yahweh (God) calls to Adam “Where are you?,” Weinberger notes that He does this “although omniscient.” The bite is terse, but elsewhere Weinberger’s satire flows in cascades. He enjoys what Chinese comedians call “word fountains.” Khubilai Khan (1215–1294 CE), for example, was cruel and efficient during his early years as emperor, but later

became grotesquely fat, suffering from gout and other ailments, and detached from governing. He held huge and endless banquets of meat and koumiss, fermented mare’s milk, and was in a near-continual state of inebriation. [At his hunting reserve] four elephants would carry him, lying on a couch, in a gold-plated palanquin decked with tiger skins, accompanied by five hundred falconers and leopards and lynxes trained to chase down bears and wild boars.

In his analytic observations, Weinberger likes to cut to a core in plain language. He writes:

Confucianism taught that when the government is bad, one should head for the hills. (Taoism taught that, regardless of government, one should head for the hills.)

Professors might warn graduate students against such writing as too casual or “reductive,” but I disagree. The points Weinberger makes here are essentially correct and are much clearer than they would be if dressed up in academic jargon. In addition to its clarity, plain language has the virtue of allowing ideas from ancient times and distant places to extend into our present, just as shared humanity itself extends. The alternative of studying ancient ideas as if they are pickled specimens in a jar cannot do that. Weinberger sees lines of Wang Wei’s poems as “both universal and immediate,” and he sees much else in human cultures in that same spirit, which I think is wonderful.

  1. See Simon Leys, “One More Art,” The New York Review, April 18, 1996.