Thursday, May 14, 2009

Kirsch on new translations of ancient Chinese poetry

In his twofer review of David Hinton's anthology of classical Chinese poetry and David Young's Du Fu: A Life in Poetry, Adam Kirsch gestures dramatically and divertingly toward the historical and cultural depth which often goes under-appreciated of Chinese poetry in translation. He reminds us of the dubious and charismatic authorships, subversive quality, and truly penetrating clarity and perception (among other qualities we forget are not exclusive to poetry written after 1900) that drew Pound to this literature and which will reward new readers. I would be drawn to the books in any case, but Kirsch's review, informative and erudite as it is, enhances the appeal. One just wants quickly to dig in:
Reading commentaries on Chinese poetry--notably, Stephen Owen's The Great Age of Chinese Poetry, which deals with the High T'ang period of Li Po and Tu Fu--one begins to get an inkling of how many layers of meaning even the simplest, most imagistic poem contained for its original readers. Each genre of Chinese poetry had rules about rhyme, line length, and parallelism so intricate as to make the English sonnet look like free verse. Then there were conventions about how poems should start and end, and what images they could use, and what register of formality was appropriate to different subjects and different readers.
Now, I do take as challenge and invitation Kirsch's claim that many of the expressive features of Chinese literature -- e.g., the immediacy with which single-character ideograms communicate meaning; the shadings available to a tonal language; the paratactic grammar; and, as Kirsch notes, the relative scarcity of grammatical helpers like pronouns -- "are totally untranslatable into English." Tentatively scheduled but enthusiastically hoped for, in the Spring 2009 issue of Pusteblume, is new translation from contemporary Chinese by Eleanor Goodman. Look for the essay paired with these texts, to deflate the familiar argument that in translating Chinese, though something lovely may be transformed into English, much must be left behind.