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"Chinese poetry, as we know it today, is something invented by Ezra Pound." - T. S. Eliot
April 30, 2009 8:03 PM   Subscribe

[Ezra Pound] worked on and for poetry as others might work on a major scientific discovery or a drawn-out military mission. Thus, as Sieburth reminds us in his introduction to The Pisan Cantos, when, on May 3, 1945, Pound was arrested at his home in the hills above Rapallo, he immediately put a small Chinese dictionary and a copy of the Confucian classics in his pocket. Working as he then was on his Confucian translations, he knew that, wherever the military police were taking him, he would need these books.
From Pound Ascendant by Marjorie Perloff. Ezra Pound's ability as a translator of Chinese poetry has long been disparaged by sinologists, such as George A. Kennedy in Fenollosa, Pound and the Chinese Character. Other academics have sought to defend him. Two examples are Zhaoming Qian's Ezra Pound's encounter with Wang Wei: toward the "ideogrammic method" of the Cantos and Stephen Tapscott's In Praise of Bad Translations: Ezra Pound and the Cultural Work of Translation (pdf). Eric Hayot draws the contours of this long-running debate and explores its significance in Critical Dreams: Orientalism, Modernism, and the Meaning of Pound's China. Pound's Cathay in full and a public domain audiobook version (iTunes link).
posted by Kattullus (16 comments total) 28 users marked this as a favorite

 
The essays of Qian and Hayot, on findarticles.com, are replete with minor typos and slightly irritating formatting errors, but both worth the read nonetheless.

Previous MetaFilter posts on Ezra Pound.
posted by Kattullus at 8:07 PM on April 30, 2009


What's the proper way to format "In a station of the Metro" ? Searching some reputable sites uncovers capitalized title, non-capitalized title, and a very spaced out version.

Oof, I love(d) the frustration of trying to teach the importance of that poem to teenagers.
posted by hellogoodbye at 8:31 PM on April 30, 2009


Here it is in Lustra which is the first book of Pound's it appears in but the "very spaced out version" you link to is how it appeared in Poetry which was its first publication.
posted by Kattullus at 8:37 PM on April 30, 2009 [2 favorites]


Sweet . My mind is at rest.
posted by hellogoodbye at 8:51 PM on April 30, 2009


Re: Pound's Chinese: I vaguely remember reading that Rexroth complained to Laughlin that one of the characters in the Cantos was upside down, but that New Directions went through several printings before correcting it.
posted by ornate insect at 9:13 PM on April 30, 2009


Conventional wisdom re: Pound's "translations" tends to run something like "Sure it's crap Chinese, but the English can stand alone as a beautiful work in itself."

Even as a lowly undergrad studying modern American lit., I was felt like this was a cop-out.
posted by bardic at 1:07 AM on May 1, 2009


George Kennedy also disparaged Paul Newman's ability to eat fifty eggs.
posted by ActingTheGoat at 1:29 AM on May 1, 2009


Well, Katullus, this ranks among my all-time favourite posts on metafilter. Thanks a lot. Orientalism at the outset of the twentieth century is fascinating. Hermann Hesse also dreamt about Chinese ideograms and their hidden powers, influenced by Leibniz. So did Henri Michaux. I would also like to point to a French poet who made extensive use of chinese ideograms in his poems : Victor Segalen (wiki, complete text from Stèles, further info - all in French + Chinese). Paul Claudel devoted several books to the East. For those interested, I'd like to mention the contemporary works of François Cheng, Kenneth White, which deal with similar issues pertaining to comparative literature.
posted by nicolin at 2:26 AM on May 1, 2009 [2 favorites]


Not perfectly relevant to Pound's Chinese adventures, but the best thing I ever read in relation to him is this quote:

"At least he made the quatrains run on time."

I so very much wish I could take credit for that. A quick google attributes the line to Bill Knott, about whom I know nothing.
posted by Shohn at 6:08 AM on May 1, 2009


I think it's definitely fair to say Pound had some odd ideas about Chinese as a language, mainly due to taking the slightly eccentric ideas in Fenollosa's Chinese Written Character As A Medium For Poetry and applying his equally eccentric spin on them. But then it wouldn't be the first or the last thing that Pound had odd ideas about and at least this one did help to produce The River Merchant's Wife: A Letter, a poem so luminously beautiful (to use a Poundian phrase) that it completely stopped me in my tracks the first time I read it.

[Compare this to, say, The Pisan Cantos, which poetically are equally brilliant, but it's just that bit harder to get behind work which favourably compares Mussolini to Jesus Christ than it is the odd mangled ideogram]

(Oh and great post Kattullus)
posted by Hartster at 6:09 AM on May 1, 2009


Great post, Kattullus. I'm afraid I can't make myself slog through page after page of the findarticles.com interface (why can't they have a "single page" version?), but that Perloff essay is one of the best, most understanding and judicious short piece I've read about his work. This passage in particular nails something about the great Pisan Cantos that (I realize now) has always subliminally bothered me without my being able to put my finger on it:
But how does Pound’s “fluid, diaphanous body” of “crystalline ethereality,” this mysterious Eleusinian goddess, familiar to us from Pound’s Cavalcanti and other translations, accord with the witty and realistic snapshots of Pound’s male friends in these Cantos? The “she” who “did her hair in small ringlets” is never mentioned by name, and neither are the other women in Pound’s life, beginning with H.D., known in Pound’s poetry as “Dryad.” Tellingly, the men who designed Olga’s dresses—“Decrol or Lanvin”—may be named, but Olga herself can only appear in the guise Cythera or Gea, the earth mother. “Under her influence,” writes Sieburth, “the entire Pisan landscape is eroticized into a soft-focus projection of her giant body.”

Soft focus indeed! In the world of the Pisans, men are allowed to be men—absurd, charming, endearing, like “Mr James shielding himself with Mrs Hawkesby / asit were a bowl shielding itself with a walking stick” (74.298–9) or “Uncle William” (Yeats) “dawdling around Notre Dame / in search of whatever” (83.23–24), or “Mr Joyce” who “requested sample menus from the leading hotels” (77.279). Possum (Eliot), Fordie (Ford Madox Ford), Bill Carlos (William Carlos Williams): these populate the great memory poem which is the Pisan Cantos, arrested in characteristic poses so as to evoke magic moments and recognition scenes. So too, the actual places cited in the Pisans, from Venice’s “jewel box, Santa Maria Dei Miracoli” (76.271) to “the Bros Watson’s store in Clinton N. Y.” (77.19) to the “WIENER CAFÉ” on the Edgeware Road in London (80. 472) and the “cake shops in the Nevsky” (74.290), are designated by proper names that display the precision he first called for in the Imagist manifesto of 1912.
Pound is the foundation of my understanding of poetry; discovering him in the college bookstore (a copy of the Selected Poems, now beat-up and coverless but still among my most valued possessions—I turned at random to "Ancient Music and was immediately hooked) was one of the formative experiences of my life, and although (as I said in a previous MeFi post on the subject) there are parts of the Cantos I'll never wade through again, it's still an indispensable work of American poetry.

Conventional wisdom re: Pound's "translations" tends to run something like "Sure it's crap Chinese, but the English can stand alone as a beautiful work in itself."
Even as a lowly undergrad studying modern American lit., I was felt like this was a cop-out
.

Huh? This is one of those times when conventional wisdom is absolutely correct. Cathay contains some of the best poetry in the English language, created in more or less absolute ignorance of Chinese and thus full of "howlers" if you're looking at them as translations. Where's the copout?
posted by languagehat at 6:23 AM on May 1, 2009 [2 favorites]


languagehat: I'm afraid I can't make myself slog through page after page of the findarticles.com interface (why can't they have a "single page" version?)

I'll admit that when I read essays from findarticles.com I copy and paste all the text into a text document and read it that way. I went through quite a few more than the two linked findarticles.com essays when gathering material for this post and so I had to make a separate peace with the interface.
posted by Kattullus at 6:35 AM on May 1, 2009


bardic: Conventional wisdom re: Pound's "translations" tends to run something like "Sure it's crap Chinese, but the English can stand alone as a beautiful work in itself."

Even as a lowly undergrad studying modern American lit., I was felt like this was a cop-out.


My memory's not so great, and I haven't had the chance yet to read the linked articles, which I'm sure will shed much light on this. I believe that Cathay was written using character-by-character cribs in English of Li Po, et al that Fenollosa had produced under the guidance of two Japanese Sinologists, Mori and Ariga (these are the three men credited in the title page of the book). That is, Pound's source material for Cathay was English, and the poems -- those extraordinary poems -- weren't quite translations, certainly not in the sense of direct translation from an original that we would typically intend.

Using a similar method, a friend of mine who is ignorant of French once 'translated' Apollinaire's "La Souris" with the help of a Francophone friend. He produced a perfect little poem that resembled Apollinaire's original in almost no way at all.

Pound's later encounters with the Chinese language are a different story, one I'm not very familiar with.
posted by cobra libre at 7:10 AM on May 1, 2009


Please, languagehat. You see no problems with a western poet claiming authority over all of Chinese literature in order to bolster the "authenticity" of something like Cathay?

I like Pound a lot. And I dig Walter Benjamin's take on the job of the translator as being more of a free-form than a literal thing. But I also think it's healthy for translators to know something about the language they're working from. Call me crazy that way.
posted by bardic at 9:07 AM on May 5, 2009


That would be true if previous translations of the poems Pound translated had been conspicuously better, which they weren't. From Hayot's article, which I linked to in the post:
We know that Pound had seen Herbert Giles's version of the poem before he translated it. Giles, who served at one point as a British administrator in China, was with James Legge a major influence in turn-of-the century English sinology. He translated Mei Sheng's opening as:

Green grows the grass upon the bank,

The willow-shoots are long and lank;

A lady in a glistening gown

Opens the casement and looks down, (qtd. in Kenner, Era 194).

These lines reveal the well-nigh inevitable Anglicization that Chinese undergoes when translated. Metrically, the switch from iambs in the second and third lines to trochees in the fourth doesn't stem from any Chinese pattern or, it would seem, from the content of the English poem. Grammatically, Giles cannot retain the ambiguity of the Chinese. Even the use of "upon" forces a prepositional assumption where the original has none. And syntactically, Giles's removal of the double words that begin each line accedes to the habits of English readers who would find such repetition odd and disruptive.

It is worth remembering that Pound had seen Giles's version and therefore that "The Beautiful Toilet" might have been quite different had he not had something to react against. Here are Pound's first four lines (the fifth has become the poem's tide):

The Beautiful Toilet

Blue, blue is the grass about the river

And the willows have overfilled the close garden.

And within, the mistress, in the midmost of her youth,

White, white of face, hesitates, passing the door. (Cathay, n. pag.)
From page 6 of Critical Dreams: Orientalism, Modernism, and the Meaning of Pound's China. As Eliot pointed out (not the first nor the last to do so), there are no perfect translations.
posted by Kattullus at 9:33 AM on May 5, 2009 [1 favorite]


Please, languagehat. You see no problems with a western poet claiming authority over all of Chinese literature in order to bolster the "authenticity" of something like Cathay?

1) Huh? Where did Pound "claim authority over all of Chinese literature"? Let's avoid the straw men, shall we? He wanted to make English versions of poetry he was excited about, and he used what was available to him.

2) Even had he, or some other poet, indeed claimed authority over all of Chinese literature (whatever the hell that might mean), if it resulted in poetry like that, no, I wouldn't have a problem with it. I wouldn't care if he claimed to be Li Po in person if it resulted in poetry like that. Do you really consider proper perspective more important than great poems?

I also think it's healthy for translators to know something about the language they're working from. Call me crazy that way.

*shrug*
Lots of things are healthy. But this is an imperfect world and I'll take what I can get, especially if it's great poetry. Call me crazy that way.
posted by languagehat at 11:52 AM on May 5, 2009 [1 favorite]


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