mai 14, 2015

Only in rare combination can philologists double as poets, or poets as philologists. The philologist is concerned with excavating expression from a foreign language, the poet with perfecting expression in his own language. The combination that succeeds is then a combination of both. Despite the trumpeting of Fenollosa to announce a new visual interpretation of Chinese poetry, there is no evidence that he ever followed his own call. The poems in Cathay, translated by Pound «from the notes of the late Ernest Fenollosa, and the decipherings of the Professors Mori and Ariga» (1915), are given a conventional interpretation. The first excursion by Pound alone is to be found in the translation of «The Great Digest» (1928, Edwards No. 36), where three pages of «Terminology» explore the possibilities of pictorial analysis divorced from accepted meaning. The results are exciting and unreal. In «The Unwobbling Pivot» (1947) a certain amount of this analysis continues, but in the «Analects» (1950) it is barely discernible. Those who take the trouble to compare this with Legge’s translation (1861) will find that Pound has in large measure taken over philologist Legge and dressed up the English that was sadly unpoetic. In «The Classic Anthology» (1954) the English of Pound has loosed itself completely from any Chinese mooring. And in the Rock-Drill Cantos (1956), particularly no.85., the Chinese has become a decoration with no intelligible meaning.

To elaborate on the foregoing statements would require more space than can be allowed at present. For anyone who grants that Chinese is a language, elaboration is unnecessary. Chinese poetry, like any other, is to be sung, chanted, whispered, recited, muttered, but not (God forbid!) to be deciphered. The association of ideas that results from the dissection of a given character may produce a poetic thought. But this is a new thought, and it may completely overshadow the thought that was in the mind of the writer. In the «Terminology» prefaced to Pound’s translation of «The Great Digest» a Chinese character meaning ‘sincerity’ is analyzed as «the precise definition of the word, pictorially the sun’s lance coming to rest on the precise spot verbally.» This is sheer imagination in the style of Edward Lear. What is «the sun’s lance»? Even if there were an etymological basis for this fantasy, to use it in translation would be comparable to a Chinese insistence on always rendering the English word ‘sincerity’, as «a state of being without wax.» The first line of the Analects reads, «Having studied something, constantly to practice it, is this not a joy?» Pound has «Study with the seasons winging past, is not this pleasant?» «Seasons» is impossible. The thought of «winging past» comes by isolation of a portion of the character meaning «practice». Six sentences later the same character occurs, and Pound translates it «practice». Either the thought of «winging past» failed to materialize, or it was found impossible to work it into the context. But this represents a totally irresponsible attitude toward the Chinese language. When it suits the translator’s whim, he may construct any number of bright images from the bits that he thinks he has discovered in the character. When he is tired, he falls back on the simple word that the character symbolizes.

The character in this case is pronounced shyi, southern China ziq, time of Confucius zip. If there is a language, then zip has always had a specific meaning, not necessarily the same, since language grows. But this meaning cannot be found by theorizing, any more than one might determine that «minimum» means «milk» because it begins and ends in m. All Chinese literature we have, including the Analects, indicates that zip means, and has always meant, «practice». In the Analects zip occurs three times, twice in association with ‘learn’. The repeated idea is that learning is fruitless unless one puts it into practice. Pound sacrifices this rather important precept for the sake of a pastoral where the seasons go winging by. Undoubtedly this is fine poetry. Undoubtedly it is bad translation. Pound has the practice, but not the learning. He is to be saluted as a poet, but not as a translator.

George A. Kennedy, «Fenollosa, Pound and the Chinese Character»


Sacred Books of the East

november 27, 2014

From Wikipedia: «The Sacred Books of the East is a monumental 50-volume set of English translations of Asian religious writings, edited by Max Müller and published by the Oxford University Press between 1879 and 1910. It incorporates the essential sacred texts of Hinduism, Buddhism, Taoism, Confucianism, Zoroastrianism, Jainism, and Islam.»

Freely available as PDFs from and as plain text from

Kinesisk visdom

mai 6, 2013

Tal ikke om hav til en frosk i en brønn.
Den vil kalle deg gal og bespotte ditt skjønn.
At havet er til, det er løgn for et kryp,
som tror at en brønn er det evigste dyp

Og tal ikke vist til et sommerfugl-kre
om urtid og istid og evig sne.
Alt dette er vittelig eventyrløgn
for solblinde barn av et duftende døgn.

Tal ikke til tiden om evighet.
Det er ikke sikkert at timene vet
en mere uendelig tid enn et år,
hvori allting begynner og alt forgår.

Tal ikke om Gud til en fattig sjel
som løper og faller og slår seg ihjel.
Han vender tilbake dit hvorfra han kom,
og mere enn det vet han ingen ting om.

(Herman Wildenvey, 1885-1959)

Første vers henviser til denne Zhuangzi-parabelen.

Fra The Book of Chuang Tzu (Penguin Classics, Kindle-utgaven):

Duke Tzu Mou leaned forward, sighed heavily, looked to Heaven, smiled and said, ‘Dear Sir, have you not heard of the frog in the broken-down old well? He said to the turtle of the Eastern Ocean, “I have a great time! I leap on to the well wall, or I go down in the well, stepping along the broken bricks. When I enter the water, I float with it supporting my chin, feet up; on the mud, I dig my feet deep in. I look about me at the larvae, crabs and tadpoles and there is none that is as good as I. To have complete control of the waters of the gorge and not to wish to move but to enjoy the old well, this is great! Dear Sir, why don’t you come down and see me sometime?”

‘The turtle of the Eastern Ocean tried, but before he had put his left foot into the well, his right knee was stuck. At this he paused, shuffled out backwards and then began to speak about the ocean. “A distance such as a thousand miles doesn’t come close to describing its length, nor a depth of a thousand leagues describe its deepness. In the time of Yu, nine years in every ten there were floods, but this did not raise the ocean an inch. In the time of Tang, seven years in every eight there were droughts, but this did not lower the ocean shore an inch. Nothing changes these waters, neither in the short term nor in the long term; they neither recede nor advance, grow larger nor smaller. This is the great happiness of the Eastern Ocean.” When the frog in the broken-down old well heard this, he was utterly amazed and astonished; he was utterly astonished, dumbfounded and at a loss.

‘For someone whose understanding can’t handle such knowledge, such debates about right and wrong, if they persist in trying to see through the words of Chuang Tzu, it is like a mosquito trying to carry a mountain on its back, or a scuttle bug rushing as fast as the Yellow River. This is plainly impossible. For someone whose understanding cannot handle such knowledge, such words of subtlety, all they are capable of is gaining some short-term reward. They are like the frog in the broken-down well, are they not?

“Actually, the Xiguo jifa was a disappointing book, for it proved useless for the many eager Chinese readers. In essence, this book of Western Mnemonics used spatial imagination for classifying Chinese characters: how these could be broken down according to radicals, sounds, and meanings for easier comprehension. His methods made sense only for students unfamiliar with the non-phonetic nature of Chinese, who needed a visual aid for breaking down and classifying the complex shapes of Chinese characters. Ricci’s Chinese readers, who had learned their characters from a tender age, already recognized these characters; Ricci’s method was useless for them. Take for example Ricci’s explanation in chapter 2, ‘Applying the Method’:

To learn mnemonics, one has to place in sequence the visual images of things and events in specified places; therefore we call this visual mnemonics. Suppose you want to remember the four characters ‘wu’ (military), ‘yao’ (to want), ‘li’ (profit), and ‘hao’ (good), you have to imagine a room with four corners for storage, using the southeastern corner as the first site, the northeastern as the second, the northwestern as the third, and the southwestern as the fourth. You take the character ‘wu’ which looks like a warrior holding a spear ready for battle, and another man restraining him by the wrists, thus forming the image of ‘wu’, [ 武 ] and you place it in the southeastern corner. You take the character ‘yao’ [ 要 ] imagine it as looking like a Muslim girl of Central Asia, forming the character ‘yao’, and you place it in the northeastern corner. You take the character ‘li’, [ 利 ] imagine it to look like a peasant holding a sickle harvesting in the fields, forming the character ‘li’, and you place it in the northwestern corner. You take the character ‘hao’, [ 好 ] imagine it to look like a young girl, playing with a baby she is holding, forming the character ‘hao’, and you place it in the southwestern corner. Once you have placed the four characters in these four sites, if you want to remember them, recall the room and find them in their different corners, and you will recall their images and remember the characters.

This was only the most basic step. In chapters 4 and 5, Ricci introduced far more complicated and elaborate methods of spatial placement, to facilitate remembering whole sentences and paragraphs.

The trouble with Ricci’s method, as one Chinese student observed, was that ‘these precepts are the true rules of memory, but one already needs good memory in order to use them’. Moreover, Ricci’s linguistic excursions into the etymology of Chinese characters struck readers either as naive or absurd, making sense perhaps for foreign students of Chinese, but not to Chinese literati steeped in long tradition of historical phonetics and etymology. Xiguo jifa found little reception: only one edition was printed and few copies disseminated.”

(R. Po-chia Hsia, A Jesuit in the Forbidden City: Matteo Ricci 1552-1610 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2012), 150-51)

Having, then, investigated the main formal aspects of Chinese verse which resist successful communication by the translator, let us now consider some features of its content which can prove equally refractory.

A notable one is the Chinese poet’s preference for impersonal statement. The Chinese verb can be, and often is, left uncommitted as to number and tense. When, in addition to this, the personal pronoun is omitted, the effect is a timeless, universal quality comparable to that of the statement made by a painting. Significantly, Keats had to use three or four different forms of the verb in describing the figures on the Grecian urn, even while he was stressing the timelessness of the scene. When the Chinese poet is describing anything his statements are invariable and automatically timeless.

Of course, the poet’s presence may often be inferred even when it is not explicit. Yet even so there is an objectiveness in the Chinese which cannot quite be paralleled in English. The following poem by the eleventh-century Song poet Kou Zhun demonstrates the translator’s dilemma:


Feng kuo qiang xi bo miao mang

Du ping wei lan si he chang

Xiao xiao yuan shu shu lin wai

Yi ban qui shan dai xi yang

Widely separated peaks, a few scattered masts, a great blank

of water;

All alone, leaning on vertiginously high-up ralings, far lost in


Forlorn, leafless trees in the distance beyond the sparse woods;

One half of the mountains wearing the colours of sunset.


This is not a finished translation but the intermediate draft from which a translation is made. When we come to make the final draft, what do we do with line 2? When did the leaning occur, and who is its subject? I? You? She?

In this particular case we know that the poem was one of four written by Kou Zhun on the wall of a riverside pavilion, each describing the view from the pavilion at a different season of the year. This poem is the one for autumn. So Kou Zhun’s presence in the scene can be assumed.

But this still does not entirely dispose of our problem. Is the verb “I am leaning”? “I have been leaning”? “I leaned (last autumn)”? “I often lean”? Or is it “One might lean”? Or “When you lean”?

In fact, it is impossible to say. It could be all or none of these. The Chinese poet does not really care, and to tell the truth would probably not understand the question. He is describing a picture which includes a little figure in a pavilion looking at the view. He is not interested in the history of identity of the little figure or the date of the painting, even if the little figure is himself and the time is now.

The problem of allusion, regarded by many Western students as the greatest bugbear of all in interpreting Chinese poetry – or indeed Chinese literature of any kind – is a product less of Chinese obscurantism than of our own cultural alienation. Our literature, even our daily speech, teems with allusion of every kind. “Look at Hercules!” said of a muscular man on the beach lifting heavy objects above his head is not a remark indicative of profound classical learning. It is, nevertheless, an allusion, and would mystify an Asiatic visitor who knew our language but nothing of what we call our cultural heritage. When we speak of universal themes, having in our mind psychologically interesting stories like the myth of Oedipus, we ought to remind ourselves that although we and our European cousins were reared on bible stories and the tales of Greece and Rome, a large part of the human race knows nothing of either.

(From «Chinese Poetry and the English Reader»)

“Stirring, heroic sentiments are appropriate to oratory, where the purpose is to rouse a crowd to immediate action. In regular verse, which is written to be intoned and enjoyed at leisure, to be mulled over several times, and in lyric verse, where sophistication, refinement and restraint are prized above all, passion and vehemence must be tempered with tenderness and deep sincerity. Passion is aroused by momentary moral indignation, whereas deep sincerity is the product of daily cultivation. Passion resembles the bravery of the common soldier, whereas deep sincerity is the higher courage that stems from love towards humanity. Since the days of old, the great exemplars of loyalty and chivalry, who in their love for motherland and people braved danger and remained unflinching to the end, always drew on the strength of their deep self-cultivation. They never relied solely on their exuberance and animal spirits. It is the achievement of the greatest literary creations that they are able by the skillful use of subtly beautiful language to express this deep inner sincerity. Literature that is noisy, self-publicizing, superficial and propagandist cannot be held in high esteem.”

(Miao Yüeh 繆越, “The Chinese Lyric 論詞”. Translated by John Minford. In Soong ed., Song Without Music: Chinese Tz’u Poetry, p. 41.)