Poet for Troubled Times

                       In these perilous times, how to repay my Sovereign? Old and frail, I can't stop thinking of it.
                                                                                                                                 ~Du Fu

The Selected Poems of Du Fu (Asian Writers Series)
Burton Watson, translator
Columbia University Press, 2002 128 pages $17.50 (US)

Reviewed by G.S. McCormick

One of the greatest challenges facing a competent translator of literary works is finding that delicate balance between a solidly literal rendering of a work and "capturing its spirit," as it were, keeping what is surmised to be the author's general intention, yet sticking close to Keats' idea that poetry "should please by a fine excess and not by singularity. It should strike the reader as a wording of his own highest thoughts, and appear almost as a remembrance." This is a problem faced by translators for centuries and perceived failures in translating a piece adequately have not infrequently led to scandal, controversy and even the occasional head being lopped off. Consider poor William Tyndale who attempted to translate the first real English Bible and ended up imprisoned in 1536. Ultimately sentenced to death by strangling, his last words, referring to his hope to the end that his translation would be allowed, apparently being: "Lord! Open the King of England's eyes."

Those who undertake the daunting task of translating an ancient and difficult language like Chinese face no lesser challenge. Ezra Pound, in his "translations" from various Chinese pieces, faced this problem by simply ignoring the "Chinese-ness" as much as he saw fit and creating his own pieces. Today, a suitable title of what Pound called "Cathay: Translations" would be to replace the word "translations" with "inspirations." Chinese poetry has been a vexing problem for writers for several generations. The work of China's greatest poet, Du Fu, adds to this translation difficulty a body of work written over 1300 years ago. If one wants to imagine an earthly existence as far removed from our own as one can possibly get, one need not look further than 8th century China. Yet the distance also allows an apt translation into modern English even more power and resonance: for if a modern reader can glimpse some of Du Fu's humanity, if she can glean something for her own life from the writer's life lived so long ago, then the translator has captured a seed of what makes us truly human. What are the worries, joys, tribulations of Du Fu's age? Surprisingly they are similar to our own, and Du Fu's constant compassion is something readers (and critics) have long admired him for.

Given the only handful of attempts in the 20th century (the first such century as a whole in which Chinese culture became widely accessible in the West) to translate the work of Du Fu, it is obviously a formidable task not diminished by the problem of balance mentioned above. The struggle between "literal" and "literary" are not mutually exclusive, of course, but, particularly in the last 25 years or so, emphasis has been on maintaining some kind of "artistic integrity" yet with the stipulation that we see as little of the translator's own thoughts and ideas as possible (that's what introductions are for!). Keeping as close to the literal meaning as possible is generally now seen as optimal solution to the problem of translation. To demonstrate just how the dynamics and values of translations have changed, compare the following:

Thinking of my Little Boy Thinking of My Boy
Chi Tzu! it is Spring, we are still apart!
This song of the bright oriole, the warm weather
     verily but sharpen my distress.
Cut off, separated, I am startled by the change
     of season.
With whom can I talk of your quick perception?

Of the mountain torrent which pours its water
     beside our pathway in the lonely hills?
The rough branches which form our gateway in
     the hamlet surrounded by old trees?

I think of you, and in my sadness find no comfort
     but in sleep;
Leaning on the balustrade I warm my back and
     doze when the sun shines after rain.
                             (Florence Ayscough1), 1929
Comes spring once more,
Pony Boy, and still we
Cannot be together; I
Comfort myself hoping
You are singing with
The birds in the sunshine;
Amazed at the change of season!
Now you have no one to
Admire you and say, "See
What a bright lad is our
Pony Boy!" I think of
The places we would enjoy
Together; in the hills,
Down by the valley streams
Under the trees outside
The gate; but best let
               Myself fall asleep and
Forget, as the sun brings
Warmth to my old back.
                      (Rewi Alley2), 2000

Thinking of My Boy

It is spring, Pony Boy, and we are still apart. You may be singing now with the orioles in the warm sunshine. I am startled by how fast one season displaces another; Who now acclaims your growing cleverness?

My thoughts go to the running gally by the only mountain path, To the rough wooden gate in the village of ancient trees. I think I see him; I try not to doze While leaning on the balustrade and warming my back in the sun.
                                                                                                         (William Hung3), 1969

The Ayscough translation (published in 1929) was considered a competent translation at the time. It is full of artifice, adding details Du Fu never intended -- the "the warm weather/verily but sharpen my distress," for example, has a nice sentiment to it and accentuates the emotion, but has no relation at all to the original -- and loses almost completely the sparse aspect of Tang-era poetic tone. In ancient Chinese writing, strict forms were followed and written language employed notoriously few function words (pronouns, prepositions, grammar particles, etc.); thus word order is vital to piecing together the "messages," and Du Fu's work is full of ambiguous phrases for the simple reason that Du Fu liked to occasionally jumble up word order in a way not seen previously. Du Fu was a master of making new rules and playing with form (some Chinese critics argue, in fact, he changed the face of Chinese poetry for subsequent generations of writers and continued to highly influence poets well until the more modern literary revolution of the early 20th century). In his large literary ouvre, in fact, Du Fu employed all the forms available to poets of his time and invented or developed several others.

The Hung translation (published in 1969) is in some ways the antithesis of Ayscough's version: no line breaks, no dawdling over images or ambiguities, it is a literal logbook of Du Fu's words, tied up sensibly, brown paper package and string. Hung's response to Ayscough was that of a "true" Chinese scholar. Hung was one of the seminal translators of the late 60s who foresaw and helped shape the revolution to a greater emphasis put on "ethnic" culture in many major American universities. To Hung, Ayscough seems almost a caricature of a colonial usurper: no reading knowledge of Chinese (Ayscough, like Pound, worked with other scholars or translators), writing for white upper-class readers in the United States and Britain, a book whose commentary contains just a hint of the spice of condescension. For Hung, Ayscough most certainly represents "old-school" Chinese studies.

The Rewi Alley translation seems at first glance to be a happy medium, compromise to Ayscough's flowery pretensions and Hung's noble intention at what ends up being rather flat and dry. (Du Fu as compiler of lists of images and feelings). But for all its ambition, the Alley collection lacks what both Hung and Ayscough offer in their books: historical background. Du Fu's work contains a myriad of allusion to Tang dynasty emperors, battles, historical events, natural disasters, historical shifts and, to the lay reader, much of the power of Du Fu's words (in any kind of translation) simply loses its power without at least illuminating aspects of his life, customs of the era, as well as conditions in which the piece was written.

So vital, in fact, is this historical and biographical information, one modern critic4 has suggested that in China's literary history, to review Du Fu's work necessarily means reviewing his life and vice versa. Indeed, historical records being as they have been throughout Chinese history (spotty, erratically kept and often copied in line with trends and moods of the ruling court), nearly all of the information we have of Du Fu's life comes from his nearly 1,400 poems still in extant. Since Du Fu's work was largely unknown until three centuries after his death, little primary source material of Du Fu's life has survived and the facts surrounding his life are sparse: he was born in 712 A.D. in or near Luoyang (the present-day capital of Henan Province). Failing the imperial examinations twice which would have allotted the poet a respectable career and financial prosperity, Du Fu spent much of his life wandering from city to city, sometimes on the run from armed soldiers (and briefly held captive in the Tang Dynasty capital of Chang'An when the then Emperor left, fleeing a chaotic rebellion that would ultimately seriously weaken the Tang line). Little is known about his immediate family: he was married and had at least two sons and several daughters, though apparently at least one son is thought to have starved to death during a particularly trying time for Du Fu (and China generally). Du Fu's body of work can largely be divided into various times of prosperity and hardship and some of his most beautiful pieces are full of details of the common person and their suffering.

Indeed, the quality which has long been admired of Du Fu is his grand moral sense: his compassion, his understanding and empathy for the lot of the peasant, his outrage at the cruelties of the Emperor's conscription officers who would regularly decimate entire villages taking away men (and sometimes women) to die in foolish and largely unsuccessful military campaigns. His deep loving relationships with friends (Li Bai, another famous Chinese poet of the Tang era, is alluded to directly and indirectly in several dozen works), love of and longing for his family ("Pony Boy" is one such poem) and his many brothers is another theme found in much of Du Fu's work. Long hailed by Confucian scholars in China as one of the most highly moral poets, Du Fu also has had a relatively long literary reputation, rather immune to the changes in ruling families and the end of Imperial rule altogether.

* * *

The latest incarnation (and one suspects, future testament to the development and idiosyncrasies of historical translation trends) of Du Fu's work is the competent translations of Burton Watson 2002 book "Selected Poems of Du Fu." Though several are reworkings of earlier translations (published in a 1984 anthology by Watson), many of these pieces are the most recent translations of Du Fu in a generation. Watson (who has also translated other Chinese poets and several Japanese poets as well) strikes a fine balance in keeping the poems fresh, vivid, but retaining a sense of Du Fu's literal meaning. His version of the previous poem:

Thinking of My Little Boy

Pony Boy--spring and you're still far away;
warblers sing, so many in this warmth.
Parted, I'm startled at how the seasons change.
My bright boy, with whom is he discoursing?
Valley stream, a road over empty hills,
rustic gate, village of old trees--
Thinking of you, sorrowing, all I do is doze,
back to the sun, hunched over on the bright veranda.
                       (Watson5), 2002

Both denser and more efficient than the other translations, Watson finds that delicate place of keeping "intent" central to the piece yet still making it workable as a poem, full of affecting imagery and plaintive emotion.

Watson solves the historical information problem by choosing to rather err on the side of giving too much information (six lines of historical and other information, in fact, for this eight-line poem alone). The technique of explicating the historical background after the title of each piece is problematic, disturbing and, at times, awkward. The footnote scheme works better; however, the complete lack of an index of titles or first lines (even lacking a proper table of contents) means flipping through the entire book (well over 100 poems) if searching for a particular poem (Either that, or remembering Watson's esoteric numbering system or, even more unlikely, determining approximately what year Du Fu wrote the poem since they are placed in Watson's book more or less chronologically). That said, the poems themselves are rendered sparsely, yet vividly, the language jocular at times (retaining much of Du Fu's wry humor), poignant at others. Another example of the various approaches to translation:

From "Fleeing to Peng Ya" (Ayscough1)
Famished, my foolish girl baby gnawed me;
She wailed; I dreaded tiger, wolf, would hear.

I covered her mouth and wrapped her to my
She turned over, turned back, threw herself to the
     side; the sounds increased; she screamed with

From "Peng Ya" (Hung3)
The silly daughter tried to bite me when she felt
hungry;I feared her crying might attract the attention of tigers and wolves; I held her mouth tight to my bosom; She wiggled free and wailed the more.

From "Ballad of Peng Ya" (Watson5)
The baby girl in her hunger bit me;
fearful that tigers or wolves would hear her cries,
I hugged her to my chest, muffling her mouth,
but she squirmed and wailed louder than before.

This stanza comes in a very difficult poem during which Du Fu and his family are leaving Chang'An (modern day Xi'An) to escape the rebellion that had engulfed the capital. The Ayscough version is wordy, though the imagery is perhaps a bit clearer: "She turned over, turned back, threw herself to the side" when Hung simply uses: "she wiggled free" and Watson: "she squirmed"." But if "elegance" is using as few words as possible without losing any meaning, then Ayscough's version frequently lacks the elegance that Hung and Watson in their economy of phrase. But Hung is matter-of-fact in his translation, hoping that the "purity" of Du Fu's images will somehow override the flat language. Watson buys the argument but works toward an aesthetic more akin to Ayscough's. Again, as well, Watson elucidates the historical information directly after the title which lends a certain emotional risk to it for the reader, the details of the hardship made clearer by the background.

For those who prefer as little context as possible, the Watson translations and abundant historical atmosphere will serve to irritate. That said, Du Fu is a difficult poet to understand unless one has some idea of the situation he starts from. Chinese history (need it be said) is long and complex and to simply bypass it is doing one a great disservice. For that reason, Watson makes a great case for a book geared at those with little or no exposure to China and her history. The poems are well-wrought, insightful and elucidate the mind of this ancient writer in an undeniably modern way.

Born in 1925 in New York and educated at Columbia, Watson is probably the best known American translator of Chinese working today. His 1984 anthology of Chinese poetry was a successful and well-written survey of the various eras of Chinese poetry up to the 13th century. He has translated collections on Li Bai, Chuang Tzu, The Lotus Sutra, as well as several collections of Japanese and Zen poetry. He has taught Chinese and Japanese literature in Japan, California and New York.

Works cited/References:

1   Ayscough, Florence (Ed.),. (1929). Tu Fu: Autobiography of a Chinese Poet
               Boston: Houghton Mifflin.

2   Alley, Rewi (Tr.). (1999). Du Fu Selected Poems
	           Beijing: Foreign Languages Press.

3   Hung, William (Ed.). (1969). Tu Fu: China's Greatest Poet
               New York: Russell & Russell.

4   Chou, Eva Shan. (1995). Reconsidering Tu Fu
               Cambridge: Cambridge University.
5   Watson, Burton (Tr.). (2002). The Selected Poems of Du Fu (Asian Writers Series)
               New York: Columbia University Press.

Hawkes, David (Tr. & Ed.). (1967) A Little Primer of Tu Fu
               Oxford: Oxford University.

Watson, Burton (Tr. & Ed.). (1984) The Columbia Book of Chinese Poetry 
           From Early Times to the 13th Century. New York: Columbia University.

G.S. McCormick, one of the Plum Ruby Review editors, has spent much of his life moving around. Raised in southern Idaho, he most recently relocated to Montreal after living in Shanghai for 5 years. One of these days he'll do a graduate degree. Until then, he reads, writes, works and drinks far too much.


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