for Troubled Times
these perilous times, how to repay my Sovereign? Old and frail,
I can't stop thinking of it.
The Selected Poems of Du Fu
(Asian Writers Series)
Burton Watson, translator
University Press, 2002 128 pages $17.50 (US)
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
my Little Boy
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
With whom can I talk of your quick perception?
Of the mountain torrent which pours its water
beside our pathway in the lonely
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.
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
From "Fleeing to Peng
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
"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.
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.