A Magician of Chinese Poetry

Eliot Weinberger, New York City, circa 2000
Nina Subin
Eliot Weinberger, New York City, circa 2000

Some people, and I am one, feel that Tang (618–907 CE) poetry is the finest literary art they have ever read. But does one need to learn Chinese in order to have such a view, or can classical Chinese poetry be adequately translated?

In 1987 Eliot Weinberger, who has written brilliant essays on topics as various as the mystical I Ching (Book of Change), Buddha as “impostor,” Albanian Islam, and a connection between Michel Foucault and George W. Bush—and who has translated Chinese poetry, too—published a little book with Octavio Paz called Nineteen Ways of Looking at Wang Wei. There Weinberger and Paz choose a four-line poem by Wang Wei, one of the best Tang poets, and present it many ways: in Chinese characters, in a transliteration into modern Mandarin, in a character-by-character literal translation, and in seventeen different ways translators have tried to put it into English, French, or Spanish.

They find that none of the translations is perfect (there is no such thing as “perfect” in such matters), but that some are very worthwhile as poems on their own. Weinberger writes that a good poem contains “living matter” that “functions somewhat like DNA, spinning out individual translations that are relatives, not clones, of the original.” Now, in 2016, we have an updated version of the book, called Nineteen Ways of Looking at Wang Wei (with More Ways), that offers sixteen additional offspring, three in German, for a total of thirty-four.

The title of the poem is “Deer Fence” (or Deer Park, Deer Enclosure, Deer Forest Hermitage, and others). Weinberger’s literal translation reflects the five-characters-per-line of the original:

Empty/mountain(s) [or] hill(s)/(negative)/to see/person [or] people
But/to hear/person [or] people/words or conversation/sound [or] to echo
To return/bright(ness) [or] shadow(s)/to enter/deep/forest
To return/to shine/green/moss/above

Of the finished translations, this one by Burton Watson is among Weinberger’s favorites:

Empty hills, no one in sight,
only the sound of someone talking;
late sunlight enters the deep wood,
shining over the green moss again.

How good are the good translations? How much of the original do we get?

Some of the art of classical Chinese poetry must simply be set aside as untranslatable. The internal structure of Chinese characters has a beauty of its own, and the calligraphy in which classical poems were written is another important but untranslatable dimension.* Since Chinese characters do not vary in length, and because there are exactly five characters per line in a poem like this, another untranslatable feature is that the written result, hung on a wall, presents a rectangle. Translators into languages whose word lengths vary can reproduce such an effect only at the risk of fatal awkwardness. (Watson’s translation, above, does about as…


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