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empty mountains

May 15, 2009

[New Republic] There is a great profusion of Chinese poetry in English, and this fact, too, is significant. It suggests that, despite all the barriers, this poetry does communicate, even urgently, to modern Western readers. Both the difficulty and the urgency are elegantly demonstrated in a short book by Eliot Weinberger called Nineteen Ways of Looking at Wang Wei. Weinberger simply collates and comments on a series of translations of Wang Wei’s famous poem “Deer Park,” allowing the reader to see how even this brief poem–twenty characters, in four lines–contains endless shades of meaning and implication. More, he shows how certain features of the Chinese–for instance, the absence of pronouns–are virtually uncapturable in English, so that almost every translator turns Wang’s series of images into a first-person narration.

Yet again and again translators have returned to Wang Wei, hoping to create an English equivalent for his instant of illumination. Here is how Hinton translates the poem in Classical Chinese Poetry, successfully avoiding the “I”:

No one seen. Among empty mountains,
hints of drifting voice, faint, no more.

Entering these deep woods, late sunlight
flares on green moss again, and rises.

It is fruitless for the reader to wonder whether “flares” has the same connotations in English as what Wang wrote. Comparing this to other English versions, however, shows that Hinton’s word is well chosen. Almost every translator in Weinberger’s book uses “shine” to describe the action of light on moss, though Rexroth opts for “gleam.” Hinton’s “flares” emphasizes the suddenness of the light’s appearance, allowing the reader to feel the poet’s surprise as the sunlight trespasses on his dark, quiet retreat in the forest. The surprise is not just visual, Hinton emphasizes, but also temporal: the light is said to flare “again” because the sun is now setting, and the poet has not seen it since it rose.

Reading Wang Wei in the context of Hinton’s anthology also helps the reader in a more profound sense, by placing in its literary and philosophical context what is, in fact, a deeply enigmatic poem. For if Wang takes care to tell us what he sees and hears, he has not a word to say about why it matters, or why he wished to record it in verse. This reticence is especially characteristic of Wang, whom Hinton describes as “the great condensery of Chinese poetry.” Wang, who lived from 701 to 761, was a painter as well as a poet, and the visual inspiration of his verse is unmistakable. As Hinton says, his poems “often turn on the sparest of images: a bird’s cry, a splinter of light on moss, an egret’s wingbeat.” We have already seen the light on moss; the egret appears in another poem from the same sequence, “Wheel-Rim River,” this one titled “Golden-Rain Rapids”:

Wind buffets and blows autumn rain.
Water cascading thin across rocks,
waves lash at each other. An egret
startles up, white, then settles back.

Here all is movement, just as in “Deer Park” all is silence. It is the ability to conjure such sensations using just a few details that makes Wang’s poems so effective. If all poems are distillations of experience, Wang’s poems are doubly distilled: mere notations in which, paradoxically, a lived moment is powerfully preserved. Once Wang has seen something, the reader has seen it; and because what he sees is so elemental, no barriers of time and distance seem to separate the reader from the poet. This identification, this communication of a moment across the centuries and the cultures, is the real power of Wang’s short poems, even more than their visual beauty. (read)

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2 Comments leave one →
  1. May 15, 2009 8:15 am

    ah, “deer park” – but now when i read those lines i have to think of you, your poems speak about this kind of emptiness as well, don’t they? in which a flicker of light reveals the world…
    and yes, avoiding the “I” when translating is so difficult (although for most haikus). once i read a poem by Li Po in Chinese, with a friend from Malaysia – which means that i was simply “reading” the meaning of the ideogrammes i knew from Japanese, and it was so overwhelming – a world being born without a subject, an unifiying human gaze imposing relationships and meanings… perhaps the best analogy would be that with a painting… and i couldn’t help but asking from time to time: “but who says this, who does this? and is this said here about the moon or about the pond?” and my friend just smiling: “this is not important. everybody and nobody, everything and nothing”…

  2. May 15, 2009 8:45 am

    i wish i had something meaningful to reply here R, but you seem to have summed it all up so well. (though please, as flattering as i should find it, my meagre efforts really should not even be mentioned in the same sentence as Wang-wei, but thank-you for the thought just the same)

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