Serendipity, we may say, is a wonderful thing sometimes. Here are both a newly expanded edition of Hinton’s translation of Tu Fu’s poems, and at the same time his book about Tu Fu’s life as exemplified in an examination of some of these poems as they relate to the poet’s precipitous journey through life.
Although Aigerim Tazhi is Kazakh, she writes in Russian. “I live in Kazakhstan,” she is quoted in translator J Kates’s introductory essay as saying,
but I was born in the Soviet era. We had a common country then, a common capital (Moscow), and the main language was Russian. Therefore, in school we were taught in Russian, on the streets and at home we talked in Russian. I did not choose the Russian language, did not evaluate it in terms of its attractiveness. It’s just the language that I’ve spoken since childhood.
Anyone who has ever studied literature has probably come across the now rather hackneyed line by the American poet Archibald MacLeish (1892-1982), “A poem should not mean, but be.” Steven Carter, the Yamato Ichihashi Emeritus Professor of Japanese History and Civilization at Stanford University, notes that the Japanese poet Shōtetsu (1381-1459) expressed similar sentiments long before MacLeish. “A truly excellent poem is beyond logic,” he wrote, “One cannot explain it in words; it can only be experienced of itself.”
Translating poetry gives rise to a number of problems which may not be present in prose. Poetic language is different from that of prose; it employs many more literary devices. Furthermore, its rhythms may be quite different or varied. Then there is the question of rendering form and meter, not to mention rhyme, if it’s present, which brings on more language difficulties. Poetry may aslo indirectly allude to things through symbols, and these, too, have to be conveyed meaningfully to the reader. Factor in the translator’s own emotional response to the work and what may be perceived as the poet’s “intentions” (often rather opaque), and you have a formidable obstacle to overcome. In short, what medium is best suited to the translation of verse?
Literature comes in many forms; sometimes it is sung.
If it hadn’t been for Ezra Pound and a 20th-century literature course at university, I would never have heard of Li Bai, and even then I thought his name was Rihaku, because in 1915 Pound, who knew absolutely no Chinese at all, published a number of “translated” poems by Rihaku in a collection entitled Cathay.
How many readers of this book will have been subjected to teachers who made them write bad haiku in school? I count myself lucky to have attended a school where such torture didn’t take place, although I am assured that some students actually enjoy the exercise.