Thursday, March 28, 2013

The Art of Interpretation: “Lu zhai” or “Deer Park” by Wang Wei

19 Ways of Looking at Wang Wei

by Eliot Weinberger & Octavio Paz

It was my wife, Annie, who introduced me to Eliot Weinberger through his superb collection of essays, Works on Paper—short, astute reflections on subjects ranging from India to Mateo Ricci to The Bomb.  It was also my wife who introduced me to the non-fiction of Octavio Paz, most notably his collection of essays, The Labyrinth of Solitude (with its brilliant disquisition on the extraordinarily versatile Spanish verb chingar) and his Convergences: Essay on Art and Literature.  It was therefore only natural that she, Annie, was the one to introduce me to a book that combined the strengths of both these men—as writers, translators, and critics—a work called 19 Ways of Looking at Wang Wei that focuses on the translation history of a single Chinese poem.

The poem ‘Lu zhai’ or ‘Deer Park’ by the wealthy Tang Dynasty Buddhist painter, calligrapher, and poet Wang Wei is one of the world’s most famous quatrains, taken from a series of twenty poems inspired by various sites along the Wang River in the Shanxi province of northeastern China. The poem, written as part of a massive horizontal landscape scroll (a genre Wei himself invented), and some 1200 years old, is now one of the most widely translated poems from the Chinese classical tradition.  It is generally believed that the title ‘Lu zhai’ is an allusion to the Deer Park in Sarnath, the site of the famous Bodhi Tree beneath which the Gautama Buddha preached his first sermon.

Everyone knows Wallace Steven’s poem “Thirteen Way of Looking at a Blackbird”.  Now consider 19 Ways of Looking at Wang Wei, an attractively slim volume in which essayist and translator Eliot Weinberger and Mexican Nobel Laureate poet and essayist Octavio Paz have selected and critiqued a sampling—in English, Spanish, and French—of some of the most outstanding translations of this subtle, sophisticated, notoriously difficult poem.  As Weinberger remarks in his short introduction to the collection to emphasize the scale of this challenge, “Chinese prosody is largely concerned with the number of characters per line and the arrangement of tones—both of which are untranslatable.” Paz as well, in reflecting upon his own struggles to render the poem, notes: “The translation of this poem is particularly difficult, for the poem carries to an extreme the characteristics of Chinese poetry: universality, impersonality, absence of time, absence of subject.” 

Starting with W. J. B. Fletcher’s 1919 ‘The Form of the Deer’ and ending with Gary Snyder’s untitled version from 1978, this collection is extraordinary, not only for its focus on the translation of a single poem over time, with all the changes in poetic sensibility that that entails, but for Weinberger’s and Paz’s engaging, often Talmudic remarks regarding the subtleties of Chinese poetry, the strengths and weaknesses of the various renditions, and the art of translation in general, an art the particulars of which are certain to interest any student of language. While praising all of the translations by including them in the collection, the editors criticize some as attempts to “improve” upon the original, others as “poetic”(meaning Westernized, ironic), at least one as inaccurate, and still another as a typical example of Chinoiserie.   For Weinberger there are two types of translators at work in this collection: those who are scholars and read Chinese and those who are poets and don’t.  To his mind, each type has its strengths—the scholars their grasp of classical Chinese, the poets their mastery of English prosody and verse.  It is this combination that really gives life to these different, if consistently  illuminating renditions.

Surely one of the most engaging features of the book are the editors’ largely incidental reflections on the art of translation itself.  To Weinberger translation is nothing less than a spiritual exercise, and as such “…dependent on the dissolution of the translator’s ego: an absolute humility toward the text...” A good translator is but a conduit, a medium, through which the poem can speak. Of the essence of a poem, that part which survives translation, he insists, "The living matter functions somewhat like DNA, spinning out individual translations which are relatives, not clones, of the original. The relationship between original and translation is parent-child. And there are, inescapably, some translations that are overly attached to their originals, and others that are constantly rebelling.”  This is exactly what makes this collection of translations—and the editors’ tussle with them—such a pleasure to read.

Here is a brief sampling:

                    The Form of the Deer
So lone seem the hills; there is no one in sight there.
     But whence is the echo of voices I hear?
The rays of the sunset pierce slanting the forest,
            And in their reflection green mosses appear.
                                               - W.J.B. Fletcher, 1919

                           La Forêt
Dans la montagne tout est solitaire,
On entend de bien loin l'écho des voix humaines,
Le soleil qui pénètre au fond de la forêt
Reflete son éclat sur la mousee vert.
                                 -G. Margoulies, 1948

              Deer Forest Hermitage
Through the deep woods, the slanting sunlight
Casts motley patterns on the jade-green mosses.
No glimpse of man in this lonely mountain,
Yet faint voices drift on the air.
                             -Chang Yin-nan & Lewis C. Walmsley, 1958

         Deep in the Mountain Wilderness
Deep in the mountain wilderness
where nobody ever comes
Only once in a great while
Something like the sound of a far off voice.
The low rays of the sun
Slip through the dark forest,
And gleam again on the shadowy moss.
                               -Kenneth Rexroth, 1970

             En la Ermita del Parque de los Venados 
No se ve gente en este monte.
Sólo se oyen, lejos, voces.
Por hos ramajes lasluz rompe.
Tendida entre las yerba brilla verde.
                           -Octavio Paz, 1974

Empty mountains:
            no one to be seen.
            human sounds and echoes.
Returning sunlight
            enters the dark woods;
Again shining
            on the green moss, above.
                              -Gary Snyder, 1978

Eliot Weinberger was born in New York City in 1949.  He is the primary translator of Octavio Paz into English. His anthology American Poetry Since 1950: Innovators and Outsiders (1993) was a bestseller in Mexico, and his edition of Jorge Luis Borges's Selected Non-Fictions (1999) received the National Book Critics Circle prize for criticism. In 1992, he was given PEN's first Gregory Kolovakos Award for his work in promoting Hispanic literature in the United States, and in 2000 he was the first American literary writer to be awarded the Order of the Aztec Eagle by the government of Mexico.

Eliot Weinberger's publications include the collection of essays Karmic Traces: 1993-1999 and a translation of Bei Dao's Unlock (with Iona Man-Cheong), both published by New Directions in 2000. He is the editor of The New Directions Anthology of Classical Chinese Poetry (2003).*

Octavio Paz.  Poet, essayist. Born on March 31, 1914, in Mexico City, Mexico. Paz was exposed to literature at an early age thanks to his grandfather's library. The son and grandson of political journalists, he followed the family tradition and became a writer, publishing his first volume of poetry, Luna silvestre, in 1933. Paz was also a skilled editor and helped found a literary magazine called Taller in 1938. He entered the diplomatic service in 1945 and was later appointed the Mexican ambassador to India, a position he held from 1962 to 1968. Paz resigned in protest over the Mexican government's handling of student demonstrations during the Olympic Games.
Adept at both poetry and prose, Paz moved back and forth between the two genres throughout his career. Poetry, such as Piedra de sol (1957), and critical and analytical works, such as El Laberinto de la soledad (1950) cemented his reputation as a master of language and a keen intellect. He produced more than 30 books and poetry collections in his lifetime. Paz received numerous awards for his work, including the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1990. He died on April 19, 1998, in Mexico City, Mexico.


19 Ways of Looking at Wang Wei is published by Asphodel Press 

Peter Adam Nash

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