The (alleged) untranslatability of Chinese poetry, part 2

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[This is a guest post by Leanne Ogasawara]

After reviewing David Hinton’s latest book, China Root, for the Asian Review of Books, a friend pointed me to this discussion at LL. I was so happy to see old friends (Hi Bathrobe!) and wanted to leave a comment. Sadly, because I was so late in the game, I was unable to do so. But then, our wonderful host invited me to leave my comment as a guest post—thank you VM!!

I am a Japanese translator and an old friend of LL. For twenty years now I have been working on one particular modern Japanese poet, Takamura Kotaro. I started my translations of his Chieko Poems in Grad school and have been steadily working on them ever since, publishing a few here and there over the years. I would never have continued this if I thought Japanese poetry is untranslatable. And indeed like so like many people here, the article on the NYRBs drove me up the wall. Part of the problem is that it leads to discussions like we saw on the blog on September 26—discussions which inevitably started revolving around a bit of a straw man, since no one reasonable has ever said that Chinese poetry is “untranslatable." What people say is that something will be lost. And how much? This is the “traitor” in translation. And it is a valid thing to ask in English translations in a language like Japanese or Chinese. In this case, the writers mentioned in the article— Eliot Weinberger, Lucas Klein, Burton Watson, Stephen Owen, and David Hinton, among others— are concerned with the Chinese characters. And in Japanese this is further complicated by the choices authors make in using kanji as opposed to hiragana and katakana—how to ever convey that in English?

For example, much the same could be said about calligraphy. Someone who has not learned to read and write Chinese will not be able to access the same kinetic experience of the art form. Instead of following the stroke order and physically feeling the flourishes as one recreates the characters in their mind while standing in front of the work like those who can read Chinese inevitably do when looking at Chinese calligraphy, the experience of the nonreader will be closer to that of appreciating abstract art. It doesn’t mean it is untranslatable as an experience but something is certainly lost.

And I do believe this becomes a “plus x” when we are dealing in an ancient language. So, for my Kotaro poems, maybe I am blinded by love, but I don’t feel all that much is being lost in my translations since Kotaro is modern and was using language like we all do. There is nothing unique about his use of kanji versus hiragana and many of his literary tropes are Western.This might be a different kettle of Fish in Kawabata translations. And how about the 
Hojoki? I just looked at and fell in love with a new translation of academic Matthew Stavros, who chose to render Chomei’s prose into poetry. It worked really well to capture from a different angle the language of the classical work. 

In Kotaro’s case, the experiences and conventions and basic understanding of being are the same, so the bridge is not as great as in an ancient language. And this is what I appreciate about Hinton and Red Pine’s efforts in translating the concepts that are embedded in the vocabulary to try and uncover a more authentic guide to the Chinese. As mentioned in the previous post, and I agree and wrote about this in my short review in the Asian Review of Books, it is very much like what Heidegger was trying to do as well—to look at language, especially poetry, to uncover the nexus of meaning as embedded in the understanding of being of that culture. Interesting that Red Pine and David Hinton end up in such different places too—as Red Pine also has a book coming out with new translations of Zen classic texts. We all remember early translations that skewed toward Christian interpretations, or even Waley’s translation of Genji which had Genji in an almost English village environment.

 

Selected readings



11 Comments »

  1. Matthew Stavros said,

    January 14, 2021 @ 10:41 am

    When Leannie Ogasawara speaks of "kinetic experience in the art form," the rest of us should sit up and pay attention. She has a more sophisticated and sympathetic view on literature than most. It's thrilling for me to think she liked my rendering of Hojoki. http://www.kyotohistory.com/hojoki

  2. Antonio L. Banderas said,

    January 14, 2021 @ 12:08 pm

    Traduttore traditore

  3. Scott P. said,

    January 14, 2021 @ 12:14 pm

    I think another look at Michael Cooperson's translation of the Maqamat would be useful here:

    https://languagelog.ldc.upenn.edu/nll/?p=47507

  4. SusanC said,

    January 15, 2021 @ 8:12 am

    I am sympathetic to the argument that all poetry is untranslatable, because the form of words, not just the literal meaning, is a big component of what makes the poem attractive.

    Philosophical arguments might also be untranslatable, particular ones of the social construction of reality genre, where the literal meaning of the text is arguing for its own untranslatability, (or: while translation into a particular language might be possible, it is not necessarily the case that all sentient creatures – including hypothetical non-human ones – must necessarily have a good word for the construct that is being argued to be socially constructed)

    But: I am slightly surprised at the script being considered to be the main obstacle. Most poems still function when read out loud, not just read on the page. (Though there is a joke in the short story Bear God that relies on how it’s written; I think part of the joke is that it draws attention to the fact that you’re reading on the written page dialog that could not reasonably have been actually said out loud by the characters in the story; it has the side-effect of being hard to translate into English. And of course, the English title “Bear God” doesn’t quite capture kami-sama…)

  5. Leanne Ogasawara said,

    January 15, 2021 @ 6:25 pm

    Hi Susan,

    I think in the case of David Hinton, who is working on very ancient texts informed by an ancient world-view, special attention should be paid to the characters as well as to the vocabulary so that we are not, for example, re-interpreting daoism through the filter of modern American Buddhism, etc. It is certainly worth paying attention to. And I agree with what you said about sound and reading aloud… 歌 can mean song or poem… I would say this is even more important with pre-modern translations… so I agree with you. I would only add that translating modern work like Bear God or the poet I am working on are much less problematic.

    I can't find where I read this but a long time ago when I was starting out working on poetry, I read that with poetry you are not translating words from one language into another but rather creating a poem in the new language. Now, that is a challenge!

  6. The Other Mark P said,

    January 15, 2021 @ 10:41 pm

    To me a text means something, literal and emotional. If the translated text means the same thing and generates the same emotional response then it is an accurate translation.

    A westerner may not understand a Chinese poem because they lack the historical and social background, but that is not a fault of the translation. Plenty of people cannot read poems properly in their own language for that reason — and I bet plenty of Chinese are in that situation with respect to poems in Chinese.

    So "Chinese poetry is untranslatable" is flat out wrong. "Chinese poetry in translation cannot be properly understood by almost everyone who reads it" is possibly true, but a very different statement.

  7. Bathrobe said,

    January 15, 2021 @ 11:11 pm

    I bet plenty of Chinese are in that situation with respect to poems in Chinese

    Thanks! I made that point at the earlier post but nobody seems to have understood it.

    Of course the physical look of the words on the page (or in the case of oral poetry, the sound of the words recited) is part of the poetic experience. And of course something is lost (or gained!) when translated to a different medium. Even reading Blake without the original illustrations represents a loss. Transferring to a different language is one of the more wrenching transformations possible, because the sound of the words, their meanings, their connotations, their physical form, are lost. But that does not mean that everything is lost, and that readers are unable to gain anything from translation.

    The article that inspired the first post on the intranslatability of Chinese poetry was full of the most ridiculous mystifying nonsense, written by a person who appeared to have the most simplified or distorted ideas about Chinese characters and poetry. The old argument about the translatability of poetry is a valid one, but not when discussed from a state of such ignorance. What is valuable about Leanne's post is that she actually knows something about Chinese characters, how they are written, and their visual and aesthetic effect, that the writer of the original article appears to have no idea about.

  8. SusanC said,

    January 16, 2021 @ 12:51 pm

    Yes, in the case of ancient texts, such as the ones David Hinton is dealing with, the choice of how the word was written gives us a clue as to what the author/original readership thought the word meant.

    This isn’t really a matter of Kanji being untranslatable – more that they give the translator an additional hint as to which word might be a suitable equivalent in the target language.

    At the moment, I’m reading lots of Buddhist texts, mostly in English translation but sometimes in Sanskrit. Translators into English often give up on translating the technical terms, and just let the original Sanskrit word through into the English translation,

  9. Peter Grubtal said,

    January 17, 2021 @ 5:33 am

    This post got me thinking of the saying that reading poetry in translation is like viewing a tapestry from the wrong side. I had always understood that it was credited to Rabindranath Tagore, but a bit of g…ling seems to show that there's no clear "first author", and that it's been applied to translation in general and not just poetry.

  10. Chromophilia said,

    January 22, 2021 @ 2:31 am

    Well said, Matthew Stavros. I'm a cartoonist with an interest in the theory of art, and some experience in brush-writing Chinese characters. That paragraph, I found enlightening, and I wonder how it extends to other forms of art:

    ❝For example, much the same could be said about calligraphy. Someone who has not learned to read and write Chinese will not be able to access the same kinetic experience of the art form. Instead of following the stroke order and physically feeling the flourishes as one recreates the characters in their mind while standing in front of the work like those who can read Chinese inevitably do when looking at Chinese calligraphy, the experience of the nonreader will be closer to that of appreciating abstract art. It doesn’t mean it is untranslatable as an experience but something is certainly lost.❞

  11. PeepL said,

    January 22, 2021 @ 3:18 pm

    Being ignorant about the full meaning of the calligraphy, I am not sure why it could not be translated through other facets, like the appearance of the script, i.e., using more artistic typography, handwriting or individual design etc. It might take collaboration with an artist or graphic designer. Is the "kinetic experience" as part of embodied cognition referencing any other kinetic experiences than writing?

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