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How Chinese poetry and biblical poetry sound good in English

September 6, 2011

When Theophrastus observed that in America, all-too-commonly, “Chinese poetry is taught as literature, and Biblical poetry is taught as semantics,” he also said, “This notion that sound is at the heart of poetry is a point that should be emphasized in Biblical studies.”  These are important insights.  The best translators understand how Chinese poetry and biblical poetry can sound good in English.  Such translators include Tony Barnstone, Chou Ping, and Everett Fox.  They help us out.  They pay attention to the literary signals of sound and the meaningful effects of poetry.

They even treat us to clear explanations and wonderful illustrations of their own practice of translation. For example, below are two excerpts that provide us with expert insights.  Pay attention to the focus on the sounds, to the significance of the signs of sound in the translated texts as illustrations.

The first excerpt is from the “Preface” of Tony Barnstone’s and Chou Ping’s The Anchor Book of Chinese Poetry: From Ancient to Contemporary, The Full 3000-Year Tradition.

— quote —

In these thoughts on translation, I [Barnstone] wish to discuss ways I’ve found of negotiating between Chinese and English-language poetic paradigms, and to touch on the aspects of English that have proved compatible with the Chinese poem, which has been a part of Western poetic traffic since the early years of modernism. . . .  There is always something ephemeral about the knowledge behind a poem, about the inspiration that creates it — or that creates a translation.  To find a poem in translation we need to discover what I call “the poem behind the poem.”  Sometimes we can’t find it just by looking; we also have to see.  Sometimes we can’t find it by trying; it comes to us while we’re doing something else.

Let’s take as an example the following poem, “River Snow” by Liu Zongyuan — translated by Chou Ping and me. But before discussing it, let’s take a moment to read it out loud, slowly. Empty our minds. Vizualize each word.

A thousand mountains. Flying birds vanish.
Ten thousand paths. Human traces erased.
One boat, bamboo hat, bark cape — an old man
alone, angling in the cold river. Snow.

“River Snow” is considered a prime example of minimum words/ maximum message and has been the subject of numerous landscape paintings. It is terrifically imagistic; the twenty Chinese characters of the poem create a whole landscape, sketch an intimate scene, and suggest a chill, ineffable solitude. To get this poem across in translation, we strove to reproduce the sequential way the characters unfold in the reader’s mind. The syntax is particularly important because it is perfectly constructed. We walk into this poem as if walking into a building, and the spaces that open up around us an the forms that revise themselves at each step unfold according to the architect’s master plan.

The first two lines create a fine parallelism: birds passing though the sky leave no trace, just as human traces are effaced in the mountain paths. It makes me think of the Old English kenning for the sea: “whale path.” Here the sky is a bird path. In the second line, it’s clear that the snow is the active agent in erasing humanity from the natural scene, yet snow is never mentioned. After the last trace of humanity disappears with the word “erase,” a human presence is rebuilt in this landscape, character by character, trace by trace: “One boat, bamboo hat, bark cape” and — the sum of these clues — “an old man.” These first two lines sketch a painterly scene: the vast emptiness of the sky above and the snowy solitude of the landscape below have the same effect on the reader as a glance at a Chinese landscape painting. And then the tiny strokes that create a man in the third line direct our imagination deeper into the poem, as if we had discovered a tiny fisherman’s figure on the scroll. The next line tells us what the old man is doing. He is alone and fishing in the cold river. The Chinese word for fishing is “hooking,” so we used “angling” for its specific meaning of “fishing with a hook.” We see the man fishing the river, almost fishing for the river. Silence. We take in the last character, which sums up the entire poem: “Snow.”

Snow is the white page on which the old man is marked, through which an ink river flows. Snow is the mind of the reader, on which these pristine signs are registered, only to be covered with more snow and erased.  the old man fishing is the reader meditating on this quiet scene like a saint searching himself for some sign of a soul.  The birds that are absent, the human world that is erased, suggest the incredible solitude of a meditating mind, and the clean, cold, quiet landscape in which the man plies his hook is a mind-scape as well.  Thus, there is a Buddhist aspect to the poem, and Liu Zongyuan’s old man is like Wallace Steven’s “Snow Man,” whose mind of winter is washed clean by the snowy expanse.  He is “the listener, who listens in the snow, / And, nothing himself, beholds / Nothing that is not there and the nothing that is.”

“River snow” is a perfectly balanced poem, a tour de force that quietly, cleanly, easily creates its complexly simple scene. To merely paraphrase it in translation is to ignore the poem behind the poem. The translator must discover the poem visually, conceptually, culturally, and emotionally, and create a poem in English with the same mood, simplicity, silence, and depth. Each word is necessary. Each line should drop into a meditative silence, should be a new line of vision, a new revelation. The poem must be empty, pure perception; the words of the poem should be like flowers opening, one by one, then silently falling.  As William Carlos Williams was fond of saying, a poem is made up of words and the spaces between them.

If this technique is taken to extremes [by the poet or the poet’s translator], it can create a poem that sounds too choppy.  The magical economy of “River Snow” lies in the unfolding of visual clues in a meditative sequence of discrete images, but with too many dashes, colons, or periods, the poem can seem fragmented.  Alternatively, a translation that fills in the gaps between images can seem wordy and prolix, with prepositions and articles that make the lines fluid but dilute them in the process.  The addition of a few parts of speech or an unfortunate choice of punctuation can significantly alter the translation and affect the reading experience.

— end quote —

The second excerpt is from the “Translator’s Preface” of Everett Fox’s The Five Books of Moses : Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, Deuteronomy : A New Translation With Introductions, Commentary, and Notes.

— quote —

This translation is guided by the principle that the Hebrew Bible, like much of the literature of antiquity, was meant to be read aloud, and that consequently it my be translated with careful attention to rhythm and sound.  The translation therefore tries to mimic the particular rhetoric of the Hebrew whenever possible, preserving such devices as repetition, allusion, alliteration, and wordplay.  It is intended to echo the hebrew, and to lead the reader back to the sound structure and form of the original. . . .

One cannot suggest that the Bible is a classic work of oral literature in the same sense as the Illiad or Beowulf.  It does not employ regular meter or rhyme, even in sections that are clearly formal poetry.  The text of the bible that we possess is most likely a mixture of oral and written materials from a variety of periods and sources, and recovering anything resembling original oral forms would seem to be impossible.  This is particularly true given the considerable chronological and cultural distance at which we stand from the text, which does not permit us to know how it was performed in ancient times. . .

So the Bible, if not an oral document, is certainly an aural one; it would have been read aloud as a matter of course.  But the implications of this for understanding the text are considerable.  The rhetoric of the text is such that many passages and sections are understandable in depth only when they are analyzed as they are heard.  Using echoes, allusions, and powerful inner structures of sound, the text is often able to convey ideas in a manner that vocabulary alone cannot do.  A few illustrations may suffice to introduce this phenomenon to the reader; it will be encountered constantly throughout this volume.

Sound plays a crucial role in one of the climactic sequences in Genesis, Chapters 32-33.  Jacob, the protagonist, has not seen his brother Esau for twenty years.  Now a rich and successful adult, he is one his way back to Canaan after a long exile.  He sends messengers to forestall Esau’s vengeance — for twenty years earlier, Jacob had stolen the birthright and the blessing which Esau felt were rightly his own.  when jacobe finds out that his brother “is already coming . . . and four hundred men are with him” (32:7), he goes even further, preparing an elaborate gift for Esau in the hopes of appeasing his anger.  The text in vv.21-22 presents Jacob’s thoughts and actions (the translation is taken from the New English Bible):

for he thought, “I will appease him with the present that I have sent on ahead, and afterwards, when I come into his presence, he will perhaps receive me kindly.”  So Jacob’s present went on ahead of him. . . .

This is an accurate and highly idiomatic translation of the Hebrew, and the reader will notice nothing unusual about the passage as it reads in English.  The sound of the Hebrew text, on the other hand, gives one pause.  it is built on variations of the word panim, whose basic meaning is “face,” although the Hebrew uses it idiomatically to encompass various ideas.  (Note:  in Hebrew, the sound p is pronounced as ph under certain circumstances.)  If the text is translted with attention to sound, its quite striking oral character emerges (italics mine):

For he said to himself:
I will wipe (the anger from) his face (phanav)
with the gift that goes ahead of my face; (le-phanai)
afterward, whin I see his face, (phanav)
perhaps he will lift up my face! (phanai)
The gift crossed over ahead of his face. . . . (al panav)

Comparison of these two English versions is instructive.  In the new English Bible, as in most other contemporary versions, the translators are apparently concerned with presenting the text in clear, modern, idiomatic English.  For example, they render the Hebrew yissa phanai as “receive me kindly.”  The N.E.B. translates the idea of the text; at the same time it translates out the sound by not picking up on the repetition of panim words.

What does the reader gain by hearing the literalness of the Hebrew?  And what is lost by the use of its idiomatic meaning?  As mirrored in the second translation, it is clear that our test is signaling something of significance.  The motif of “face” (which might be interpreted as “facing” or “confrontation”) occurs at crucial points in the story.  The night before his fateful meeting with Esau, as he is left to ponder the next day’s events, Jacob wrestles with a mysterious stranger — a divine being.  After Jacob’s victory, the text reports (32:21):

Yaakov called the name of the place: Peniel / Face of God,
for: I have seen God,
face to face,
and my life has been saved.

The repetition suggests a thematic link with what has gone before. One could interpret that once the hero has met and actually bested this divine being, his coming human confrontation is assured of success. Then upon meeting Esau at last, Jacob says to him (33:10):

For I have, after all, seen your face, as one sees the face of God,
And you have been gracious to me.

It could be said that in a psychological sense the meetings with divine and human adversaries are a unity, the representation of one human process in two narrative episodes. This is accomplished by the repetition of he word panim in the text.

The above interpretation depends entirely one sound. Once that focus is dripped, either through the silent reading of the text or a standard translation, the inner connections are simply lost and the reader is robbed of the opportunity to make these connections for himself. Clearly there is a difference between translating what the text means and translating what it says.

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5 Comments leave one →
  1. September 6, 2011 5:52 pm

    Willis and Tony, a very impressive father-and-son team. Have you seen this?

  2. September 6, 2011 6:00 pm

    Yes, they’re impressive, together and individually. I hadn’t seen what Tony had written, the link you share. So thanks! But I do remember reading the wordplay history of the Barnstone(‘s) in We Jews and Blacks, by Willis (excerpted here). BTW, one of my family members is just starting college where one of the Barnstones teaches, and she’s excited because her major may direct her to several of his classes.

  3. September 6, 2011 6:07 pm

    Willis Barnstone is emeritus — he lives in Oakland, California. I believe that Tony Barnstone and and Sarah Handler are still active in teaching, though.

  4. September 6, 2011 6:15 pm

    Thanks for that. Yes, I was trying not to give away too easily which campus it is where that family member of mine and Tony Barnstone are. (I wrote this post in her honor, because she is a Barnstone fan and it’s her birthday.)


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