Reflections on my translations of Han-shan

Gary Snyder [tooltip content= “Cold Mountain Poems: 100 Poems by the T’ang Poet Han-shan (Columbia University Press, 1970)”] [source][/tooltip]

A truly apt translation of a poem may require an effort of imagination almost as great as the making of the original. The translator who wishes to enter the creative territory must make an intellectual and imaginative jump into the mind and world of the poet, and no dictionary will make this easier.In working with the poems of Han-shan, I have several times had a powerful sense of apprehending auras of nonverbal meaning and experiencing the poet’s own mind-of-composition. That this should happen is not altogether odd, for although Han-shan is intense, the range of his sensibility is not as _strongly tied to Chinese cultural and historical phenomena as the sensibility of Po Chu-i, Tu Fu, or Tu Mu. Also, the purely physical side of the Han-shan world-the imagery of cold, height, isolation, mountains-is still available to our contemporary experience: I have spent much time in the mountains, and feel at home in the archetypal land of Han-shan. It would be well-nigh impossible to feel similarly at home with the concubines, summer palaces, or battlefields of much of Chinese poetry.Part of my translation effort was an almost physical recall of the ponderosa and whitebark pine, granite cliffs, and frozen summer lakes of my own Sierra Nevada experience. The mountain imagery in my translation can be taken as an analog (a “translation”) of the lower, wetter, greener mountains of southern China. My initial blocking-out was done in the fall of 1955 in a graduate seminar in T’ang poetics at the University of California, Berkeley. The instructor was Chen Shih-hsiang. As I wrote elsewhere, “Chen was a friend and a teacher. His knowledge and love of poetry and his taste for life were enormous. He quoted French poetry from memory and wrote virtually any Chinese poem of the T’ang or Sung canon from memory on the blackboard.” I had just returned from a surnmer working as a trail-crew laborer in the northern Yosemite backcountry, which attuned me to working with a “mountain poet.”As the poem here makes adequately clear, though, Han-shan was not exactly a “nature poet.” He was a person who left his old self behind to walk in the world of j§imuge (“fact-fact-no-obstruction”), which is, in the philosophy of Avatamsaka (Hua-yen) and in the practice of Zen, just this very world. The recurrent image of Cold Mountain and its roughness is the narrow gate through which Han-shan tried to force his perception of a whole world, and this helps to explain his poetry’s calm intensity.In some ways, our contemporary idea of Han-shan is the creation of the Zen tradition and the Chinese delight in eccentrics. His poems are much loved in Japan, and formal Zen lectures are given on his work. The mountains and caves that are associated with him are still there: people visit them regularly. According to traditional scholarship, Han-shan lived from A.D. 627 to 650. The scholar Hu Shih places him circa A.D. 7oo to 750.

In a tangle of cliffs I chose a place-
Bird-paths, but no trails for men.
\What’s beyond the yard?
White clouds clinging to vague rocks.
Now I’ve lived here-how many years-
Again and again, spring and winter pass.
Go tell families with silverware and cars
“What’s the use of all that noise and money?”

 Gary Snyder
Cold Mountain Poems: 100 Poems by the T’ang Poet Han-shan
Columbia University Press, 1970

The Shih Ching , usually translated as either The Book of Songs or the Classic of Poetry, is the first great collection of Chinese poetry. Tradition says that it was edited into its present form by the Sage of Sages, Confucius himself. In fact the book was assembled before, during, and after the life of Confucius. Its more than three hundred poems include fragments of works as old as the Shang Dynasty (traditional; dates 1766-1154 BCE) as well as “contemporary” poems from the Chou feudal states written or spoken by both aristocratic court figures and just plain “folks”. A great deal has been said about the origin of many, if not the majority of the poems as oral “folk” art, but it is clear from the artistry of the written language in which they have been handed down that, like the scribes who improved upon the originally oral poetry attributed to “Homer” in the West to create the Iliad and the Odyssey, the people who converted Chou folk songs and court verses into poetry in written Chinese characters clearly thought of themselves as (and were) artists. So the characters used to render simple and direct lyrical utterances of the illiterate peasant folk often honor them with carefully chosen written vocabulary: the heart and soul of folk art remains clearly present, but literary subtleties are introduced. The scribes who created the Shih Ching were poets, not tape recorders. They chose the best of what existed, and they honored it with their own art.

In its present form, the Shih Ching consists of three major sections, the Kuo Feng, or Odes of the States, comprising 160 of the 300 are generally but not always folk songs. The Ya (Elegant Verses) subdivided with no obvious criteria into greater and lesser, include poems 161-265, and the Sung or Temple Odes high ritual songs and bits of dynastic myth, include poems 266-305. The present selection is comes, all but a single longer poem on drinking and its positive and negative consequences from the “Lesser Elegants”, all come from the Kuo Feng Sections.

Knowledge of the Shih Ching poems was a necessity of diplomatic practice around the time of Confucius, when it was a common practice to deliver or at least support the delivery of diplomatic messages among the feudal domains (the “States or Guo of the Guo Feng) by oral presentation of relevant lines from the Classic. From the Han on many of the poems where imbued with very specific allegorical interpretations, but it is clear that later poets, who memorized the book word for word, used it as allusive material in their own poems at least as often for its plain “folk” messages as for its orthodoxly approved allegorical ones.