The Chinese Poem: The Visible and the Invisible in Chinese Poetry

Michelle Yeh [tooltip content= “Frontier Taiwan: An Anthology of Modern Chinese Poetry, Michelle Yeh and N.G.D. Malmqvist (eds) (Columbia University Press, 2001)”] [source][/tooltip] [green_message] In his 1928 introduction to Pound’s SelectedPoems, TS. Eliot lauded Pound as the “inventor of Chinese poetry for our time,” but continued: “This is as much as to say that Chinese poetry, as we know it today, is something invented by Ezra Pound. It is not to say that there is a  Chinese poetry-in-itself waiting for some ideal translator who shall be only translator.” Eliot clearly recognized the creative transformation involved in translating poetry from one language to another; hence his distinction between Pound’s translation and “Chinese poetry-in-itself.”Although it is well known that Pound’s translation is a particularly free, often ingenious rendition of the Chinese-fully justified in view of his Imagist project-what neither he nor Eliot could have foreseen was how powerful and lasting this translation would be in shaping poets’ and translators’ perceptions of Chinese poetry. In recent decades translators of Chinese poetry have given us many wonderful translations that are far more faithful to the originals than Pound’s; interestingly, however, the “Chinese poetry-in-itself” that they strive for remains informed by aesthetic and cultural assumptions that underscore the earlier modernist model. ln “The Poem behind the Poem,” Tony Barnstone expands on the work of a long line of poet-translators-from Pound to Kenneth Rexroth, Gary Snyder, and, most notably Wai-lim Yip-in describing the Chinese poem as “imagistic,” consisting of “largely pictographic characters,” and presenting a moment of “empty, pure perception.” If for Pound the metaphoric basis of Chinese characters was central to his translation of Chinese poetry, Snyder, Yip, and Barnstone tend to emphasize the nonfigurative quality of Chinese poetic imagery and further link it to a state of mind that resonates with a Daoist or Zen Buddhist sensibility.Despite some modifications, Pound’s formulation of Chinese poetry as “ideogrammic” underlies what Robert Kern calls “the standard conventions for the representation of Chinese poetry in English.” Borrowing from Eliot, may we not say that “the Chinese poem” in the English-speaking world is a Western invention?By referring to the Chinese poem described above as an “invention,”

…the act of choosing certain poems for translation always presupposes what a Chinese poem is in the mind of the translator

I am not denying that those qualities exist in Chinese poetry. I am suggesting, however, that the act of choosing certain poems for translation always presupposes what a Chinese poem is in the mind of the translator, which further influences the way the poems are translated. What does not get translated is at least as revealing as what does. It is therefore meaningful to look at the Anglo-American modernist paradigm of the Chinese poem in terms of what it accentuates as well as downplays, what it gives a value to and at the same time excludes.The quintessential Chinese poem is, as suggested by many American poet-translators, imagistic. Pound points out in “How to Read, and Why” (1929) that visual image-phanopoeia-is the most translatable part of poetic language. It is natural, then, that visual imagery receives the most attention in translation. But the tendency to see the Chinese poem as a concatenation of concrete visual images with few discursive elements is inseparable from the conception that the Chinese language is “largely pictographic” or ideographic. Such a view, with a long history that goes back to Catholic missionaries in the sixteenth century, is based on the notion that Chinese written symbols are visual embodiments of particular things in nature rather than artificial signs of phonetic import. Despite efforts by sinologists-for example, Peter Boodberg, Yuen Ren Chao, and John DeFrancis-and others to dispel the myth, it remains strong to this date, and it is but a short step from seeing the Chinese language as pictographic to seeing Chinese poetry as an unmediated expression of the concrete world of experience.