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A. C. Graham (1919–1991)

Teoksen Poems of the Late T'ang tekijä

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Tietoja tekijästä

Image credit: From University of Massachusetts-Amherst Website

Tekijän teokset

Associated Works

Chuang Tsu / Inner Chapters (1981) — Kääntäjä, eräät painokset669 kappaletta
The Book of Lieh-Tzu (1976) — Kääntäjä, eräät painokset370 kappaletta
The Legacy of China (1964) — Avustaja — 52 kappaletta
Montemora No. 1 — Avustaja — 2 kappaletta

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SueJBeard | 8 muuta kirja-arvostelua | Feb 14, 2023 |
I first heard of this slim volume when I learned that Pink Floyd had borrowed some lines from it to use as lyrics in "Set the Controls For the Heart of the Sun" and "Cirrus Minor", two of their more atmospheric early psychedelic songs. The band's approach to the source material was more for the evocative quality of the lines than an attempt to set the poems to music, but the power of the lines still stood out. The actual poems themselves, however, are far more interesting, even if many of them are quite short, due both to the high qualities of the original works, as well as Graham's superb translations and keen sensitivity to the nuances that might have escaped a less diligent interpreter.

The poems included here date from somewhat after the midpoint of the T'ang Dynasty, from the mid-8th to the mid-9th century AD, and were authored by a variety of poets from various parts of China. That range of time and space means that this collection doesn't focus on a single poetic scene or region, so don't imagine that it's akin to a sampling of Lost Generation authors or Beat poets or anything that unified. Without a single theme, each poem can stand more or less on its own, which gives an air of discovery to the reading process, each turn of the page beginning a a new struggle for understanding.

Graham has a long introduction, modestly titled "The Translation of Chinese Poetry", with several great examples of how difficult translating this stuff is, both on the formal word-to-word level and on the higher meaning level. The extreme terseness of many classical Chinese poets, combined with the deceptively simple grammar of the language, further complicated by the typical use of poetic metaphors that take detailed knowledge of historical context, makes translating even very brief lines a challenge. Graham presents a couplet from the first poem in Tu Fu's "Autumn Meditation". A straightforward word-by-word translation would read thusly:

"Cluster chrysanthemum two open / other day tear
Lonely boat one (wholly) tie / former garden heart"

He next gives four possible translations - two his own, one from Amy Lowell, and finally William Hung's attempt:

1. "The clustered chrysanthemums have twice opened. Another day's tears.
The lonely boat is tied once and for all. Thoughts of my 'former garden' [cliché for 'home']."

2. "The clustered chrysanthemums have twice released another day's tears,
The lonely boat wholly ties the thoughts of my former garden."

3. "The myriad chrysanthemums have bloomed twice. Days to come -- tears.
The solitary little boat is moored, but my heart is in the old-time garden."

4. "The sight of chrysanthemums again loosens the tears of past memories;
To a lonely detained boat I vainly attach my hope of going home."

To the eye of a reader ignorant of the subtleties of the original, each of the various renditions on their own are equally plausible; presented together they become equally suspect. He continues:

"Neither of the translators can be convicted of saying anything not implicit in the original; they differ so widely because the English language imposes choices which the poet refrained from making. Is it the flowers which burst open or the tears, the boat which is tied up or the poet's heart? Is the 'other day' past, or a future day which may be as sad as the two autumns in which he has already seen the chrysanthemums open in this unfamiliar country? Are the tears his own, or the dew on the flowers? Were they, or will they be, shed on another day, or is he shedding them now for the sorrows of another day? Are his hopes wholly tied to the boat which may take him home, or tied down once for all by the boat which will never sail? Is his heart tied here with the boat, or or has it travelled home in his imagination to see other chrysanthemums in his former garden?"

He eventually offers his own final version:

"The clustered chrysanthemums have opened twice, in tears of other days:
The forlorn boat, once and for all, tethers my homeward thoughts."

All this for two short lines! Woe to the translator who has to fit each word in its line, each line in its couplet, each couplet in its poem, and each poem in the whole body of work while still producing a readable and enjoyable poem in English. Many of these poems can come off as flat or prosaic, through no fault of the original poet or the translator.

This isn't news to any readers of translated literature; much the same occurred with Nabokov's version of Eugene Onegin, or Michael Kandel's rendition of The Cyberiad, or Andrew Hurley's selection of Borges' poetry, and so on ad nauseum, though all of those works are excellent. I don't mean to focus on translations issues so much over the actual works, except that I found many of these works to be excellent, but probably not in the ways that the original authors intended.

Let's take the example of Li Ho's "Musing". Aesthetic considerations aside, it's hard to get the references here, and I'm honestly unsure if I'm reacting to anything "really" in the poem:

"Ssu-ma Hsiang-ju pondered Leafy Mound
Where the green grasses drooped by the stone well,
Plucked his lute and gazed at Wen-chun,
And the spring breeze in her hair blew shadows on her temples.
The Prince of Liang, the Emperor Wu,
Had cast him off like a snapped stalk:
His only memorial, one writing on bamboo,
To be sealed in gold on the summit of Mount T'ai."

Li Ho's "Up in Heaven", however, has vivid nature imagery and seems to be a little easier for a contemporary American to get into:

"The River of Heaven turns in the night and floats the stars round.
A stream of cloud between silver shores mimics the sound of water.
The cassia tree of the Jade Palace has never shed its flowers,
A houri plucks their fragrance to hang at her jewelled sash.

The Ch'in princess rolls back the blind, day breaks at the north window:
Before the window the straight wu-t'ung dwarfs the blue phoenix.
The prince blows the long goose-quills of the pan-pipes,
Calling to the dragon to plough the mist and plant the jasper herb.

With ribbons of pale dawn-cloud pink and lotus-root fibre skirts
Fairies walk on Azure Isle gathering orchids in the spring.
They point at Hsi-ho in the Eastern sky, who so deftly speeds his horses,
While out of the sea the new land silts beneath the stony mountains."

As a contrast, a poem like Li Shang-Yin's "Written On a Monastery Wall" offers both an interesting look at Buddhist philosophy and some good lines:

"They rejected life to seek the Way. Their footprints are before us.
They offered up their brains, ripped up their bodies; so firm was their resolution.
See it as large, and a millet grain cheats us of the universe:
See it as small, and the world can hide in a pinpoint.
The oyster before its womb fills thinks of the new cassia;
The amber, when it first sets, remembers a former pine.
If we trust the true and sure words written on Indian leaves
We hear all past and future in one stroke of the temple bell."

Not being either formally trained in poetry or classical Chinese culture, I feel hesitation in trying to articulate why so many of the poems in this volume speak so strongly to me - maybe I'm just seeing what I want to see. Maybe my love of Robinson Jeffers has primed me for nature imagery, even if none of these poets share his Inhumanist philosophy. I think Pink Floyd did fine to just pluck arresting images out of the stream of words here to set to music; art is where you find it, and something about lines like "A thousand miles of moonlight later", or "One inch of love is one inch of shadow" have a clear power even out of context in late-60s prog rock songs. I also don't think it's a cop-out to compliment Graham on his translations as much as credit the original poets for their vision, even if the poets themselves surely deserve pride of place for having written the original material; the amount of work that went into this is phenomenal, and he deserves thanks for bringing this stuff to the world at large.

One final work of melancholy, Tu Fu's "At the Corner of the World":

"By Yangtse and Han the mountains pile their barriers.
A cloud in the wind, at the corner of the world.
Year in, year out, there's no familiar thing,
And stop after stop is the end of my road.
In ruin and discord, the Prince of Ch'in-ch'uan:
Pining in exile, the courtier of Ch'u.
My heart in peaceful times had cracked already,
And I walk a road each day more desolate."
… (lisätietoja)
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aaronarnold | 8 muuta kirja-arvostelua | May 11, 2021 |
Poems of the Late T'ang is worth the price of admission for A.C. Graham's witty and informative essay, "The Translation of Chinese Poetry," alone. It is, of course, insightful about Chinese poetry, but no less illuminating about modernist European and American poetry, and poetry in general.

Concerning the textual apparatus that is a necessary part of a collection such as this one, he writes: "How much of this information can a reader be expected to tolerate? Equally important, how much of it will do him any good? There is more literary allusion in early twentieth century English than in T'ang poetry; we can read Eliot with excitement although missing most of his references, and when we look one up often find that it enriches the response disappointingly little." Aware of the limitations of such notes and explanations Graham strikes just the right balance. He does supply notes, and sometimes paraphrases for some (but not all) of the poems, and those he includes are uniformly helpful: they never enrich the response "disappointingly little." Of course, however, the point of this book is the poems, and in the work he has chosen, from seven different poets, Graham shows us how rich and varied the writing of the late T'ang poets was. As with a group of any seven poets, the work of some will be more to one's taste than others, but all the work collected here is worth reading, and much of it worth reading again and again.… (lisätietoja)
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dcozy | 8 muuta kirja-arvostelua | Feb 3, 2012 |
A selection of poems by eight poets of the late T'ang dynasty (late eighth century to mid-ninth century), together with an interesting introduction about the difficulties of translating Chinese poetry.

"An Excursion to the Dragon Pool Temple on Chung-nan" by Meng Chiao

A place which the flying birds do not reach,
A monastery set on the summit of Chung-nan.
The water where the dragon dwells in always blue:
The mountain since the rain lifted is fresher still.
I came out on foot above the white sun,
Sit leaning over the brink of the clear brook.
The soil is cold, the pines and cassias stunted:
The rocks are steep, the path turns off course.
When the evening chimes send off the departing guest
The notes I count drop from the farthest sky.
… (lisätietoja)
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isabelx | 8 muuta kirja-arvostelua | Mar 27, 2011 |



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