Weinberger, Eliot and Octavio Paz. Nineteen Ways of Looking at Wang Wei: How a Chinese Poem is Translated. New York: Moyer Bell Limited, 1987.
For anyone interested in the art of translation and its many challenges and pleasures, Weinberger’s succinct analysis of 19 translations of an enduring, four-line poem from Tang Dynasty poet Wang Wei is incredibly instructive.
Weinberger’s minimalist discussion of Wang Wei’s poem seems to take Wei’s compressed style as its model. At 53 pages, including the “Sources” page and “Further Comments” from Octavio Paz, this book isn’t as long as most contemporary collections of poetry. But, like a really good book of poetry that values restraint above all else, it contains no excess, and a single statement often suggestions volumes of erudition and contemplation.
Weinberger is mercilessly direct in his discussion of many translators’ misguided approaches. He is particularly harsh on translators he sees as seeking to “explain and ‘improve’ the original poem” (9). Of H.C. Chang’s 1977 translation, for example, in which he embellishes the solitude of the first line with a shadow (“Not the shadow on a man on the deserted hill”), Weinberger writes: “In any event, what is that shadow doing (or more exactly, not doing) there? Only the shadow knows.”
He is slightly more sympathetic, or at least less harsh, on translators he thinks have forced the poem into the translator’s cultural context. Of François Cheng’s 1977 effort, he writes, “It is curious to see how Cheng poeticizes and even Westernizes his literal version to create a finished version.” Of a particular line, he notes that it “owes more to French Symbolists than to Tang Buddhists” (37-39).
Given what can be withering criticism, it shouldn’t be surprising to learn that Weinberger praises judiciously. But when he does, his praise seems to go to the opposite extreme. He characterizes, for example, aspects of Gary Snyder’s 1978 translation as “particularly beautiful.
The point here seems to be to highlight the razor thin line between successful translation and what Robert Bly refers to as “translatese.” The book itself, which arranges the translations chronologically, also documents shifting attitudes towards translation. Or, as Weinberger notes at the end of his discussion of the Snyder translation:
“The point is that translation is more than a leap from dictionary to dictionary; it is a reimagining of the poem. As such, every reading of every poem, regardless of language, is an act of translation: translation into the reader’s intellectual and emotional life. As no individual reader remains the same, each reading becomes a different—not merely another—reading. The same poem cannot be read twice.”