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ANTHOLOGY: The Task of the Translator-Poet

David Hinton, Classical Chinese Poetry: An Anthology (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2008)

To get some idea of the size and scope of David Hinton’s Classical Chinese Poetry: An Anthology, imagine you are Donald Allen, editor of the seminal New American Poetry 1945-1960. Next, imagine the era of “New American Poetry” begins somewhere around 1500 BCE and finishes around 1200 CE, and is going to include all the major poets from that time span. Now, not only are you going to select representative poems from poets as varied as Li Po (the Frank O’Hara of Chinese poetry) and Lao Tzu (an Aristotelian figure), but you are going to translate these poems into a language diametrically different from the one in which they were composed and compile them in a comprehensive, cohesive manner for an audience of people who may have little or no experience with the poets or the tradition you hope to represent. Without diminishing Allen’s editorial tribulations, which were surely as myriad and complex as Hinton’s, this should give you some sense of the accomplishment Hinton’s work embodies.

In comparison to the canon of poet/translators of Chinese poetry that preceded him, such as Kenneth Rexroth, Gary Snyder, and Ezra Pound, Hinton falls more on the translator/poet end of the spectrum. A recipient of Guggenheim, NEA, and NEH fellowships and winner of the Landon Translation Award from the Academy of American Poets, he has previously translated four major Chinese philosophical texts: Lao Tzu’s Tao Te Ching; the Analects by Confucius; the Inner Chapters by Chuang Tzu; and the teachings of Mencius, as well as numerous selections and anthologies of Chinese poetry. Even his experimental book of poems, Fossil Sky, published in 2004 by Archipelago, can be considered a translation of sorts. A work of poetry that unfolds into over-sized, map-like, diagrammatic pages, Fossil Sky is in many ways a formal translation of the Star Gauge, by the Chinese poet Su Hui. Like Fossil Sky, the Star Gauge is meant to be read in multiple directions, creating a large number of possible meanings and permutations of readings. The distinction between poet/translator and translator/poet is only important insofar as it distinguishes Hinton’s anthology as part of a tradition of translation that leans toward the academic and away from the artistic. Though the poems are often beautiful and occasionally breathtaking, the impressiveness of the anthology lies in its breadth and scope and in the learned consistency of the translations.

Classical Chinese Poetry: An Anthology moves from the earliest forms of Chinese oral tradition—found in compilations such as the Book of Songs and the Tao Te Ching— through the “Early Masters” (4th–5th centuries CE) and the significant poets of the T’ang and Sung Dynasties, ending around 1200 CE. Much value can be found in Hinton’s depictions of poets like Tu Fu, Hu Shui, and Li Po. These biographical sketches are significant not only for their insightfulness, but also for their vividness and contrast. Poets like Han Shan, an anti-monk who was widely thought to be insane (most of his poems, written on rocks and trees, were collected by an admirer) and Li Ho, the “ghostly genius” whose “experience...was usually transformed by the ghostly or demonic,” appear iconographic through Hinton’s lens. Classical Chinese Poetry: An Anthology captures the stylistic nuances between individual poets, so their work stands side by side without seeming homogenized. Where more populated anthologies tend to truncate the work of individual poets in favor of a broader spectrum of writers, each poet is given ample space in Hinton’s text.

With David Hinton as our guide, Classical Chinese Poetry: An Anthology comes across as something akin to a magical artifact, full of potential energies and untapped motes of poetic inspiration. Anyone, especially poets looking outside the western canon for transformative verse and fresh inspiration, should include this book in their library.


Ben Mirov

Mirov is editor of pax americana. He is also poetry editor of LIT Magazine.


The Brooklyn Rail

OCT 2008

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