Friday, September 16, 2016

Now every day I eat them recklessly - Arthur Waley's translations of Chinese poems

I read Arthur Waley’s first two books, A Hundred and Seventy Chinese Poems (1918) and More Translations from the Chinese (1919) in some hope of getting more context for what contemporary Modernist poets like Ezra Pound and H. D. were doing, digging around in older poetic traditions – Classical Greek, medieval Provençal, a range of Chinese poetry – to juice up their own art.  What, “make it new,” no – a thousand years ago everyone was doing it this way.  Nothing new about any of this.

Pound’s Cathay (1915) precedes Waley, but that little book only has a few poems.  The bulk of Waley’s books must have been a shock, and the range (4th century BCE to 11th CE, plus a single 17th century poem for some reason).  Oh, Chinese poems are like this – and this – and also this.

The Other Side of the Valley

I am a prisoner in the hands of the enemy,
Enduring the shame of captivity.
My bones stick out and my strength is gone
Through not getting enough to eat.
My brother is Mandarin
And his horses are fed on maize.
Why can’t he spare a little money
To send and ransom me?  (1st C. BCE)

Familiar and exotic.  Not so different in content from a Spanish or Anglo-Saxon ballad.

The oddest aspect of Waley’s anthologies is the relative absence of T’ang poets, relative, I mean, to the attention they have been given by later translators.  Not a single Du Fu poem, for example, not that there is a shortage of Du Fu in English at this point.  Waley chose, for the second book, to translate a substantial amount of a single T’ang poet, Po Chü-i.  Long-lived and prolific, Waley’s Po Chü-i becomes an autobiography in verse, with plenty of narrative movement and lots of personality.

from Eating Bamboo-Shoots

My new province is a land of bamboo-groves:
Their shoots in spring fill the valleys and hills…
I put the shoots in a great earthen pot
And heat them up along with boiling rice.
The purple nodules broken, – like an old brocade;
The white skin opened, – like new pearls.
Now every day I eat them recklessly…

But all too soon he is transferred again, “relegated to deep seclusion / In a bottomless gorge,” in a province where the “inhabitants of Pa resemble wild apes; / Fierce and lusty,” and the poet is “pleased with anyone who is even remotely human” (“On Being Removed from Hsün-yang and Sent to Chung-chou”).  In the next poem, he plants flowers:

from Planting Flowers on the Embankment

… The people of Pa do not care for flowers;
All the spring no one has come to look.
But their Governor General [the poet], alone with his cup of wine
Sits till evening and will not move from the place!

His friends, illnesses, exiles, returns to favor, aging, fame, baldness (“On His Baldness: My tiresome comb for ever is laid aside”, and even his death, almost (“Last Poem: I lie back on my pillows and sleep with my face to the South”) – a life committed to seventeen volumes of poems, a version of it extracted by Waley.  This long section of Po Chü-i poems was a highlight for me, perhaps because it was more like a kind of book with which I was already familiar, but I think rather because the genial poet’s company was a pleasure.

I did not really learn too much about what other Modernist poets were doing, though.  Some similar books were written around the same time.

I actually read these poems as collected, rearranged, and revised in Translations from the Chinese (1941), so all quotations are from that text.


  1. Is there anything Arthur Waley *didn't* translate?? :)

  2. A 45 year career of translating. Even given that, he got a lot done.

  3. OMG, OMG, OMG. Thank you so, so much for that link to Du Fu's complete poetry. 6 volumes, 3000 pages, fully annotated and beautifully translated by Stephen Owen (it took him almost a decade to finish the project). And the best part is that the pdfs are FREE. That's right, the complete poetry of Du Fu in a fresh translation with scholarly apparatus, FOR FREE.

  4. Yep. People can jump straight to the PDFs here. I've read the Introduction, Sections 1.1 and 1.2, and some of the surrounding material.

    Highly readable. Enormously informative. Unbelievable that it exists.

  5. The problem I have with Waley's translations is that every Chinese poet comes out sounding exactly like every other Chinese poet. Though looking at Professor Owen's comments the emphasis on characters - signs - not words - sounds - makes it look as if speaking and thinking of how poetry sounds may be the wrong way to read Chinese poetry anyway. I remember reading that Waley knew several Asian languages by their writings but couldn't speak and never wanted to speak any of them.
    And there's Empson's lines:
    The serious music strains to squeeze
    (The angel coolies sing like us—)
    Duties, and literature, and fees
    (—to lift an under-roaded bus) which suggest that European poetry is closer to the coolies' songs than the mandarins' calligraphy.


  6. "every Chinese poet comes out sounding exactly like every other Chinese poet" - absolutely true. The content changes a lot as Waley moves across the centuries, bu the tone is always his.

    What interesting lines from Empson.