The rustling of the silk
Back after a long absence with three versions of a poem from the Chinese, for our edification, followed by a moral quandary.
The first is Ezra Pound’s.
The rustling of the silk is discontinued,
Dust drifts over the court-yard,
There is no sound of footfall, and the leaves
Scurry into heaps and lie still,
And she the rejoicer of the heart is beneath them:
A wet leaf that clings to the threshold.
Much has been written about Pound as a translator or mediator of Chinese poetry into English. He didn’t speak Chinese, so his versions don’t have scholarly pretensions. In the Cathay poems he relied on the notes that Ernest Fenollosa compiled in Tokyo, and was quite happy to use the Japanese designation Rihaku for the Chinese poet Li Po. Arthur Waley, whose own translations of Chinese poetry were hugely influential, objected to many of Pound’s versions, though it’s hard to see how his version of, say, ‘The River Merchant’s Wife: A Letter’ improves on Pound’s. Pound’s great gift as a poetic mediator was his superb ear. Compare, for instance, the poem above with Waley’s version below.
by Arthur Waley
The sound of her silk skirt has stopped.
On the marble pavement dust grows.
Her empty room is cold and still,
Fallen leaves are piled against the doors.
Longing for that lovely lady
How can I bring my aching heart to rest?
Waley’s is undoubtedly truer to the original. It doesn’t have Pound’s imagistic addition (‘A wet leaf that clings to the threshold.’) but as a poem in English Pound’s seems to me far superior. ‘The rustling of the silk is discontinued’ is infinitely more suggestive than ‘The sound of her silk skirt has stopped.’ And it’s also stranger, less like a poem in English, less like an English-language locution, a typical canny Poundian ‘foreignisation’. Pound’s prowess as an interpreter is, though, complicated by the fact that many of his translations are less relationships with an original than with other translations. He was a pretty ruthless cannibaliser of previous translations, which he rarely acknowledged, and often went to trouble to conceal. Have a look at the poem below, by the Chinese scholar Herbert Giles, published some year’s before Pound’s version. I’ve marked up the similarities with Pound’s version:
by Herbert A. Giles
The sound of rustling silk is stilled,
With dust the marble courtyard filled;
No footfalls echo on the floor,
Fallen leaves in heaps block up the door...
For she, my pride, my lovely one, is lost,
And I am left, in hopeless anguish tossed.
The use of the passive construction, the lexical similarities, indicate that Pound essentially based his translation on Giles’ version. It adapts it freely and, it must be said, improves it substantially as an effective English poem. Do his methods matter then? Should we we fling the book down in disgust at his theft or applaud his resourcefulness? A very large amount of Pound’s translations contain the corpses of other translations, as any detective work will show. There’s a very good account here which shows that his celebrated ‘Seafarer’ came straight from Cook and Tinker’s Translations from Old English Poetry, published by Ginn & Co in 1902. All’s fair in love and modernism, maybe, though this kind of intertextuality isn’t usually what people have in mind. But why should the magpie plundering and pillaging which was so much part of Pound’s aesthetic and genius baulk at delicately re-arranging and re-orchestrating the work of others? To expect anything else is to expect Pound to be a different kind of poet. Everything he did proceeded from the same impulses, and whether texts are presented as originals or translations or a fusion of the two, they are all fictions, they’re all charged with the same transformative energy. The appropriative genius is all in the difference between ‘The sound of rustling silk is stilled’ and ‘The rustling of the silk is discontinued’.