Wai-Lim Yip: On "The River-Merchant's Wife: A Letter"

One can easily excommunicate Pound from the Forbidden City of Chinese studies, but it seems clear that in his dealing with Cathay, even when he is given only the barest details, he is able to get into the central consciousness of the original author by what we may perhaps call a kind of clairvoyance.

In a similar vein, we find Pound producing these lines from "The River-Merchant's Wife: A Letter" (i.e. "The Song of Ch'ang-kan"):

1.     While my hair was still cut straight across my forehead

2.      I played about the front gate, pulling flowers.

3.     You came by on bamboo stilts, playing horse,

4.     You walked about my seat, playing with blue plums.

5.      And we went on living in the village of Chokan:

6.      Two small people, without dislike or suspicion.

7.      At fourteen I married My Lord you.

8.      I never laughed, being bashful.

9.      Lowering my head, I looked at the wall.

10.    Called to, a thousand times, I never looked back.

Arthur Waley was apparently very unhappy with Pound's translation, and he decided to show Pound a few things by re-translating some of Li Po's poems that Pound had rendered. These are found in a paper he read before the China Society at the School of Oriental Studies, London, on November 21, 1918. One of these efforts is "Ch'ang-kan." This is how he rendered the above lines:

1.    Soon after I wore my hair covering my forehead

2.    I was plucking flowers and playing in front of the gate,

3.   When you came by, walking on bamboo-stilts

4.   Along the trellis, playing with green plums.

5.   We both lived in the village of Ch'ang-kan,

6.    Two children, without hate or suspicion.

7.    At fourteen I became your wife;

8.     I was shame-faced and never dared smile.

9.     I sank my head against the dark wall;

10.   Called to, a thousand times, I did not turn.

What we consider good in Waley is already forged in Pound, for instance, line 10. "Called to, a thousand times, I did not turn," can hardly be considered Waley's own nor does it show any improvement upon Pound's "Called to, a thousand times, I never looked back." The gesture of "looking back" (or of her refusing to look back) which helps to vivify the visualization of her shyness and which in turn makes the entire picture even more lovable than it is, is totally lost in Waley's "I did not turn." One may argue that Waley is more literal, for the line in question is, word-for-word, "thousand/ call/ not/ one/ turn(-head)." But in translation, one should always go beyond the dictionary sense. And here Pound does and Waley does not. This is even truer in line 1 and line 6. Line 1 in word-for-word translation is: "'My' (humble term used by women when speaking of themselves)/ hair/ first/ cover/ forehead."

WALEY: Soon after I wore my hair covering my forehead

POUND: While my hair was still cut straight across my forehead

Pound has crossed the border of textual translation into cultural translation and Waley has not, though he is close enough to the original. Whether the credit for the phrase "hair still cut straight across" should go to Fenollosa or to Pound's own observation in Laurence Binyon's Department of Oriental prints and drawings in the British Museum is of no important consequence here. What is important is that this picture is culturally true, because the characters for "hair/ first/ cover/ forehead" conjure up in the mind of a Chinese reader exactly this picture. All little Chinese girls normally have their hair cut straight across the forehead.

Even more stimulating than this visual recreation of cultural details, which restores flesh to the skeleton of dictionary meanings, is Pound's ability to go beyond the "word-sense" and "phrase-sense" and capture the voice and tone of the speaker, something which no dictionary can ever provide and which it takes a student years of familiarity with the language to grasp. Waley translates line 6. "two/small (children)/no/ hate/ suspicion," into "Two children, without hate or suspicion." It is obvious that he is accurate in the sense that he has not changed a bit from the given dictionary meanings. Yet Pound, keeping close to the dictionary meaning, has done something more:

Two small people, without dislike or suspicion.

It is indeed difficult to describe in another language the tone and attitude with which the two characters [two Chinese characters here] (two/small) are spoken. However, we can at least say this: it implies that a grown-up person is speaking to a person (an imaginary audience) about two children's innocence. And, in this case, the wife is speaking to herself and her husband together (imagining that her husband is actually before her) about themselves in the phase of innocence (imagining that they both now see themselves, as children, in front of them). There is a peculiar aura of intimacy, love, and hushed beauty around these two characters as they are being spoken, one that can only be shared by the addressee who forms a part of this lovely scene. Now, Waley's "two children" has of course conveyed the idea of innocence, but being merely a statement of fact, it does not assume the tone of a grown-up person speaking, with love and intimate playfulness, to and before a child. Pound's "two small people," harking back to the vocabulary of nursery rhymes, seems to me to have fulfilled all the demands described above.

To turn from these specific contours of consciousness to the more general meanings in the poem, we find that Waley has unjustly translated "bamboo-horse" into "bamboo-stilts." A bamboo-horse is something like a hobby-horse or cockhorse as in a nursery rhyme which begins

Ride a cockhorse to Banbury Cross

  To see a fine lady on a white horse.

Chinese children like to use a bamboo-stick (without the horse-head) and make believe that it is a horse. They ride on it the same way one would ride on a cockhorse. Pound also uses "bamboo-stilts" (which form another favorite game for Chinese children but are different from a bamboo-horse), but keeps the horse-image.

Waley deliberately changes the word "bed" into "trellis," and gives in a footnote this explanation: "It is hard to believe that 'bed' or 'chair' is meant, as hitherto translated. 'Trellis' is, however, only a guess." But, as well illustrated by Charles Patrick Fitzgerald in his recent book Barbarian Beds: The Origin of the Chair in China (1965), the Chinese character in question can be a bed (primary meaning), a chair, a seat, or a couch. And since they were mere small children, there is no reason why they should avoid playing around a chair, seat, or even a bed. (In fact, one might even suspect that the word "bed" is used deliberately to evoke simultaneously two sorts of memories, that of distant childhood and that of recent past, for the addressee is the speaker's husband.) Pound, probably trying to avoid erotic connotations, chooses "seat" for "bed," which is closer to the original than Waley's choice. It could be more specific.

There is also a level of formality in the lines involved which Waley misses and which Pound retains. One word in line 1 [Chinese character] (literally, concubine, a humble term used by women or wives when speaking of themselves) and one word in line 7 [Chinese character] (lord, you) reflect the two levels of formality in the forms of address between husbands and wives that were commonly maintained at that time (the eighth century). Pound, without overdoing it, retains this flavor in the line

7. At fourteen I married My Lord you.

The honorific level here implies that the speaker is addressing from a humble level.

It seems quite clear now that although Pound has been sharply limited by his ignorance of Chinese and by much of Fenollosa's crippled text, he possesses a sense of rightness, an intuitive apprehension in poetic organization or, to borrow a term from Eliot, "the creative eye" which we should not begrudge giving due credit. For even within the limits of free improvisation and paraphrase in the "Exile's Letter," he sometimes tends to come closer in sensibility to the original than a literal translation might.

From Ezra Pound's Cathay. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1969. Copyright © 1969 by Princeton University Press.

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Criticism Overview
Title Wai-Lim Yip: On "The River-Merchant's Wife: A Letter" Type of Content Criticism
Criticism Author Wai-Lim Yip Criticism Target Ezra Pound
Criticism Type Poet Originally Posted 06 Oct 2015
Publication Status Excerpted Criticism Publication No Data
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