The pieces of writing in the couplet of new essay collections by Eliot Weinberger, 19 Ways of Looking at Wang Wei and The Ghosts of Birds, though varying in their tactical scopes, share an overall strategic concern: no cultural labor is truly free from its source. This applies to translation as much as it applies to the manufacture of history. All of the antecedent things that evolve across the ether surrounding their precedents are forever tethered, although often by an invisible tissue of strange virtual possibility. Weinberger, with great sensitivity, explores the notion of that tissue just as much as the cultural objects it engenders.
To start, a referent not in Weinberger’s books to create a vessel, a set of poles, for considering his work. The whiteness of sculpture from Mediterranean antiquity, its purity and idealistic posture of form without content, from its adoption as the norm in the Renaissance, established a belief in an unattainable ideal, or the intellectual holiness of art. Even after it was discovered that Greek sculpture and architecture had been wildly polychromed, the norm persisted. This lie is so entrenched that it will not ever be blotted from Western society and culture. German classical archaeologist Vinzenz Brinkmann describes this manifestation of art in the Renaissance as something entirely new, because it had broken from the—then unknown—tradition of polychromy. This is not an entirely accurate characterization in that it seems to ascribe consciousness to what was ignorance. But, even as we are aware of the physical presence of the error in that space, we cannot culturally recover from the impacts rooted in the time we were unaware.
The more focused of these two books, 19 Ways of Looking at Wang Wei, details the translation history of a 1250-year-old Chinese poem by the titular author, alternately titled “The Form of the Deer”, “Deer-Park Hermitage”, “The Deer Enclosure”, “Deer Fence”, “Deer Wattle (Hermitage)”, and even “Deep in the Mountain Wilderness.” We are presented with nineteen translated versions of the poem (plus an addendum of ten more) from approximately the last one-hundred years. These translations fall into two broad categories: those that endeavor for elusive unqualified fidelity, and those whose cultural chauvinism diminishes their fidelity.
Weinberger effectively details why the first of these categories is tremendously problematic and nearly impossible to achieve. The Chinese poem is, he says, “a thing, forever itself, inseparable from its language.” This is the case in every aspect of the poem’s original composition: its linguistic syntax, its linguistic image, its cultural resonance, its compositional context. It is easy to understand why these things cannot be ported intact to a new language, a new time period, a new reading culture while still maintaining their precise physiognomy. For instance, “A Chinese monosyllabic word (and often the written character) is comprehensible only in the context of the phrase: a linguistic basis, perhaps, for Chinese philosophy, which was always based on relation rather than substance.” This presents a multiplicity of difficulties. First, the visual representation of phonemes is completely different between Chinese and Western languages. Thus the visual quality of the piece, which is crucial to poetry, will never retain the same quality as its Chinese original. Additionally, the notion of context clues is much more pervasive in its impact. These monosyllabic characters can mean a variety of different things depending on their juxtaposition with other characters. Imagine an English poem written only with homographs, e.g, to shoot a bow and to take a bow. However, there are neither enough homographs in English, nor do they function in quite the same way as to emulate the relational quality of the Chinese text.
Or, just as complicated, because Chinese poetry is primarily observational, a translation, even before it is begun, has the disadvantage of being performed separate from the physical source on which it was wholly contingent. One aspect of the original poem is the sun falling on moss. Not being present at the original composition, translators have placed the sun at all different orientations, the mossy hillside at all different inclinations. These are liberties that do not even seem like liberties. But at its core, whatever one does, it is not the same as the original. One would have to write one’s own poem after the fashion. On top of that, as Weinberg explains, Western translators come from “a tradition where the notion of verifying a poetic image would be silly, where the word ‘poetic’ itself is synonymous with ‘dreamy.’” This is antithetical to the anti-abstraction of classical Chinese poetry. The distant instant of creation does not migrate across a gulf.
Translation, as a term, is by definition a movement away from in space. It is not that the other exists atop or in place of the original. By definition, and by logic, it cannot. But it also does not imply a phase shift, an ice cube melting in its tray, retaining its form but in a new apparent medium, it is the ice cube extracted from its tray and thrown into an arctic sea. But in the context of literary translation, and the mechanics of any cultural production there is indeed a phase shift. The ice cube is dropped into boiling oil. Its beadlets of water float free. The text in its original form is an object, indeed, translations of it are also objects, they are new, and no work is not in some way a translation. But it is familiar. Weinberger describes it thus, “The relationship between original and translation is parent-child. And there are, inescapably, some translations that are overly attached to their originals, and other that are constantly rebelling.” They rebel. They move out of the house. They wind up humiliating you.
The second category of translations, motivated consciously or unconsciously by chauvinism, is best characterized by the reaction to Ezra Pound’s 1915 collection of Chinese poetry in translation, Cathay. Weinberger asserts that, “Regardless of its scholarly worth, Cathay marked, in T.S. Eliot’s words, ‘the invention of Chinese poetry in our time.’” This has a double meaning. Pound’s spare, clipped, abstract poetic objects both configured modernism in Western letters and gave Western letters a colonial control over the historical perception of Chinese culture. The latter is the more deleterious. It believes Chinese poetry wasn’t real until it was in English. Weinberger also intimates this in his essay in The Ghosts of Birds on the absence of Indian poetry in English translation. From our perspective in the Western world, with the benevolent aspiration of diversity, the more we bring into English translation, the better. I do not argue with this. I admit that it is unpleasant, and a perhaps overly sensitive inquisition, but in all of this hand-wringing is a vague sense that foreign works do not become real, in a sense, until they have made it into English. The line between cooption and adoption, the line between tokenism and inclusiveness, the line between enthusiasm and chauvinism, is blurry. It should forever be born of curiosity and optimism rather than even latent tendencies of colonialism.
The original subtitle of Cathay was, “Translations by Ezra Pound for the most part from the Chinese of Rihaku, from the notes of the late Ernest Fenollosa, and the decipherings of the professors Mori and Ariga.” But even beyond the initial burst of Chinese poetry in English at the dawn of modernism, such chauvinism persisted and persists in the mechanics of translation. In many of the cases found in 19 Ways of Looking at Wang Wei,the translators make very conscious structural changes, not limited to slightly over-finessed word choices. In one translation, by Chang Yin-Nan and Lewis C. Walmsley, the couplets are reversed, the mountain is personified as “lonely,” and the sun “casts motley patterns on the jade-green mosses.” Weinberger asserts that:
It never occurs to Chang and Walmsley that Wang could have written the equivalent of casts motley patterns on the jade-green mosses had he wanted to. He didn’t.
The crux here is that although the poem was deemed worthy of translating into English, it was not going to be fully real, and not realizing its full potential until an English-speaker had had their way with it. Returning to my earlier point: why not just write your own poem “after Wang Wei”?
There is a third possibility that Weinberger does not really discuss at length, although it is implicit in many of his writings. What if, because of the phase shift of translation, where not just language but entire cultural constructs are liquidated, new local characteristics must be added to translate the poem? It is intimated here:
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.
Is the goal of translation to properly characterize the original and depict what it might look like as a text object, or to reconstruct the experience that the reader had in their native language, with all of its attendant resonance?
If the matter of the new form does not even contain the same basic physical properties of the original, what is its responsibility, or differently, to what distances can it go while still maintaining some fidelity, can it look for analogous features in its new substance? I think here of the recent translation of the French novel Sphinx by Anne Garréta. Because Garréta is a member of the Oulipo, the mechanics of her novel are significant to the reception and bravura of the work. Different perhaps than many Oulipian constraints, typically formal, practical, or phonemic, Garréta adopts a more generally linguistic constraint, specifically, to not assign a gender to the two leads of the romantic tale. Sarah Coolidge has written a very thoughtful review for ZYZZYVA that investigates the book in more detail, but the crux is that although the genderless conceit is extremely difficult in the original French, with gendered adjectives and verbs, the same difficulties, and as a result, the same rewards, are not found in an English attempt. In fact, as noted in the translator, Emma Ramadan’s afterword, Garréta’s original novel relies on the imperfect tense of verbs because it does not require gender agreement. The imperfect does not specifically exist in English. Although still a lovely book, and effective in its project, the English translation loses something significant with its decreased level of difficulty. Part of the power of Oulipo works is the presencing or absencing of their conceits on the structures we understand to support conventional literature. Gymnastics would be far less interesting in a low gravity environment. Would it have been acceptable, because an analogous linguistic challenge did not exist for the translator of Sphinx, to manifest a new constraint, more specific to English in the translation of the work? Ramadan asserts that she “broke Garréta’s code by creating a new one.” And deviate she did, but not by introducing a systematic constraint that would have an analogous effect in English. I cannot assert what this might have been, but it would have doubtlessly produced a wholly different book than Garréta produced for her native language, though it might have created a more analogous miracle in ours.
But translation cannot be thought of just in a linguistic sense. The cultural burden of translation is just as significant. The tissue between is both an etheric space and a space of action, if one is aware of it. We go through significant periods of time relying on certain distant poles as authoritative. Think of the lineage of Proust’s Recherche translations. It is unreasonable to assume that Moncrieff did not aspire to execute the authoritative translation. Why would he have bothered? But would we as English speakers have known any better? Think of another scenario, the publication history of Ulysses. Though not a translation as such, it is a phase change, from Joyce’s manuscripts (or even from Joyce’s intention), to mass printed books. The first edition is notoriously full of errors. Each subsequent edition has either telegraphed the original errors, added their own, or left craters perhaps more erroneous in the locations of previous errors. Someone flouting their reading a first edition of Ulysses would be ridiculed—nobody truly knows the most accurate edition—, as much as I would be for celebrating my copy of Père Goriot whose pages haven’t been cut and only open to every other spread. This is, of course, a physically apparent shortcoming, but so much etheric action we can only be aware of when the existing pole is usurped or exposed, when bits of that ether become materialized as errata.
The Wang Wei poem is an interesting aberration in that there are a significant amount of iterations. Even though most of these iterations attempt to be direct offspring of the original, many are inflected by the failures or successes of interceding translations. An additional ten translations—included in this volume as More Ways—were executed after the publication of the original book, some of them citing Weinberger’s criticisms as affecting their contemporary work. This is an idiosyncratic situation in literature, but not as much in the more generalized spaces of schismatic correlation, which I will discuss in a moment. I find myself most effectively getting the gestalt sensation of Wang’s poem by not reading any single translation but meditating on the concrete scene that I’ve gleaned from Weinberger’s book, visualizing what the ideal of the translation would be, without having to assign any words to it. It is certainly a more arduous and inefficient process than reading Wang’s four-line gem, but perhaps its presence in the tissue is most truly the poem. As Weinberger said, “The same poem cannot be read twice.” The true poem exists for me in the consciousness manufactured by the materialized tissue, the thick description with all its contradiction. It is not the multipolar body of translations, but the ether they create by simply existing.
This ether is something like a scrim, a fog that, when portions of it are illuminated in some way, becomes solid, or apparent. It is territorial, not liminal. It has no edge because it has no form. Its texture becomes apparent when it is too late, when it has passed. When it is visible it is in motion, the motion of protraction, graduating toward the new pole. It is the ghost of a bird—the ghost being its form frozen in a flicker of your attempted gaze—immediately gone.
To broaden this concept outside of simple fidelity to the poetic act, I will expand and close with a few examples from the other collection, The Ghosts of Birds. The first prose piece in the book, “The Story of Adam and Eve,” develops the weave of the book and tips its hand as to Weinberger’s greater project, not just translation but the more deeply penetrating and transcendent cultural impacts that the scintillation of this schismatic tissue can have. This essay could have been more aptly titled “The Stories of Adam and Eve” or “The Story of the Story of Adam and Eve,” for it excavates the family tree of the Western creation narrative, watching its iterations, tangents, and elaborations evolve and become extinct up to the sole surviving version. Each culture, each generation prior to the age of mass-produced books, seemingly had their own say on Adam and Eve. Most involve the origins of shame (how useful), but not as many involve the indictment of women for original sin. Mechanically similar to the translation of Wang Wei’s poem, whose ambiguity was its essence, the translation of an allegorical text traffics in the porting of culturally rooted symbolic, yet inalienable, wholes that exist to be considered in their context, into a context that completely corrupts their prospects. And similar to Wang, this porting gathers attendant baggage.
What is more interesting, or unfortunate, in the case of the Genesis tale is that this arbitrary evolution manifests in a doctrinal text, controlling ideology, morals, mores, and practices. Similar to many other aspects of the Bible, its evolving text has been a revisionist process of cementing the predestination of Jesus. Like the virgin birth, of which none of the authors of the Jesus story would have had any direct knowledge, the proposition that Eden was located in the “holy land” was completely arbitrary and calculating, though arguably its authors would probably be shocked to realize how transcendent their liberties became. For example, where was Eden—setting aside evolution for a moment, the first modern humans are believed to have been living in east Africa—does it really matter? No. But the inextricable relationship of this assertion with the contemporary story of the region is a measure of the potential energy in the tissue. Thus another stratum, beyond the translations and various cultural inflections, is the notion of the tissue between reality and text. As I mentioned, it is a territorial space. Like the sea, the geometry of its coastline is influenced not by the solids it abuts but by its own volume. This is particularly pertinent in myth and allegory, but is iterated through a number of other essays in The Ghosts of Birds.
If a tissue only becomes apparent as its contents are invalidated, the endurance of a pole that allows it to stand as a presumptive equal to the origin keeps its preceding tissue transparent. Weinberger explores this in a strange piece of writing about a trip down the Colorado River in the Grand Canyon region. Place names are just as contested and influential talismans as allegories. Those who first come across a landscape feature give it a name. But other factors influence the endurance of that name. In “A Journey on the Colorado River,” each aspect of the landscape is given a name by white pioneers: Disaster Falls, Triplet Falls, Hell’s Half-Mile, “Whirlpool Canyon or Craggy Canyon. We cannot decide.” Bookending the trip is the presence of native people at the headwaters with a myth about the origin of the river, and at its exit from the canyon in the ruins of a dwelling with cliff etchings and artifacts. The native people, as we know, preceded European settlers by thousands of years, had named the features of their landscape, had endured, but their resonant place names eroded by force, either of bloodshed or of language. Examples of this continue to abound, see the naming dispute over Denali, or Mount McKinley (also called Dghelay Ka’a, Tenada, Densmore’s Peak, etc.). Who is most calculating in the belief that their narrative should endure, who establishes its authority with whatever cultural, intellectual, or evidentiary support necessary, controls its stability? The struggle for power materializes the defeated in the tissue and culminates in the premiation of the victor’s place name. The aphorism—and its variants—that those who win the war write the history, is apt.
This notion of who controls the narrative is significant in “Bush the Postmodernist,” Weinberger’s analysis of George W. Bush’s “autobiography.” I recall, in the late days of Bush’s presidency, much open discussion from all quarters about how Bush and his team were preparing to craft their legacy. This implies, correctly, that the legacy, the imprint, of reality is much separate from the construction of its perception once it has slipped into the past. It involves an ethos of manifestation rather than recollection. In this case, that ethos is one for elision and hagiography. I found myself, in Weinberger’s catalogs of significant things that were eliminated or glossed over in the text, being infuriated anew, and realizing that this book, as just the tip of the buried structure, was indicative of the strange and carefree way that we recall Bush. Most of us, Republicans and Democrats, seem relatively glad to put him into the past, but without prodding we have difficulty recalling why. The narrative has been intentionally blurred. Bush is not historically regarded as a winner, nor was he ever effectively vilified by the media, who, by grace of constitution and cash, are the eternal winners, even in their demonstrable failure. Thus in his marginalization he has slipped under the skin of his own being. The result is an era defined first by events, horrors and absurdities aplenty, and only deeper, on active reflection or inspection, Bush’s pivotal role in them. Weinberger’s catalog is especially helpful here, a Ministry of Information masterpiece preying on our ambivalence to reality if ever there was one:
The DP (Decision Points) Bush bears little relation to the George W. Bush of memory. The DPB is always poring over reports; GWB insisted on one-paragraph summaries, usually delivered orally… The DPB continually mentions his favorite books and maintains that he read two a week while president; GWB was rumored to by dyslexic, and read no book other than the Book. GWB famously never asked anything at meetings, but the DPB claims: ‘I learn best by asking questions…’ The twenty-nine-year-old DPB goes to Beijing to visit Dad, then Ambassador, thinks about the French and Russian revolutions, and learns important lessons about liberty and justice; the real GWB said at the time that he went to ‘date Chinese women.’
The other essays in The Ghosts of Birds generally develop a similar theme to these three examples: the tissue is a space of power. The 1895 volume of lesbian erotica The Songs of Bilitis was a volume of purported translations by French poet Pierre Louÿs. The originals were attributed to Bilitis, a contemporary of first-century BCE Greek poet Sappho. The reality of the situation was much more interesting. The prose poems were not translated from Greek, but written in French by Louÿs himself in the style of Sappho. Although not included in the work, he had gone so far as to prepare a falsified body of citations related to the origins of the works. Even as he was unmasked, many still regarded Louÿs’s work as exemplary and, in the absence of Sappho’s full body of work, a valuable tool in understanding Classical poetry. A fascinating account on the impact of The Songs of Bilitis can be found in Lawrence Venuti’s excellent book The Scandals of Translation. He asserts that, “By blurring the distinction between translation and authorship, Louÿs’s hoax inevitably questioned scholarship that defined historical truth as a verification of authorial originality.” It is a testament to that space beside a work, beside a cultural impression, beside a shared history, that its power is so regarded, so vested, that we respect its ability to give virgin birth to a lie.
John Trefry is an architect and writer of the novel Plats, the caprice Thy Decay Thou Seest By Thy Desire, and the forthcoming novel Apparitions of the Living. His other writing can be found on Minor Literature[s], The Fanzine, Plinth, Entropy, and Full Stop. He lives in Lawrence, Kansas.
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