Translated by Julie Landau
Translations from the Asian Classics
NEW YORK: COLUMBIA UNIVERSITY PRESS, 1997 275 PAGES
Reviewed by Beata Grant
This elegant book is a fitting addition to a publication series which, since 1961, has published translations of classic works of literature from India, China and Japan by such master translators as Burton Watson, Donald Keene, and Barbara Stoler Miller. Julie Landau’s translation of Chinese tz’u or song-lyrics from the Sung Dynasty (960–1279) is limited to a selection of works by fifteen poets. However, her judicious choice of which authors and poems to include and her spare yet evocative translations effectively capture and convey the essential qualities of this particular Chinese poetic genre.
The roots of the tz’u lie in the “music, the themes, the language, and probably the inspiration” of the entertainment districts of the late T’ang period. This explains in part why the genre never completely lost its function as a voice of the personal even as it was taken over by highly educated scholar-poets. The primary themes of the tz’u were often those of love and longing in a world which very much privileged familial, political and social duty and form. In fact, as one reads through this lovely selection of translations, it becomes clear that the dominant motif is rarely that of love satisfied. These are, for the most part, poems of love either remembered or longed for from a heart-breaking distance. In fact, the title of Landau’s anthology of translation, Beyond Spring, comes from a line in a tz’u by Ou-Yang Xiu that describes the emotions of a woman left abandoned in the midst of spring’s verdant splendor. She is so consumed with grief that she does not even dare go outside to gaze in the direction of her lover’s disappearance—far away beyond the plains, beyond the spring-greened mountains and even beyond spring itself. It is perhaps for this very reason that these poems are so intrinsically accessible to readers in general and to high school students and college undergraduates in particular, many of whom will find themselves in the throes of just such an emotion at least once in the course of a semester!
Thematic accessibility aside, Landau does admirable justice to the language of the original Chinese with translations that are vernacular and yet not bland, spare but delicately evocative. In other words, her sensitive choice of just the right English equivalent for the Chinese original—often, although not always, the most simple word—manages to avoid the “flattening” effect that is the bane of even the best translators of Chinese poetry. We see this in the way she manages to capture the very different poetic moods in two well-known poems by Su Shih (1036–1101), arguably the greatest, and certainly the most versatile, of the Sung tz’u poets. In the first of these tz’u, the speaker returns home after a drunken night on East Slope to find the door locked. He is suddenly filled with an impulse to simply vanish and not be bothered with the petty concerns of the world of sobriety: “I hate it!? I’m not my own person—When will I stop this frenzied buzzing?/This late, the wind is still, the river silken—/I could take a skiff and drift/My life away, downstream, out to sea.” In the second example, the sparse simplicity of the English words Landau has chosen to translate Su’s poem is powerful in a different— and strikingly contemporary—way: “Inside the wall, a swing; outside, a road/Outside, a man, walking/Inside, a girl, laughing/The laughter dies away, and all is still/All but desire, fired by indifference.”
Part of the reason for the surprising directness and freshness of these translations of poems—many of which will be familiar to readers and teachers of Chinese literature—is, I believe, the way in which Landau gives the voices of these fifteen poets enough space to breathe, as it were. She does this by using the necessary scholarly annotative apparatus as a frame that sets off and supports the poems without overwhelming them. Thus, each poet’s selections are divided not by commentary, but rather by reproductions of paintings or calligraphy by great Sung artists. Similarly, instead of footnoting each poem, she provides an introduction at the beginning—two introductions really, one to the history and nature of tz’u during the Sung dynasty and the problems of translations, and the other to some of the recurrent symbols and stories that give the poems their allusive resonance. In addition, she provides a useful set of appendices at the end, including short biographies of the authors, a glossary of terms, people and places, and a well-chosen bibliography of reference works.
Although there a few very small points in this background material that I might quibble with, such as that there are practically no women writers represented until the Ch’ing dynasty (there were, in fact, a significant number of women writing and publishing in the Ming period), this material is, much like the translations of the poems themselves, spare and essential but surprisingly informative, useful and often insightful. Reading it will greatly add to the reader’s understanding and enjoyment of the poems, but in a very unobtrusive way. What this means is that the poems themselves retain center stage. The fact that the voices of these Sung dynasty poets speak out with such surprisingly poignant clarity and feeling is testimony to the translator’s skill. It is up to us to listen with renewed appreciation.