Brief bio sketch

Lloyd Haft (1946- ) was born in Sheboygan, Wisconsin USA and lived as a boy in Wisconsin, Louisiana and Kansas. In 1968 he graduated from Harvard College and went to Leiden, The Netherlands for graduate study in Chinese (M. A. 1973, Ph. D. 1981). From 1973 to 2004 he taught Chinese language and literature, mostly poetry, at Leiden. His sinological publications include Pien Chih-lin: A Study in Modern Chinese Poetry (1983/2011; published in Chinese translation as 发现卞之琳: 一位西方学者的探索之旅 in 2010) and Zhou Mengdie’s Poetry of Consciousness (2006).

He has translated extensively into English from the Dutch of Herman Gorter and Willem Hussem, and from the Chinese of various poets including Lo Fu, Yang Lingye, Bian Zhilin and Zhou Mengdie.

Since the 1980s he has also been active as a poet writing in Dutch and English. He was awarded the Jan Campert Prize for his 1993 bilingual volume Atlantis and the Ida Gerhardt Prize for his 2003 Dutch free-verse readings of the Psalms (republished by Uitgeverij Vesuvius in 2011). His most recent book of poems (in Dutch) is Deze poelen, deze geest (2008). His newer poems are published (some republished) on this blog.

After early retirement in 2004, for a number of years Lloyd Haft spent much of his time in Taiwan with his wife Katie Su. In addition to writing and translating, his interests include Song-dynasty philosophy and taiji quan. He sings in the choir of a Roman Catholic church of the Eastern Rite in The Hague.

Friday, April 1, 2011

If You’re Lucky, For a While You’ll Be Almost As Immortal As The Illustrious Deceased (or, Who Do We Translate For?) – Part Two

(Scraps from a Sinological Scrapbook 漢齋閒情異誌, fragment 6)

Not every translator is as modest as John C. H. Wu. For half a century or so, some of the most widely read translations of Buddhist sutras have been those by Edward Conze. In his little-known memoirs, Conze writes that from childhood on, he was convinced he came from ‘a higher region’ – and also that his profound 'knowledge of the Mahayana’ cannot be explained by intensive study in just this present lifetime: that he must have been ‘sent’ to do educative work among the ‘Western barbarians.’
        Conze’s memoirs came out in a very limited edition, so that it is not easy to tell whether he intended these rather remarkable statements to be seen by all readers of his sutra versions. On the other hand, Arthur Waley, whose name for half a century was practically synonymous with ‘translator of Chinese poetry,’ sometimes gave forthright play to the boastful side of his personality. Probably the most extreme example is the preface to his book The Secret History of the Mongols, in which we read: ‘Despite the fact that in this book I translate from Chinese, Japanese, Ainu, Mongol, and Syriac, I do not want to give the impression that I am a master of many languages.’ Oh no, the reader thinks, of course not! But Waley goes on: ‘Chinese and Japanese I do know rather well; but though I know a good deal of Ainu I have often helped myself out by use of the Japanese versions of the texts...To translate the Hymn of the Soul I learnt a certain amount of Syriac (already knowing some Hebrew, which was a help)...’
        It was one of Waley’s less known books, Japanese Poetry: The Uta dating from 1919, that turned out to be a decisive influence on the American poet and translator Kenneth Rexroth. At the age of 16, Rexroth was enchanted by this book, in which Waley provides an outline grammar and a word list to facilitate ‘study of the Japanese text.’ Waley intimates that this ‘study’ will not be found difficult, considering the ‘simple grammar’ and ‘limited vocabulary’ of Classical Japanese. The young Rexroth came up with a four-line translation of his own which, he later wrote, gave him an unforgettable sense of artistic satisfaction, greater than what he would ever achieve with his original poetry. Decades later, he included that youthful translation in his book One Hundred Poems from the Japanese. This Japanese collection was followed by One Hundred Poems from the Chinese, in which Rexroth translated 35 poems by Du Fu 杜甫 in an unusually modern style and tone. In the introduction Rexroth, then in his fifties, wrote that he had had Du Fu’s poetry by him ‘since adolescence,’ and that he knew Du’s poems better than most of his own. A footnote to one of the poems said it had originally been a Christmas present for the poet Richard Eberhart. That poem contains the telling passage

...We are our own
audience. We appreciate
each other’s literary
merits. Our poems will be handed
down along with great dead poets’...

Rexroth considered translations an integral part of a writer’s own oeuvre, as indicated by a remark of his that may not have made Pearl Buck entirely happy. At the end of his 1956 essay ‘The Chinese Classic Novel in Translation,’ he said her translation of the Chinese novel Shuihu zhuan (水滸傳,in Buck’s version All Men Are Brothers) was ‘of course, her finest work...’ What must she have thought, as a world-famous novelist who had been the first American woman to win the Nobel Prize for Literature, when she read (if she read it) that it was not her great novel The Good Earth but a translation with which she had created ‘a classic of American prose’! (The reading public evidently did not agree. From its first appearance, the two-volume All Men Are Brothers remained a problem child for its publisher.)
        On the other hand, who knows? Maybe Pearl Buck took it as a compliment. She herself had said The Good Earth, the book which had brought her overnight fame, was actually a sort of translation. The story was set in China, where Buck had grown up as a child of missionary parents, speaking Chinese every day. In her imagination, she claimed, the story had unfolded in Chinese; the English text was actually a transcription of the original.
        As a translator, you can never know whether your work will be read – or if so, by whom and for how long. The enthusiasm of readers, or lack thereof, is no direct measure of the labor and concentration that the translator has expended. The book that instantly won my heart for modern Chinese poetry was Twentieth Century Chinese Poetry by Kai-yu Hsu. Before I met Hsu personally, I always assumed this book must have been painstakingly evolved or ‘fermented’ under ideally quiet and poetic circumstances – perhaps at a monastery in Europe, or in a forest cottage where the translator was spending a sabbatical. Later, when I met him, Hsu told me the whole thing had originated as a way of killing time. He was a professor in California and had to drive a long distance to and from the university every day. He began attaching the text of a Chinese poem to the sun visor above the steering wheel when he got into the car for the daily ride. While driving, he would speak an impromptu oral translation into a recorder which he took along on the front seat. Evenings and weekends, these oral drafts were reworked into the written versions which appeared in 1963 as a book of more than 400 pages.
        My own first sinological translation came out under Hsu’s editorship. It was a good example of how a ‘successful’ translation may originate in a text which the translator doesn’t take quite seriously as a poem. In the late summer of 1978, I had just come home to Holland after three months in Taiwan. The accumulated mountain of mail included a letter from Hsu saying he was just finishing the manuscript of an anthology he was editing, called Literature of the People’s Republic of China. If I had anything suitable lying around, he might still be able to include it – for example, if I had translated any of the poems that Bian Zhilin 卞之琳, about whom I was already planning a dissertation, had written in the 1950s. I had been in Taiwan so long that the deadline was actually past, but I decided to give it a try anyway. Within 24 hours, I dug up five poems by Bian in the library, photocopied them, looked up all the words I still didn’t know (very many!), made and typed draft translations, showed them to colleagues and native Chinese speakers, and typed out my revised versions.
        These were poems that Bian Zhilin had written in 1958 during the construction of the Ming Tombs Reservoir not far from Peking, one of the big projects that the Mao regime was proud of. Writers were encouraged to demonstrate their solidarity with the laboring masses by ‘participating in’ labor at the construction site. In practice, the ‘participation’ often implied not much more than getting one’s picture taken while throwing a spadeful or two of soil onto the pile and then rushing back to the office to write an animated article about the experience.
        Such were the origins of the first poems by a Chinese poet that I published in English translation. My name first became known not as a translator of the contemplative poems, influenced by European Symbolism, which had originally attracted me to study modern Chinese poetry, but of political propaganda poems like ‘View from the Ming Tombs,’ ‘Goggles and Telescopes,’ and ‘A Gift for the Reservoir Project.’
        I don’t remember how I reacted when Hans Frankel, professor at Yale and one of the great authorities on Chinese poetry, came to visit Leiden and astounded me by saying he had really enjoyed my translation of ‘View from the Ming Tombs.’ But I have never forgotten a very wise, laughingly-serious remark he made later in the same conversation. We were talking about the word ‘immortal’ as applied to scholarship. ‘Realistically,’ Frankel said, ‘in our field you are immortal if you publish something and ten years later there is still one person somewhere in the world who wants to read it.’
        Nowadays I never get reactions from readers of those Ming Tombs poems, so I have no way of knowing whether I can claim to be thrice ‘immortal’ for those five short translations which appeared some thirty years ago. But note that according to Frankel’s definition, the state of ‘immortality’ depends not just on yourself, but also on a reader or readers. Somewhere out there, there may be a lone individual, a sixteen-year old future Rexroth or Waley or Buck, for whom our rushed contribution to an anthology, to us at the time one incidental assignment among others, will take on the gleam and the aura of a fairy tale, a vision, an entrance to a new world. The spadefuls of sand that we hurriedly empty into the wind, really do in the long run add up to a Reservoir. We are all translating, it turns out, as part of a larger Translation which we hope will never end, and whose name is not to be found in any dictionary. Or perhaps in Lin Yutang’s dictionary – but that I’m not sure of, because even after 38 years of working with it, I still can’t really figure out how to look up some words in it.

--Lloyd Haft (see bibliographic note at the end of Part One)