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.

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

What’s in a Transcribed Name – Part Five

(Scraps from a Sinological Scrapbook 漢齋閒情異誌, fragment 12)

When Hinton’s The Selected Poems of Tu Fu appeared in 1989, he did not mention or attempt to justify his use of Wade-Giles spelling. (In the climate of the 1980s, true enough, it was still not unusual.) His ample, well annotated selection included many of the ‘standard’ Tu Fu poems, but some points raised in his introduction made it clear that even in this, the first of his many books of translations, he was conscious of bringing to the poems a sound of his own. For one thing, he frankly admitted not maintaining the well-known ‘parallelism’ of many of the originals: that is, two successive lines having a similar grammatical structure. In English, he said, this device could easily sound ‘flat, simplistic, and monotonous.’ The result was, for example, that in Tu Fu’s famous Autumn Meditations 秋興suite, the couplet which Graham translated

Due north on the mountain passes the gongs and drums shake,
To the chariots and horses campaigning in the west the winged dispatches hasten.

came out in Hinton’s version as

And still, gongs and drums bang in frontier passes
Due north. Armies trundle west. Feathered messages fly.

For the true aficionado of sinological curiosa, Hinton’s use of the verb ‘bang’ seems unmistakeably to imply a tribute to Patriarch Pound’s translation of the ancient Chinese Book of Odes (the only poetically interesting full translation of it that I know of in English), in which the last line of the first poem reads

Bang the gong of her delight.

Hinton also did not attempt to identify all the allusions in the original, saying that ‘to do otherwise would be a detailed scholarly endeavor having little to do with the translation of poetry.’ He did not maintain rhyme or otherwise ‘mimic the formal or linguistic characteristics of the originals.’ Not feeling bound to stick woodenly to the grammatical structure of the Chinese, he produced English sentences so densely phrased that even the native reader at times needs a double-take to construe them correctly. His version of the third of the Autumn Meditations, for example, begins

Over a mountain city’s thousand homes, I pass peaceful
Bright morning after morning in a river tower facing peaks blue

Haze thins...

(That’s right: it’s ‘I pass peaceful bright morning after peaceful bright morning in a river tower facing peaks which the blue haze causes to appear thinner...’)
        Phrasing-wise, this is very strong stuff. Personally I do like it, but...I’m not sure I like it in a poem which is supposed to be by Tu Fu. Maybe I am just too accustomed to the image of Tu Fu as a very ‘serious’-minded poet full of probity and sagacious reflection – the kind of man who in the society I grew up in would have worn a shirt and tie every day – rather than a youthful raucous singer of new things. But given that reservation, let me repeat that I do like it, far more than the overcautious prolix-prosaic drone (‘flat, simplistic, and monotonous’) of many academic translators. As for the criticism that might be made of a translator ‘superimposing’ such an individually distinctive style of his own on a Chinese poet, hence obscuring his supposedly unique language – I wonder how many of us sinologists, or how many Chinese readers, could reliably tell the diction of one classical Chinese poet from another in the original.
        But if I am just a bit ambivalent about what Hinton makes Tu Fu sound like, I am entirely enthusiastic about how he dishes up Li ‘Po’. Being one of those people who very much do ‘ordinarily read poetry,’ until I read Hinton’s versions I could never quite see what anybody saw in him, specifically as a poet. (As a sinologist, of course, one is expected to go through the motions of ‘taking an interest in’ all famous Chinese writers...)
        In any case, by stylistically distancing himself from the ‘detailed scholarly endeavor,’ I am afraid Hinton was sowing the seeds of his eventual condemnation to the status of a maverick if not actually a pariah. In 2002, only thirteen years after the appearance of his The Selected Poems of Tu Fu, Columbia felt free to publish a book of translations by Burton Watson entitled The Selected Poems of Du Fu. I don’t own Watson’s book (I do Hinton’s), but I derive those publication details from today’s version (May 15, 2011) of the Wikipedia page on Du Fu – which to my disgust does not even mention the existence of David Hinton.
        I have no idea whether Watson and Columbia agonized for at least a few seconds before so crassly usurping the title of a still-current book on the same poet by a well-known translator. I hope they did, and did not just assume that their Jupiterian status as an ‘academic’ publisher entitled them to pretend to be ignorant of anything so Promethean as Hinton’s 1989 publication with New Directions. Be this as it may, we have here a case of the more conservative translator (Watson) using the more innovative transcription (pinyin).
        And why would Hinton not only have started out using Wade-Giles in the 1980s, but continued with it in his subsequent works (T’ao Ch’ien in 1993, Li Po and Meng Chiao in 1996, Confucius in 1998, Mencius and Po Chü-i in 1999, the Tao Te Ching in 2000) ? Never having met him personally, I have not discussed this with him, but I could very well imagine that he used Wade-Giles as an assertion of continuing loyalty to the very milieu that was eventually going to reject him[1] – that is, the circle of literary-minded ‘Western’ translators operating in conscious independence of worldly politics or of interpretative encroachment from any particular political entity. In other words, novel and perhaps revitalizing as his linguistic techniques were, he was still consciously placing them within the context of an established circle or group or guild that continued to respect its own traditions.
        As for the titles used by Hinton and Watson, I must say I personally do not like the ‘The’ in either one; it seems to me that ‘The Selected Poems of...’ has a presumptuous sound, as if this were the only possible selection that could have been made. But now that I have made so many criticisms, let me come out with something positive for a change. Whatever one does or does not think of ‘Du Fu’ or ‘Tu Fu’ being the more correct or more appropriate spelling, in any case neither Hinton nor Watson commits one particularly great misdeed, one detestable and loathesome evil that has lately been trying to get itself accepted in the Western world. I am referring to the practice (supposedly in the interest of ‘clarity’) of writing a comma between the first and second parts of a Chinese name in transcription, right in the middle of an English sentence! This is a recent deviation, and it is ‘a horrible thing, Sir, a very horrible thing!’
        Why is it so horrible? Well, just consider how it looks on the page:

The Chinese universally consider Du, Fu their all-time greatest poet.

I am sure I am not the only native speaker to find this sentence irritatingly unclear at first reading. Personally, I had to suppress a tendency to interpret it at least momentarily as ‘The Chinese do seriously consider Du, but to hell with their all-time greatest poet!’ I keep instinctively trying to read ‘Fu’ as the beginning of a new phrase or clause, not the continuation of ‘Du.’ The point is that in English, a comma is not an orthographic device at the same level as a diacritic mark above a vowel (ü, é, etcetera). It is not a part of spelling at all. It is a part of the overall punctuation of sentences. A native speaker interprets a comma as marking off a grammatical unit, a unit of phrasal accent, or both. In other words, it exists above the level of an individual word or name. It has to do with clarifying the relation of a word or words to other words in the same sentence. (The fact that in alphabetical indexes we do indeed put the surname first, followed by a comma, is irrelevant here because in such a list the normal rules of sentence grammar or intonation do not apply.)
        Okay, I do not doubt that if you are a native Chinese speaker now living and working in an Anglophone country, it is exasperating that practically everyone in your new environment mistakes your personal name for the surname. If your name is Chen Lifang, it must be very unpleasant to be more or less constantly called ‘Ms. Lifang’ instead of ‘Ms. Chen.’ But what I have to say to you is: it’s your problem. It is a private problem belonging to you personally, and the answer to it (if there really is an answer, which I doubt) is not to start thinking you have the right, the linguistic judgment, the credibility or whatever, to start imposing a bizarre new monstrosity on the way native speakers write and spell their native language.
        Sorry, Ms. Chen, I’m afraid you will just have to live with the fact that in real life, ‘Chen Lifang’ and ‘Lifang Chen’ both exist, just as ‘Du Fu’ and ‘Tu Fu’ both exist. But from the Tang (or T’ang, Thang, Tarng etc.) Dynasty down to the present, nobody has ever heard of any such person as ‘the great Chinese poet Du, Fu.’

[1] That is, if his absence from the Wikipedia page is any indication of the current status of his reputation. A still more ominous indication, which I discovered after writing the main body of this Fragment, is that Watson’s introduction to his own book mentions several other translators including one from 1952...but not Hinton!