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.

Saturday, May 7, 2011

What’s in a Transcribed Name – Part Four

(Scraps from a Sinological Scrapbook 漢齋閒情異誌, fragment 11)

In the same year as Owen’s anthology (1996), two books of translated Chinese poems appeared with David Hinton as translator: The Selected Poems of Li Po and The Late Poems of Meng Chiao. Owing to the vagaries of the transatlantic book market, I did not immediately see either of them at our institute in Leiden. Even if I had, at that time I probably would not even have glanced at the Li Po volume. Previous English versions of his poems had never given me the feeling that he was an interesting poet, perhaps even a poet at all in the modern Western sense. I had the impression he was at most a blithe versificator, presenting the kind of philosophy that appeals to people who prefer their philosophy in small easy doses. As a veteran reader of T. S. Eliot, Wallace Stevens, and Rilke, I thought Li Po lacked a certain quality of ‘heaviness’ that every ‘serious’ poet should have. In short, for me personally in those days, he was a perfect example of a poet who is distorted and ruined in a reader’s mind by a prevailing style of translation. (Let me add here that, astounding as it may seem, I always prefer to read classical Chinese poetry in translation. Somehow it only becomes ‘poetry’ for me at the moment when I can somehow imagine it in one of the languages I feel I can ‘really’ understand: English or Dutch. The factors that go into this are so complex that I will defer discussion for the moment. One thing I can say at this point is that reading, say, Tang-dynasty poems through such a phonologically impoverished medium as the modern Mandarin pronunciation of the text – which practically all of us sinologists do – puts the poem just about as far away from me as a translation would...)
        In the summer of 1998, at the bookselling section of a mammoth Oriental studies conference in Holland, I chanced upon Hinton’s Meng Chiao collection, picked it up, and opened it. At that moment, as a Buddhist might say, all Necessary Conditions were ripe and came together, enabling me to undergo a  profound Cognitive Experience. Or in the beautiful words of Wallace Stevens in one of his letters, it was a ‘powerful integration of the imagination.’ I had never imagined that Chinese poetry could sound so much like poetry! (This prejudice was probably what one of my favorite American poets, Robinson Jeffers, meant when he wrote in his poem ‘On an Anthology of Chinese Poems’: ‘Beautiful the hanging cliff and the wind-thrown cedars, but they have no weight.’) I was already familiar with Meng Chiao from Owen’s volume The Poetry of Meng Chiao and Han Yü, which had come out in 1975. But somehow in 1998, reading Meng’s poems as re-spoken by Hinton, I ‘heard’ something that I had not heard before.
        Why? There can be many reasons for such a sudden re-appreciation of something supposedly already known. For one thing, the sheer passage of twenty years makes, or should make, a vast difference in the ‘settings’ of one’s consciousness. And in my own case, since Chinese poetry was my ‘field’ professionally, in those twenty years I had been constantly confronting additional examples, perhaps also learning to adjust my own expectations so that I knew I was not going to suddenly discover a Chinese Rilke or a Chinese Wallace Stevens. Another thing was that in 1998 in my personal life I had been going through ‘a bad patch’ for some time and was perhaps especially receptive to poetry that was the literary equivalent of an adagio by Shostakovich.
        In any case, Meng spoke to me through Hinton and I heard him. I checked out the originals from our library and started doing some comparing. Although I perceived Hinton’s overall sound as unusual and fresh – his diction and syntax were more charged, more intense than the rather ‘flat’ sound which so many translations had had since the days of Arthur Waley – it turned out that he did not achieve this more ‘electrified’ tone by wildly abandoning the original and letting his own mind run free. If he had been a student in one of my courses, I certainly would not have told him there was anything ‘invalid’ about the meanings he saw, or heard, or brought out, in the Chinese texts. He was not sinning against philology. He was simply refusing to follow one particular tradition – namely, the tradition that we as English readers had been conditioned into, of thinking that Chinese poems, if translated well, must sound ‘easier’ and less sophisticated than our own.
        Arthur Waley himself had not been averse to encouraging that view. In the introduction which he wrote for the new edition (1962) of his One Hundred and Seventy Chinese Poems, he recalled how his book, originally published in 1918, had continued to find readers over many decades and had been reprinted many times. He sought the reason for this in the way his translations appealed to ‘people who do not ordinarily read poetry.’ He pointed out that people like ‘young girl typists and clerks’ had often asked him to sign their copies; they often said that before reading his book, they had always supposed poetry was something ‘special and difficult.’ They found his Chinese poems a great relief, since they were mostly about ‘the concrete and particular.’ He went on to say that ‘ordinary people in England have very little use for abstractions, and when poetry, under the influence of the higher education, becomes abstract, it bores them.’
         Waley’s basic technique was to translate Chinese verse into rhythmically structured prose. This prose-like or prosaic quality gave Waley’s texts what I have called a ‘flat’ sound; another famous translator, Arthur Cooper, said it amounted to ‘spilling away much of the energy in the Chinese the spirit of “quietism” which was the special attraction of the Chinese mind to him, but very much in his own personal notion of it.’[1]
        I was especially glad to read that Cooper’s reaction to Waley’s translations was similar to my own because Cooper was a ‘real’ Englishman, a native speaker of what Continental Europeans call ‘English’ and I would call ‘British English.’ Otherwise I would have been haunted by a remark I once read somewhere in a letter by Raymond Chandler: that Americans [like me – L.H.] often perceive British writing as rhythmically insipid because they cannot imagine how it would sound if read aloud by a British speaker. (Recall the modern reader of ‘standard’ Mandarin, who cannot imagine how Lee Buck’s verses would have sounded back in the Tang Dynasty!)
        In any event, I was immediately fascinated by Hinton’s ‘frenetic, tense phrasing,’[2] though I wondered if it would be suitable to poetry more in the mainstream than Meng Chiao’s. How, for example, would he handle a poet like Arthur Waley’s favorite Po Chü-i (in pinyin Bo Juyi or, as I prefer, Bai Juyi), whose poems had always sounded ‘flat’ to me in any translation at all, and who was supposed to have submitted his texts to an uneducated old woman (the equivalent of Waley’s ‘young girl typists’?) and revised any passages she could not immediately understand?
        A few years later I got the answer. Soon after it came out (1999), I bought a copy of Hinton’s The Selected Poems of Po Chü-i. Hinton had not changed his technique or his aesthetic. He had not, so to say, turned himself down from 440 volts to 110 so as not to offend any of those ‘people who do not ordinarily read poetry.’ What he had done was simply to make an unusual selection from Bai Juyi’s poems. Where the prevailing image of ‘Po’ was certainly prosaic to say the least – and I suppose in many readers’ minds this was supposed to be something desirable, keeping us all safely away from anything that might be ‘special and difficult’ – Hinton deliberately selected a small percentage that could be so read as to have sophisticated overtones. In his introduction to the volume, Hinton frankly stated that on the whole, Po’s poetics ‘reverses the normal criterion for poetry, making poems that are simple and unaccomplished valued above those that push to extremes in shaping experience...Surprising insight comes to some of his poems and not to others, and...Po doesn’t choose among them. So there is a body of poems...plain and yet surprising and insightful. Even though there is a risk of misrepresenting Po Chü-i, it is primarily these poems that are presented in this book.’
        In other words, he had evaded the problem of Po’s translatability (for him) by evading the main body of Po’s poetry. (In this he had been less radical than one of my other favorite translators, A. C. Graham, whose Poems of the Late T’ang includes none of Po’s poems at all.) But if Hinton was so innovative in many ways...then why did he persist, at the very end of the 20th century, in spelling the names of Chinese poets in what was by then the ‘anachronistic’ Wade-Giles transcription?

[to be continued]

[1] Arthur Cooper, Li Po and Tu Fu, Penguin 1973, p. 80.
[2] I called it this in my article ‘A New Look at Classical Chinese Poetry in Translation: Thoughts on Form, Structure, and Expression,’ in Translation Quarterly [Hong Kong] No. 20 (2001), pp. 14-76. Quote from p. 33.