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.

Monday, May 2, 2011

What’s in a Transcribed Name – Part Three

(Scraps from a Sinological Scrapbook 漢齋閒情異誌, fragment 10)

In 1996, W. W. Norton and Co. published An Anthology of Chinese Literature: Beginnings to 1911, edited and translated by Stephen Owen. Any sinologist would immediately have recognized ‘1911’ as meaning ‘the beginning of the Republic of China.’ In other words, this is an anthology of the literature of the Chinese Empire. We always tell our students that that Empire was a very study-conscious and book-reading if not book-ridden realm; that the Scholar was considered the ideal type of person, that officials had to pass examinations on the Classics before they could attain to public office, and so on. Whether or not all those things are completely realistic, it is true that in traditional China, just as in present-day China, the government kept an eye on what people were reading. The ‘canon’ of literature was considered a repository of sources from which readers would learn virtues which would help them to be, in my own forefathers’ phrase, responsible members of society.
        The idea that there was more or less a ‘canon’ was part of this – a body of recognized, approved texts which an ‘educated person’ could be expected to have read. Some of the things which very many educated and uneducated people actually did read, including the most famous novels, did not belong to this ‘canon.’ In Owen’s introduction, he says the selection he has made does not correspond to a traditional notion of ‘canon,’ but neither is it intended as a ‘counter-canon’ of previously suppressed or ignored texts. It is, he says with all due caution, ‘a version of a tradition.’ (I will get back in a following installment to the importance of selection as such in our ‘transcription,’ literally our ‘over-writing’ of Chinese things.)
        Owen’s fascinating anthology goes all the way back to ancient texts, but in transcribing Chinese words and names, he uses the state-of-the-art pinyin transcription. On the other hand...does he really? The oldest poems he translates are from the Classic of Poetry (i.e. the Shijing 詩經, which an earlier generation of translators called the Book of Odes). The first line of the first poem in that Classic, Owen translates as

The fishhawks sing gwan gwan

Here, gwan gwan is supposed to represent the sound made by the birds. In other words, it is a meaningless representation of sound. But it is not the only spelling that could have been used to represent that sound. In the Chinese text, this expression is written 關關, a reduplication of the word meaning ‘to shut’ or ‘to close,’ which in pinyin is written guan.
        Did Owen in this case deliberately deviate from what would have been the normal pinyin spelling in order to avoid any suggestion of a ‘semantic’ meaning in this expression? I don’t know, but it would have been a reasonable move to make, considering that many other translators and interpreters have been only too eager to get ‘sense out of sound’ in this line. The great Nestor and Patriarch of American translators from Chinese poetry, Ezra Pound, translated this line

‘Hid! Hid!’ the fish-hawk saith,

For years and decades, I assumed this ‘hid’ was supposed to be onomatopoeic: just sound, folks, no sense. (I am not enough of a bird-watcher to know whether ‘hid’ is plausible as a rendering of the sound those birds make, but in the school of aesthetics I was brought up in, that makes no difference: we are dealing here with poetry, and poetry is not obligated to be ‘realistic.’) About a year ago now, I was surprised to read in Akiko Miyake’s Ezra Pound and the Mysteries of Love that Pound undoubtedly chose ‘hid’ exactly because it is a past participle of the verb ‘hide’: for Pound, there was something of supreme value ‘hid’ (i.e. guan: ‘shut away’) in the waters of the river.[1] This would fit in with Pound’s tendency, in Miyake’s words (p. 54), to ‘read Chinese nature poems as contemplative literature.’
        Getting back to Owen’s anthology, and skipping from the most ancient texts to the Tang Dynasty (618-906), we naturally turn to his translations of one of the very most famous Chinese poets, whose name is...but wait! How shall we write his name?
        Needless to say, I am talking about 李白. In English, there is a long tradition of writing his name (in Wade-Giles) as Li Po. In pinyin – and this is how Owen writes it – it appears as Li Bo. This is impeccable pinyin. But, at least in my experience, no real live native Chinese speaker ever pronounces it that way. What we actually hear is always Li Bai. True enough, in older dictionaries we read that the character , though it is normally pronounced ‘bai,’ has a ‘Classical’ or ‘reading’ pronunciation which is ‘bo.’ Evidently a schoolmasters’ tradition got started way-back-when, of thinking a famous poet like Li, however lowbrow his poems, was too venerable to have a normally pronounceable name.
        Personally, I think the spelling ‘Li Bo’ is, as an earlier generation of British writers might have said, ‘fish nor fowl.’ In a transcription purporting to be the most present-day one, it does not actually represent anybody’s present-day pronunciation. Yet it also cannot claim to approximate the way the name must have sounded back in the Tang Dynasty, which I believe must have been something like ‘Lee Buck.’ (I write it that way to avoid having to type the transcription of ‘the language of Ch’ang-an around 600 A.D.’ as reconstructed in Karlgren’s Grammata Serica Recensa, which in this case would be Lji: B’ɒk.)[2] In other words, ‘Li Bo’ has about the same status as gwan gwan: it is an attempt to use our twenty-six letters to represent an imaginary sound that falls, almost as far as the cry of a water-bird, outside the normal scope of human vocables as such.[3]
        But couldn’t ‘Li Bo’ still be justified on the grounds that it is only a slight modernizing adjustment of ‘our’ traditional ‘Li Po’? Sorry, no! ‘Li Po’ in itself is a deviation, at least from what I regard as the true ‘canon.’ Since Ezra Pound worked on Li’s poems in a Japanese-flavored context, he himself wrote the poet’s name not as Li Bo, not as Li Po, not as Lji: B’ɒk, not as Lee Buck, but as...Rihaku.
        Nevertheless, the ‘Li Po’ lineage has been carried on, and carried on very well and memorably, by another translator, David Hinton.

[to be continued]

[1] Akiko Miyake, Ezra Pound and the Mysteries of Love: A Plan for the Cantos, Durham: Duke University Press, 1991. For this poem see page 218. Link:
[2] Bernhard Karlgren, Grammata Serica Recensa, Stockholm: Museum of Far Eastern Antiquities, 1964. And yes, I am fully aware that Karlgren’s reconstructions are not the most up-to-date.
[3] Nothing in this paragraph or this essay should be construed as meaning that I believe, have ever for even three seconds in my life believed, or hope someday to believe that written language is, should be, can be, could be, ever has been, or ever shall be a mere ‘reflection’ of spoken.