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). His most recent sinological book, a liberal modern Dutch reading of Laozi's Daode jing, was published as Lau-tze's vele wegen by Synthese in September 2017. His newest book of poems in Dutch, Intocht (Introit) has been available as a POD from the American Book Center since June 2018.

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 newer poems are published (some republished) on this blog. His newest book of poetry in Dutch is Intocht (Introit), issued by the American Book Center in June 2018.

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 June 2019 he was named a Distinguished Alumnus of National Taiwan Normal University. In addition to writing and translating, his interests include Song-dynasty philosophy and taiji quan. For many years he sang in the choir of a Roman Catholic church of the Eastern Rite in The Hague.

Friday, April 11, 2014

Two Translators of Li Shangyin 李商隱

One corner of my bedroom is occupied by a pair of bookcases which formerly stood in my living room at Oude Singel 112, Leiden, back in the dear days when I was a young student who still believed ‘paper books’ had a future. The shelves still contain much of the American, British, Chinese, Dutch, and German poetry which I bought and devoured in those days, as well as ‘many a quaint volume’ which testifies to the development of my life in later years – a wonderful bound set of Wen Yiduo’s 聞一多 complete works, a copy of Tu Fu: China’s Greatest Poet[1] which formerly belonged to the Dutch poet Willem Hussem, and a copy of the 1909 printing of A. E. Taylor’s Elements of Metaphysics which I bought in Shanghai in 1979, to name but three.
        Does a house, as the Chinese believe a person does, reincarnate from time to time, the accidentalia assuming each time a new configuration while traces of an underlying motif remain? The bookshelves, when I first built them, stood beside a canal in what had once been the residence of the Dutch Idealist philosopher G. J. P. J. Bolland (1854-1922, also called ‘The Dutch Hegel’). Now they stand in an upstairs room on a noise-wracked approach route to Schiphol Airport; but the sun that falls upon them in the afternoon, and the love of poetry that brought them into being, is the same.
        But if my house is the metempsychosis of a former house, the institute where I worked till 2004 was no less a reincarnation of another ambience: the legendary Sinologisch Instituut lodged on the Third Binnenvestgracht in what had formerly been the operating rooms of a hospital. How well I remember, one sunlit afternoon in that upstairs library, searching among the volumes of Chinese poetry to see whether James J. Y. Liu’s The Poetry of Li Shang-yin,[2] long listed as ‘borrowed, overdue’, had been returned! The answer was no; and when I enquired at the desk, I was told the book had been borrowed ‘by somebody at the Jelgersma Clinic,’ and the tone in which the librarian pronounced those words was as if to say: once a book gets into the hands of one of them, you’ll never see it again! (‘The Jelgersma’ is a famous insane asylum; one of its most famous denizens, for a while, was the great twentieth-century Dutch poet Gerrit Achterberg.) I had visions of someone in a straitjacket, perhaps frothing at the mouth, whose one remaining link with reality was ‘Peonies Damaged by Rain at Hui-chung’ in Professor Liu’s translation.
        It was not till years later that I discovered the borrower of that book had been Hans Faverey (1933-1990), who was not a patient but a therapist at the Jelgersma Clinic in addition to being, of course, one of the great Dutch poets of our time. The time came when thin volumes of Hans’ poetry, signed in his fittingly half-legible hand, appeared in my bookshelves alongside the already-fading, already read-to-pieces paperback copy of A. C. Graham’s Poems of the Late T’ang[3] that I had bought in Oude Singel days and my very own copy of The Poetry of Li Shang-yin: for by then I was teaching Chinese at the university, and although I no longer had the time to read books, I could finally afford to buy them in hardcover.
        That little book by Graham was one of the handful of things that decisively captured my heart for Sinology. Even after the passage of decades, there are lines in Graham’s translation which thrill me all over again each time I read them. And though I am grateful to James Liu for his helpfully detailed explications of the poems, his translations, lucid and admirable as many of them really are, do not speak to my heart. The reason, as I will shortly explain, is to be sought in my character.
        Let us consider some of my favorite lines in Graham, side by side with Liu’s versions. In Graham’s rendering of the first poem of The Walls of Emerald, the final couplet reads:

If the pearl of dawn should shine and never leave its place,
All life long we shall gaze in the crystal dish.

Liu (his title is The Green Jade City) has:

If the morning pearl were not only bright but also fixed,
One would always face the crystal plate all one’s life.

In ‘The Patterned Lute,’ Graham’s final couplet reads:

Did it wait, this mood, to mature with hindsight?
In a trance from the beginning, then as now.

In Liu’s phrasing (the poem’s title is ‘The Ornamented Zither’) this is:

This feeling might have become a thing to be remembered,
Only, at the time you were already bewildered and lost.

What is obvious in both these examples is that because of the verb tenses and moods used, in Graham’s versions the sense of amazement, the fundamentally passive state of mixed wonder and uncertainty, is still actual, still going on, whereas Liu sounds more distant, more in rational control. Liu has stopped wondering whether the ‘bright morning pearl’ might ever turn out to be ‘fixed,’ as clearly shown by his use of the subjunctive or conditional ‘were’ and ‘would.’ And in the second example, evidently he feels in a position to designate what the feeling ‘might have become’: he has already left it behind, and almost as if telling a child there is no Santa Claus, he tells himself: you were bewildered, that’s all!
        In other words, Graham ends each poem on a note of potentially endless uncertainty, but with a hint that in the very uncertainty, something precious is still present. ‘Mature’ and ‘hindsight’ suggest that something has accrued; one’s feeling not only ‘might have’ but actually has become ‘a thing to be remembered.’
        That feeling of uncertainty, paradoxically combined with gratitude for what I can only call the blessedness of my ‘lost’ experience, lies at the very heart of my character, so that it is understandable I prefer the creative irresolution of Graham to the workaday reasonableness of Liu.
        I am aware, of course, that not everybody likes that sort of thing. When Hans Faverey was still alive in this world, once in a while we would get together to drink a bit and talk. One afternoon soon after my book Wijl wij dansen was published,[4] he came to my house to tell me what he thought was strong and weak in it. I was amazed to hear he especially liked the poem ‘Cézanne: pommes,’ which begins:

Door de tijd lijkt de appel
rond, in het onvoltooide.
Scheppen is dus dulden: murwe dingen
murw laten blijken.

I have tried many times to translate these lines into English verse and have never been satisfied with the result. But let’s just say the literal meaning is something like:

In time the apple seems
round: in the unfinished.
So, creation
is toleration –
letting worn-down things
show up worn-down.

But though Hans liked the poem, he very much disliked the word ‘dus,’ meaning ‘so’ or ‘thus,’ and called it an ‘error’ in an otherwise perfect poem. He thought ‘dus,’ implying a conclusion passively drawn, weakened and diluted the third line, which could otherwise have been so emphatic: creation isn’t just thus or so; it is toleration! I remember he said: je moet het wél weten (you have to know).
        I know, Hans. I know This World wants us to know the Answers, and to know them fast. No ‘creative irresolution’ here, create is tolerate, period!
        But that poem was inspired by a long-faded, incurably curling, partly torn Cézanne reproduction which hangs in a different corner of my bedroom from the bookcases. It was written, undoubtedly, during one of the sleepless nights without which I might be somewhat less ‘bewildered and lost’ than I so often am. And you will just not hear me say – sorry here, Hans – that creation is this or is that. The kind of person to whom ‘creation’ (with its aura of muscular deliberateness in action) is a household word, is not going to share my idea that creation, like creations, somehow mysteriously ‘shows up’ in its own time.
        In other words, that little word ‘dus,’ that ‘thus’ or ‘so, evidently’ was my way of translating into my terms what the People of This World say we ‘artists’ or ‘poets’ do when we ‘make’ something. I say we do not actually ‘make’ anything: we just finally bear the full brunt of the rich irreparability of things – perhaps indeed, as the ninth-century Li Shangyin whispers through Graham’s twentieth-century words, after they have ‘matured with hindsight.’

-- Lloyd Haft

[1] By William Hung. Harvard University Press, 1952.
[2] University of Chicago Press, 1969.
[3] Penguin, 1973 (orig. 1965).
[4] Amsterdam: Querido, 1987.