Kenneth Rexroth (1905-1982), American poet, literary critic and essayist, was also an interesting translator of classical Chinese and Japanese poetry. Not unexpectedly, his interest in such poetry influenced his own poems, and, necessarily, his own poetics strongly influenced his translations. An interesting side note in this connection is that he "translated" a book of poems, The Love Poems of Marichiko , by "a young Japanese woman", which convincingly reflected the feelings of a then contemporary Japanese woman. It was later revealed that Rexroth was the author. He was also the first to translate many female poets, who were largely ignored by translators in the last century. In addition to the women appearing in the collections like the one under review, he also published two books, each dedicated solely to the work of poetesses, one of translations from the Chinese and the other from Japanese.
One Hundred Poems from the Chinese is the third volume of translations from Rexroth I have read. The first two were quite successful translations of classical Japanese poetry:
In this book Rexroth offers 35 poems from Tu Fu (or Du Fu : 712-770) and a larger selection of various poets from the Sung (or Song) dynasty (960-1278).
Translations are problematic in general, and translations of classical Chinese poetry are particularly difficult (I discuss some of the reasons for this in my review of a book of translations of some of Wang Wei's poems:
But I also explain there why I feel it is still worthwhile to read such translations.) In his introduction to this collection Rexroth admits that many of his translations are quite free, and I want to say a little about this below.
Rexroth opens with Du Fu, one of the most highly regarded poets in the Chinese canon, presenting 35 of the extant 1,400 poems. It isn't completely wrong, and it is sometimes useful to think of all Chinese as various mixtures of Taoist/Buddhist and Confucian influences (at least until the Communists tried to destroy their own culture), and in Du Fu the Confucian/moralist side is stronger. His poetry is mostly outward-looking, engaged in society, events, politics, but without excluding inward glances and the bewailing of personal blows delivered by a hard life.
Whenever one translates literature from another culture and time, one of the many decisions one must make is just how far to bring the work into the current time and local culture. It is a difficult decision, and each reader will doubtless have his own idea about what is appropriate. Here is Rexroth's version of Du Fu's "Winter Dawn":
The men and beasts of the zodiac
Have marched over us once more.
Green wine bottles and red lobster shells,
Both emptied, litter the table.
"Should auld acquaintance be forgot?" Each
Sits listening to his own thoughts,
And the sound of cars starting outside.
The birds in the eaves are restless,
Because of the noise and light. Soon now
In the winter dawn I will face
My fortieth year. Borne headlong
Towards the long shadows of sunset
By the headstrong, stubborn moments,
Life whirls past like drunken wildfire.
I really like this poem, as such, but for my tastes Rexroth has brought it way too far out of its context with the quote from a well known holiday song and the cars starting outside. One doesn't need to know much about T'ang China to know those lines were not in the original. But I am sure there are readers who appreciate these homey touches, even though they were not Du Fu's. I personally think that there are enough unavoidable distortions involved in translating classical Chinese poetry into contemporary English without tacking on avoidable ones.
Fortunately for me, Rexroth uses this extreme setting on the time machine only occasionally. Here is another Du Fu poem, which probably refers to the strife of the An Lu-shan Rebellion, when the Emperor went into exile for a few years as the rebels sacked the capital, Chang'an, and both sides executed anybody they considered a possible danger.
Tumult, weeping, many new ghosts.
Heartbroken, aging, alone, I sing
To myself. Ragged mist settles
In the spreading dusk. Snow scurries
In the coiling wind. The wineglass
Is spilled. The bottle is empty.
The fire has gone out in the stove.
Everywhere men speak in whispers.
I brood on the uselessness of letters.
In the remainder of the book Rexroth brings between 1 and 25 poems from each of 9 Song dynasty poets. Their range is too wide to make a useful generalization. Most of those poems I read with pleasure. So I will just quote a poem by Li Ch'ing Chao, whom Rexroth calls China's greatest poetess.
The perfume of the red water lilies
Dies away. The Autumn air
Penetrates the pearl jade curtain.
Torches gleam on the orchid boats.
Who has sent me a message
Of love from the clouds? It is
The time when the wild swans
Return. The moonlight floods the women's
Quarters. Flowers, after their
Nature, whirl away in the wind.
Spilt water, after its nature,
Flows together at the lowest point.
Those who are of one being
Can never stop thinking of each other.
But, ah, my dear, we are apart,
And I have become used to sorrow.
This love - nothing can ever
Make it fade or disappear.
For a moment it was on my eyebrows,
Now it is heavy in my heart.
Very, very nice...