On the one hand, The New Directions Anthology of Classical Chinese Poetry is a manifestation of greed, collecting together portions of books of translated Chinese poetry which have already appeared under the New Directions imprint (there are a few exceptions), with the apparent intent of drumming up business for the books from which the selection was made, much like the samplers produced by the record companies. (Though these samplers are usually priced so low as to be a giveaway, unlike this book at full price.)
On the other, it is a perfectly lovely collection of translations of classic Chinese poetry made by no less than Ezra Pound, William Carlos Williams, Kenneth Rexroth, Gary Snyder and David Hinton, preceded by an excellent little introduction by Eliot Weinberger and supplemented by some fine essays on Chinese poetry that one would have a hard time putting one's hands on.(*) These essays include Lu Chi's (261-303) classic and influential "Rhymeprose on Literature."
Alright, I bought the book, even though I already had on my shelves most of the books from which the selection is made. I held my nose and bought it. And a fine book it is, too.
In the unfortunately all too brief introduction, Weinberger gives an overview of Chinese-to-English translation of poetry, as well as of the remarkable eccentrics who were drawn to making such translations. Would you like a sample? This is Weinberger on David Rafael Wang, who collaborated with Williams on the translation of 37 poems.
Wang, also known as David Happell Hsin-fu Wand, was born in China...escaped to the U.S. after the revolution, and became surely the only Chinese-American who was both a pseudo-Nazi white supremacist (and a member of the seedier circles around Pound in St. Elizabeth's) and a Black Panther (in Oakland in the 1960s). Among other things, he was also a stodgy professor, active in the academic bureaucracy; a bisexual martial arts fanatic; a poet ("in the Greco-Sino-Samurai-African tradition") and a friend of many of the Beat and Black Mountain poets, who had long talks about poetry with Muhammad Ali; a translator of Hawaiian and Samoan oral poetries...; and a possible suicide (at a MLA convention) who some people believe was murdered.
I confess that Wang is the most eccentric of the lot, but there are some close seconds.
A special Elliot Weinberger touch, along the lines of his 19 Ways of Looking at Wang Wei, which I review here
is to offer multiple translations of the same poem (he does this for more than 20 poems but not for most), though here he shows us no more than three versions of any single poem. I personally find this kind of direct comparison to be revealing of the original poem, of the difficult process of translation of classic Chinese poetry into modern English and of the styles of the individual translators. So I like this touch, though I can understand that some readers would have other reactions.
As a brief example, here is a poem by Meng Hao-jan (Mèng Hàorán ; 689-740), one of the great "hermit" poets of the T'ang dynasty, in three versions:
(William Carlos Williams)
Steering my little boat towards a misty islet,
I watch the sun descend while my sorrows grow:
In the vast night the sky hangs lower than the treetops,
But in the blue lake the moon is coming close.
We anchor the boat alongside a hazy island.
As the sun sets I am overwhelmed with nostalgia.
The plain stretches away without limit.
The sky is just above the tree tops.
The river flows quietly by.
The moon comes down amongst men.
The boat rocks at anchor by the misty island.
Sunset, my loneliness comes again.
In these vast wilds the sky arches down to the trees.
In the clear river water, the moon draws near.
The collected poems date from the 12th century BCE through the 13th century CE with an emphasis on the T'ang and Sung dynasties. Weinberger provides brief endnotes about each poet.
(*) What are the chances of finding an issue of the New Mexico Quarterly from 1952?