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The Silent Zero , translations by Eric Sackheim

The Silent Zero - Eric Sackheim


A lovely and idiosyncratic book with no ratings or reviews? That shall not stand!


Though Eric Sackheim apparently earned his doctorate at Harvard under the eminent J.R. Hightower, instead of making an academic career in the USA he headed to Japan in 1960 on a Fulbright scholarship, where he translated Japanese and Chinese literature into English and founded a small publishing house which printed at least 30 books over the years. Sackheim himself produced many more books as translator, compiler or editor than are listed here at GR, BL and LM; along with the expected collections of Chinese and Japanese poetry, his publications include a seminal collection of American Blues lyrics and a volume of quotes he collected over the years of his reading. He also made quite an impression on the Boston folk music scene before he moved to Japan.That he was (I've found mention of his widow but not of birth or death dates) a man who went his own way is already strongly suggested by these few facts culled from scattered websites. 


His ...the silent Zero, in search of Sound..., with subtitle An anthology of Chinese poems from the beginning through the sixth century, strongly supports this conjecture. Originally published in 1968 by his own publishing house, Mushinsha, it has been re-released three or four times by other publishers, though not since 1974, it seems. 


By focusing on Chinese poetry up to the 6th century, and therefore including the great T'ao Ch'ien and Hsieh Ling-yün, Sackheim both set himself special challenges - e.g. the specialists are still not certain what some of the words in the older poems mean, and where they are agreed about that, they disagree about the interpretation - and excluded the poets of the T'ang and Sung dynasties the Chinese consider to be their greatest and whom a Western audience might have had a chance to recognize. So, the book is a labor of love, motivated by neither career nor commercial concerns. 


It is evident that Sackheim believed, like Walter Benjamin, that the right combination of perfectly chosen and arranged quotes opens the mind to resonances and insights not otherwise possible.(*) But instead of heading the many sections in the book with quotes from Chinese authors, Sackheim gives us multiple quotes from Western authors ranging from the Elizabethans to Bo Diddley(!) to set the stage for each section.


His style of translation is as close to literal translation as one can get without losing the sense of the poem in English (and for some readers, I'm sure he crossed that line more than once). For example, the selections he made from the Shih-ching (the first collection of Chinese poetry, possibly compiled in the 6th century BCE by Confucius himself) of poems of four word lines, and hence some of the most laconic of classical Chinese poems, give the English reader a clear sense of the original Chinese.


                                 East Is Not Yet Light


East is not yet light:

Turning clothing upside down - 

Turns them up, sides them down;

From the Court they call him.


East is not yet bright:

Turning clothing downside up - 

Turns them down, sides them up;

From the Court they summon him.


Breaking willows/fence/garden

Screwball mad mad

Unabled morning/night

Not early, then late.(**)


Contrast this with Arthur Waley's version: 


                                Toward the East It Is Still Dark


Toward the east it is still dark,

But he bustles into jacket and skirt.

He bustles into them and hustles into them;

From the palace they have sent for him.


The dew of night is not yet dry,

But he bustles into skirt and coat,

Hustles into them and bustles into them;

To the palace they have summoned him.


He is breaking the willows of the fenced garden,

The mad fellow in his flurry -

Never can he judge the time of night;

If he's not too late, then he's too early.


I think Waley's translation is charming, but Sackheim brings us closer to the original. Personally, I'm keeping both.


Although T'ao Ch'ien and Hsieh Ling-yün have been brought into English multiple times, as have been the Shih-ching and the Ch'u T'zu (Chu ci, the second important collection of Chinese poetry probably compiled in the 2nd century BCE, from which Sackheim also takes many poems), some of the poets in this collection I meet for the first time, and this may be the only place to read them in English.


Perhaps a few of the more striking, shorter poems in this collection would not be amiss here. In the following, attributed to Hsiang Yü (232-202 BCE) one of the pre-Han contenders for power, the author brings life's quandary to a fine point.


                                 Frontier Song


Power roots up hills

                                    breath covers the world

Time without profit

                                 horse without running



              what will you do?


(Sackheim represents caesuras in the poems by midline breaks.)


And there is this gripping lament written by Ts'ao Chih (192-232) as the great Han dynasty, which had ruled China for more than 400 years, was crumbling and their famous capital, Loyang, was sacked and the surrounding countryside laid to waste.


                         Seeing Off the Messrs. Ying


Walking up Pei-mang slope

A distant gaze: Loyang's hills

Loyang: what desolation

Palaces/homes, completely burnt out

Walls/fences, all fallen down

Brambles climb and pierce the sky

Not perceiving the former aged

Only beholding the new youth

Tip toe, no path to go

Wild fields not replanted

The travellers long unreturned,

Not recognizing roads and lanes

Mid plain, how lonely/vast

A thousand miles without man's smoke

Recalling our former home

Breath congealed, unable to speak.


To close the book Sackheim gives his inner Benjamin full play and offers us some 20 pages of quotes about translation from other authors interspersed with a few comments of his own. The man went his own way, and I know that his way will appeal to some of you...



(*) Benjamin dreamed of the perfect book consisting only of such artfully chosen and arranged quotes.


(**) To illustrate another of his uses of quotations in this book: Sackheim footnotes line 4 of this poem with the following lines of John Donne: He which hath businesse, and makes love, doth doe / Such wrong, as when a maryed man doth wooe.