The Jade Flute

Book Review
The Jade Flute: Chinese Poems in Prose by Unknown

I picked up this curious little volume in a used bookstore in Chicago, intrigued by the cover’s promise to render traditional Chinese poems in prose. Perhaps, I thought, this would be a provocative experiment in translation, a reevaluation of then-current techniques.

The Jade Flute was published in 1960 by the obscure Peter Pauper Press, whose website reveals that it is still in existence and specializes in selling little black travel books and stationary. No translator is listed. No sources are listed. There is no introduction. There is only the content of the translations and a series of traditional woodcarvings overlaid with ’60s-looking vertical lines.

As for the translations themselves, they are misty-eyed and imagistic, as if one reproduced Florence Ayscough’s translations without the line breaks. Take, for example, perhaps the best-known classical Chinese poem, “Ching Yeh Ssu” 靜夜思 by Li Po 李白.*

Original, with a clunky literal translation:

靜夜思           Thoughts on a Still Night

床前明月光   Before my bed, the light of the bright moon.
疑是地上霜   It seems to be frost on the ground.
舉頭望明月   Raising my head, I gaze upon the bright moon.
低頭思故鄉   Lowering my head, I think of my old hometown.

The Jade Flute‘s rendering:

At Midnight

Look: moonlight shining on my bed. Or is it the white of frost?

Raising my head, I see the moon over the mountains. Lowering it, I remember all my debts and errors.

A quick comparison shows that The Jade Flute introduces new images (mountains, the white frost), removes others (the ground, the old hometown), and explicitly states several things (debts and errors) that could be implied in the original (though aren’t necessarily). Being a prose rendering, the rhythm of the original (four lines of five syllables each) is lost completely. The result is obviously inferior, losing the punch, the boldness of Li Po’s poem.

This is disappointing, as turning traditional, metered poetry into modern prose-poems has great potential. Instead of using the expanded format to explore the hidden contours of the original, the translator merely reaffirms the rose-tinted Orientalist view of Chinese poetry that followed in the wake of Ezra Pound’s Cathay. One suspects that the Peter Pauper Press was trying to ride a faddish wave, pander to what American readers had expected Chinese poetry to be – delicate slices of melancholic imagery.

Furthermore, one finds errata on nearly ever page. Two glaringly obvious examples include “Meng Hai-jan” for “Meng Hao-jan” 孟浩然 (the famed late seventh- and early eight-century poet) on page 41 and “To Fu” for “Tu Fu” 杜甫 (mid eighth century, often called “China’s greatest poet”) on page 16.

There is also the mystery of the unnamed translator. One “translation” hints at this shadowy figure’s possible identity. It comes about two-thirds through the volume, a poem called “The Unrewarded Poet” by one “J. Wing.” This entry sticks out because all other poets’ names are classical, easily recognizable, and given in their Mandarin pronunciations. This one alone features an unknown Cantonese name and carries layers of bitter irony rarely present in older poems. One suspects it is the unnamed translator taking a stab at his unwitting, unappreciative, WASPy American publishers:

Here I sit on a hard wood box, stencilled black with the name of a seller of sugar. This table is so dirty… Even if I had food, I could not eat it here.

Then how can I write of wine sprinkled with violets, so you may drink with delight? How can I promise: I will decorate your blue dress with glittering emerald jewels? How can I offer you a perfect pear of golden amber? Or pour perfumes in a carved bowl of rosy quartz, so you may dip in it the pointed tips of those beloved pale fingers?

*For the sake of convenience, I’m using the Wade-Giles romanization, as it is the romanization style favored (though inconsistently) by the translator(s) of the book under review.

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