Boodberg’s Wang Wei

Peter Boodberg was the daft genius of twentieth century Chinese studies. Although his published works amount to little more than one book, his ideas were revolutionary and his influence was wide. Most interesting to me is his fondness for coining neologisms in the process of translating. One such term that’s caught on in certain circles is “Thearch” for Dì 帝, a term which encompasses both divine and kingly aspects. Hence, his blending of two Greek terms, theos (god) and arche (ruler).

Here’s a longer, even stranger example of his translation style, cited in both 19 Ways of Looking at Wang Wei (ed. Eliot Weinberger) and Incense at the Altar: Pioneering Sinologists and the Development of Classical Chinese Philology (by David B. Honey). It is a translation of a famous poem by Wáng Wéi 王維 (699-759 CE), called Lù Zhài* 鹿柴, meaning “Deer Enclosure.” First, the original plus a standard translation (by Burton Watson):

空山不見人     Empty hills, no one in sight,
但聞人語響     only the sound of someone talking;
返景入深林     late sunlight enters the deep wood,
復照青苔上     shining over the green moss again.

Now for Boodberg’s version, which Weinberger likens to “Gerard Manley Hopkins on LSD”:

The empty mountain: to see no men,
Barely earminded of men talking – countertones,
And antistrophic lights – and – shadows incoming deeper the deep-treed grove
Once more to glowlight the blue-green mosses – going up (the empty mountain…)

“Earminded” is probably my favorite neologism here, clearly an attempt to incorporate the graph for “ear” (耳 ěr) in the middle of the character for “hear” (聞 wén). Another example of this translation attempt is “countertones” for “echo” (響 xiǎng), the character for which incorporates “tone” (音 yīn). There’s a great danger here of falling into the ideographic myth, but Boodberg, a fierce opponent of that myth, was a fine philologist and only split open characters where it was etymologically viable to do so.

If the purpose of translation is to disrupt the target language (which is not always the case), Boodberg has succeeded beyond what I would’ve thought possible.

*Or pronounced “chái.” In any case, Wáng Wéi would’ve actually pronounced it more like “dzrei.”

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