Lucas Klein on Burton Watson’s Translations of Chinese Poetry

The summer 2014 issue of World Literature Today features a fine analysis of Burton Watson’s translations of Chinese poetry (and philosophical texts) by Lucas Klein (The University of Hong Kong).

The essay is generally appreciative, with a few thoughts sprinkled in on how today’s translators ought to build on Watson’s work. Klein hints at his own theory of Táng dynasty regulated verse (lǜshī 律詩) as a kind of “world literature” because of its attempt to “nativize” or “domesticate” Sanskrit tonal regulation (developed more fully in Klein’s 2010 dissertation).

He also proposes that translators of Chinese classics focus more on individual authors rather than broad sweeps of the tradition – that there should be attempts to translate the entire works of given poets, rather than just the “greatest hits”:

Because Watson and others laid the groundwork they did, scholars and translators can focus on translating more deeply; now that there are more translators (though not, in fact, more translators of premodern Chinese poetry and philosophy), my hope is that we can meld our voices with smaller sets of individually chosen writers, whose works we would translate in whole, rather than in excerpt or selection pressed too closely against others. The risk of the mode of translation that defines Watson’s generation is not only that our knowledge of a foreign literature looks like so many “greatest hits” collections; it is also that one translator pronouncing so many voices may leave the impression that different writers of different eras sound alike (though to be sure, the premodern Chinese and Japanese poets Watson has translated wrote within a tradition whose discourses were considerably more unified than ours is now). As Eliot Weinberger put it, “Most translators are capable of translating only a few writers in their lifetimes. The rest is rote.”

I applaud this call for depth, and have made such a call myself in my review of Stephen Owen’s The Late Tang. However, as I attempt to put this into practice, I’m noticing some difficulties. As part of my dissertation research, I’m doing quick translations of the entire works of the late Táng poet-monks Guànxiū 貫休 and Qíjǐ 齊己 (some 1500 pieces). In my opinion, they are perhaps the finest poets of their age. However, their truly innovative poems are dwarfed by the number of rather conventional exchange poems they wrote. Even geniuses don’t always write masterpieces (I mean, just try reading Shakespeare’s “The Phoenix and the Turtle”). I’m afraid that trying to publish the entire works of Guànxiū and Qíjǐ would be met with resistance, since so many of their poems are, to put it bluntly, boring.

In any case, Klein’s essay is most welcome, and I hope that more close readings of translations of Chinese poetry are in the works.

5 thoughts on “Lucas Klein on Burton Watson’s Translations of Chinese Poetry

  1. Well… I for one would buy and read them with enthusiasm, even if the master have some lame verses… I can’t wait till this Christmas when, penny, by penny, I’ll have saved enough spare money for purchasing Mather’s monumental volume on Yungming-era poets…

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