I’ve written about today’s friend, Mr. Ezra Pound, a few times before, including addressing his war literature, a very short poem, and a brief reflection on his birthday. In literary terms, he’s a strong contender for the most accomplished friend we’ll meet during this whole series, as he was a great poet, a skilled though idiosyncratic translator, a thoughtful and opinionated critic, and an editor with a knack for finding and fostering talented writers. Because of all that he may be, apart from the Bard himself, the most important poet in English. His reputation suffered because of his support for Benito Mussolini, but I feel confident predicting that in a few centuries Mussolini will be a footnote to the Cantos, much as many great and powerful men are now footnotes to the Divine Comedy.
So, let’s say you want to begin a study of Confucianism. One reasonable place to start is The Analects of Confucius, but once you decide to do that, you run into a problem – which translation do you use? The number of options can easily overwhelm a newcomer; collecting them somewhat casually, that is, just buying one as I come across it and not actively seeking them out, I own nine versions and have read eight. Which you choose does matter, too. Though the most common ones are all decent enough, each translator makes different stylistic choices which will affect how much you get from the book, both in terms of understanding and enjoyment.
So, I thought I’d offer some advice to those new to the Analects. The impetus is that I’ve just finished revising my Confucian Twitter bot, in which I consulted most of these translations. I should, though, offer a few caveats. First, Chinese is Greek to me; I can recognise some of the written characters that are shared with Japanese, but otherwise, I don’t speak the language and therefore I can only judge these translations on clarity and style, not accuracy. Second, I haven’t read every available translation, though I have read those that appear to be most popular. Missing are those by Edward Slingerland, W. E. Soothill (which I own but haven’t yet read), and Annping Chin; there are probably others, as well, but I may come back and update this post in the future when I do get around to them.
Now, what I’ll do here is begin with a few general observations and recommendations, then go through and offer specific comments on individual translators, along with samples of the same handful of passages. Specifically, I’ll use 1.1 (Book 1 Chapter 1), 1.2, 2.16, 7.8, 11.11, and 15.25 (note that different editions number the chapters slightly differently, so in some cases these will be a bit off).
If you just want a recommendation and don’t need the minutiae, I’ll say that Simon Leys is the most beginner-friendly, followed by D. C. Lau. Wing-Tsit Chan has the most well-rounded translation, but his version is part of a collection called A Source Book in Chinese Philosophy, so he doesn’t include the entire work. It’s a large enough selection to give one a good idea of what the Analects are about, though, and if you’re interested in other works of Chinese philosophy then Chan provides an excellent starting-point.
Only one translation is outright bad, and that’s Leonard Lyall’s, which I’ve reviewed previously. I also would not recommend Ezra Pound’s as a first translation. Pound’s version is interesting and worth reading, but he’s very idiosyncratic, so save his for after you’ve read one or two others. Most of the rest will work well enough, though.
Finally, a note on Romanisation. Translations from the past twenty-five years or so will typically use Pinyin; before that it varies, but Wade-Giles or some variation thereof are most common. I prefer Wade-Giles partly for aesthetic reasons and partly because it’s more intuitive for native speakers of English, but it’s not a major issue, so don’t worry about this aspect too much. It only becomes an issue when cross-referencing names and places with other translations or other works about China, because it’s not always obvious how to “convert” between systems. There are charts for Wade-Giles and Pinyin, though readers of James Legge will be in a tough spot, but usually these things aren’t too hard to figure out once you’ve used them for a while. If you plan to dive into relatively recent works about China, you may want to favour a translation that uses Pinyin to make your life a little easier.…
The first friend we’re making in the Hundred Friends project is Fujiwara no Masatsune, a Japanese poet and editor who lived 1170-1221. His picture and this poem is on the card to the right, and you can read a little more about both over here, if you like.
As I mentioned in the introductory post, this will mostly be an English project, but since the idea came from the Japanese anthology Hyakunin Isshu, I thought it would be appropriate to begin with a poem from that collection. This is the ninety-fourth poem in that book, and in Mostow’s translation goes like this:
the autumn wind in its mountains
deepens the night and
in the former capitol, cold
I hear the fulling of cloth…
Anyone who’s read any the Confucian canon’s Four Books will have heard much of the Book of Odes. Confucius and Mencius discuss it and reference it constantly, and Confucius even told his son, “If you do not study the Odes you will not be fit to converse with.” He explains why in another chapter that I’ve quoted and discussed previously, “My young friends, why do you not study the Odes? They will stimulate your emotions, broaden your observation, enlarge your fellowship, and express your grievances. They will aid you in your immediate service to your parents and your more remote service to your sovereign.” The Confucians place so much emphasis on the Odes and their study that one can only have the highest expectations going into the book, but this can also set some false expectations as to what they are exactly. Even Ezra Pound, the great poet, translator, and admirer of Confucius, once expressed confusion as to what exactly the Confucians saw in them.
The Odes, you see, are a collection of 305 folk songs and poems; traditionally Confucius himself is supposed to have compiled them, though there’s much doubt over this. Several were used in a ritual context, as one would expect from the Confucians’ treatment of them, and many do have some moral component, though more often than not, this isn’t explicit. For the most part, though, they’re simply folk songs, and look exactly like one would expect folk songs to look. Most are romantic, some praise famous heroes, a few deal with the hardship of a soldier’s life, and some decry tyrannical government. This is all well and good, and they’re certainly enjoyable, but one can also understand the reservations of people like Pound; it’s as if a great sage urged you to study the great moral instruction of a collection of songs, then handed you a copy of Anthology of American Folk Music. Take, for example, Ode 61, “The River is Broad.”
Who says that the River is broad?
On a single reed you could cross it.
Who says that Song is far away?
By standing on tip-toe I can see it.
Who says that the River is broad?
There is not room in it even for a skiff.
Who says that Song is far away?
It could not take you so much as a morning.…
I’ve heard of Mortimer Adler and Charles van Doren’s How to Read a Book here and there before, but decided to give it a read after seeing Henry Dampier’s review of it, and thinking that it may be useful, especially since I’m trying to read more (and maybe even read better) this year.
Unfortunately, I didn’t find the book as helpful as I thought I might, though that’s not really the fault of the authors. My main problem is simply that I’m already doing some of the things they suggest, e.g. “inspectional” reading, skim- or pre-reading, or taking notes. The reminders don’t hurt, and I did pick up a few things, but I didn’t really need 336 pages of it, either.
The most relevant section for me was on syntopical reading, which involves methodically reading several books on the same subject. This would be very helpful for undertaking a research project, and to some extent I have approximated this recently, though not in such an organised fashion as they describe, and I have a hard time imagining making this my primary method of reading.
Overall, I’d highly recommend the book to high school or college students, and it is worth a quick read-through for everyone. It’s not quite on the same subject since it focuses on literature, but for those who want to read a book about reading I’ve always highly recommended Ezra Pound’s ABC of Reading.
Next up on the reading list is another book about the Habsburgs, this time The Habsburg Monarchy, 1618-1815, by Charles W. Ingrao.…
The first thing most people notice when they read Ezra Pound’s “In a Station of the Metro” is how amazingly short it is – just two lines, plus a title. By making the work so brief, Pound successfully denies the reader a sense of closure or fulfillment after finishing the poem, which emphasizes the work’s implication of the anonymity and listlessness of the people in the titular metro station. Although Pound certainly could have made the work longer and more developed, the work is ultimately strengthened by denying the reader any development of its central idea.
The primary result of Pound’s denial of closure in “In a Station of the Metro” is the sense that the poem is just a passing observation of a morning commuter. First, one should notice that the full poem consists of a sentence fragment. This gives the impression that the work is incomplete, that the writer has either just started or just now had the inspiration to write. This effect is significant to the poem’s theme because it implies that even the poet does not have the time or motive to fully develop what sounds like a very promising start to a work.…
As you may have guessed from the length of my last post, I admire Ezra Pound.
I’ve found, though, that I’m one of a relative few. His poetry seems to be a love-it-or-hate-it affair, and I can certainly understand those who don’t care for him. Much of his poetry is difficult, his references obscure, and his politics generally right-wing but eclectic enough mostly to just throw people off, except that he vocally supported Benito Mussolini, and even those critics who appreciate, say, T.S. Eliot’s conservatism will draw a line at that.
Yet, with the sole exception of Eliot, Pound is the best poet I know of the past 400 years or so since Shakespeare. He’s also the most important, because even if one prefers some other writer of his generation, Pound very likely knew and influenced him to at least some degree. For example, a professor of mine once commented that Pound’s hand in editing Eliot’s The Waste Land is so great that one could almost call it the first Canto.…
This post is a revised version of an essay I wrote a few years ago; I’m posting it here in honour of Pound’s upcoming birthday. Please forgive its length – I’ll go back to my normal style shortly after this. For now, think of it as a preview of the literature-focused website I mentioned working on in last week’s post.
Though many poets write about social, political, and economic issues, few have made such matters as integral to their work as Ezra Pound. Literary criticism would always form a large part of his prose work, like ABC of Reading, but he wrote at least as much on economics and politics, like ABC of Economics, Jefferson and/or Mussolini, and segments of Guide to Kulchur. Even in his poetry, references to historical figures like John Adams and Sigismundo Malatesta outnumber artists.
The apparent catalyst for Pound’s concern with socio-economic matters was the First World War. Prior to the war, most of his writing deals directly with encouraging a revival of the arts, and poetry in particular. After the war, beginning with Hugh Selwyn Mauberley, he began to seriously consider the war and its causes, and his conclusions on the nature of and relationship between politics, economics, and the arts would shape his poetic and prose output for the rest of his career, especially in his epic poem The Cantos.…
For the last few years, I’ve occasionally passed time by thinking of the shortest way to become literate in the Western literary tradition. In other words, what is the smallest number of books one can read, and which books, to say one is familiar with the general outline of Western literature?…
Ezra Pound is one of those poets who tends to intimidate people, and as I finish up reading A Draft of XXX Cantos I can certainly see why. I imagine he would have been okay with that, though. Judging from his ABC of Reading, he was what you might call a “poet’s poet.” He didn’t seem to have much patience for the lazy student of poetry, though in both the ABC and the Cantos he does help the student – the truly interested student – where he can, at least in his own way.
For example, on first opening the Cantos, one notices how there seems to be little connection between different passages. Worse, these passages tend to make use of many historical and literary figures, some well-known and some obscure, and though the primary language of the poem is English, he even throws in an assortment of other languages.
So, what the hell’s going on? First of all, don’t panic. Just read. In the ABC of Reading, Pound places more stress on what he calls “melopoeia,” the sound of the language, than on “phanopoeia,” the meaning of the language. If the reader can at least appreciate the sound of Pound’s work, then he already understands a great part of the Cantos.
As for the meaning, it helps to be widely read. The Odyssey and the Divine Commedy are referenced often. Reading Pound’s ABC of Reading is also a great primer for the Cantos, since he introduces the reader to his own philosophy of writing and reading poetry, and also gives examples of works he considers especially worthwhile in the Western literary tradition.
Luckily, all of Pound’s references can be traced to specific people and characters from history and literature, as opposed to, say, Symbolist poets who sometimes give few hints for what they’re talking about. Furthermore, whenever an idea is especially important, Pound will expound on it for a while before moving on, which at least helps hint what parts of the Cantos the reader ought to focus on, and also gives some additional material to work with.
Also of importance is what Pound refers to in ABC as the “ideogrammic method.” In short, this involves juxtaposing two or more images or ideas to convey another idea. He draws this from his study of Chinese ideograms, where more complex characters are formed by combining simpler characters.
So, in the first section of the first Canto, Pound presents a translation of the Odyssey. Why? The Odyssey is by Homer, the oldest epic poet in the Western tradition, and the section he translates was, at the time, thought to be the oldest part of the Odyssey. The ideogrammic method comes in because he translates it into Anglo-Saxon verse form, the oldest form of poetry in the English language. What’s the ideogram? That he intends to make use of the Western literary tradition in this poem, and will be going back to the oldest parts of this tradition.
See? That’s not so hard, is it?
Okay, yeah it’s still pretty tough, but that’s what annotated editions are for……