Illustration: Wang Wei, early 8th century portrait, Städtisches Museum
Book Review: 19 Ways of Looking at Wang Wei
Eliot Weinberger opens worlds with four lines of poetry
BY MAGAZINE EDITOR SUSAN MAIER-MOUL
We begin our series on translation with a slim, powerful volume of translations of a single 8th century Chinese poem, four lines long. There are a mere 20 characters.
The simplicity of the single poem educates us in the complexities of translation.
Eliot Weinberger is the author of 19 Ways of Looking at Wang Wei. (The book also contains a wonderful all too brief essay by Latin American poet Octavio Paz.)
This tiny volume not only supplies various translations, beginning with character by character transcription, but also shares notes on the origins and effects of the translations’s differences.
In offering these details, Weinberger reveals aspects of their authors’s points of view or intentions that help us see every translation has an agenda.
The translator is purposeful, the translation is incomplete, and the act of translation is not neutral.
Studying texts is a significant aspect of yoga
If we practice yoga, translation is very much a part of our life.
When we want to read yoga texts and literature, most of us must turn to translated versions. Even for those of us who study Sanskrit, many do so with at least one translation of the text nearby. This often has the appropriate result of increasing our wonder rather than our confidence!
The more familiar we become with the gifts and limitations of translations, the more we seek out additional translations to compare, and the more intimate and personal our relationship to our study becomes.
Don’t words just have obvious meanings?
None of us who read philosophy, literature or instructional texts should be blind to or naive about the compromises every translation must accommodate as it imposes clarity and structure that bring a text from a different culture within our reach.
Weinberger writes of these multiple translations, “all of them are equally “correct.”” Yet the translations take on different meanings in our own language, acquiring shadows and casting light that may not be there in the original.
The task of carrying the sense of any text from one language to another requires several, often disparate skills. The person who has the strongest grasp of possible literal meanings of words may be the one with the least interest, respect, or ability to provide the whole sense of text in a different language for fresh readers.
An art and a science
Weinberger tells us, “The “taxonomy of Chinese translators is fairly simple. There are the scholars,” most of whom are in Weinberg’s estimation, “incapable of writing poetry,” and “the poets: most know no Chinese.”
This is the essential paradox of reading translations, and the conundrum in which we find ourselves as we search for meaning. (Do not fail to read the postscript for an amusing only-too-familiar translation baiting exchange between a poet and a scholar.)
As we come to appreciate or despair of all the translator brings to, and mixes into, the text, we realize that we are busy stirring in our own ideas as well.
That conversation between text and reader isn’t wrong, it’s what reading is. It’s a critical part of seeing ourselves in the meanings we supply and those that come to us miraculously across centuries and continents.
A compass rose
In fewer than fifty pages, versions multiply until the poem rests in the hands of poet Gary Snyder in 1978. It’s tempting to think the differences are inconsequential if you’re not such a big fan of poetry to begin with. Imagine however, similar sliding around with the word path, or truth, or lord, or breath, because these equal imprecisions exist in our yoga translations.
Comparing translations takes us deeper into the life of the original text.
The fixation on literal meaning as a kind of truth gives way to the undiminished force and mystery of the poetry, and the requirement that we participate in the meaning rather than be passive receptors.
We’re always translating, and our meanings are at risk
When we speak the same language as the person with whom we’re speaking, words have a close enough meaning between us that we mostly understand each other, yet our contexts for what we’re hearing shade our meanings in unpredictable ways.
Add to our exchange the simple experience of being misunderstood, quoted out of context, or intending a different tone than was taken (email is a spectacular instance of tonelessness in writing).
A second language is not merely a substitute for the first. Amplify the ambiguities by dealing with texts that are anywhere from hundreds to thousands of years old, and we begin to see the challenges of translating.
Having more than one perspective to read with opens our minds and our hearts to see the work stand in its own light in ways we cannot imagine before we begin. This is the entire purpose of comparative reading of yoga texts: to swiftly arrive at a useful self observation – an understanding that we really don’t have the whole picture.
Enjoy more Eliot Weinberger online at New Directions Publishing
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© 2011, The Magazine of Yoga, LLC.