“Sound and Sense” This axiom of twentieth-century pedagogy poses a distinct problem when it comes to dealing with poetry in translation. In the early twentieth century, when Chinese poetry first made its permanent mark on Western readers and writers, we find the relationship between sound and sense negotiated in various ways. The earliest was the naïve solution advanced, by Herbert Giles in his Chinese Poetry in English Verse, which attempts to make a happy marriage of the Chinese sense (more or less) with the sounds of a conventional Victorian prosody. This solution produced dignified and readable results, but it also led to some curious choices, as when, to cite one infamous example, Giles converted the Chinese word for “wall” into the English word “sky” in order to provide a rhyme for “Goodbye!”
Giles and other scholars of his age translated Chinese poetry into what it ‘should sound like’ in English, but with the advent of what we now know as modernism came the question, ‘what should poetry sound like’? For Ezra Pound, whose Cathay poems were liberal renditions based on the word-for-word notes and commentary of Ernest Fenollosa, this meant dropping, in a deft combination of willfulness and ignorance, the sense of the Chinese original and replacing it with a soundscape of his own signature.
Translation is always partly a matter of assumptions, even if attempts are made to justify them. What should the poem sound like? How is its sense best represented? The truth is that we can never know, and any answer is bound to be based on a set of assumptions that others may disagree with. Herbert Giles assumed that Chinese poetry should be put into a form amenable to the nineteenth-century English gentleman. Few today would agree with him. Ezra Pound assumed that some aesthetic element could be distilled and amplified from poetry that he understood as second-hand, and imperfectly. Many today will still find inspiration in his example. Arthur Waley, a careful scholar, fed up with the assumptions of his day, gave a deliberately limited view of his subject. The merits of his attempt remain debatable.
Eunice Tietjens was in this respect rather like Waley, unimpressed with the assumptions being made about China and Chinese poetry and eager to establish some limits on them. Tietjens’ interest was precisely in those “puny boundaries” that are the real matter of perception, at least by mortals not seized with rapture. Her poems expose her own “weakness” as much as they do any picture of the China she visited.
At times, Tietjens seems to have penetrated through those boundaries, and this may be her supreme accomplishment in her transcriptions of Chinese chanting, and of the ecstatic mountain vision in her poem at Mount Tai. But even there, Tietjens’ focus was on her perceptions. ‘Listening attentively,’ she tried to capture the sound of the poetry, as she heard it, in her musical transcriptions. This is not just a presentation of her experience. It is a meta-presentation, of her experience as she experienced it, such that in her music we hear not the sound of a Chinese poem but the pursuit of that sound, successful or not, and in her poetry we see not a simple ‘sketch’ of China as it was but the distance of the hand that did the sketching, of the mind that did the perceiving. This is useful to keep in mind when we read translations that stake some claim to the sound and sense of Chinese poetry, for Tietjens exposes the distance that is always hidden there.
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