On Pound’s “translations” from Chinese

I’ve been hearing Ezra Pound’s name for decades, but it recently occurred to me that I didn’t know anything about his life or his poetry. So I went looking online for more information about him, and quickly came across an entertainingly written 1958 takedown of Pound’s and Ernest Fenollosa’s approach to translating Chinese poetry: “Fenollosa, Pound and the Chinese Character,” by American sinologist George A. Kennedy.

The gist of what Kennedy says in the article, as I understand it, is that (a) Pound appears to have admired the work of American historian Ernest Fenollosa, and (b) Fenollosa’s entire approach to translating Chinese was completely wrongheaded. If I’m understanding right, Fenollosa apparently believed that the way to translate a Chinese poem was to look at the radicals (the component parts of a written character) for each character in the poem, and to come up with concepts related to those radicals, and to use those concepts in your English poem.

(I’m not clear on the degree to which Pound agreed with Fenollosa’s approach, but the Kennedy article seems to me to suggest that Pound may have followed a similar method.)

As Kennedy puts it:

What then is wrong here? […] Just a complete misunderstanding of what Chinese characters are, how they were created, and how they function as speech symbols.

Here’s my attempt at an analogy for Fenollosa’s process (as I understand it based on the Kennedy article): Imagine that you don’t know much English, but you take a Shakespearean sonnet and attempt to determine its meaning (and translate it into another language) by looking up the etymology of each word and assuming that each word means what its roots once meant. Also, in places where the etymology is uncertain, you guess that the etymology (and thus the meaning) might be based on other words that have similarly shaped letters. Also, you don’t know how the words are pronounced, so you’re oblivious to the rhyme and meter of the original. Also, both your copy of the sonnet and your etymological dictionary include some errors, based in part on sloppy transcription of hard-to-read handwritten manuscripts. Also, you don’t know much about grammar, but you make grandiose and incorrect claims about how grammar works, universally across all languages, claims that are contradicted by both the original sonnet and your own pseudo-translation.

Another quote from the Kennedy article:

[…] it is impossible to say anything on the subject without emphasizing and reiterating that characters are symbols for sounds, and through sound are symbols for words. They are not a code […], nor a collection of pictures to entrance the eye. […] such images as appear through the sort of analysis [that Pound used] are not present in the mind of the Chinese reader[…] It is more than likely that [those images] were unknown to the Chinese poet himself, who used the characters as arbitrary symbols for the words of his poem.

I think the moral of this story is something like: Don’t try to translate poetry in a language you’re unfamiliar with, especially not based on incorrect ideas about how that language works and how languages in general work. But then again, if you do, you may become known as one of the greatest translators of poetry ever.

While I’m here, I may as well mention that I went on to look up more about Pound and his life. Turns out he was widely regarded as a brilliant poet, who gave a lot of help and support to a bunch of other prominent literary figures of the early 1900s; also, he was literally a fascist. For lots more, see these articles:

  • The Pound Error,” by Louis Menand (2008), which provides a general discussion of Pound’s work along with a fairly thorough discussion of Pound’s apparently unrepentant anti-Semitism and fascism.
  • The Insanity Defense,” by Evan Kindley (2018), focusing on Pound’s post-WWII evasion of punishment for his support of the Italian fascists by getting himself committed to St. Elizabeths Hospital on grounds of mental illness. Content warning: includes some explicit quotes from a couple of his anti-Semitic broadcasts.
  • Wikipedia article on Pound.
  • Poetry Foundation article on Pound, which barely mentions his politics in favor of discussing his prominence in and contributions to the world of poetry.

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