Too often in America, Chinese poetry has been allowed to mince forward, immaculately bound, exquisitely printed and illustrated—but somehow precious. The product of Western literati, such books reveal little more than the poetic sensibilities of their translators. Indeed, the so-called translators often work from earlier English versions of the same poems, and without deep study of Chinese culture, much less language, they “render” the poems. Their rendering invariably involves a kind of latter-day Imagism, and demands attenuation of lines in the pious conviction that brevity makes poetry. The products thus created intend to be enigmatic, but are more often merely confusing. Brevity, sharp juxtapositions, and plenty of plum blossoms—these are the qualities Western readers have been led to associate with Chinese poetry. But soy sauce doesn’t make a Chinese meal, and plum blossoms—no matter how attenuated the lines—do not make Chinese poetry.
Sunflower Splendor—a large book, quite unlike the slim volumes—now provides another sense of Chinese poetry. A beautiful but no-nonsense book, Sunflower Splendor: Three Thousand Years of Chinese Poetry explores the scope of China’s literary history and demonstrates variety and vitality of poetic expression. This book is a meal, a banquet, a month’s provender compared to the usual Chinese fortune cookie.
Professor Irving Yucheng Lo’s Introduction spells out the dominant themes of Chinese poems, and the selections amply, richly illustrate those themes. The reader will find martial poems, incantatory poems, meditative poems, poems dedicated to the stern Confucian moral principles, and love poems. The reader will doubtless find his favorite Chinese poets—Li Po (701-762), for instance, is generously represented—but he will also find new favorites.
Lo and his collaborator Professor Wu-chi Liu allow the diversity of the tradition to emerge from the texts as rendered by translators with varied backgrounds and voices, but they do not allow the translator’s personal taste to govern those texts. The Preface and Introduction combine to convince the reader that scholarship informs all the texts; in most cases, that scholarship has also produced enjoyable poems, probably as true to their originals as can be achieved in English.
Both editors of Sunflower Splendor enjoy mixed cultural awareness: Chinese by birth and heritage, they have earned advanced degrees in English and understand the structures of both languages. They and their translators sometimes provide a specifically European equivalent of an Eastern concept, rather than to use a term which requires explanation in a note. In one poem, for instance, the River Styx replaces a slightly more difficult and foreign idea. The editors also refuse to waste words proclaiming the “impossibility of translation,” though the Introduction says enough about linguistic and cultural differences between East and West to make clear that translations, at best, are equivalent experiences, not duplicates.
Rarely do the poems in Sunflower Splendor confuse; when they do, the cause is rarely an addiction to some stylistic peculiarity. Inconsistencies of punctuation among translators cause most of the confusion. Because English readers depend upon subject-verb units to determine rhythm, poems which omit either component need to use punctuation to indicate how units relate to each other.
The Preface reveals that three readers have confirmed the accuracy of all translations and that most poems have passed the test of larger but still select audiences’ scrutiny. Such measures prevent idiosyncratic renderings, and they assure that translations will retain the musical quality inherent in Chinese poems. Even the nonspecialist will observe the retention of these and other qualities (including rhyme, alliteration, and assonance). Happily, the editors have omitted the usual tedious notes explaining how the translations capture the qualities of their originals. For a large and comprehensive anthology, Sunflower Splendor proves remarkably free of editorial obstructions. Notes appear rarely; they never presume to “interpret” the poem.
Lo’s Introduction, though brief, surveys Chinese literary history and says enough about Chinese language and culture to underline thematic differences. (In China, love poems are rarer than poems celebrating friendship, and the love poems generally exercise more restraint than do Western ones.) Lo also manages to indicate what Chinese...
(The entire section is 1869 words.)