Thanks to the efforts of many translators, the English-speaking world has become fairly well acquainted with the poetic effusions of Chinese men of letters. But another, delightfully different kind of Chinese poetry is still comparatively unknown, namely, anonymous poems that are either true folk songs or modifications or imitations of folk songs.
A translator’s choice of folk songs rather than poems by known authors has two advantages: first, biographical criticism with its intricacies and pitfalls is automatically excluded; and second, folk songs are only rarely encumbered with learned allusions, which present so many problems in the poetry of the literati. The universal appeal of folk songs, even to readers of different cultures and epochs, is too obvious to require elaboration.
Dr. Anne Birrell’s present selection, translation, and elucidation of folk songs from Han China is distinguished by the same qualities that have made her earlier book, New Songs from a Jade Terrace (George Allen and Unwin, 1982, rev. ed. Penguin Books, 1986), so useful and enjoyable. She is one of the few translators able to combine scholarly accuracy with idiomatic fluency and poetic flavor in English.
Dr. Birrell is happily free from the prejudices that have caused traditional scholars (Chinese, Japanese, and western) to overlook, ignore, or distort concepts and images that were incomprehensible or offensive to them. In particular, she succeeds in exposing erotic images that seemed, to traditional scholars, to violate Confucian taboos, and were therefore misunderstood or explained away. While not everybody will go along with Dr. Birrell in her reading of all such passages, she has certainly made a convincing case for less puritanical readings of many poems. For example, she notes the erotic significance of the fish playing hide-and-seek among the lotos leaves in the song South of the River.
Unlike many translators, Dr. Birrell conscientiously renders every phrase and every image, rather than skirting difficult passages, ‘smoothing over’ rough spots, and ‘tidying up’ poems that seem incoherent. One of the features that I find especially commendable in her translations is that she takes great pains to preserve the word order and syntactic structure of the Chinese as far as possible, without doing xiiviolence to English syntax. But while she is uncompromising in her fidelity to the Chinese text, her translations are eminently readable, and will give pleasure and enlightenment to a wide circle of readers for many years.
HANS H. FRANKEL (Yale University)
New Haven, Connecticut,
December 21, 1984