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1 Introduction “From the Decipherings” Christopher Bush Why, after a century, Cathay again and why a critical edition? Even a generous reader might reasonably be skeptical about the value of a collection of Chinese poems translated, for lack of a better word, by someone who did not know Chinese and who was relying almost exclusively on the decades-old handwritten notes of someone who was himself only just learning to read Chinese from some Japanese tutors. Even if such an experiment were interesting in its own way in its own time, how can it have aged well? In fact, this slim volume of a little more than a dozen translations has proven a constant source of fascination and of often lively controversy for scholars, critics, poets, and general readers who care about English-language verse, but also far beyond. Cathay has, in a word, become a part of world literature. As one might expect, the work looms large in the history of that Anglo-American modernism for which Pound was, in T. S. Eliot’s famous phrase, “the inventor of Chinese poetry for our time,” a time that was, after all, plausibly referred to as “the Pound era.” But Cathay’s influence has been far more widespread than that, serving as an important touchstone for the “Chinese” poetics of, for example, Brecht, the Brazilian concretists, and the Beat generation, but also Taiwanese modernists in the 1950s, China’s “Misty Poets” generation in the 1980s, and even aspects of the distinctly “Asian” voice of Asian American poetry. If Pound’s translations are in many respects mistaken, they are among the most generative mistakes in world literary history. This productivity has in part been fueled by the poems’ becoming closely identified with the other most (in)famous Poundian product based on Fenollosa’s manuscripts, The Chinese Written Character as a Medium for Poetry (1919).1 While the Written Character essay has become the locus classicus of modern imaginings about Chinese writing, it contains very little verse. Cathay, conversely, was based on manuscripts that contained very few Chinese characters and gives nearly all the Chinese words (including proper names) in a Romanized form of their Japanese readings. Cathay and The Chinese Written Character together constituted the matrix of what an audaciously word-for-word, character-splicing translation or pseudo-translation of Chinese poetry might look and sound like. “Not Chinese in the First Place” Cathay was not only an historically significant translation in its own right, but helped open up the terms of debate about literary translation more generally, including the extent to which 2 Christopher Bush translations might be understood not simply in terms of correctness (by whatever standard), butalsoasakindofrewritingorevencreativeproduction.Cathaythusrepresentsanimportant precursor of contemporary translation studies’ efforts to combat “the translator’s invisibility.” The book’s own international influence demonstrates the extent to which literary innovation can arise not only by digging deeper into the history and resources of one’s own language, but also through the administration of what Pound once called “exotic injections.” It has been a boon to this little book that interest in the work in recent years is tied to interest in China (indeed, Pound’s translation of the Old English “The Seafarer,” also included in Cathay, often seems forgotten). China’s “soft power” outside of Asia is at an all-time high. It was not that long ago that the study of Chinese, particularly classical Chinese, was considered a fairly esoteric pursuit in the United States, but it is now commonly taught not only to college but also to high school students. Beyond the United States, places as distinct and remote from one another as Argentina, Australia, and Germany have all seen booms in translations from Chineseandinthestudyofthelanguage.Norhasthisinterestbeenrestrictedtocontemporary Chinese culture. As “capitalism with Chinese characteristics” becomes an increasingly dominant force in the global economy, debates about what is or is not truly “Chinese” have entailed a series of contentious rehabilitations of premodern Chinese culture both within the Chinese-speaking world and beyond. But of course there is more to Cathay than just the fact of a translation from Chinese. It has a specifically literary value as well. At a minimum it transformed—in ways that still live on today—the English reader’s basic associative sense of what Chinese poetry is and what makes it sound Chinese. Whereas in preceding centuries European and American readers had identified Chinese culture with an ornate, learned, even garish complexity thought to be unmistakably if not uniquely Chinese, Pound offered...

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Additional Information

ISBN
9780823281398
Related ISBN
9780823281060
MARC Record
OCLC
1076879185
Pages
364
Launched on MUSE
2018-12-06
Language
English
Open Access
No
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