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75 Front Matter to Cathay [耀 CATHAY / Translations by / EZRA POUND / FOR THE MOST PART FROM THE CHINESE / OF RIHAKU,1 FROM THE NOTES OF THE / LATE ERNEST FENOLLOSA, AND / THE DECIPHERINGS OF THE / PROFESSORS MORI / AND ARIGA2 / LONDON / ELKIN MATHEWS, CORK STREET / MCMXV3 Rihaku flourished in the eighth century of our era./The Anglo-Saxon Seafarer is of about this period./The other poems from the Chinese are earlier.] Notes 耀: The character on the cover of Cathay is yao 耀 (to shine; rays of light; glory, honor; to flaunt, to boast). In a scholarly note in Paideuma thirty years ago, Eliot Weinberger explained that it is “one of those characters that can indeed be read ‘ideogrammatically’— that is, it contains no purely phonetic elements.” Eliot Weinberger, “A Note on the Cathay Ideogram,” Paideuma 15, nos. 2–3 (Fall/Winter 1986): 141. But the character was classified by Xu Shen 許慎 (c. 58–c. 147 bce) two millennia ago as phonosemantic (xingsheng 形聲)—that is, it contains both a semantic element (guang 光, light) and also a phonetic component (di 翟, pheasant): 光+翟=耀. The problem is that the pronunciation of the phonetic element has changed so much since the character’s invention many millennia ago that its original sound no longer matches modern Chinese dialects, or even that actually spoken by Xu in the first century (燿照也. 从火翟聲. 弋笑切; 燿 and 耀 are variants of the same character). Xu made plenty of mistakes in his etymological lexicon Shuowenjiezi 說文解字 (Explaining Graphs and Analyzing Characters )—and this could be one of them—but the example illustrates the obvious dangers of relying on Mathews’ Chinese-English Dictionary (cited by Weinberger) to decide such questions, which is unfortunately the reference of choice for most American literature professors because Pound himself used it decades later when studying Chinese and translating the Shijing 詩經 (Classic of Poetry). It also happens to be easy to use for those who know little or no Chinese. As Achilles Fang quipped, “Would you use Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary to read Chaucer?” I cite Fang’s comment from Weinberger himself two decades after his earlier note; Oranges and Peanuts for Sale (New York: New Directions, 2006), 26. In another sense, however, Weinberger was exactly right the first time: Almost any composite character (zi 字) can be read ideogrammically, if you choose to do so. Folk etymology is poesis. 76 Cribs for Cathay & Other Poems Pound undoubtedly chose this character for the cover of the book because of the following notes on a loose page among Fenollosa’s papers (101–4242: n.p.): 隹 originally/tail feathers of short tailed birds —//short tailed birds//wind lashing the groves//radical for bird 翟 feathers of wings [羽] /+/feathers of tail [隹]//ornamental plumes.//The Chinese pheasant with long tail feathers. yao 耀 bright [光] or fire [火] + feathered [翟] sparkling lustre Is it feathered light? or light as reflected from feathers? It may be merely coincidence, but it seems significant that Pound chose this character meaning “sparkling lustre” for the cover of Cathay very shortly after having articulated a “New Method in Scholarship ” for translation, at the center of which was what he called the “Luminous Detail.” He describes this “new” method in one of the twelve installments of a column called “I Gather the Limbs of Osiris” in The New Age (1911–12): I do not imagine that I am speaking of a method by me discovered. I mean, merely, a method not of common practice, a method not yet clearly or consciously formulated, a method which has been intermittently used by all good scholars since the beginning of scholarship, the method of Luminous Detail, a method most vigorously hostile to the prevailing mode of today—that is, the method of multitudinous detail, and to the method of yesterday, the method of sentiment and generalisation. . . . The artist seeks out the luminous detail and presents it. He does not comment. (130) The series of articles is mostly devoted to Pound’s translations of the 12th -century troubadour Arnaut Daniel, but the first piece in the series is his translation of “The Seafarer.” Indeed, Pound’s method in the Anglo-Saxon poem also exemplifies that of Cathay(all differences considered): Like a miner, Pound writes, the aim is to dig up the jewels and present them without the bulk of mud they were found in, the distractions of allusions that require footnotes, or the kind of verbose precision that bedims their luminosity. Select the best, present them, let them speak for themselves, unquestionably. See “Backmatter to Cathay.” This is probably all that Pound knew about yao 耀 in...


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