Within the first ten years of the twentieth century, American intellectual Ernest Fenollosa (1853-1908) had written an essay, later edited and published by Ezra Pound (1885-1972), that was called “The Chinese Written Character as a Medium for Poetry” (1920; 1936). This essay proved crucial to not only American Modernism—Pound used it to promote the Imagist movement in poetry—but also to the development of the perception of Chinese language and culture in the West. The essay propounded the idea that Chinese is primarily a pictographic language, a view that has persisted in the West to the present day. Furthermore, it posits that this pictographic quality plays a key role in the writing and interpretation of Chinese poetry. While generally dismissed as Orientalist by contemporary scholars of East Asia, UC-Santa Barbara professor Yunte Huang disagrees with this simplistic reading. On the one hand, he agrees that the Orientalism rampant in this essay cannot be ignored. On the other hand, he sees the essay as key in the ongoing, roundabout inventing of culture that occurs as texts cross cultural and linguistic borders, and thus as important to the trajectory of thought concerning the Chinese language in the West today.
This book is not an attempt to grasp the “essence” of Chinese poetry, nor is it an endeavor to produce an over-polished version of English that claims aesthetic superiority over other works in the same field. It grapples rather with the nature of translation and poetry, and explores poetic issues from the perspective of translation and translation issues from the perspective of poetry. Looking from such a vantage point, translation is no longer able to hide itself in our blind spot; instead, the often-invisible face of translation is being brought to the foreground of poetic texture and the traces of translation’s needle work are being exposed to the reader’s view. With its agenda hidden, translation is too often a handyman for the metaphysical, mystical, or universal notion of poetry. When emerging from obscurity, translation becomes an ally with poetic material and enacts the wordness of the words. And this book strives to strengthen the alliance between translation and poetry through various textual and conceptual means that I will discuss now.
Who but the ever marvelous Yunte Huang could possibly get away with this marvelous opening sentence in an op-ed piece in today's TImes Sunday Review: "IMAGINE this: It’s Sunday morning, beautiful and quiet, except for the mockingbird practicing comic routines on the sweet gum tree in the backyard."