Edward Schafer, Part I: Mixed feelings

Edward Schafer, Mirages on the Seas of Time, California, 1985

Kenneth Rexroth, “Review of Science and Civilization in China“,  The Nation, November 10, 1956; collected in Assays, New Directions, 1961.

Peter A. Boodberg (Alvin P. Cohen,  ed.), Selected Works of Peter A. Boodberg, University of California Press 1979; reviewed here.

A few days ago on Leanne Ogasawara’s Facebook page Ifound myself defending Edward Schafer’s translation principles against several translators and Asian scholars. This was very odd, because for a decade or two now I’ve been cursing Edward Schafer. How did this happen?

Schafer’s translation theory is hard-core and heavy-duty. For Schafer, poems exist only in the language in which they are written, and translations can only be cribs serving to elucidate the original. He takes the old slogan “Poetry is what’s lost in translation” and makes it into an imperative: when translating poetry,  your goal is to lose the poetry.  He expresses himself with admirable bluntness:

I have little automatic reverence of “masterpieces”, and regard my translations as nothing more than aspects of explication — instruments which may help wise men to detect masterpieces. I am certainly not trying to write English poetry — to make pleasing constructs in lieu of hidden Chinese originals — a task to which I am ill suited…. I regard almost all approved translations of T’ang poetry as malignant growths(Mirages on the Sea of Time, pp. 26-7).

Kenneth Rexroth, a Bay Area contemporary of Schafer’s, was on the other side of the line:  he was one of the finest of the poetic translators of Chinese poetry into English. Something he wrote in 1956 was, in a sense, a pre-response to Schafer:

For more than twenty years American Sinology has been dominated by individuals and traditions from the old Tsarist academy, where Far Eastern studies were essentially part of the curriculum of military policy, with the resultant narrowness, formularization and bigotry.

This rather mysterious accusation makes sense when you realize that Rexroth was referring to Peter Boodberg, Schafer’s teacher at UC Berkeley and an enormous influence on American Sinology to this day (and also that Sinology during the 50s and 60s was heavily influenced by Cold Warriors in International Relations). Boodberg was a Russian exile, born into a military family and educated in military schools in St. Petersburg*, who had taught at UC Berkeley since 1937.  In 1956 Boodberg’s importance nationally was probably less than Rexroth thought (though Rexroth has been retrospectively vindicated on this)  and my guess is that his characteristically vivid claim was  informed by one or more unpleasant personal contacts with Boodberg.

Boodberg emphasized a scholarly philological approach grounded in a thorough knowledge of the tradition and the careful tracing of the poetic themes and vocabulary in dictionaries, encyclopedias, and so on. Exactness of translation was the goal, and if English didn’t have the right word, he’d coin new words that did the job (thearch, marchmount, lodehead) or resurrect rare English words that seemed to fit (institious, arrect, indeptitude, acquisitude, appose). Unfortunately, Boodberg’s method produced unreadable translations which were barely even English, and while Boodberg’s students’ translations were more readable than his, the principle of antipoetic translation had been established.

On the other hand, Schafer had his good side.  Meticulously-documented books like The Vermillion Bird or The Golden Peaches of Samarkand, while tedious to read straight through  due to Schafer’s “pile up the facts” positivism, are wonderful storehouses of detail for exoticists such as myself. Schafer can tell you exactly which mineral, bird, wildflower, tool, garment, resin, or hairdo was being named in a given citation, and he also reconstructed complex cultural forms and rituals which could be used to bring out meanings from texts which could not have been guessed by a naive reader.

In particular, he was one of the pioneers in the study of religious Taoism,  which has grown explosively and very satisfyingly over the last several decades. One of his criticisms of the literary translations of Chinese poetry was that they missed too many of  the cultural references which gave the poems their meaning –which,  in the case of Li Po (Li Bai), was precisely this religious Taoism. To Schafer, many of the popular English translations of Li Po were comparable to translations of Milton by someone unfamiliar with the Bible.

Some of the new wave of Taoism scholars even go on to claim that the book Lao Tzu is  uncharacteristic of real Taoism and has been vastly overrated by Western scholars, and the study of Lao Tzu was discouraged.  In part this was  just a normal academic turf fight about who would get the pork, but it also rather oddly put the American university in the position of taking sides in a longstanding conflict within Chinese Taoism. The fight was between Lao-Chuang,  Wang Pi, and the Tao-chia  on the one hand, and Pao Pu Tzu,  Ho-shang Kung, and the Tao-chiao on the other. The new Taoism scholars favored the latter member of this pair, whereas the older scholars supported the former. Confucian literati, missionary translators, dilettantes, and hippies were on one side, and Taoist priests and professional Sinologists on the other. It’s hard to see why the old-guard Lao-Chuang literati and Lao Tzu himself should have come to be held in such contempt, but that’s the academic snake pit for you. (Actually, I know why: it was because of the hippies and the pop Taoists).

In short, besides condemning all attempts to translate Chinese poetry poetically, Schafer also sneered at Lao Tzu studies**, and since those were the two main Sinological things I have ever done, despite the good things Schafer did I ended up having very mixed feelings about the guy.


In the comments I am told  that the Boodberg / Schafer translation theory was also Nabokov’s, and that Boodberg and Nabokov were contemporaries in St. Petersburg, or almost. Schafer apparently comments on this in his Boodberg obituary, which I can’t access fully.

** “Soon, it appears, the writing of uninformed paraphrases and private interpretations of the ambiguous text of Lao Tzu –long a popular pastime regarded as “Taoist Studies” — will be entirely the concern of dabblers, while the exciting work of mining the neglected riches of Taoist history and thought will occupy the forefront of Chinese studies for generations to come”. (Mirages on the Sea of Time,  p.4).

(To be continued. Part II will be
“How I learned to love Edward Schafer a little”.
The weather’s too nice today to sit here typing.)

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Published in: on April 20, 2010 at 8:58 pm  Comments (12)  

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  1. Without taking a stand on whether it’s possible to to translate poetry, it’s worth pointing out that poor translations of poetry can certainly serve as a tool for elucidating the original and provide a point of entry to understanding the original for somebody who does not speak the language. I love the poetry books with original and translation on facing pages and I often don’t really pay much attention to the quality of translation in those books.

  2. I’d say this all goes back to Browning’s 1877 Agamemnon, a sort of English-Greek intertext, almost unreadable, but which is the germ (I’d be prepared to argue) from which Modernist Poetry sprouted.

  3. I believe that Nabokov had a similar philosophy. Schafer might have been motivated simply by popular translations that made pretty poems out of the surface meaning in complete ignorance of the Chinese underlying meaning.

    I plan to develop this further, but I’m reminded of what I’ve read about Chinese translations of the Buddhist Sutras. Some of the earliest are completely loaded down with transliterations of Sanskrit and were essentially unreadable except to practicing Buddhists with a considerable Sanskrit vocabulary. Some of them were interpretations from a Taoist point of view. By the time the last ones came out the dust had settled, and one thing that had happened was that a Chinese Buddhist vocabulary and sophisticated Chinese Buddhist audience had both been developed, making the new translations readable. (The Greek-Syriac-Arabic-Latin story in the early Middle Ages is somewhat like that.)

  4. I’m just reading a horrible bilingual Verlaine translation. Norman Shapiro approximates the meaning, comes pretty close on the form (rhyme scheme is right), but produces tedious poems which can’t be used as cribs either. For this he gets slathered with high praise.

  5. I believe that Nabokov had a similar philosophy.

    That’s what I was going to point out. It would be a terrible philosophy if it were widely adopted, but it’s useful to have some cranks around like Schafer and Nabokov to produce really accurate translations-cum-commentary for those of us who can’t read the originals with that level of understanding.

  6. It never registered until just now, but Boodberg and Nabokov were contemporaries in Russia, similar in politics though slightly different in class. Schafer apparently comments of this in his Boodberg obituary, though I can’t read the whole thing: http://www.jstor.org/pss/599725

    And it turns out that I’ve mentioned the parallel myself twice at Languagehat.

    In my followup I’ll probably describe the continuum of theoretically possible translations while noting that many points on the continuum are actually impossible. For example, the place Shapiro tried to go to is sadly impossible in English.

    But I think that even a crib should be be more readable than Schafer’s translations.

  7. Per Schafer, Boodberg probably was a a descendant of one of the Teutonic Knights or of a member of the Schwertbrüderorden, which of course is not a good thing.

  8. Nice line from Edith Grossman: “We read translations all the time, but of all the interpretive arts, it is fascinating and puzzling to realize that only translation has to fend off the insidious, damaging question of whether or not it is, can be, or should be possible. It would never occur to anyone to ask whether it is feasible for an actor to perform a dramatic role or a musician to interpret a piece of music. Of course it is feasible, just as it is possible for a translator to rewrite a work of literature in another language. Can it be done well? I think so, as do my translating colleagues, but there are other, more antipathetic opinions.”

  9. People claim translation is impossible only for the densest sorts of poetry and symbolic communication, especially from ancient and / or distant cultures.I don’t think people make that claim for fiction, much less non-fiction though some people will always grumble about every translation they see.

    To me the hardest things to translate are the simplest — poets like Heine or Pushkin or Machado whose paraphrased poems seem flat, but gain much of their power from the perfection of the expression.

  10. If you want the full obit, John, I will send it to you.

  11. Thanks, Ben, that’s not necessary, though I may ask you for some other JSTOR piece in the future if that’s cool.

    I just mentioned that I hadn’t read the whole piece to protect myself in case there was something problematic in the part I couldn’t read.

  12. I love Schaefer for his articles, but wow he’d have hated me for translations like this one or, come to think of it, this one too

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