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. (more…)

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