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The Iron Flute: War Poetry from Ancient & Medieval China

Posted by Harry Brown with Kevin Maynard, 30th May 2019

We will be publishing The Iron Flute: War Poetry from Ancient & Medieval China, on 1 August 2019. To whet your appetites, Harry Brown spoke with Kevin Maynard about his approach to translation.

HB: What led you to work with classical Chinese poetry?

KM: The back story, for what it's worth, is as follows. Like anyone who studied Eng Lit at university, I was familiar with Pound's Cathay and Waley's translations. But that was it. I never followed it up in later life: not until I was in my mid 40s, when by sheer chance (Serendipity being the presiding deity who's ruled my life so far) I stumbled across a slim little UNESCO-sponsored hardback called Poems of Solitude in a local second-hand bookshop, a volume which was both beautifully produced and fetchingly cheap (£4.50). I bought it more for the illustrations than the poems (which were in fact Michael Bullock's lovely translations*). But I then put it on my bedside table, and would just dip into one or two of the poems it contained each night. They blew me away. How could they sound so modern, and yet have been written nearly two thousand years ago? I sought other translations of Chinese poetry, and quickly realized two things: a) the same Chinese poem could call forth from each translator a dramatically different poem in English, and I wondered why this was the case (it's not true of European poetry in translation); b) we seemed to have been living through a Golden Age of translation from Chinese and Japanese and Korean literature, and why had I never before noticed? One thing led to another. I started teaching myself Chinese. My wife found me a private tutor. I then started studying modern Mandarin at SOAS. Gradually I became better and better acquainted with classical Chinese at the same time, and began making my own increasingly confident translations.

HB: How is translating a poem different from translating other material?

KM: Poetry demands, not more artistry than translating prose, but perhaps a little more sheer stylistic flair. All I mean by this, is that any successful translation must result in a poem that works reasonably well in the target language: well enough to stand on its own, I guess. Formally it will demand a surer sense of rhythm, metre, rhyme (in my case usually, though not always, internal) etc.

HB: Do you have a process you follow for the translations?

KM: My process is explained in some detail in the Introduction to my anthology: character by character (or, where necessary, binome by binome), often using a grid, and consulting a range of dictionaries and Chinese commentaries; and then, sometimes in a rush, and sometimes over several more weeks, hammering the literal translation into something more idiomatic and attractive in English.

HB: What particular difficulties are there in translating classical Chinese into English?

KM: Classical Chinese is an extraordinarily concise language, employing something a bit like the sort of condensed syntax that used to be called for when people still sent telegrams. It rarely uses pronouns, for instance, and the tenses are usually absent. This throws up interpretative challenges, of course; but never has it been truer that these challenges translate into wonderful creative opportunities. Allusions to Chinese history, mythology, religious doctrines (Daoist or Buddhist), to the Confucian Classics, or to other earlier poetry can easily trip the Western translator up (this is where the Chinese commentaries really come into their own).

HB: Where did you find the poems for The Iron Flute?

KM: Most of the poems for this anthology came from the following sources: well-known Chinese anthologies and other collections, either printed or electronic; my own library; the SOAS library; and in a few cases from just trawling the Chinese web for certain key terms, which I know I'd expect to find in any Chinese war poem. (Is this cheating?) It's taken many years to get this far. I've still got both on my PC and on my own bookshelves an awful lot of Chinese war poems that I've not yet got round to translating!

Incidentally, I e-mailed Michael Bullock shortly before he died, and told him what sort of life-changing effect his little book had had on me. He wrote back, and sent me his most recent book of verse inspired by Chinese poetry. A great honour.