Guy Davenport’s translation of Mao
(From The Paris Review. Link to the complete article given below)
In 1979, Guy Davenport’s second book of “stories” appeared: Da Vinci’s Bicycle. He was fifty-one. I put quotation marks around the word stories because almost nothing happens in any of them. When they’re good, they’re good for other reasons.
Davenport was a disciple of Ezra Pound and James Joyce, and like everyone answering that description, he was a supreme crank. The main problem with all of these guys is that they vastly overestimate the value of literary allusion. And I know all about it, ’cuz I was ruined in my youth by these lizard-eating weirdos. Davenport certainly did his part.
They were all brilliant. They could write sentences that stick with you forever. Most people never write even one; these guys could practically cut them off by the yard. Yet, none of ’em knew when to stop. They always, always got carried away. My hypothesis is that too much of their motivation for writing was to enshrine their crankitudes. They were always trying to get away with something.
Zoom in on Davenport. Let me ask you: How much Chinese do you suppose he knew? I think the smart money is on “very little.” He probably knew about as much as I do—which is to say, as much as can be learned from one semester of study, augmented by the eager observation of one or two native speakers reciting a handful of classic poems.
But a supreme crank knows how to exploit every little drop of whatever he or she knows. Davenport, who really did know all about poetic meter in English, must have listened very actively when he got somebody to recite Li Bai (or whomever) to him. Davenport knew what he was not hearing. Chinese meter was not about vowel quantity, nor stressed and unstressed syllables. What Chinese poetry almost certainly sounded like to him was clusters of five syllables, all of them stressed. That’s what mile after mile of Tang- and Song-Dynasty poetry sounds like to an English speaker.
Armed with this thought, he did a translation of a famous poem by Mao Zedong. The form of his translation is unique in American letters: The text is set up as quatrains (that’s normal enough), but the individual lines have only three syllables each. Davenport knew that this did not accurately reflect the original Chinese, but—and this is where the brilliance comes in—it does get across (like nothing else available in English) the collapsed syntax and staccato pacing of classical shi poetry.