19 Ways of Reading: Eliot Weinberger, Poetry, and Translation
Eliot Weinberger, the final lecturer in this spring’s Bennington Translates series--and the translator of all of Octavio Paz’s collected works (as well as the selected essays of Juan Luis Borges and poetry by Bei Dao)--does not consider himself to be a translator. “I am a writer first,” Weinberger insists. In response to the statement that translators are some of the most interesting people in the world, Weinberger quips, “I think some of the most boring people I know are translators.” Touché. Aside from his dry wit, Weinberger also has, for the lack of a better word, contempt for academia. On Wednesday, May 17th, prefacing his talk at the CAPA Symposium, Weinberger admitted, “I’ve only done three of these in my life, so I’m not quite sure how to give a monologue.” True to form, Weinberger’s approach to delivering a lecture was decidedly unbureaucratic. He began by exploring the universal humanism of poetry, thematically positing that poetry is “the archive of everything,” the sedimentary layers of collected history. This theory boils down to the undeniable truth that everything influences everything.
Weinberger referenced Gassire, the African warrior who is born to sing his epic song through a lute made just for him by divine forces; he must sacrifice everything, even his eldest son in battle, to play his song. But is it a song that must be sung, no matter the cost, no matter the loss and the isolation. Weinberger noted that, “First, like Gassire in the desert, the exiled poet in a time of war or in the ruins of war: Pound in the cage in Pisa, Duncan and the others in the alienation of, or self-exile in, America during the Vietnam War.” This is similar to the traditional role of the griot, the storyteller, in the West African cultures. The griot was both feared and forced to live as an outcast, apart from the rest of the village. Weinberger explains that griots were traditionally buried upright in a hollow tree, so as not to pollute the earth of a body of water; they returned to the wood of the instrument that they played. A grand metaphor, or perhaps the simplest, most truthful condensation of poetry: a wooden instrument through which the song (soul) is played. Poetry, Weinberger continues, “has always been not only something one reads to a lover under a tree or alone at night as a confirmation of, or a solace for, one’s sadness. Poetry was also traditionally the archive of everything a culture knew about itself: the histories, mythologies, the customs, the daily life.”
At this point of Weinberger’s lecture, I think we were all asking ourselves what this vast ontological archive of poetry had to do with translation. And I don’t think I have a concrete answer yet. Though what I do know of Eliot’s oeuvre, and of poetry itself, is that it exists in spheres of translation. To interpret and put into words the most abstract construction of experience, of the soul itself, is grey in the best sense. A way of quantifying the unquantifiable. The “art of losing,” as Elizabeth Bishop once put it. There is no single answer, or single reading. In 1987, Weinberger published a collection of different translations of a short, 4-line chinese poem by Wang Wei of the Tang Dynasty. The poem’s title varies in translation, from “Deer Enclosure” to “Deer Hermitage” to “Deer Park Sanctuary.” In these nineteen separate translations of the poem, Weinberger compares and contrasts their efficacy to the original, showing us what translators have done to bring it into English. Some essentialize the poem, some attempt to make it palatable for western readers, and some butcher it completely to impose their own readings.
I first read this collection, 19 Ways of Looking at Wang Wei, a few years ago in a translation course with literature faculty member Marguerite Feitlowitz. The multitude of different interpretations and translations intoxicated me, and upon rereading it again I came to the conclusion that it really isn’t a book about translation. It’s a book about an obsession to interpret and understand the impossible attempts taken by the original poet to interpret and understand the impossibility of the world. Of course, that intersects with translation, but perhaps what Weinberger is really saying is that poetry itself is the principal act of translation, and the rest follows. After all, Weinberger is a writer--and a reader--first. Translation is just something he does.
Below is Weinberger’s English translation "Deer Park Hermitage," following Paz’ Spanish.
No se ve gente en este monte,
sólo se oyen, lejos, voces.
Bosque profundo. Luz poniente:
alumbra el musgo y, verde, asciende.
No people are seen on this mountain,
only voices, far-off, are heard.
Deep forest. Western light:
it illuminates the moss and, green, rises.
Jesse Osborne '19.