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June 2024 Issue [Reviews]

The Scavenger of History

On Eliot Weinberger
Illustration by Chloe Cushman

Illustration by Chloe Cushman


The Scavenger of History

On Eliot Weinberger

Discussed in this essay:

The Life of Tu Fu, by Eliot Weinberger. New Directions. 64 pages. $13.95.

Translation is an irresistible subject that better writers would do better to resist. It’s too easy to rhapsodize over, theorize onto, sentimentalize at (pick your preposition). There are very few excellent books on the practice that meaningfully address its rich complexity. My favorite heftier entry is The Craft and Context of Translation, edited by William Arrowsmith and Roger Shattuck, published in 1961 by the University of Texas Press. The anthology grew out of a symposium on translation held in Austin in 1959, and it features essays by Arrowsmith, Shattuck, Richard Howard, Kenneth Rexroth, and D. S. Carne-Ross.

In his essay, Carne-Ross, who has no Wikipedia page but warrants a bronze statue in the cultural commons, kicks things off by planting a flag, offering up the term transposition as another conception of what translators might do. In his view, transposition is an activity that walks midway between the literal crib—which would seek for every word its exact-ish equivalent in another language, syntax and style in the destination language be damned, subsumed beneath the so-called allegiance to accuracy—and a practice that attends less to the particulars of definition than to the quiddity of the original. Transposition, for Carne-Ross,

occurs when the language of the matter to be translated stands close enough to the language of the translator—in age, idiom, cultural habits and so on—for him to be able to follow the letter with a fair hope of keeping faith with the spirit.

Carne-Ross’s metaphorical phrase “stands close enough” offers an essential, physical conception of the translator’s work: it’s an act of reportage.

Carne-Ross means it as close to literally as one can. He offers the following object lesson when discussing the difficulties of the “brilliant artistic convention” of the messenger’s speech in Greek drama. It “turns up in almost every Greek tragedy, the big formal narration, lasting anything up to a hundred lines, describing the disaster which has just overtaken the hero,” one that “defeats the translator and leaves the actor . . . with a long and embarrassing piece of versification on his hands.” Searching for a solution, Carne-Ross reaches not into his lexicon but into lived experience:

During the war I heard an Italian woman give a long, circumstantial and very dramatic account of an air-raid which had taken place a few days before, and it struck me at the time that this was the raw material out of which the ancient dramatists fashioned the convention of the messenger’s speech. The Anglo-Saxon, in similar circumstances, doesn’t make a speech; he simply swears and tries to put the fire out.

In Carne-Ross’s view, translation is not a cloistered but a cosmopolitan activity: one must have lived in the world, not merely in the book, in order not to mismanage it. It is an act of reportage, a documenting of the events of the lived world, one that demands of the reporter that they listen to a text as they would to the voice of another person, the breath behind it, its quaverings. I like to think of transposition as a marriage of lived experience and the innocence of pure creation. To succeed, the practice approaches an elemental purity akin to Wittgenstein’s statement: What is is mystical. The isness is the thing, but it is a floating thing.

Where The Craft and Context of Translation is perhaps the best longer book on the subject, the best brief book on translation, hors catégorie, is Eliot Weinberger’s Nineteen Ways of Looking at Wang Wei. In a body of work produced over the past half century, Weinberger has ventriloquized an English voice for the corpus of the Mexican Nobelist Octavio Paz, made essential versions of Borges’s lectures and essays, and imported a range of contemporary writing from Spanish and Chinese. I am willing to guess that Weinberger would concede (or brag) that he wouldn’t have become the essayist he is—unique, I think, in the American iteration of the form—without his girding as a translator. Through eight major collections, all of which have delicious titles—Works on Paper (1986), An Elemental Thing (2007), The Ghosts of Birds (2016)—Weinberger has been exploding the form, finding new, expressive constructions for the pursuit of idea and place. Collage is his essential mode, in the way that Weinberger’s late peer Guy Davenport defined the practice: “retrospective in content, modern in its design.”

It is meaningful that Weinberger’s first serious work as an essayist was Nineteen Ways of Looking at Wang Wei (1987, revised in 2016). What distinguishes Weinberger’s Nineteen Ways is, in part, its frankness (it runs eighty-eight terse pages, even in its expanded version), which is like that of someone diagnosed with six months to live who won’t mince words. It’s ultimately a sutra on English usage—from the Sanskrit sutram, for “thread,” “rule,” and sivyati, for “sew”—an Elements of Style, but unlike the Strunk and White, one not at risk of aging out of idiomatic relevance. Weinberger considers, serially, seventeen (now over thirty, in the most recent edition) translations of the same four-line, Tang-dynasty poem by Wang Wei (c. 700–761). At first it does not seem like an essay at all; rather, a set of translations with commentary. Weinberger’s examples are less comparisons of words—there is no it doesn’t mean that, it means this pedantry—than they are focused on what Carne-Ross calls “spirit” but which we’d more commonly call “form”: how the translator’s manipulations do or do not manage the work of placement; of, in a variant etymology for transposition, “getting beyond.”

Weinberger is a student of Chinese, but he does not advance himself as an authority:

In classical Chinese, each character (ideogram) represents a word of a single syllable. Few of the characters are, as is commonly thought, entirely representational. But some of the basic vocabulary is indeed pictographic, and with those few hundred characters one can play the game of pretending to read Chinese.

Play is—as a poem is—a form of knowing the world, and is, as an activity, what Aristotle goes on about in Poetics: imitation, the means by which we learn everything. Weinberger distills the rules:

Chinese has the least number of sounds of any major language. In modern Chinese a monosyllable is pronounced in one of four tones, but any given sound in any given tone has scores of possible meanings. Thus a Chinese monosyllabic word (and often the written character) is comprehensible only in the context of the phrase. . . . For poetry, this means that rhyme is inevitable, and Western “meter” impossible. . . . A single character may be noun, verb, and adjective. It may even have contradictory readings: character 2 of line 3 is either jing (brightness) or ying (shadow). Again, context is all. Of particular difficulty to the Western translator is the absence of tense in Chinese verbs: in the poem, what is happening has happened and will happen. Similarly, nouns have no number: rose is a rose is all roses. Contrary to the evidence of most translations, the first-person singular rarely appears in Chinese poetry. By eliminating the controlling individual mind of the poet, the experience becomes both universal and immediate to the reader.

One after another, he takes up a translation of a poem:

There seems to be no one on the empty mountain . . .
And yet I think I hear a voice,
Where sunlight, entering a grove,
Shines back to me from the green moss.

And contemplates it:

Where Wang is specific, Bynner’s Wang seems to be watching the world through a haze of opium reflected in a hundred thimbles of wine. It is a world where no statement can be made without a pregnant, sensitive, world-weary ellipsis.

Cites it:

An empty hill, and no one in sight
But I hear the echo of voices.
The slanting sun at evening penetrates the deep woods
And shines reflected on the blue lichens.

And smites it:

Dull, but fairly direct. . . . Chinese poetry was based on the precise observation of the physical world. Jenyns and other translators come from a tradition where the notion of verifying a poetic image would be silly, where the word “poetic” itself is synonymous with “dreamy.”

Gives it:

Through the deep wood, the slanting sunlight
Casts motley patters on the jade-green mosses.
No glimpse of man in this lonely mountain,
Yet faint voices drift on the air.

And tosses it:

In this poem, the couplets are reversed for no reason. The voices are faint and drift on the air. The mountain is lonely (a Western conceit, inimical to Wang’s Buddhism, that empty = lonely) but it’s a decorator’s delight: the moss is as green as jade and the sunlight casts motley patterns.

And, eventually, he exalts a rendering or two. For the odd and marvelous thing that emerges out of these attentive readings is the strange experience of arriving at a picture in which, without Weinberger’s finger in the frame, the reader, once an ignoramus, now sees a form has been found, not forged:

Empty hills, no one in sight,
only the sound of someone talking;
late sunlight enters the deep wood,
shining over the green moss again.

This feels fully like Wang Wei, the reader with no Chinese thinks. But this is only the eighth of the versions Weinberger considers, just a stop along the way through subsequent translations. “We have invented nothing!” Picasso exclaimed at Altamira, in all likelihood apocryphally. Weinberger shows how much, and how little, we learn, as a species, from our species. So these translators march on through time, insisting on their own varieties of stupidity and clarity. “In its way a spiritual exercise,” Weinberger writes,

translation is dependent on the dissolution of the translator’s ego: an absolute humility towards the text. A bad translation is the insistent voice of the translator—that is, when one sees no poet and hears only the translator speaking.

Weinberger is an agile scavenger of history, hunting for resonances. He is the author of the most revealing and meticulous history of racism that I’ve read, an essay called “The Falls” in the collection Karmic Traces (2000). In the essay, Weinberger pursues the idea of slavery through thousands of years of its manifestations, beginning with Palestine of the second millennium bc and the conquest of Canaanites by the Hebrews; traces the anti-Semitism and Jew hatred that permeates European intellectual history; and rounds on colonial classificatory schemes that had as one of their many eventualities the slaughter of the Tutsi by the Hutu.

An Elemental Thing, an ongoing project, is, in its current form, thirty-four short essays that document a solitary wandering through the vastness of the world: the physical, the historical, the conceptual. What for a lesser writer might be a gathering of research on a topic into a file from which an essay could be written becomes, in Weinberger’s collagist mode, prismatic. Its essays are animated by childlike questions. (“Wind: what is it?” “The stars: what are they?”) What does it mean when men share the same name, a question Weinberger playfully addresses in an essay called “Changs,” a collage of micro-biographies of thirty different historical Changs from the past two millennia: another kind of sutra, on identity. In An Elemental Thing, wrens are everywhere, as are tigers; sounds, too. A certain set is heard by the Kaluli people, who live in Papua New Guinea: fragments of the human story, there to be collected and composed. He exhibits a naturalist’s attention to form and function, alert to how the print of the hoof of a camel in the sand takes the shape of a lotus. But he’s also, like Joseph Cornell, a juxtaposer extraordinaire. One essay, “In Lux Perpetua,” begins on a bench where a child cries over a sandwich stolen by her dog, her face haunting Weinberger. This scene prompts a reminiscence on his daughter dyeing Easter eggs the day before, which in turn then triggers his telling of the story of two saints, two mothers thrown to the bulls, who survive the mauling and embrace in ecstasy (before being run through by the swords of gladiators as they do).

“The Rhinoceros” is exemplary. The essay traces textual appearances of the animal through time. Its five parts approach the rhino from five directions. One found text, a Hawaiian newspaper clipping in Hawaiian and translated, describes the creature, its features. Part Two traces the discrete histories of eight of the animals that each had the misfortune to be crated, alone, to Europe, from the sixteenth to the eighteenth centuries (number six lived at Versailles, during the Revolution and the Terror, allegedly unperturbed). But from there the essay gets weirder, with a section of exchanges of letters from 1924 in the Journal of the Royal African Society, about British officials’ role in butchering the animals, with a reply from a reader who laments: “no large animal in my opinion is less harmful, less dangerous, and more easily shot than is this comparatively defenceless walking gargoyle of the bush.” Whereupon we’re on to the perhaps predictable section four, on recent extinction statistics (he cites the few dozen or so Northern white rhinos of the Nineties, which have since been reduced to two). But Weinberger then wrong-foots the reader with a final, fifth section, one detailing the contents of a box at the British Library, the fragmentary remains, on a birchbark scroll, of the oldest extant Buddhist text, unearthed near the Khyber Pass. The sutra, a literal one that scholars have cobbled together, concerns the rhinoceros, each part of the text ending with the phrase “wander alone like a rhinoceros.” We are, by the essay’s end, the creature, or we would do better to be.

In his political essays, Weinberger turns his quality of attention to the infamies of the Bush Administration, the meretriciousness of its conquest of Iraq. Drawing on American foreign policy circa 9/11 and the Iraq War, these pieces were huge collages of perfidies that Weinberger fashioned into a narrative of governmental misdeeds. “What I Heard About Iraq” is an editorial as if by Braque, and Weinberger argues the linear into the realm of the solid:

I heard the Red Cross say that casualties in Baghdad were so high that the hospitals had stopped counting.
I heard an old man say, after 11 members of his family—children and grandchildren—were killed when a tank blew up their minivan: “Our home is an empty place. We who are left are like wild animals. All we can do is cry out.”
As the riots and looting broke out, I heard a man in the Baghdad market say: “Saddam Hussein’s greatest crime is that he brought the American army to Iraq.”
As the riots and looting broke out, I heard Donald Rumsfeld say: “It’s untidy, and freedom’s untidy.”
And when the National Museum was emptied and the National Library burned down, I heard him say: “The images you are seeing on television you are seeing over, and over, and over, and it’s the same picture of some person walking out of some building with a vase, and you see it twenty times, and you think: ‘My goodness, were there that many vases? Is it possible that there were that many vases in the whole country?’ ”
I heard that 10,000 Iraqi civilians were dead.

This essay, from 2005, runs ten thousand words (there is a second one, amounting to eleven thousand, which appeared a year later). It is composed of reported speech, reported reporting, arranged. The effect is not the numbing of a litany but of an incantatory drone, a colony of bees.

The essay was Weinberger’s blockbuster, one that depended on his unique understanding of form. “Every force evolves a form,” was Davenport’s Shaker-sourced version of “make it new”; one looks at Weinberger’s work and finds a mind actively feeling for the form that, in each case, suits the case at hand. One of my favorites of his books is Angels and Saints (2020), a sort of lives of the saints that is as much a lives of the angels, a kind of etymology of the two ideas, told as a history based on the stories and retellings of stories, by which the words have acquired meaning. It is an analogue of Weinberger’s Iraq essays in that it draws from the sound of history, though Weinberger shapes it differently. A tryptic in form (fit for the Christian altar or for a Commedia), it generates many retellings. Here is a moment from his portrait of the life of Thecla, a saint of first-century Turkey and a follower of Paul’s—Paul who refused to baptize her, Thecla who was condemned to death for fighting a nobleman who wanted to buy her into sexual slavery—thrown as punishment into a pit, to be eaten by wild animals:

A lioness ran up to her but lay at her feet. A bear tried to attack her, but was killed by the lioness. A lion charged, and both lion and lioness died in the struggle. There was a large pool of hungry seals, and she threw herself into it, declaring that, if no man would do it, she would baptize herself. Lightning struck and killed the seals. The women in the arena threw nard and cassia and cardamom into the ring and all the remaining animals fell asleep.

Animals; words; vulnerable flesh; saints. Another way of thinking of Weinberger in this mode is as a translator of a religious text that has been lost. Repetition is one of his reflexes. His reports on the various St. Teresas—from Korea, Italy, China, Chile, and the United States—all begin, “A pious virgin. . . ,” which goes without saying but, being said, says much without going on about it.

The repetitions in history no less than those in nature and their minute variations are there for the attentive creature to note. Weinberger’s new little volume, The Life of Tu Fu, charts that world of noticing. It’s not a translation but rather an invention in the Tu Fuean mood. A characteristic page:

Watching the horses being washed,
Listening to the cicadas in the trees.

I write about what is happening:
I record the dawns and sunsets.

I wonder why cherries are all the same size.

If it is not painted perfectly, a tiger will look like a dog.

Tu Fu: Tang-dynasty poet, as essential in Chinese as Milton or Dickinson in English. Weinberger’s Life is not a translation of his poetry; rather, it is a fictional autobiography in fifty-eight poems. The poems are Weinberger’s, not Tu Fu’s. He has distilled the mass of them into a thumbnail sketch. Weinberger recounts the changing (or perhaps unvarying) perceptions of Tu Fu as he moves through time—one of civil war in China when random violence spread from region to region, forcing his family to repeatedly move to safety. This makes the book sound like the adventure story it is not. Those movements are barely in the background; the foreground is Tu Fu’s sensibility, hard to seize in translation, and so Weinberger is coming at it from the flank.

I have read the book three times straight through (a half hour when read aloud), and then dipped in here and there for the past several weeks, before reading it a fourth time. I confess to perplexity, if not over the nature of the enterprise, then over the form. It feels, as so little of Weinberger does, precious. I couldn’t accuse it of chinoiserie, as Weinberger does of a few of the translations of Wang Wei, but it does at times bring with it a whiff of Deep Thoughts. The couplet that starts the forty-ninth poem, quoted above, roots the reader nicely in sight and sound and therefore place. Watching; listening. The second couplet is a statement of method, both of Tu Fu and of Weinberger. Ça va. But then I stare at that line left in the spotlight of what we’ll call stanza three, a single line that says, formally, invariably, look at me: “I wonder why cherries are all the same size.” My three initial reactions have been the same: first, because they are cherries and cherries are that size, cherry-size; second, all cherries are not the same size, as anyone who has ever picked a cherry can tell you; third, different varieties of cherry are all different, in size, on average, from other varieties; etc.

Throughout the book, some lines, like this one, have about them an apparent precision that—owing to the spareness of the pages, not to say of the lines themselves—invites more intense focus. One is being asked to read these lines with attention. One is being asked to pause. One pauses, and then one is, in one’s pause, repeatedly derailed. I cannot say whether this is Weinberger offering a rendition of one of Tu Fu’s habits of mind that he felt it only right for him to preserve, especially given, at this point in the autobiography, Tu Fu is in his late life.

Habit, certainly, is deliberate in the text. There are many entries that begin: I wonder; I thought of; They say. These sound properly like Weinberger, and they could animate any of his essays. The weaker poems in Tu Fu, oddly for Weinberger, feature such an organizing principle. Whereas those that don’t adopt that mode are the more successful and feel fully like earned forms:

In the street a woman is weeping.
A boy walks by whistling.
An officer changes his horse.
The clouds are brown and unmoving.
The wind picks up.

All things do what they do:
Birds swoop to catch an insect.
Moonlight breaks through the forest leaves.
Soldiers guard the border.
I am trapped in this body.

There is no Chinese original, so I cannot help seeing in these two stanzas two hands of five fingers, reaching for and seizing at a form—a way of coming to grips with the vastness of the world. Landscape and interior, the poet as unfree as all other things seem to be free. From sense to sense—the sound of weeping and whistling; the sight of clouds and moonlight; the scent of a horse; the feel of wind and feel of wings on wind—Weinberger moves us through these perfect sentences from which a word could not be removed or added without injury to the lines. The softness of perception throughout, a delicacy, is then hit, hard, at the end by the body that will not let the poet go into the landscape, where he wishes, through eight lines, to be, the soldier at the border bringing the poet up short. It is a shuttle from the freedom of the senses and the instrument or faculty that allows us to record them, to write them, into the jail of the body that holds each of us until its door finally yawns wide. One is trapped, and one is not.

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August 2021

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