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the Complete Review
the complete review - translation


19 Ways of Looking
at Wang Wei

Eliot Weinberger

general information | review summaries | our review | links | about the author

To purchase 19 Ways of Looking at Wang Wei

Title: 19 Ways of Looking at Wang Wei
Author: Eliot Weinberger
Genre: Non-fiction
Written: 1987, rev. 2016
Length: 88 pages
Availability: 19 Ways of Looking at Wang Wei - US
19 Ways of Looking at Wang Wei - UK
19 Ways of Looking at Wang Wei - Canada
  • (with more ways)
  • With an Afterword by Octavio Paz

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Our Assessment:

A : very nicely presented, and a great introduction to translation-issues

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
The NY Rev. of Books . 24/11/2016 Perry Link

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The complete review's Review:

       19 Ways of Looking at Wang Wei basically takes a four-line poem by Chinese poet Wang Wei (王維; ca. 700-761) and considers and compares a variety of translations of it (mainly into English, but also French, Spanish, and German). The original edition, written in 1979 and published in 1987, offers essentially nineteen variations -- there are some variations on the variations, so there are more than nineteen examples --, beginning with the Chinese original, then a transliteration, then a 'character-by-character translation', before getting to the 'poetic' translations. The new 2016 edition is presented 'with more ways' -- another ten (plus) variations.
       The poem is 鹿柴 -- "a place-name, something like Deer Grove" -- and the original reads:

       Weinberger's introductory look at the Chinese original, transliteration (in: "the current, quirky pinyin system"), and (basic) character-by-character translation already makes very clear the very fundamental difficulties of re-creating the text in a different language, given how differently the Chinese language 'works' (and poetry can be written) than, specifically, in European languages.
       Weinberger's is not a detailed, scholarly analysis of the linguistic and poetic issues -- only a page or two is devoted to almost each 'way of looking' -- but he cuts to the heart of them, and nevertheless reveals -- and nicely conveys -- a variety of issues arising in translation-(of-poetry-)from-the-Chinese (and regarding translation in general).
       19 Ways of Looking at Wang Wei also serves as a helpful introductory guide to readers in, for example, simply pointing out things like:
     Contrary to the evidence of most translations, the first-person singular rarely appears in Chinese poetry.
       These more than two-dozen variations on the text -- and Weinberger's brief observations of what they get particularly wrong (and also what they seem to get right) -- also serve, in sum, as an excellent gloss on the poem. Of course, part of the exercise is to demonstrate the obvious, that there can be no 'perfect' 1:1 mapping of the poem -- a useful lesson for those who all too readily rely on single translations of their favorite foreign poems and poets ... -- but beyond that the different perspectives -- which is how the translation-attempts can also be seen --, from the most literal attempts to Kenneth Rexroth's ("perhaps more 'imitation' than translation"), also reveal a great deal more about the original to those for whom the Chinese itself remains inaccessible.
       Helpfully, Weinberger does not shy away from judging (harshly, where need be) -- while giving his reasons for what went right (or oh so wrong) -- a reminder, too, of how the often unknowing reader is at the mercy of what is available at the local bookstore or library, or what happens to fall into their hands. So, for example:
     [G.W.] Robinson's translation, published by Penguin Books, is, unhappily, the most widely available edition of Wang in English.
       Other versions are also easy to dismiss -- "Chang translates 12 of Wang's 20 words, and makes up the rest" -- but it is the range of approaches (extending then, of course, also into other languages, with the translations into Spanish, French, and German) that are of particular interest. Several translators also offer commentary on their versions -- or, as in the case of Gary Snyder, Weinberger seeks it out --, which Weinberger also considers in his brief analyses.
       The addition of 'more ways' to the original collection is also of interest, as it is not just more of the same: as Weinberger notes: "most or all of the English-language translators were aware of the book", and presumably were influenced in their own takes at least in part by that, writing (or rather translating) in response to Weinberger as well.
       What perhaps impresses most about 19 Ways of Looking at Wang Wei is that it doesn't lose itself in specifics (as is often easy to do, in critiquing translations, especially when it is such a short piece), as Weinberger manages to cover a great deal about translation in general. His useful observations include ones such as:
     In its way a spiritual exercise, translation is dependent on the dissolution of the translator's ego: an absolute humility toward 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.
       And he reminds near the end of the original collection that:
     The point is that translation is more than a leap from dictionary to dictionary; it is a reimagining of the poem. As such, every reading of every poem, regardless of language, is an act of translation: translation into the readerís intellectual and emotional life. As no individual reader remains the same, each reading becomes a different -- not merely another -- reading. The same poem cannot be read twice.
       19 Ways of Looking at Wang Wei is surely essential reading for anyone interested in translation. It's also simply very interesting and entertaining -- highly recommended.
       (And bonus points for the pocket-sized handiness of the lovely little New Directions volume.)

- M.A.Orthofer, 12 November 2016

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19 Ways of Looking at Wang Wei: Reviews: Eliot Weinberger: Other books by Eliot Weinberger under review: Books translated and/or edited by Weinberger under review: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       American essayist and translator Eliot Weinberger has published several collections of non-fiction and translated the works of numerous (mainly Latin American) authors -- notably those of Octavio Paz.

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© 2016 the complete review

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