I have always loved "The River-Merchant's Wife: A Letter" through a degree of suspicion, a vague feeling of discomfort. I have wondered how much of the wife's behavior was interpreted through a western view of arranged marriages and child brides. A few moments of internet research was particularly enlightening. Pound was working from Ernest Fenollosa's translation of the poem from Japanese and Pound apparently had not yet begun the study of Chinese himself. Fenollosa, about whom I know nothing, injected into the poem a tension between the wife and her marriage which is not present in the Chinese text. This is duly presented in Pound's version, beautifully and effectively.
My father, a poetry loving engineer, was able to identify the source poem one line into reading Pound's rendition. I asked him to do a literal translation of Li Bai's original poem. It and a url for Fenollosa's translation can be found at the end of this writeup.
Li Bai is one of the most famous, beloved Chinese poets in Asia (literally, one of two). He is also one of a group of poets named affectionately the Eight Drunken Immortals after the mythological figures by the same name. His works center around a love of life; mundane things that he elevates through his exploration. His works, whether exhuberant or sad, are anchored in concrete experience even if they explore whimsical or fantastic elements.
The poem, in the Chinese, is profoundly different from both Pound and Fenollosa's versions. The title is a location name, and nowhere in the poem does it state that the speaker is the wife of a river-merchant. Basic descriptive elements are changed, such as "bamboo stilts," and "blue plums" instead of green. Stanza breaks are imposed irrespective of the poem's original form. However, two changes strike me as most indicative of an invasive western interpretation and a foray into Orientalism. The first is the dismissal of the poem's allusions to other literary texts and the insertion of a western interpretation on vocabulary used. The second is the idea that this marriage was arranged, not a love match in any way, and that the wife 'blossomed' in the marriage from indifference to love.
The first point may certainly be a result of ignorance. It does, however, serve to disconnect the poem from a long tradition of intertexuality. It also serves to open the text to associations not present for a contemporary Chinese reader. For example to refer to ashes and dust together, is a colloquialism, based on how they are indistinguishable from one another when mixed together. For a modern western reader, mention of ashes and dust may give rise to associations with eternity. Fenollosa and Pound go further and make the connection overt. The devotion of the speaker's love is shifted from a famous story of a drowing lover to death, religion, and eternity.
The second point is aided by the first. There are small, yet influential changes in word choice, perhaps due to a lack of fluency or unfamiliarity with other texts, and larger differences in interpretive lenses. Pound's choice to use ''stopped scowling'' directly impacts the previous stanza. Fenollosa attempts an interpretation of the ''open eyebrows:''
I first knew what married life meant; now she opens her eyebrows. i.e.. smooths out the wrinkles between her brows. She now began to understand love and to be happy.
However, Pound's choice of a strongly negative term scowl
specifically places the speaker's previous behavior and emotions into the context of anger, resentfulness, and unhappiness. Suddenly, the speaker's unhappiness
is a result of her early marriage, her extreme youth. Her growth into a loving wife is then in tension with her early distaste for the marriage. However, all versions of the poem open with her recounting her childhood friendship with her now husband. The central tension of the poem shifts from that of a shy friend blossoming
into a devoted and demonstrative wife, to that of an unwilling bride learning to love her husband.
Much of the power of Pound's poem comes from this tension. The original poem celebrates a recurring theme in romantic Chinese literature, profound romantic love. It places it in a mundane context, rooted in the everyday rather than the high flown drama of courtly lovers. The conflict is external to the husband and wife, and a product of separation. Pound's rendition takes advantage of Fenollosa's shift. The speaker's love for her husband comes as a quiet reversal, the softly passionate words of a woman who was previously silent, and who has been apart from a new love for too long. The poem is now one of revelation and passion, and the conflict of her early unhappiness is used as a constrast for her current conflict, loneliness. While this is not a solely western ideal, Li Bai's characterization of the speaker as a dutiful wife does not admit an early conflict. She cannot be both one and the other. Thus, Fenollosa and Pound's portrayal is surely more western, and more typical to members of societies which have mixed views on fourteen-year-old brides and arranged marriages.
An irony of translation occurs in how the poem is concrete. Li Bai uses place names, common activities, and familiar sights and sounds to anchor his poem in the commonplace. Pound retains many of these elements in English (keeping Fenollosa's bamboo stilts instead of using the more familiar ''hobby-horse,'' etc.), and also deliberately maintains the Japanese place names. An English language reader without knowledge of that place or time would find these exotic. Still concrete, but still other.
In the end, the poem is still powerfully about love. It is beautiful, an evocative exemplar of Imagism, and profound. Its views, however, are skewed towards a concept of marriage and devotion which are more western than Chinese.
Ernest Fenollosa's line by line translation and notes (transcribed), and other poetic translations:
Some other interesting reading: Image files of Fenollosa's translations with Pound's notes upon them. Indicates that Fenollosa's widow arranged to send Pound Fenollosa's unpublished work in late 1913.
http://www.library.yale.edu/beinecke/orient/mod3.htm And an essay on Fenollosa's views on Chinese as a writing form especially suited for poetry, and his skewed understanding of language which was nonetheless influential for Pound.
My father's rough translation, which borrows a phrase or two from Pound.
chang gan xing Chang Gan Xing1
qie fa chu fu e While bangs covered my forehead
zhe hua men qian ju picking flowers and playing in front of my house
lang qi zhu ma lai you came by riding bamboo horse2
rao chuang long qing mei circling the trellis playing with green plums
tong ju chang gan li both living in the village of Chang Gan
liang xiao wu xian cai two little ones without dislike or suspicion
shi si wei jun fu At fourteen, became your wife
xiu yan wei chang kai my bashful face never smiled
di tou xiang an bi lowering my head toward the dark wall
qian huan bu yi hui called a thousand times, I never looked back
shi wu shi zhan mei At fifteen started spreading my eye brows (overcame bashfulness)
yuan tong chen yu hui wish to be just like dust and ashes
chang cun bao zhu xin always hold the trust like pillar holding3
qi shang wang fu tai why would I think of climbing the husband-waiting-lookout
shi liu jun yuan xing At sixteen, you journeyed afar
qu tang yan yu dui through the Qutang Gorge and by the Yanyu Pile4
wu yue bu ke chu you have gone five months, I don't think you are there yet
yuan sheng tian shang ai monkey's sorrowful cries in heaven above are all you can hear5
men qian chi xing ji By the gate the foot prints you made while you left slowly
yi yi sheng lyu tai all covered with green mosses
tai shen bu neng sao mosses too deep to be swept
luo ye qiu feng zao falling leaves and chilling autumn wind started early
ba yue hu die huang It's August now, the butterflies are turning brown6
shuang fei xi yuan cao in pairs they flutter over the grass in the west garden
gan ci shang qie xin sensing these, my heart aches
zuo chou hong yan lao sitting around worrying that my pink complexion is growing old
zao wan xia san ba Early or late (eventually) when you come down from San Ba7
yu jiang jia shu bao Beforehand, please send me a letter
xiang ying bu dao yuan I will come to greet you without complaint of long travel
zhi zhi chang feng sha all the way to Chang Feng Sha8
1 Chang Gan is a village in present day Jiang Ning County, in Jiang Su Provence. It is near, but not on, the Yangtze River. "Xing" is a form of Chinese poem, which was sung to accompanying music. Unfortunately, only the text of the poems survive.
2Small boys of 3 or 4 would take a length of bamboo and run around pretending it was a horse.
3In Zhuanzi, there is a story told about a lover who had an appointment to meet a girl under a bridge. A flash flood came while he was waiting, but he would not break his assignation. He held onto a pillar supporting the bridge until he drowned.
4Qutang is one of the three famous gorges known as the Three Gorges on the Yangtze River. The Yanyu ''Pile'' is a pile of partially submerged rock in the middle of the Qutang Gorge, which causes treacherous currents in the river.
5A common motif in Chinese poems was to describe the monkeys' cries in the gorges around the river as sounding like cries from heaven. This was due to the narrowness of the gorges and their extremely high, steep walls.
6August, in the lunar calendar, is considered mid-Autumn.
7San Ba is the ancient name for present day Sichuan province, up river from the Three Gorges.
8Chang Feng Sha was a port on the Yangtze River, near present day Anqing in Anhui province. It is about 200 miles from Chang Gan.
This was written up as a brief response paper for my Modern Poetry class, last week. I was the only one with a 7 page appendix....
11/13/2004 izubachi says Just as an update on your questions about Pound's translation of Li Po earlier; I've been neck deep in modernist the past few weeks and I've gathered from more than one direction that Pound was enthusiastic about languages occidental and otherwise, but his mastery of them was questionable. He cut corners by referencing second-hand translations into Continental languages (thus the French source for river merchant), and often erred in his independent translations in Chinese, Japanese, pretty much everything except Italian, French, and Langue d'Oc (which he really did have fluency in). This hit me especially close to home when I noticed a jarring grammatical error in a German snippet of one of his poems (an error so jarring most first-year German students would cringe at it). So your suspicions proved clearsighted. - Neat!