David Hinton, Classical Chinese PoetryFound in the translation(CALEB KENNA FOR THE BOSTON GLOBE) David Hinton's latest work is a collection of classical Chinese poetry.
David Hinton has translated the poetry of Wang Wei, Lao Tzu, Meng Chiao, and a host of other major classical Chinese poets. Most of that work has been turned into books such as 2006's "The Selected Poems of Wang Wei," which won the 2007 PEN award for Poetry in Translation. But Hinton, a 54-year-old resident of Calais, Vt., also wanted to dabble in the work of other classical Chinese poets without having to devote a whole book to the writer. He achieved that goal with his new anthology "Classical Chinese Poetry."
The book represents 3,000 years of Chinese work, tracing its journey from an oral tradition practiced by singing bar girls and peasants to a written endeavor done only by the elite who worked for the Chinese government. The poems may be distant from American life in terms of origin and culture, but the details within them remain relevant to people reading the work today.
"That's why I do it," says Hinton. "There's often a little bit of Chinese trappings, but basically they could be written today."
One example is "East Gate," a folk song created between the second and first centuries BC.The words could just as easily reflect the thoughts of a soldier returning from the Iraq or Afghanistan wars."He left their east gate
for war without return,
and then coming back
home tore him apart:
there wasn't a cup of rice in the bin,
and turning he saw the clothes-rack standing empty."
Classical Chinese poetry has been a part of modern American literary tradition since the poet Ezra Pound translated the work of Chinese poets Li Po and Wang Wei in Pound's 1915 tome, "Cathay." Hinton became exposed to the work through his interest in Taoism and Ch'an buddhism, the Chinese term for Zen buddhism. Hinton, was "an unemployed writer" in New York City, he says, when he heard that Tu Fu was the greatest poet "in human history." He headed to the library to read a few examples of the poet's work to understand why this was so.
Hinton came upon a book that showed the line-by-line process of translating the poems from traditional Chinese characters to the English language. Unlike contemporary Chinese, classical Chinese is pictographic - characters for the words "eye" or "hand" actually vaguely look like an eye or hand. Classical Chinese is also quite spare grammatically, often dispensing with prepositions and conjunctions.
Watching the translation process in action hooked Hinton. "I kept going back to the library every day," Hinton says, "translating more and more and I said, 'OK this is what I do.' "
Peter Cole, a poet and translator, selected Hinton's book for the $3,000 PEN award from among about 50 submissions. "Most translators with Chinese tend to present the poems as solely imagistic," Cole says. "With David, he's created a space where idea and sound and images are all working together and that's very effective and compelling to me and to many others I think."VANESSA E. JONES
© Copyright 2008 Globe Newspaper Company.