Le Ton Beau de Ta Hio

Reading about the two translations of the Confucian Ta Hio by Ezra Pound, the earlier one first published in 1928 and the later one created in 1945, I was reminded of Hofstadter’s Le Ton Beau de Marot. Though Hofstadter’s book on the problem of translation is personal and impressive, I also found it annoyingly ignorant of the work of countless others in the same field.

Ezra Pound is an example of someone who was acutely aware of the intricacies of the art of translation. Nowhere is this seen more clearly than in his two versions of the Ta Hio, a careful comparison of which would bring home many of the points developed at greater length (and at the expense of clarity) in Le Ton Beau. This will be obvious to anyone who takes some time to compare the following passages:1

Excerpt 1

The creatures of nature have a cause and effects; human actions have a principle and consequences: to know the causes and the effects, the principles and the consequences, is to approach very near to the rational method whereby one attains perfection. [1928]

Compare this with the later version:

Things have roots and branches; affairs have scopes and beginnings. To know what precedes and what follows, is nearly as good as having a head and feet. [1945

Excerpt 2

A prince who cherishes those who have incurred general and merited hatred, and who hates those who hold the general affection, outrages men’s natural feelings. Disasters will come upon him. [1928]

The luminous and vigorous later version:

To love what the people hate, to hate what they love is called doing violence to man’s inborn nature. Calamities will come to him who does this, the wild grass will grow over his dead body. [1945]

‘Not a literal translation’

“Not a literal translation” is a note you’ll find attached to some second hand offerings of the later version on Abebooks and Amazon. Take that as a recommendation. As Kenner says, ‘The most elementary acquaintance with Chinese ideograms (…) makes it plain that the translator of Confucius cannot even begin without possessing, rethinking, and recreating his matter’ (p. 312). Or, to let Pound himself speak on the art of translation:

‘The action resultant from this straight gaze into the heart. The “know thyself” carried into action. Said action also serving to clarify the self-knowledge. To translate this simply as “virtue” is on a par with translating rhinoceros, fox, and giraffe indifferently by “quadruped” or “animal”. (Pound 1969:21)

Le Ton Beau de Marot is not without merit. It is clever, witty, moving, and entertaining; but all the same less ground-breaking and mind-expanding — in short, less essential — than many other works (earlier works by Hofstadter himself included). Hofstadter’s heavy tome is simply dwarfed by Pound’s lucid insights and unrivalled grasp of the English language.

References

  1. Hofstadter, Douglas R. 1979. Gödel, Escher, Bach. New York: Basic Books.
  2. Hofstadter, Douglas R. 1985. Metamagical Themas: Questing for the Essence of Mind and Pattern. New York: Basic Books.
  3. Hofstadter, Douglas R. 1998. Le Ton Beau De Marot: In Praise Of The Music Of Language. New York: Basic Books.
  4. Kenner, Hugh. 1951. The Poetry of Ezra Pound. New York: New Directions.
  5. Pound, Ezra. 1947. The Unwobbling Pivot and the Great Digest. New York: New Directions.
  6. Pound, Ezra. 1969. Confucius: The Great Digest, the Unwobbling Pivot, the Analects. New York: New Directions.

Footnotes

  1. The passages appear as cited in Appendix II of The Poetry of Ezra Pound.

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