In the admittedly rather small world of Chinese literature in translation, J. P. Seaton is a superstar: but even by the standards of those who cater for this niche market, he's always played hard to get. His relatively few but varied publications, always themselves small in scale, frequently in small editions, usually brought out by little presses, and often also small in physical size, have been snapped up by the cognoscenti and subsequently much sought after by those who missed out on their first appearance. His early contributions to Sunflower Splendour were easily the most readable and `literary' translations that this important but frequently tin-eared anthology was able to offer its readers. He has always been one of that small but influential band of American scholar-translators of Chinese literature whose work delights as much for its elegance and skill as for its accuracy.
We are at long last being treated to a liberal sample from the best of these. Shambhala have amassed a magnificent `Selected Translations' from the pen of the master, calling it, perhaps a little mischievously, The Shambhala Anthology of Chinese Poetry. Well, it certainly does cover a huge span of time, ranging from some of the earliest recorded poems (dating from perhaps one and a half millennia BCE) right up to the first three decades of the last century; but it would be fair to say that it remains a delightfully quirky and idiosyncratic miscellany.
It's divided into just four sections (which is in itself a witty and audacious feat). From Before: the Beginning (thirty pages) takes us up to the end of the Han dynasty. A Time of Trials (fifteen pages) fast forwards through the next three turbulent centuries or so. The Golden Age (fifty-six pages) encompasses the Tang dynasty's own three centuries of major achievement, and represents the very heart of the book. In Part Four, A Few Strong Voices Still Singing (sixty-eight pages), the succeeding dynasties from that founded by the first Song emperor to that bloodily created by the ill-fated Guomintang's Generalissimo whizz by. Of Mao's even more monstrous and destructive régime (despite its hideous progenitor's own much-vaunted love of classical poetry) nothing is said, and none of its poets are represented.
Each of these sections contains many imperishable gems, revelatory and exemplary translations, not a few from the hands of lesser-known writers (often culled from China's long and venerable Chan-Buddhist tradition) as well as just a few space-fillers, which I can only hope are early exercises. Seaton's version of Zhang Ji's Moored at Maple Bridge, for instance, inserts a quite gratuitous simile: `like a stone struck'--which certainly can't have been derived from any of the seven characters that occur in the original fourth and final line, and which is wholly uncharacteristic of this translator's usually minimalist approach to his work (however, it's immediately preceded by a quite brilliant rendering of the much less famous Coming at Night to a Fisherman's Hut). I've my doubts, too, about Seaton's recourse to archaisms (mainly `thee's, `thou's and `thy's) in his first section: this is presumably modelled on what Pound did with the Shi Jing towards the end of his life, in an interesting, if not wholly successful attempt to recreate for the English reader what the modern Chinese reader experiences when confronted with verses of such great antiquity. But Pound had started off as a Victorian, and could speak the Romantic Gothic lingo like a native; Seaton, by contrast, is not at all at ease with so alien a style, and handles it much less adroitly. On the whole I think translators should remember that no poem was old-fashioned to its first readers, and should endeavour to make it fresh and new again for us.
Normally, however, Seaton's peculiar grace and simplicity when handling the English language suggest, perhaps more than in the case of any other translator, except perhaps for Sam Hamill, an essential sweetness of personality: partly diffidence, and partly mellowness . . . a laid-back approach that is as far from the high-octane verbal gymnastics of, say, Hinton, or the relative authoritativeness and gravitas of Burton Watson (possibly his only real rival in greatness, after the earlier stunning achievements of Pound, Waley, Bynner and Rexroth). Of course, this may well be a carefully cultivated illusion; but I suspect not. If one were to assume, however, that Seaton dashes off his translations in the sort of mildly drunken ecstasy so frequently praised by the many bibulous poets who are perhaps over-represented in the pages of this anthology, then one would be making a serious mistake: almost every one of them has, I would guess, been highly wrought and lovingly polished over the decades. This is the art that hides art. The rhythmic inflections and internal rhymes are subtle, confident and persuasive. On almost very page Seaton presents us with cool, lucid, moving poems in a colloquial modern American idiom that are destined long to outlive him. This is an important publication, and no lover of Chinese literature should be without it.
There are many old friends here; but it's the newcomers that astonish you and take your breath away. Seaton's Du Fu translations, for instance, were unknown to me. How lucky we are to have them in print. Likewise, his Ruan Ji, his Wang Fan-zhi and Han Shan . . . and so many others. I can honestly say that my hands were trembling as I turned the pages and kept on discovering fresh evidence of his sensitivity not just to the nuances of Chinese, but of the target language too. These are vivid, colloquial, gutsy, humorous and poignant glimpses into the vanished worlds of Imperial China across three millennia. Yes, he does limit himself to a certain kind of Chinese poem: the short, meditative, imagistic lyric. One can't imagine Seaton tackling a fu prose-poem, or a yue-fu ballad (though he may well have done so in private, so learned and versatile is he).
My only further wish is that some enlightened publisher (perhaps one of those bearing the imprint of an American university) should, in the not too distant future, present us with a true `Collected Translations', preferably in a hardback edition. In the meantime, this handsome paperback will have to do--and who could reasonably complain?