Kenneth Rexroth is a poet first and a translator second; judged on that basis, his One Hundred Poems from the Chinese is a great success. His approach, set out in a brief introduction, is simply to produce the best English poem he can in the spirit of the original. The resulting translations are more or less free as he thought appropriate for each individual work.
The book is in two parts. Part one consists of Rexroth's versions of 35 poems by Du Fu, whom he describes as "the greatest non-epic, non dramatic poet who has survived in any language". He clearly knows these poems well, and his translations are uniformly good.
Part two offers around 70 works by Sung dynasty poets; some are represented by only one piece, some by more extensive selections. These tend to be more free, more personal, and often strikingly modern works. In Rexroth's words again: "The whole spirit of this time in China is very congenial today"- a statement as true today as when it was written in 1971. Many of these poets are still not well translated in English, so Rexroth's translations are invaluable. At the back of the book is a brief, but adequate, notes section with information on each poet and explanatory material. Rexroth's concentration on the lesser-known Sung poets is paralleled by his choice of poems in the Du Fu section. He does not confine himself to the best known pieces found in other collections, striking a good balance between the familiar and the new.
An interesting example of Rexroth's approach to translation is:
White birds over the grey river.
Scarlet flowers on the green hills.
I watch the Spring go by and wonder
If I shall ever return home.
Rexroth has changed the river's colour from blue in the original to grey: a good example of a liberty which would be objectionable from a translator, but which he can get away with. He also clarifies "blazing" in the original to "scarlet", which allows him to preserve the original's strictly parallel parts of speech in the first couplet.
This is a fine book. It was first published more than 30 years ago, but it has lasted because of the consistently high quality of translation and because of the unusual selection of poems offered. I cannot recommend it highly enough.
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