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Ezra Pound's collection Cathay (1915) brought several of the treasures of Chinese poetry to the attention of the English-speaking world for the first time. Pound's translations are marvellous English poems in their own right, and I suspect - not being a Chinese speaker, I cannot know - they do a good job of evoking the spirit of the originals. They are, however, almost comically innacurate at points; Pound himself could neither speak nor write Chinese, and he worked from the notes of an American professor working in Japan; thus the translations are heavily influenced by Japanese readings of some of the more difficult Chinese symbols.

I am currently working my way through a translation of a poem by Li Bai (alias Li Po, whom Pound calls by the Japanese form of his name, Rihaku), which Pound titles 'Exile's Letter'. I am using this page, which gives the original Chinese alongside Pound's translation; it may not be the best source, but it is the best I could find. I have managed to resolve some of the mistranslations myself, at least to my own satisfaction, but the following are the lines that I am still stuck on.

'Out came the East-of-Kan foreman and his company...'

According to the above-mentioned source, the Chinese:

银鞍金络到平地,汉东太守来相迎。

corresponds to Pound's:

With silver harness and reins of gold,
prostrating themselves on the ground,
Out came the East-of-Kan foreman and his company;

The specific bit which is causing me difficulty here is 'East-of-Kan'; I believe the Chinese which corresponds to it is 汉东. The reliably dubious Google Translate wants to translate this as either 'Eastern Han Dynasty' or 'Handong'. But Li Bai wrote during the Tang Dynasty, long after the Eastern Han had ceased to exist, and I cannot find any city called Handong, so neither of those makes sense in this context.

The same two characters, 汉东, also appear later on:

袖长管催欲轻举,汉东太守醉起舞。

But, this time, Pound translates them as 'Kan-Chu'. What's going on here? I assume another Japanese reading?

'In the storied houses of San-Ko...'

According to the same source, the Chinese:

餐霞楼上动仙乐,嘈然宛似鸾凤鸣。

corresponds to Pound's:

In the storied houses of San-Ko they gave us
more Sennin music;
Many instruments, like the sound of young phoenix broods.

Google translates this as:

There is fairy music in the dining room, which is as noisy as the singing of luan and phoenix.

I am fairly confident that the term which Pound translates as 'Sennin' and Google as 'fairy' corresponds to the Chinese xiān, which in this context would probably be better translated as 'immortal' or 'divine'. But what is this business about 'San-Ko'? The term doesn't seem to arise, phoenetically, in the Chinese, so I imagine this is another Japanese reading of Chinese characters. But what do the original Chinese characters mean?

'Tried Layu's luck, offered the Choyu song...'

Finally, the Chinese:

此时行乐难再遇,西游因献《长杨赋》。

corresponds to Pound's:

And all this comes to an end,
And is not again to be met with.
I went up to the court for examination,
Tried Layu's luck, offered the Choyu song...

which Google translate's as:

At this time, it is difficult to find pleasure again, so I traveled to the west and presented "Changyang Fu".

What is 'Changyang Fu'? And why does Pound seem to translate it as 'Layu's luck' and 'Choyu song'?

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  • Ezra: no Chinese, an American professor in Japan, 1915, romantic Tang poems to translate. Sounds like a recipe for disaster! And the English speakers thought this could be, even remotely, accurate? Anything to sell a book?
    – Pedroski
    Jan 15 at 14:55
  • @Pedroski I have never sold, nor do I have any plans to sell, any books of any kind. Ezra Pound was a poor scholar but a first-rate poet, and his free "translations", while horrible from a scholarly point of view, are sublime English-language poems in their own right. I asked this question so that I could better understand the original Chinese which inspired such magnificent English poetry. (And I don't appreciate the dig at all 'English speakers', as if all 1.5 billion of us were benighted bigots.)
    – Tom Hosker
    Jan 15 at 23:34
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    You misunderstand me: I was insinuating that Ezra would do anything to sell a book. "English speakers" were the innocent victims in this deceit. "Roll up, roll up, the true words of 李白, translated by none other that renowned Chinese scholar: Ezra Weston Loomis Pound!"
    – Pedroski
    Jan 16 at 15:55
  • @Pedroski Ha ha. I understand now. I don't think Ezra Pound was ever in it for the money, strictly speaking, but he was diagnosed as a manic depressive psychopath with delusions of grandeur. Perhaps that explains his mystifying self-confidence in translating Middle Chinese? Bloody good (English) poetry though, just a dreadful translation. :)
    – Tom Hosker
    Jan 16 at 17:27

1 Answer 1

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汉东太守

See https://zh.wikipedia.org/zh-hans/%E6%B1%89%E4%B8%9C%E9%83%A1. 汉东 is a 郡 (Commandery) of Tang dynasty.

餐霞楼

It's the name of a building. Information about it is very scarce and mostly comes from Li Bai himself. There is an article 《冬夜于随州紫阳先生餐霞楼送烟子元演隐仙城山序》 that says 胡公身揭日月,心飞蓬莱,起餐霞之孤楼,炼吸景之精气。 From this we know it was built by 胡紫阳 and located in 随州.

"楼" usually refers to a high building with multiple stories, so the visitors can enjoy the scenary from a high perspective. See for example 黄鹤楼.

"餐霞" is the name of a practice from Daoism. This is even more obscure. 餐 is literally "to eat". 司马相如《大人赋》 says: 呼吸沆瀣兮餐朝霞。应劭 says: 朝霞者,日始欲出赤黄气也。 You can roughly interpret it as "to breath the air when the sun is beginning to rise and the sky is red and yellow."

仙乐

It's a generic term for beautiful music. 骊宫高处入青云,仙乐风飘处处闻

长杨赋

It's a famous essay written by a Han dynasty author 扬雄. It is said that he presented this essay to 汉成帝 to criticize him for being over extravagant. This is in contrast to the other court officials who became rich through corruption (《汉书 扬雄传》: 哀帝时丁、傅、董贤用事,诸附离之者或起家至二千石。时雄方草《太玄》,有以自守,泊如也。)

Li Bai often mentions 长杨赋 in his poems, comparing himself to 扬雄 as being virtuous but frustrated. 《答杜秀才五松见赠》: 昔献长杨赋,天开云雨欢。当时待诏承明里,皆道扬雄才可观。《古风》: 子云不晓事,晚献长杨辞。赋达身已老,草玄鬓若丝。

Layu's luck, Choyu song

This is very difficult. However I found the following article: https://doi.org/10.2307/2718526 (behind paywall)

According to this article, Layu is transliteration for 扬雄, and Choyu is transliteration for 长杨.

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  • When you say that 餐霞楼 is the name of a building, is it the name of a type of building, e.g. a church, or is it the name of a specific building, e.g. St John's Lateran in Rome? If it's the name of specific building, could you say where that is? If, on the other hand, it's the name of a type of building, could you tell me a bit more about that type?
    – Tom Hosker
    Jan 14 at 19:41
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    The name of a specific building. There is very little information about this building. It was built by 胡紫阳, a famous Dao practiser. It was located in 随州, in the north of today's Hubei, also part of the 汉东郡 mentioned above. Jan 14 at 19:50
  • What kind of building was it? Was it a Daoist temple? What does the practise of 餐霞 involve?
    – Tom Hosker
    Jan 14 at 19:55
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    See my updated answer. Jan 14 at 20:02
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    Updated again with information on "Layu" and "Choyo". Jan 14 at 20:20

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