Guy Davenport’s Translation of Mao


Arts & Culture

Guy Davenport / Poem by Mao Zedong


In 1979, Guy Davenport’s second book of “stories” appeared: Da Vinci’s Bicycle. He was fifty-one. I put quotation marks around the word stories because almost nothing happens in any of them. When they’re good, they’re good for other reasons. 

Davenport was a disciple of Ezra Pound and James Joyce, and like everyone answering that description, he was a supreme crank. The main problem with all of these guys is that they vastly overestimate the value of literary allusion. And I know all about it, ’cuz I was ruined in my youth by these lizard-eating weirdos. Davenport certainly did his part.

They were all brilliant. They could write sentences that stick with you forever. Most people never write even one; these guys could practically cut them off by the yard. Yet, none of ’em knew when to stop. They always, always got carried away. My hypothesis is that too much of their motivation for writing was to enshrine their crankitudes. They were always trying to get away with something.

Zoom in on Davenport. Let me ask you: How much Chinese do you suppose he knew? I think the smart money is on “very little.” He probably knew about as much as I do—which is to say, as much as can be learned from one semester of study, augmented by the eager observation of one or two native speakers reciting a handful of classic poems. 

But a supreme crank knows how to exploit every little drop of whatever he or she knows. Davenport, who really did know all about poetic meter in English, must have listened very actively when he got somebody to recite Li Bai (or whomever) to him. Davenport knew what he was not hearing. Chinese meter was not about vowel quantity, nor stressed and unstressed syllables. What Chinese poetry almost certainly sounded like to him was clusters of five syllables, all of them stressed. That’s what mile after mile of Tang- and Song-Dynasty poetry sounds like to an English speaker.

Armed with this thought, he did a translation of a famous poem by Mao Zedong. The form of his translation is unique in American letters: The text is set up as quatrains (that’s normal enough), but the individual lines have only three syllables each. Davenport knew that this did not accurately reflect the original Chinese, but—and this is where the brilliance comes in—it does get across (like nothing else available in English) the collapsed syntax and staccato pacing of classical shi poetry.

See for yourself. Below is basically page one of Da Vinci’s Bicycle. I cannot bear to leave out the context, which is a deliciously understated spoof on Richard Nixon’s verbal boneheadedness during his historic visit to the People’s Republic of China, February 21–28, 1972:

On the Great Ten Thousand Li Wall, begun in the wars of the Spring and Autumn to keep the Mongols who had been camping nearer and nearer the Yan border from riding in hordes on their przevalskis into the cobbled streets and ginger gardens of the Middle Flower Kingdom, Richard Nixon said:

—I think you would have to conclude that this is a great wall.

Invited by Marshal Yeh Chien-ying to inspect a guard tower on the ramparts, he said:

—We will not climb to the top today.

In the limousine returning to the Forbidden City, he said:

—It is worth coming sixteen thousand miles to see the Wall.

Of the tombs of the Ming emperors, he said:

—It is worth coming to see these, too.

—Chairman Mao says, Marshal Yeh ventured, that the past is past.

The translator had trouble with the sentiment, which lost its pungency in English.

—All over? Richard Nixon asked.

—We have poem, Marshal Yeh said, which I recite.

West wind keen,
steep sky
Wild geese cry
For dawn moon.

For cold dawn
White with frost,
When horse neigh,
Bugle call.

Boast not now
This hard pass
Was like iron

At the top
We see hills
And beyond
The red sun.

Richard Nixon leaned with attention, grinning, to hear the translation from the interpreter, Comrade Tang Wen-Sheng, whose English had been learned in Brooklyn, where she spent her childhood.

—That’s got to be a good poem, Richard Nixon said.

—Poem by Chairman Mao, Comrade Tang offered.

—He wrote that? Richard Nixon asked. Made it up?

—At hard pass over Mountain Lu, Marshal Yeh said. Long March. February 1935.

—My! but that’s interesting, Richard Nixon said. Really, really interesting.

There is a problem, though. And it’s not that shi poetry has five syllables per line and not three. It’s that the original poem is not a shi poem. It’s a ci. (Pronounce it “tsr.” I know, just trust me: tsr.) Here’s the original:

西风烈, 长空雁叫霜晨月
霜晨月 马蹄声碎, 喇叭声咽。

雄关漫道真如铁, 而今迈步头越
头越 苍山如海, 残阳如血。

That’s right: the whole thing is just four lines, and the parts are of irregular lengths. Moreover, there’s a nifty little hand-off repetition thing going on there, a bit like American blues, or at any rate, like a song—which is what a ci poem is supposed to be. I’ve marked the repetitions in blue.

Here are two other translations of the same piece, either of which might have been at Davenport’s elbow when he made his version. The first is from The Poems of Mao Tse-Tung (1972), translated by Willis Barnstone in collaboration with Ko Ching-Po:

A hard west wind,
in the vast frozen air wild geese shriek to the morning moon,
frozen morning moon.
Horse hooves shatter the air
and the bugle sobs.

The grim pass is like iron
yet today we will cross the summit in one step,
cross the summit.
Before us green-blue mountains are like the sea,
the dying sun like blood.

“Shatter the air” is a bit much, but all in all, the above is a lot closer in meaning to what the forty-one-year-old Mao Zedong wrote. Alternatively, look at this anonymous translation from Mao Tse-Tung Poems, published by Foreign Languages Press, Beijing in 1976:

Fierce the west wind,
Wild geese cry under the frosty morning moon.
Under the frosty morning moon
Horses’ hooves clattering,
Bugles sobbing low.

Idle boast the strong pass is a wall of iron,
With firm strides we are crossing its summit.
We are crossing its summit,
The rolling hills sea-blue,
The dying sun blood-red.

But there’s the pity of it, Iago! Davenport’s version is misleading, damnably misleading, if our object is to “work towards the Chairman” and his particular poem. But! If we want to be led to a more general truth about what most Chinese poems were bound to sound like, both to Nixon and to Davenport as native speakers of English, then “West wind keen, / Up steep sky / Wild geese cry / For dawn moon” blows the other translations out of the water.

See how these bums operate? They don’t know Chinese, but they know something. They always know something, and they make that something seem like everything. And then you wind up using their versions in the classroom, because what are you gonna do, choose the less-exciting poem? Not gonna happen. And you know what? That would be fine—except for one thing. The perpetual American vindication of “getting away with it.”

Before you say “Oh, c’mon,” I ask you to look around, friends. Look forward, look back; look left, look right. 

Take care of yourselves.


Anthony Madrid lives in Victoria, Texas. His second book is Try Never. He is a correspondent for the Daily.