Shadab: What are some of the glaring and subtle differences between the Western tradition of poetry and the Eastern, in your experience as a translator?
Sam: This would take a book to answer properly. Chinese is rhyme-rich, while English is rhyme poor. Chinese and Japanese poets use “pillow words,” a fixed epithet that gives a double-meaning. When our Asian poet speaks of “clouds and rain,” it may be about weather, but it also may be about sex. Clouds are masculine, rain is feminine. And individual Chinese characters often contain two or three or even four distinct meanings all at once, so the translator must choose a primary single meaning in English and “dumb it down” for the western reader. Classical Chinese poetry is chanted, not simply spoken. Classical Japanese poetry is loaded with sensibility, nuance and social awareness and often makes use of “honkadori,” “shadows and echoes” of classics both Japanese and Chinese. Translation is a provisional conclusion and great poetry needs to be translated freshly for each generation.
Shadab: What can we learn from Eastern aesthetics— in particular, the Chinese tradition?
Sam: Confucian exactitude of language, Taoist-Buddhist “non-attachment,” and most of all something about great human character at its core. Rexroth called Tu Fu “the greatest non-epic, non-dramatic poet ever,” and I think that reflects what he saw as Tu Fu’s character. As Heraclitus says, “Our character is our fate.” I think most classical Chinese poets would concur. I could make a similar case for Basho or Saigyo in Japanese.
You know I lurve me some Sam Hamill. Interviews with him aren’t exactly in abundance either, so I have to give thanks to 3QD for being the type of site to publish one of them. (Like I said before, you might want to consider supporting them if you’re able; they do some great work.)