Saturday, 19 January 2019

Book review: Two collections of Chinese poetry from American university presses

It’s extremely frustrating to have to give poor reviews to two collections of poetry at the same time, but there you have it. Stephen Owen’s ‘The Late Tang’ (from Harvard University, Asia Center) and ‘Chinese Poetry’ edited and translated by Wai-Lim Yip (from Duke University Press) are, each in their own specific ways, dismal books.

Owen’s collection gives you an introduction of such mesmerising complexity that you would have to be a Chinese literature scholar to make much sense of it. And Yip flatly declines to translate the poems at all, holding, as he does, that the syntax of Chinese is too different from that of Indo-European languages to make that task meaningful.

So you get nothing useful. All you want is to read a reliable narrative about Tang poetry and to be able to read what Chinese poets wrote, in a translation. Instead you get these two books which make the job of understanding so difficult as to be completely impossible.

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