Cathay. Centenary Edition. Ed. Zhaoming Qian. New York: New Directions, 2015.

Cathay. Ed. Ira Nadel. London: Penguin, 2015.

review by Harry Gilonis





“Cathay” has some pedigree.  Starting out as the Mongolian word “Khyatad” it moves West, passing through Uighur “Xitay,” Tatar “Qitay,” Russian Kitay, Polish Kitaj, Italian “Citai,” Latin “Cataya,” Spanish “Catay,” into French, German and English as “Cathay.” And Cathay, too, has a jumbled lineage.  It isn’t just that – as is relatively common knowledge – Ezra Pound, a man with (then) no ability to read Chinese worked from the half-legible notes of Ernest Fenollosa, another man with little knowledge of that language; there is another transmission-series to be taken into account. Poetry written down in China between 600 BC and 760 AD - a span that in this country would stretch from the Germanic invasions to now – is read by a Japanese professor over a century ago; this professor, Kainan Mori, is a follower of a particular exegetical school harking back to the Chinese poet-scholar-statesman Wang An-shih (1021-1086 AD), a man with a bee in his bonnet about the importance of the pictorial content of Chinese characters,1 a notion which gets transmitted, unavowedly, via Professor Mori to Professor Fenollosa and thence to Pound.  If the key text here - not Cathay, but the essay “The Chinese Written Character as a Medium for Poetry” – is, as the Sinologist George Kennedy memorably called it, “a small mass of confusion” (444), it isn’t necessarily clear that the confusion is all Fenollosa’s, or all Pound’s, or that it is of necessity unproductive.2 If George Kennedy’s Chinese was better than Fenollosa’s or Pound’s (Pound’s improved over time), well, contrariwise George Kennedy declared himself “poet neither by inclination nor training.” It is very evident that Kennedy’s model of translation - that implicit in much academic scrutiny – was, as it were, the one you’d want for a contract, or an insurance policy: based on an unspoken model of transparency. One could push it even further than Walter Benjamin, and declare that the perfect translator (in this vein) would be Pierre Menard, “rewriting” Don Quixote in the same words. For poets, on the other hand, a certain amount of resistance, or of opacity, even, can be productive.  A literary translation that is literature is also not the original poem; it is not even a restatement of it – it is a shaped piece of language sharing concerns with another similar one. If it were an exact match, translations would not age – as they all too evidently do. And it is for this reason that the surroundings, the literary mode of production, as it were, are crucial. T. S. Eliot, in a phrase so feline one half suspects malice, hinted at this when he described the Pound of Cathay as “the inventor of Chinese poetry for our time.” (Note not merely the temporal conditional, but also the ambiguous term “inventor”).3 Eliot goes on to say that Pound’s translations “seem to be – and that is the test of excellence – translucencies” (523). Here, of course, is my counter-model; the text that looks transparent, but isn’t. That might even look opaque

My contention would be that Pound was completely aware of this; and that this is signaled, fairly clearly, by the title-page of Cathay: “Translations by / Ezra Pound // For the most part from the Chinese / of Rihaku, from the notes of the / late Ernest Fenollosa, and / the decipherings of the / Professors Mori /and Ariga.”4 This is very clever. The “most part” covers, severally not all being from the Chinese of “Rihaku” (the Japanese name for Li Po), as two poems are declaredly ascribed to other authors; not all being from the Chinese language, being mediated via Japanese; not all being from the Chinese in any sense, as the 1915 first edition of Cathay included Pound’s rendering of the Anglo-Saxon poem “The Seafarer”; and, finally, not all being from Fenollosa’s notes, as there were occasions where Pound wrote, very evidently, willfully independently of his source texts - one might here say “invented.”  That’s a nice range of ambiguities, even before one adds in the distance between The Book of Odes, or Li Po, and Professor Mori; or Professor Mori’s Wang-An-shih-inspired (or other) analytical biases, known and unknown; or Ernest Fenollosa’s abilities to transcribe what was said to him; or Pound’s ability to decipher these transcriptions.5 At this stage, one can add in to the mix some divided currents that must also have pulled at Pound, as they do at us - received models of Orient v. Occident (both social and poetic); “then” versus “now” - a distinction hinted at by the (contested) status of the so-called “khaki” edition of Cathay, opening and closing as it does with poems of warfare.

There is a further important bifurcation, and readers will probably be glad to hear that it brings into focus the two editions under scrutiny here. In blunt terms, we have an edition of Cathay produced by an Occidental, Ira Nadel, as against one produced by a Chinese scholar, Professor Zhaoming Qian. It obviously isn’t as simple as that - Professor Nadel teaches in British Columbia and his book is published by the Penguin Group Australia, both countries on the Pacific Rim; Professor Qian taught in New Orleans and his book is published in New York, both Atlantic cities with historic links to Europe. These banalities serve, I hope, to dissipate any notion of a simple dichotomy; but it would, I think, be fair to say that, for obvious enough reasons, Nadel is more at home with what Pound did, and Qian more with what he did it from. These are of course both topics of considerable interest; and I hope I’ve managed in my opening remarks to suggest that the field is a muddy one, and there’s little to be gained by rehearsing stale tropes about accuracy or appropriation.6 (If nothing else, we could consider Hugh Kenner’s point that, unlike many precursor volumes, Cathay was actually based on detailed notes on the Chinese texts (198); comparable literary translations, by e.g. Judith Gautier or Hans Bethge, often praised, could make no such claims.) The issue, surely, is the poetry, set into as useful a context as can be managed.




I must at this point introduce the elephant in the room, which is the small size of both books. Nadel (to start with his book) has ten or so small-format pages to discuss the context of “Cathay” both as a term and as a book within Modernism; thirty-odd pages for “Pound and the Invention of China” (the longest and best section); twenty or so pages on the poems themselves - their origins, selection, presentation - and five-and-a-half pages on their “impact and importance.” This has meant that a lot of the time matters of some sophistication and complexity are not just boiled down, but boiled down to the point of spoiling.  Anyone who knows Nadel’s work as a distinguished Poundian - particularly the editing of the invaluable Cambridge Companion - will be dismayed to find themselves repeatedly saying “yes, but... .”  On page 2, he tells us “Cathay presents a series of classical and Chinese texts in accessible and contemporary language”; as we know, the 1915 stand-alone version of Cathay was only “for the most part” Chinese; the opening two poems are arguably too early to be thought “classical”; and the language Pound deploys is a rich and complex array; even setting aside the willed antiquarianism of “The Seafarer,” we encounter such non-current terms as “foeman” or “chargers,” “accoutrements,” or “courtezans” [sic], and studding of the diction with slightly slantendicular phrases or syntax - “our wine / Is rich for a thousand cups,” or “Here we must make separation.”7 (Intriguingly, Zhaoming Qian, in the other edition under consideration, makes a similar assertion of the “colloquial” nature of Pound’s “contemporary Anglo-American speech.”) More trivially, we’re told that before Cathay “Pound’s efforts as translator focused on languages with which he had some formal knowledge” (50); but by 1915 he’d already published versions of Heine, Kabir, Japanese Noh, and, as it happens, several poems derived from the Chinese. Cathay is less of a leap in this regard than it looks.  Nadel spends almost no time on the Chinese notion of the poem (3 lines on page 64), but what he does say is unsurprisingly imprecise, to the point of being inaccurate. Despite this concision, information is often repeated at a distance (Eliot’s inventive phrase crops up on pages 1 and 53, the multiple authorship question on pages 6 and 49), and the structure of what’s being said is thus less evident.  To be fair, this has something of the flavor of unsympathetic editing, and by no wise sinks the book. I was bowled over by the line “Pound saw China before he read it” – referring to Pound’s frequent visits (often with his painter-wife Dorothy) to the holdings of the British Museum, then under the tutelage of the poet and translator Laurence Binyon.  Further, the story of Pound’s Orient-suffused milieu in his childhood in Philadelphia was new to me at least; and even the well-known London context is described with luminous and suggestive details, drawn on evidently considerable recent reading and research. Alas, this too falls under “yes, but...”; information is often presented in the briefest fashion, with the real nuggets buried, and only hinted-at, in the endnotes.  This book will be mined for those, and prove a rich seam; it is a great pity the book’s format and girth could not to allow Professor Nadel the space to display his wares to better effect.

As to the texts provided, it is a benefit to have Pound’s idiosyncratic and telling endnote, not gathered into the Lustra reprint (this is also in Qian’s edition); but it is a lost opportunity not to add in the extra Chinese versions in that reprint.  Nadel mentions them en passant (curiously getting the number of them wrong, giving it as 5, not 4).  There is a lone misprint in “The Seafarer” (“Sea-fowl’s” for “Sea-fowls”), and the page-setting has gone askew therein, leading to some unfortunate false stanza-breaks at the tops of pages 106, 107 and 108; other than that, the text seems clean and accurate. There are also a few glitches in the front matter; the (fictitious) “Mei Sheng” is dated as AD rather than, as per Pound, BC, on p. 62, and Ripostes is made singular on p. 37.




After Mary de Rachewiltz’s bracingly Vorticist “Foreword,” (it is a pity that that mode of writing seems to have died with Kenner and Davenport), Zhaoming Qian’s “Introduction” sets out clearly the relation of Cathay to Vorticism and Imagism – though here, too, there are some “yes, buts.”  (I don’t see, for example, that the inclusion of “The Seafarer” proves, as Qian asserts, that it is appropriate to read Cathay as original poetry; it simply shows that the book is only “for the most part” Chinese-related.)  There are some quirks; Pound is accused of “turning Chinese allusions into passages in conformity with the culture of the English-speaking world,” yet, discussing the example he chooses - the close of “Poem by the Bridge at Ten-Shin,” Qian (to my mind more accurately) asserts nearby that Pound “preserves foreign proper names ... to hint at concealed cross-cultural information” (18).  Fenollosa’s notes give some minimal information on who “Han-rei” was - a Chinese philosopher - but having neither the Chinese characters of his name nor their transliteration (Fan Li) it is hard to see how Pound could have fleshed out the scant information he did have.  The hinted-at allusion is, indeed, the method employed by “Rihaku”; and even if Li Po’s contemporary readers all knew who Fan Li was, I suspect nowadays he gets looked up even in China. Wikipedia was not an option for Pound. 

Qian generally over-estimates the extent of Pound’s mastery of the material, perhaps because, being Chinese, it is hard to envisage the situation of a monoglot reader.  But this is unfair, as the problem is also that of Pound’s era; it is now literally the work of seconds to call up many of the Chinese texts behind Cathay, presented with immediate links to dictionary glosses. Pound, however, was working with a dead man’s scribbled notes. It is in the circumstances paradoxical that Qian shouldn’t have more of a grasp of this, given that he, too, has worked through the Fenollosa notebooks; and it is worth saying that if his book had no other merits, it has the inestimable one of making some of their content available to the general reader (albeit in tiny type). Qian has added-in the Chinese characters in the instances where Fenollosa did not have them, as well as their transliterations (making dictionary work a lot easier!).  Qian mentions, and I should stress (as I think it is not generally realized) that Fenollosa’s notes by no means invariably presented the Chinese characters; they were provided for the first two poems in the original Cathay only (plus the first two of the poems added in the Lustra reprint).  Hence when Qian says Pound “filled Cathay with Japanese-sounding Chinese proper names” (18), “obviously” (as he put it) to “strike a balance between the familiar and the strange,” it is more significant, surely, that in most instances Pound neither knew the Chinese originals nor had any ready way of pursuing them.

Qian is taken (as is Nadel) by the importance of Pound’s familiarity with Chinese visual art, and cites “While my hair was still cut straight across my forehead” – as against an earlier translator’s woeful “My head a mass of curls” – as evidence that Pound had relied “not on Fenollosa’s scholarship but on his common sense enlightened by classical Chinese painting (19; Nadel goes into more background detail on Pound and Chinese art, 11-13 and 17-22).  This is a fascinating notion, but the matter isn’t quite that simple.  As Noel Stock points out, Pound originally intended to deploy the Americanism “bangs” here; Dorothy Pound urged the more English “fringe” on him (210).  It may have been no more than an urge to avoid marital discord that sent Pound back to Fenollosa’s notes, where he would have read, as Qian records (75): “My hair was at first covering my brows.”  Further, Qian is acute in noting Pound’s echoing of the Chinese device of repeating a character for emphasis (as in the opening of “The Beautiful Toilet”), seeing that the heftier incremental repetition in the wordier English would rapidly weary a reader; more importantly, he also makes some intriguing suggestions (11) as to how the Cathay poetic (which he, a little lazily, glosses as the product of “Imagism/Vorticism”) carries forward into the world of the Cantos; not merely kindred repetitions (as “Ear, ear for the sea-surge” in cantos 2 and 7; “the air, air, shaking” and “lifting, lifting, and waffling” in canto 4) but also certain types of clotted syntax and proto-ideogrammatic juxtapositions. I can add a more direct connection, in that the ideogram on the cover of the 1915 Cathay (reproduced from Fenollosa’s lecture materials and cited in “The Chinese Written Character”) is also repeated exactly in the preliminary matter of Cantos LII-LXXI.8 There is continuity between Fenollosa’s papers, Fenollosa’s poetic, Cathay and the Cantos.

Qian’s edition does gather up the four extra Chinese versions in the Lustra reprint, demarcating the fact structurally by placing them after the 1915 end-note. This is editorially unimpeachable – Pound’s remarks therein cannot logically cover these then-unpublished poems - but it makes for a curious, stop-start, read. However, one would not wish the poems omitted (as they are by Nadel) indeed, I wish that Qian had also collected the two other poems after the Fenollosa papers Pound which published in his lifetime.9

In “The Exile’s Letter” Qian has introduced a hyphen into “willow flakes” which isn’t in any other edition I’ve seen; and in “The River Song” he follows the Lustra reprint and later texts (“now but barren hill” for the 1915 “now but a barren hill”), which arguably a fresh edition of the “original” Cathay ought not to do; other than that, this text too seems clean and accurate, although there are also a few indentation quibbles scattered throughout, if the text is compared closely with the 1915 setting.

In sum, I suspect the general reader should head without delay for Qian’s book; professional Poundians will find things of interest in a careful scrutiny of Nadel, but will probably be holding their breath and saving their pocket-money for the rumoured Fordham University Press “critical edition” of Cathay, reportedly imminent. If it is anything like as good as their edition of The Chinese Written Character, it will be a game-changer. While we wait, neither book replaces Wai-Lim Yip’s Ezra Pound’s Cathay, mentioned briefly by both editors; though that is now helpfully supplemented by the additional material provided by Qian’s transcripts. His collection of correspondence between Ezra Pound’s Chinese Friends (New York, 2008) helpfully fleshes out a passing reference to a Mr. Sung in Nadel (15), a man who was keen to get Pound’s father, and indeed Pound himself, employment in China in the 1910s. One can imagine, in some parallel universe, another, very different, Ezra Pound, living in Peking and fluently writing another, very different, Cathay . . .




 1. The well-known and well-regarded translator David Hinton, in his Introduction to The Late Poems of Wang An-shih, doesn’t mention this enthusiasm of Wang’s; but he does devote a couple of pages of close reading of a quatrain which takes it as a given.

 2. See the chapter “Fenollosa Compounded: A Discrimination,” by the Sinologist Haun Saussy, in his co-edited critical edition of the Fenollosa essay.

3. Eliot, who knew his Latin, would surely have intended the elegant quibble: “invention” (after invenire, “to come upon, find, meet with, light upon”) is equally the creation of the new and the (re-)discovery of the old.

4. I’ve transcribed this from an online facsimile of the 1915 first edition of Cathay [at], but it is represented accurately in both editions under review.

 5. I suspect close reading of the Fenollosa notebooks against Cathay would uncover plenty of varying examples.  To cite only one which is particularly intriguing (see Qian 17), it is impossible to tell whether Pound’s repeated decision, in “Song of the Bowmen of Shu” [Book of Odes poem 167], to write that the soldiers’ horses are “tired” – where Fenollosa’s character-by-character gloss plainly reads “tied” (Qian 64) – is a willed or an inadvertent “error.” Nor is it clear whether knowing one way or the other would in fact enable one to assert that was, in poetical terms, erroneous.

 6. The question of accuracy is probably still best addressed via Wai-Lim Yip’s Ezra Pound’s Cathay; appropriation is obviously the concern of Ming Xie’s Ezra Pound and the Appropriation of Chinese Poetry.

7. These topics come under consideration in essays by Barry Ahearn and Christine Froula in Qian’s book Ezra Pound and China; Ahearn in particular (40-41) discusses the two examples I mention in some detail (which is why I chose them).

8. The Cathay cover artwork came from photographs Pound had taken of large-scale calligraphy prepared for Fenollosa’s lantern-slides, to accompany his lectures (see the Saussy et al. edition of The Chinese Written Character, n.7, 189).  The same brush-drawing recurs in the Cantos on e.g. p. 254 of the 1987 Faber edition. The character being outside the body of a Canto, it escapes glossing by Carroll Terrell, though it is indexed (耀 “Yao,” [M.]7306; see Terrell, Companion 790). Pound glosses it in his “Appendix” to The Chinese Written Character as meaning “rays”; Mathews’ Chinese-English Dictionary, much-used by Pound for- and in - the Cantos, has “glory; brightness; splendour; honour” (M.7306, p. 1093). It would be interesting to have either editor speculate on the rationale for Pound choosing this ideogram for Cathay - and thereafter; the yao is repeated on the cover of both their editions.

9. “Dawn on the Mountain (Omakitsu) [Wang Wei]” and “Wine (Rihaku) [Li Po],” published in The Little Review in 1918 (Gallup, C146). These are conveniently gathered in Eliot Weinberger’s New Directions Anthology of Classical Chinese Poetry (New York, 2003), which also identifies 15 lines from the 1917 “Ur-Canto II” as deriving, via the Fenollosa papers, from the Tang poet Po Chü-I. For these lines see e.g. Massimo Bacigalupo’s 2015 edition of Pound’s Posthumous Cantos, the upper portion of p. 10, between “‘Yin-yo...’ and ‘weeping.’”




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Fenollosa, Ernest, and Ezra Pound. The Chinese Written Character as a Medium for Poetry. A Critical Edition. Eds. Haun Saussy, Jonathan Stalling, and Lucas Klein. New York: Fordham UP, 2008.

Kennedy, George A. “Fenollosa, Pound, and the Chinese Character.” 1958. Selected Works. Ed. Tien-yi Li. New Haven: Yale University Far Eastern Publications, 1964. 443-62.

Kenner, Hugh. The Pound Era. 1972. London: Faber, 1975.

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Ming Xie. Ezra Pound and the Appropriation of Chinese Poetry. New York: Routledge, 1999.

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Pound, Ezra. Posthumous Cantos. Ed. Massimo Bacigalupo. Manchester: Carcanet, 2015.

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Stock, Noel. The Life of Ezra Pound. Harmondsworth, Middlesex: Penguin, 1974.

Terrell, Carroll F. 1980, 1984. A Companion to The Cantos of Ezra Pound. Berkeley: U of California P, 1993.

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Weinberger, Eliot. New Directions Anthology of Classical Chinese Poetry. New York: New Directions, 2003.