A Conversation with Red Pine

Mathew Weitman in Conversation with Red Pine

Bill Porter assumes the pen name Red Pine for his translation work. He was born in Los Angeles in 1943, grew up in the Idaho Panhandle, served a tour of duty in the US Army, graduated from the University of California with a degree in anthropology, and attended graduate school at Columbia University. Uninspired by the prospect of an academic career, he dropped out of Columbia and moved to a Buddhist monastery in Taiwan. After four years with the monks and nuns, he struck out on his own and eventually found work at English-language radio stations in Taiwan and Hong Kong, where he interviewed local dignitaries and produced more than a thousand programs about his travels in China. His translations have been honored with a number of awards, including two NEA translation fellowships, a PEN Translation Prize, and the inaugural Asian Literature Award of the American Literary Translators Association. He was awarded a Guggenheim Fellowship to support work on a book based on a pilgrimage to the graves and homes of China’s greatest poets of the past, which was published under the title Finding Them Gone in January of 2016. More recently, Porter received the 2018 Thornton Wilder Prize for Translation bestowed by the American Academy of Arts and Letters. His most recent collection Dancing with the Dead: The Essential Red Pine Translations was published with Copper Canyon in 2023. He lives in Port Townsend, Washington.

This interview was conducted over Zoom on July 13, 2023.

MW: Dancing with the Dead: The Essential Red Pine Translations brings together your selected translations, criticism, and commentary from a career that spans four decades. Can you tell me about the experience of compiling this collection? What was it like returning to your earliest books—some of which were first published in very limited and/or handbound print editions?

RP: Well, after Michael Wiegers asked me to do it, it took me about six months to figure out how to do it. This was of course limited to all of my poetry translations—not Buddhist sutras or travel writing, really (other than Finding Them Gone). It all fell into place when I came up with the idea of doing it chronologically: going through each of the things I’ve worked on—even the stuff I did before I thought I would ever have a career as a writer or a translator. And of course, I had to introduce each author too, because most of the people I work on are pretty unknown in the West—except maybe, Laozi, I suppose. So, I decided to introduce each selection separately to give readers a sense of what my relationship was with the work. Because, there is always a relationship: a karmic relationship in finding it, liking it, and wanting to do something with it.

Anyways, it was Michael Wiegers’s idea! He makes all the selections for Copper Canyon and this year is their fiftieth anniversary. So, they wanted to publish a couple things as part of that celebration. I haven’t been publishing fifty years with Copper Canyon, but I have been publishing forty years with Copper Canyon.

MW: And it also coincided with the documentary about your work that is currently in production.

RP: Yeah, and the documentary decided to use Dancing with the Dead for its title as well.

MW: I am always curious about the choices made when organizing an anthology of many different poets. As Dancing with the Dead is organized by the chronology of your career, I was excited to see the anthology conclude with translations from your forthcoming book, Choosing to be Simple: Collected Poems of Tao Yuanming. I know that Tao Yuanming (365-427) influenced many Tang and Song Dynasty poets, such as Li Bai, Cold Mountain, Stonehouse, and others. Is this the first time you have closely studied his work?

RP: I had established a secret relationship with Tao Yuanming long before I had one with Cold Mountain. When I first got to Taiwan, I was in a bookstore that specialized in handmade books. I bought this beautiful little handmade edition of Tao Yuanming’s poetry, and I just loved carrying it around. I couldn’t make much sense of his poems at first. Then, I got an English translation of some of his work so I could look at both the English and the Chinese side by side. But it took me a long time before I felt like I could work on them. Some of his poems are easy to translate, but I would say most of them are not. And so, I always sort of shied away from a commitment to doing anything more than a few from time to time…

Anyways, I’m glad I saved him for (sort of) the end of my career because I’ve gotten good at what I do. Even when I don’t understand something I know how to find a way of understanding it. I didn’t back then. I’m a self-taught scholar. I did not study any kind of Chinese scholarship at Colombia. I just took a couple years of language classes.

MW: What is it that makes his work more difficult to translate?

RP: It’s the line. The really tight line: five characters, five syllables. He became what’s called the First Master of the Five Syllable Line. I was used to working seven-character stuff, and when I did work on five-character stuff it was Cold Mountain. I mean, anybody can understand Cold Mountain! But, when I ran into Tao Yuanming’s five-character line I said to myself, “Oh my god, it’s so dense!” There are very few easy lines—there’s a lot going on in there! And so, that’s what made me shy away, you might say.

MW: The lines are dense, and a lot of the poems are pretty sprawling—I mean, they go on for a good number of pages.

RP: Yeah, they’re longer poems than I was used to—that’s true. Sixteen to twenty-line poems, sometimes. You know, eight lines would be a long poem for Cold Mountain, who has a lot of four-line poems. I love four-line poems—it’s hard to go wrong!

But anyways, I had to convince Michael Wiegers to put Tao Yuanming in the book. We weren’t going to do it originally because Dancing with the Dead is about what I’ve already published, and Tao Yuanming won’t be out until October. But we talked about it more and figured, “Well, he’s coming out this year—during the fiftieth anniversary—so let’s toss him in there!”

But, in a way, I’m not so sure I like him in there. The only reason I say that is because he makes the book fatter than I would’ve liked it. That’s my only complaint about that book—it turned out fatter than I’d like it to be. I really like the 5×7 format, but that only works with a certain number of pages.

MW: I was happy to see him in there!

RP: But sometimes thirty more pages can make a big difference, and he added about thirty/thirty-five pages. For me, the physical book in my reader’s hand is something I think about. I don’t know whether or not other writers do, but I do. The first book I ever published I made myself—a translation of P’u Ming’s Ox Herding Book. I found some papermakers in Taiwan and people who would bind it for me. From the very beginning, a book meant I was putting something in my reader’s hands.

MW: I wonder if the importance of that material relationship also has something to do with those first books you encountered in Taiwan.

RP: Oh, yeah. The first books I was coming across in Taiwan were still handmade, a lot of them. My first edition of Cold Mountain too. This abbot gave me a copy of Cold Mountain that was sewn together by hand. It was a small publisher using some old techniques…I still have that copy—all the string has come undone, and it’s fallen apart on me.

For the first books I translated I was working with Chinese editions that impressed me with how they were put together. And I’ve been lucky to work with publishers who have the same respect for how a book looks and feels.

MW: And when you’re working on a project like Choosing to be Simple are you using a lot of firsthand archival materials as well?

RP: I get the earliest editions I can possibly get. I know how to find them. The Central Library in Taiwan has perhaps the greatest collection of Chinese titles. They’re the only people who have the first printing of Stonehouse [1272-1352]. It came out about twenty years after he died—somebody put together the first woodblock editions of his poems. In fact, for this documentary film we’re making, we got them to take out the original copy and put it in my hands. They filmed me reading from it and turning the pages, and so forth.

When I work on a project, the first thing I do is ask myself, “What text am I going to use?” That’s very important with Buddhist materials too. The text is always important, and I make an effort to source the different editions that are available—whether that’s through people at the Central Library in Taiwan or looking at a reprint of early woodblock editions online. There are also a couple of publishers in Taiwan and a couple of publishers in China that specialize in reprinting old editions.

All this doesn’t necessarily mean I am going to use the first edition, but I will check it out. I may use a later edition because sometimes there are mistakes in the earlier editions that have been corrected. There was a period in China where there were no printed books and people only had handmade copies—everything was handmade. So, when a printed book came out, that didn’t mean that there were no other (older) editions still circulating. Sometimes those handmade editions resurface and are printed—so I have to check out some of those too.

A translator needs to spend some time deciding what text they’re going to use—or what group of texts. Sometimes you end up using several texts while deciding which version you’re going to use for a given poem. If I think there is an important difference in terms of the meaning, then I will mention which edition I am using in a note.

And, of course, I’m very fortunate in having a publisher with Copper Canyon that has never not been willing to include the Chinese text. I want the reader to have the ability to look at the text I used—or the text I came up with (because sometimes my Chinese text is one that I made changes to, based off many editions).

MW: In addition to the importance of archival materials, I know that visiting original sites of the poets you have translated—homes and graves, for example—is vital to your translation work. In Finding Them Gone you stopped by Tao Yuanming’s grave—did you return there while working on Choosing to be Simple?

RP: Yes! And I found the real grave!

MW: You did?

RP: Some years ago, some farmers were working about thirty miles away, and they not only came across Tao Yuanming’s grave, but they also found his mother’s grave. The grave I was trying to visit  (that the military would not let me see) turned out to be an honorary grave—it was never thought to be his real grave. The only time there’s been an actual discovery of a tombstone was by these farmers who found them about ten years ago. I went there with a film crew (a Chinese TV station just happened to join me for a few days during the end of one of my trips). It’s on film somewhere… Tianjin TV I believe has it… But I put a nice photograph of Tao Yuanming’s grave in the back of Choosing to be Simple and included a detailed address for anyone who wants to find it. It’s not hard to find.

MW: And for your next project, you’re translating Xin Qiji—

RP: Yes! He’s my new guy. Many people think he is the greatest lyric poet who ever wrote in Chinese. A lyric poet meaning he wrote poems to musical pieces. Like if you took Bob Dylan’s “Blowing in the Wind” and wrote different lyrics to it—that’s a lyric poem. It takes a given musical piece (that maybe had other lyrics in the past) but then you add your lyrics to that music. And so, that’s what Xin Qiji did—he left about six hundred lyric poems and I’ve already translated about a hundred and twenty. I may translate a few more, maybe get up to a hundred and thirty, or forty, I don’t know.

Recently, in China, I visited the place where he wrote about eighty percent of his poems. My business manager, Mr. Li, got in touch with the local scholars. The local scholars—who know more about their local hero than anybody (more than any academic)—toured me around and showed me various places where Xin Qiji wrote his poems. I just did that last month.

MW: I haven’t been able to find many of his poems in translation. But one poem I did find online references Tao Yuanming’s poem “Motionless Clouds.” Is there a throughline between these poets, despite the seven hundred or so years between them?

RP: Well, there was a lot in common—and a lot not in common. They both retired. Tao Yuanming did so voluntarily—he just turned his back on the official life. He would have preferred not to, but he was unwilling to work under the conditions that were necessary in official life. He couldn’t handle the brutality, and the duplicity, and constant murders of emperors and stuff like that.

Xin Qiji would’ve kept working. He was in a completely different position. No Chinese poet that has ever lived has cut off more heads than Xin Qiji. He decapitated a lot of people on the battlefields. And not only that—sometimes he would charge on his horse into the enemy camp just to kill a specific person. There’s nobody even in his ballpark!

You see, China was divided—they’d lost the northern territories to the Jurchen nomadic groups. He wanted to reclaim the lands of his ancestors, and so he was willing to work with the Song Dynasty Court, but only up to a point. They finally couldn’t stand him anymore because he was pissing them off all the time and berating them for being cowards! They ultimately fired him and then he went off in retirement.

And whereas Tao Yuanming rarely had enough money for wine, Xin Qiji was wealthy. He didn’t have a hut—he had a dozen houses all over the area where he ended up retiring. So, very different ways of going through life but very similar sensibilities.

MW: Sensibilities as far as their writing goes, you mean?

RP: Yeah—the way they liked to write a poem. And wine. Lots of rice wine.

The poems are simple and rich at the same time. They’re not ornate. There’s no wasted language in a Xin Qiji poem or in a Tao Yuanming poem. But Xin Qiji poems are much longer than—well, I guess he has short ones too…But he’s got a different style because he’s writing poems to music. So very often the poems are more than twenty lines. And they’re irregular lines, because they’re set to music. In a Xin Qiji poem, there are a lot of changes of meter—the number of syllables in a line changes. That rarely happens in a Tao Yuanming poem.

But, for Xin Qiji, Tao Yuanming was “his guy.” And Qu Yuan. Those were his two heroes.

MW: Both of whom you translate in Dancing with the Dead. To return to this anthology, for a moment, I wanted to ask you a few questions about Song Boren’s poetry—I wasn’t familiar with his work. In your introduction to Song Boren, you mention how you started working on these translations in 1989 but had to put the project on hold to begin work on The Road to Heaven: Encounters with Chinese Hermits. Is this typical of your practice? Working on multiple projects at once?

RP: No, I never do that. I only ever do one thing at a time and that’s why I put Song Boren aside—I had to do Road to Heaven. And after that, a couple other things—I started working on the Daodejing. But I think it was around ’95 or ’96—when I came back to America—that’s when I published the Song Boren. I had already worked on it a little in Taiwan with a Chinese scholar…

It’s taken me a long time to feel comfortable translating a poem. You know, when you translate a poem, you have to make a poem—and I don’t write poems! So, it’s taken me a long time to feel ok with translating a poem—with me making a poem without having the skills of someone who writes their own poems.

MW: What was it like then, shifting your attention from studying poetics and translating the work of long-dead authors like Song Boren, to having conversations with living hermits for The Road to Heaven?

RP: For one, they weren’t poets. I didn’t meet any poets in the mountains in China. There were a few people who wrote some things down in calligraphy and I could see they probably had a diary somewhere—or a little book where they wrote down poems from time to time. That was very rare. They weren’t there for poetry. Now, that has changed. Partly because of my book. The intellectuals want to be hermits now.

To be a recluse in China is different than in the West. In the West, you become a hermit because you don’t like people and want to be left alone. In China, you become a hermit as a phase of your life: because you have the need to be alone in order to understand something. It’s sort of a spiritual—or even artistic—quest.

MW: So, you sort of revamped the hermit tradition in China with Road to Heaven?

RP: Uh-huh, yeah. But if I had met any poets, I would have for sure written about them! I mean, I was there for Cold Mountain and Stonehouse. I wanted to see if our understanding of them was just a literary conceit or if there were actually people like that. And it turns out there were really people living like that. In the past there would’ve been more poets than there were in ’89—but you see, I was going into the mountains on the heels of the Cultural Revolution, when the arts were not fashionable. The hermits I met were devotees—they were on a spiritual mission. They weren’t writin’ poetry! That has since changed. You could say that the hermits I’m meeting now in the mountains of China are more like the traditional hermits. That is, they have degrees—or they’re dropouts or retirees, etc.—and they’re there for a period of time just because it’s good to be alone sometimes.

The Road to Heaven, Finding Them Gone, and Zen Baggage all somehow struck the Chinese sensibility of a subject that they’re interested in—and a way of telling the story that they like, because I’m a Westerner. You know, you never write about what’s in your front yard. But, for me, everything is food for thought, or a possible subject to write about. And sometimes the Chinese want people to talk about what’s in their front yard. So, my books tend to be popular there.

Plus, I learned how to write differently. You see, I didn’t have any interest in being a writer—I didn’t develop any of those skills that people develop when they learn how to write. I learned how to write by doing radio. I worked at a radio station in Taiwan for seven years. The news director would rip off these pages of a developing story from the teletype machines—about two to three feet of paper—and he would hand it to me and say “Bill, give me ten seconds on this.” I learned how to find a story and put it in language that got someone’s attention and held it. And then I got out of there!

The problem most writers face is that they’re not good at self-editing. They’ve got skills and they’ve got the use of language, but they don’t know how to cut. I’ve never had that problem. My books have been successful in China because of that skill. And knowing when I’ve said too much.

MW: I can certainly see the correlation between your translational work and your travel writing. I was recently reading Eliot Weinberger’s book Nineteen Ways of Looking at Wang Wei and I was interested in his assertion that the hardest words to translate are often the smallest—subjects such as “you” and “I,” articles, prepositions, and so forth—

RP: Oh, yeah.

MW: —has this been true of your own experiences translating Ancient Chinese poets? Is it more common with some poets than others?

RP: With translation, you have to discover the poet’s voice. And then, you have to develop a voice you’ve never had before to partner that. It’s all about the voice. The Chinese language presents the opportunity of being comfortable in ambiguity. That could be a problem for some people, but for me it’s an opportunity. You get to decide if a poem is going to be present tense, past tense, and so forth. Chinese doesn’t tell you. Well, sometimes it can—by putting the word “tomorrow” or “yesterday” in a poem. But generally, the Chinese doesn’t tell you the time or the tense. And rarely are the words “he” or “she” or “my” or “I” in a poem—Chinese can take all that away. In Chinese, these words are implicit. In our language, you usually can’t get away with that. Like Eliot said, that can be a challenge—but that doesn’t mean you can’t translate Chinese. Of course, you can. The question is: Is it a good translation or not? There’s no such thing as a perfect translation.

You become a dance partner. You don’t try to put your feet on top of your partner’s feet. You have to establish your own dance.

MW: And of course, you have to let the poet take the lead in that dance.

RP: Yes. I’m following. I’m the “girl.” And I go over a poem over and over again…A hundred times is not uncommon for me to go on the dancefloor and dance that poem. I’m not trying to become Chinese—I’m trying to dance with it.

MW: When you were going over the poems in Dancing with the Dead did you make many changes from earlier translations?

RP: Oh sure! None of my translations are final until the publisher says, “Bill, you’re done.” Everything I translate can be better tomorrow.

MW: A lot of poets feel that way too.

RP: Yeah, I have deadlines. That helps. When you have a publisher, you have to make decisions. And of course, after you publish the work, you’ll regret some of your decisions…Some of my translations I don’t want to look at.

MW: …Which ones?

RP: I’m not saying! But some of my translations I don’t want to see because I could have done it better, that’s all.

MW: Ok, fair. I guess I’m curious because the poets you translate are all so different. I hear their voices so clearly. What is it that ultimately draws you into a poet’s work? How do you choose your dance partners?

RP: Their heart. I can feel their heartbeat. It comes out in the language and it speaks to me.

That was the case with Xin Qiji—it’s weird that I’m translating him… I mean, he wasn’t a Buddhist—he cuts people’s heads off! He was very wealthy, had dozens of houses—so why am I translating a guy like that? Because of the heart I feel in his poems. I love to dance with him. He’s a great dance partner.

MW: Would you mind reading me one of your new translations of his work? Maybe Xin Qiji can have the last word in this interview.

RP: Well, let’s see…Here’s his first poem, that we know of—it’s called “Spring Is Back Already.” The note says, “Written in 1163, to the tune of ‘Han Palace Spring.’”

Spring is back already.

I can see it in women’s hair,

in their spiraling ribbons—

though the thoughtless wind and rain

aren’t ready for the cold to end.

The returning swallows surely tonight

are dreaming in West Garden,

yet I haven’t prepared the sacrificial citrus wine,

much less the plate of leeks.

I laugh at the East Wind, beginning today:

perfuming the plum trees, dying

the willows green, and henceforth not resting;

but when it does, my rosy cheeks

won’t look the same in the mirror

and my cares won’t be gone.

Does anyone know if chains of jade can be untied?

How I hate to see flowers bloom and fall,

the geese heading north before me.

Mathew Weitman is a PhD student at the University of Houston.

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