#52: TRAVELS/TRANSLATIONS: BILL PORTER/RED PINE. In a better time, country or culture, Bill Porter would be declared a National Treasure, in the manner of Japan, with the honors and acknowledgement attendant thereon. I suspect this wouldn’t make much difference to Porter himself, who once told me the only reason to publish a book of poems was to have copies to give to friends (good man). But since the mid-seventies he has gone quietly along, dividing his time at the keyboard between marvelous and readable books of travel on his times spent in China, and translations—all published under his nom detraducteur, Red Pine—of Chinese poetry and Buddhist and Taoist texts, the former accompanied by paragraphs of comment and exegesis that are little masterpieces of their kind—quick bright backgrounds for the poems to figure in. Of the translators of Chinese verse, he is noticeably the most geographically oriented: birthplaces, cities and counties, geomantic placement, burial sites, his work is musical with the place-names of China. (Arthur Waley, in contrast, the great early hero of Oriental translation, never set foot in Asia.) It’s this that’s given his work its warm particularity, and that seems to have brought his mind into easy consonance with the poems and Buddhist texts he has been drawn to translate. His relation to the texts is personal: each seems to have been a personal discovery, and led him to a couple of favorite metaphors. Writing of the poet Stonehouse (Shihwu), he says “Say hello to your new best friend,” and when he says of the Platform Sutra, “You can walk a million miles and never make a better friend,” we believe him. The other notion is embodied in an essay he wrote on the art of translation, “Dancing with the Dead.” On reissuing Stonehouse’s Mountain Poems in a separate edition (away from his gathas and Zen talks) he wrote “Poems need room on the dance floor.” Of his long-pondered translation of Tao Yuanming, soon to be published, he wrote me, he’d “been trying to build up the courage to invite him onto the dance floor. So far, he hasn't complained.”
All this leads nicely to his recently published selection Dancing with the Dead: The Essential Red Pine Translations (Copper Canyon Press, 2023). It is, as with his books published with Copper Canyon and with Empty Bowl Press, elegant and modest in form, light in the hand. Like Astaire, Porter makes it look easy; you get all of the fun—and the depth, and the emotion—and none of the sweat. The new book contains the text with illustrations of the Ox-Herdng Pictures, his first published work; and goes through the range of his later books, with Hanshan (and friends), the Qianjiashi (the T’ang equivalent of the English Palgrave’s Golden Treasury), the T’ang master Wei Yingwu, a new version of Qu Yuan’s Besetting Sorrow, and a selection from the Tao Yuanming poems. Dancing with the Dead is a fine and easy first step into a master’s work. Say hello to your new best friend(s).
Dancing gives a list of Porter/Pine’s other books, all of them in print, so far as I know, or easily retrievable secondhand. Another retrospective volume: Porter has edited a lovely little vade-mecum, Zen Roots: The First Thousand Years (Empty Bowl, again) nine texts and selections, from his revision of the Diamond Sutra translation to a new English version of Huangbo’s Transmission of the Mind. It’s another great book to go with you—a movable house party with all the best and friendliest and most interesting people inside. If you can get the hardcover, bound in Japanese silk, spend the money: it sits in your hand like something small and grand at the same time.