“to-day’s men are not the men of the old days”: Ezra Pound’s Cathay and the Invention of Modernist Literary Translation

  • Steven G. Yao


First published in 1915 as a modest volume presenting fourteen freshly rendered classical Chinese poems, Ezra Pound’s Cathay fundamentally altered the dimensions of several fields of literary culture within English.2 Most obviously and immediately, the collection redefined the place of Chinese poetry in the West, not only virtually establishing its significance as a literary tradition for England and America, but also permanentl transforming the way in which it was henceforth to be presented to general audiences through translation by poets and even scholars.3 Creating both the predominant idiom and image of Chinese poetry in English for Anglo-American Modernism, Cathay continues to exert an enormous influence on the transmission, and hence popular apprehension, of the Chinese poetic tradition in the West.4 Ask non-specialists about their impressions of Chinese poetry and you are overwhelmingly likely to receive answers indelibly stamped with Pound’s influence. Even relatively seasoned readers with broad exposure to different translators of various poets will probably speak of intense imagery, verbal concentration, and a mystical harmony with nature rather than of “rhyme and strict form,” the two characteristics that Arthur Waley, Pound’s contemporary and closest rival as the chief interpreter and transmitter of Chinese poetry to the West, considers the most salient aspects of Chinese verse. So, for example, the contemporary poet Hayden Carruth offers in his 1989 lyric, “Of Distress Being Humiliated by the Classical Chinese Poets,” a vision of Chinese poetry as a cultural tradition wherein “everything happens at once, no conflicts can occur.”


Literary Production Chinese Language Female Speaker Chinese Poetry Literary Mode 
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© Steven G. Yao 2002

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  • Steven G. Yao

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