Ezra Pound – Translator of Chinese Poetry

According to his poetic achievements, Ezra Pound is one of the most prominent figures of the 20th century. He is a creator of Imagism and the founder of Vorticism. His ideas in culture, politics and economics were interesting and innovative; however, his interest towards politics was not limited only to theory; being an ardent supporter of Mussolini’s Fascist regime, Ezra Pound was actively involved in it. Pound was a prolific poet, essayist, translator, composer and publicist. His ideas are collected in „Literary Essays“, „Selected Prose“ and „Selected Letters“.

Due to complexity of his writings, Pound has been studied by scholars in nearly all those fields in which he took interest. Each aspect of his work and life has been thoroughly studied; however, we might find it strange that Pound’s thoughts on poetic translation have been somehow ignored.  

Being called the “inventor of Chinese poetry for our time” [Eliot, 1928:IV], Ezra Pound was a pioneer of modern poetry and its innovative translation. His theory of translation was original and innovative; he claimed: 

  1. A true translation must reject "Wardour-Street1 English," the pseudo-archaic language of Victorian translators.
  2. Each translation is a kind of criticism of the original on one hand stressing the strengths of the original and on the other showing its limits.
  3. No translation has to reproduce all aspects of the original.  It can concentrate on only some aspects and leave part of the original out.  It may even add to it or rearrange it in order to accomplish the translator's purpose.
  4. Modern topical allusions may be used to lead to the emotions associated with the original's allusions.
  5. Translations should be new poems in their own right.  They should be artistically well-done.
  6. History is a product of the present.  All knowledge of the past is experienced in our current reception and reading of it.  In this sense, all translation is both continuity and a re-reading of past texts and authors.

Many a scholar and critic are inclined to consider Pound’s translations as independent works of literature rather than mere translations. As a matter of fact, with his specific style of translation Pound laid foundation for modernist translation.  


As early as in his youth, Pound was seriously fascinated with translation and thought he should not write what he could translate from other languages [Yao, 2010: 36].

. He started translating from Occitan2 ballads and finished with Egyptian poetry. According to Yao, translations by modernist poets especially by Pound are “significant modernist achievements in English.” [Yao, 2010: 34-35].

Of all Ezra Pound’s translations, his translations of classic Chinese poetry deserve a special mention. Impressed by idiographic and pictographic nature of Chinese alphabet and images created in Chinese poetry, Pound was one of the first to introduce traditional Chinese poetry to Western culture in which way he significantly contributed to the development of English verse. These translations play a significant role in Pound’s works. However, his translations have as many admirers as critics. The latter blamed Pound for misinterpretation and mis-transfer of the original text but mis-transfer is sometimes inevitable when translation is done between heterogenous cultures; however, we should also emphasize that sometimes Pound deliberately deviated from the original text and more often than not his so called mistakes are examples of creative translation.

Perhaps, one of the reasons of Pound’s interest in Chinese poetry is the Imagist theory advocated by him at the outset of his career. This theory of his echoes “images” created in Chinese poetry hundreds of years before him. Pound developed his own poetic principles of Imagism: (1. direct treatment of the “thing” whether subjective or objective; 2. using absolutely no word that does not contribute to the presentation; 3. composing in the sequence of the musical phrase, not in sequence of a metronome [Pound, 1928:3]) and reached his poetic intention by following them.

According to some scholars, Pound created “interpretive translations”; however, many disagree and consider his translations original works of poetry or poetry in its own right. Pound strove to transport emotional intensity of poetry and the poet’s “emotional state” rather than make exact translations. For him important was “organic form” and music of words, its significance deriving from its meaning or in other words what he himself called Melopoeia; Phanopoeia and Logopoeia3 [Pound, 1968:25].  

Pound’s Translations

According to Michael Alexander6 [Alexander, 1997:23-30]. He introduced English readers to Provencal (before 1500) and ancient Chinese poetry and revived interest to the works of Confucian era; he introduced classic Japanese poetry and drama to the western world. Pound translated Greek, Latin and Anglo-Saxon poets of classical epoch and their works when other poets paid little attention to translation of any kind. 

It is true, Pound’s interest in China was not unusual at the turn of the 20th century; however, only few scholars saw elements of the “future” or “modernism” already inherent in China.   

In the works of Ezra Pound significant place is taken by translations of Chinese poetry based on Ernest Fenollosa’s7 notes, which are free verses unlike preceding American translations following a strict metric pattern.  The value of these translations is a cause of heated debates between scholars and the object of criticism of some, especially of Chinese scholars. The translations are referred differently, as “translations”, “interpretation”, “periphrasis” or adapted works.

In 1913, when Ernest Fenollosa's (the orientalist of American origin) widow handed her husband’s notes to Pound, he hardly knew any Chinese but used the notes to translate Chinese poetry into English. The translations were published as a separate volume and named “Cathay8. The verses in the Cathay are not considered as translation in the literal meaning of the word but poems in their own right. Even after 14 years of their publication, when the verses were published as a separate volume and called “Cathey”, Pound wrote in a letter addressed to his father that despite many Chinese dictionaries and Fenollosa’s notes, he would have been unable to translate from Chinese if not a very specific (idiographic) nature of Chinese.

Having read Fenollosa’s notes, Pound became interested in Chinese idiograms9 and realized that the Chinese poets had been long before familiar with what he had been starting working on. They knew the image, which Pound believed was a fundamental principle of poetry. Pound claimed the poetic image loses nothing in translation and is not bound in time; when correctly transferred from one language into another, the image acquires a fully new meaning and significance.

Thomas Stearns Eliot10 says: “Chinese poetry, as we know it today, is something invented by Ezra Pound” [Eliot, 1928: XI]. He believes Pound’s translations are strictly modernist and even though his translations do not correspond to the original, his image is a perfect means of “transporting contents.” 

It is true, scholars of Chinese poetry often criticize Pound for his wrong translations but Hugh Kenner11, the outstanding poetry researcher and scholar, does not share their opinion and calls his translations “Pound’s interpretive paraphrases” [Kenner, 1973:199]. According to Michael Alexander these verses are “underestimated” when they are referred to as translations rather than independent, free verses. William Pratt says: “the relatively pure images of Cathay ... seem less and less like translations and more and more like original poems" [quoted in A Study Guide for Ezra Pound’s “The River Merchant’s Wife”, the Gale Group 2000: 145]. Some scholars believe Pound created Chinese verse in the English language and he should be given credit for introducing such features of Asian, especially of Chinese poetry into English, as: exact description, peaceful and serene tones, exact use of the noun and using simple, action verbs.

However, there are poets who challenge the value of these translations; e.g. Eric Hayot12 notes: „Pound’s translations are successful; they have been taken by any number of critics as a literary miracle, by others as literary fraud.” [Hayot, 2013:23].

Stephen Yao believes by Cathay Pound proved that “one can translate without adequate knowledge of the source language” [Yao, 2010: 38]. Yao does not consider Pound was hindered by his lack of knowledge of the Chinese language and believes that studying Chinese wisdom allowed him to fully comprehend the original. Hugh Kenner thinks Cathay should be read as the poetry created on the background of the World War I and not as mere translation of Chinese poetry. He believes we should give Cathay credit for its being an attempt of re-thinking an English verse. [Kenner, 1971: 199].

The period of Pound’s working on Cathay corresponds to his shift from Imagism to Vorticism, which is why a scholar of Pound Zhaoming Qian calls his verses: “The River Merchant's Wife" "The Jewell Stairs' Grievance and "The Exile's Letter" “imagist and vorticist masterpieces” [Qian, 2008:337] but many others believe the verses are strictly Imagist.

The main topics of the translations are separation and loneliness, especially soldier’s loneliness, which is evident in the very first verse of the volume “Song of the Bowmen of Shu". Pound conveys inarticulate emotions through imagery; he never states anything directly but reveals emotions by creating images. Pound used Fenollosa's work as a starting point for creating what he called the “ideogrammic method”.13

Now let us turn to considering Pound’s translation at the example of his two Chinese verses.


In one of the shortest verses in Cathay “The Jewel Stairs’ Grievance” the speaker uses beautiful, yet transitory, images (dew on jade stairs, an autumn moon) to evoke a melancholic, elegiac mood; laconic images follow one another; however, the main topic of the verse - the grievance - is never directly mentioned.

The Jewel Stair’s Grievance

The jeweled steps are already quite white with dew,

It is so late that the dew soaks my gauze stockings,

And I let down the crystal curtain

And Watch the moon through the clear autumn.

The verse consists of four lines and six distinct images. The verse is full of sorrow; however, the narrator directly says nothing about it. The narrative depicts a few brief moments; late at night (or rather early in the morning) the speaker stands on the jewel stairs and is probably waiting for her sweetheart, she draws the curtain and her gauze stockings are covered with dew. Each image creates a certain association in the reader and stirs memories and feeling associated with such a scene. For example, by mentioning the gauze stockings Pound hints that the hero is a woman and perhaps a noble one.

Pound does not use typical English syntactical structures; the technique allows him to imitate Chinese, at least the one he imagined it should be. Pound was fascinated with the “malleable grammar” of the Chinese language; in “The Chinese Written Character” he mentions: The eye sees noun and verb as one: things and motion, motion in things, and so the Chinese conception tends to represent them.” [Pound, 2011:46].   

Another verse - “The River Merchant’s Wife” in the Cathay is also a vers libre, which means there are no consistent patterns or rhyme; this feature gives the verse a peculiar sound, very different from traditional European one. When translating the poem Pound depended solely on Ernest Fenollosa’s notes. According to Hugh Kenner, this is the first English translation of a Chinese verse where no rhythm and a fixed number of syllables are used, which means Pound does not imitate the Chinese metric pattern which would make sense for only Chinese readers. According to Kenner, if Pound had used a rhythm, the verse would be absurd, artificial and strange for English readers unfamiliar with Chinese patterns. Moreover, Pound does not use a single metric structure characteristic for English poetry. If this were the case, the verse would have lost its Chinese sound [Kenner, 1971:199]. Pound set his own rules and created a Chinese sounding rhythm, music and beauty and a new verse according to them.

How did Pound manage to bring to life the 8th century Chinese reality in the 20th century Europe? He described things in details and created images of the 8th century China; avoided ambiguous generalizations and created an image in each line adhering to the principle – a new line - a new image, a new stanza a new period of life.

“The River Merchant’s Wife” is a letter from a lonely wife to her husband who has been missing for five months.

Pound wrote his translation in free verse, structured around the chronological life events of the river-merchant and his wife. The free verse makes the letter feel more authentic, as if it was a real one. The lack of strict meter allows Pound to bring out the wife's motions.

The objects mentioned “my hair was still cut straight across my forehead”, „bamboo stilts” indicate the story takes place in Asia, not in Europe. The way the character (the wife) behaves also clearly hints the story develops in Asia. Pound manages to give the verse Chinese sound by mentioning items of Chinese life and customs.

Each stanza describes a particular period of the woman’s life; e.g. the second stanza tells the reader about obedience of a Chinese wife who married her “Lord” when she was only 14 and was shy, “never laughed, being bashful/Lowering my head, I looked at the wall”. Such obedience before husband is characteristic for Asian wives only. Two years later after marrying him, he left and never returned.

In an essay written in 1918 „Chinese Poetry”, Pound speaks about the principle qualities of Chinese verse naming the image of nature among them, which is used to express human feelings and emotions. In ‘The River Merchant’s Wife” Pound skillfully uses the images of nature; e.g. “the paired butterflies are already yellow with August”; the woman is astonished and jealous at seeing the couple of butterflies who have grown old together while she suffers and “grows older” in loneliness. 

By using particular details and vivid images Pound gives the verse a foreign and strange coloring.  


Hugh Kenner, the author of a number of books on Ezra Pound, believes that the verses in the volume published in 1915 echo the feelings and emotions of women of the World War I. The verses directly do not mention a war of any kind but there is apprehension of loss with which European women of that time were so familiar.

Chinese critic Wai-Lim Yip believes that Pound “has crossed the border of textual translation into cultural translation" [Yip, 1969:39]. According to him Pound fully comprehends the original author’s message and “is able to get into the central concerns of the original author by what we may perhaps call a kind of clairvoyance” [Yip, 1969, cit. Alexander 1979: 99].

Steven Yao, the critic of American literature, believes that the fact that Pound knew little Chinese gave him more liberty and enabled him to see things and characters in a new and a very different light, which is why his verses are more like originals than mere translations [Yao, 1999:39].

All points considered, Ezra Pound is a very significant figure as a translator who managed to revive the 8th century China in modern Europe. He achieved this task by putting forward the themes and issues familiar to all humankind especially at that desperate period of history. We consider Ezra Pound to be a co-author and inventor of these poems rather than their mere translator.

1 A street in London with a lot of antique shops; in this case Pound means the English language full of archaisms.

2Romance language, spoken in southern France, Italy and Monaco.

3 melopeia is when words are "charged" beyond their normal meaning with some musical property which further directs its meaning, inducing emotional correlations by sound and rhythm of the speech. Melopoeia can be "appreciated by a foreigner with a sensitive ear" but does not translate well, according to Pound

Phanopoeia is defined as "a casting of images upon the visual imagination," throwing the object (fixed or moving) on to the visual imagination. In the first publication of these three types, Pound refers to phanopoeia as "imagism." Phanopoeia can be translated without much difficulty, according to Pound.

Logopoeia or logopeia (is defined by Pound as poetry that uses words for more than just their direct meaning,[1] stimulating the visual imagination with phanopoeia and inducing emotional correlations with melopoeia).

4 British translator, academic and broadcaster. He held the Berry Chair of English Literature at the University of St Andrews until his retirement in 2003. He translated Beowulf  into modern English verse.

5 an Italian poet and troubadour, as well as an intellectual influence on his best friend, Dante Alighieri.

6 712 – 770 -a prominent Chinese poet of the Tang dynasty.

7 an American art historian of Japanese art, professor of philosophy and political economy at Tokyo Imperial University.

8 the name of a nomadic people who founded the Liao dynasty which ruled much of Northern China from 907 to 1125.

9 a character symbolizing the idea of a thing without indicating the sounds used to say it.

1] British essayist, publisher, playwright, literary and social critic, and "one of the twentieth century's major poets".

1] a Canadian literary scholar, critic and professor; the author of the book “The Pound Era”.

1] Distinguished Professor of Comparative Literature and Asian Studies, Pennsylvania State University.

1]  technique expounded by Ezra Pound which allowed poetry to deal with abstract content through concrete images.


Alexander M.
“Ezra Pound as Translator” Translation and Literature. Vol. 6, № 1
Alexander M.
The Poetic Achievement of Ezra Pound, University of California Press.
Eliot T. S.
Introduction to Literary Essays of Ezra Pound. New York
Eliot T.S.
Introduction to Literary Essays of Ezra Pound. New York
Fenollosa E., Pound E.
The Chinese Written Character as a Medium for Poetry. Originally published in 1936, London.
Hayot E.
Chinese Dreams. University of Michigan Press. USA.
Katz D.
American Modernism’s Expatriate Scene, The Labor of Translation, Edinburgh University Press.
Kenner H.
The Pound Era. Berkeley: University of California Press. USA
Nadal I. B.
Ezra Pound in Context. (ed). Cambridge University Press. Cambridge.
Pound E
Literary Essays of Ezra Pound. New Directions Publishing.
Qian Z.
Ezra Pound’s Chinese Friends. – Stories in Letters. Oxford University Press. New York.
Ruby M. (ed)
The Gale Group 2000, A Study Guide for Ezra Pound’s “the River Merchant’s Wife: A Letter”. Detroit.
Yip W.
Ezra Pound's Cathay. Princeton University Press. United States of America.
Yao S.G.
Translation and the Languages of Modernism. Palgrave. Macmillan. New York.