Study of Noh continues in West

by Ezra Pound

Dec. 10, 1939

The work initiated by Ernest Fenollosa for better comprehension of East and West is by no means ended. Whatever Fenollosa may have done in the way of awakening his Japanese friends to the need of more active preservation of Japanese values must be set against the spark lit here by his unedited manuscripts.

W.B. Yeats was at once enkindled by the imperfect versions of Noh which I was able to make from Fenollosa’s notes. He started writing plays in Noh form for his Irish theatre and for performances where no western stage was available.

We in the West want an adequate edition of all the Noh in two or more languages. A few of us have the sense to want an edition with the ideogramic text on one page large enough to convey the calligraphic beauty and the essentially untranslatable values of ideograms themselves.

I don’t mean to say that you can’t in time translate an ideogram, but you will never get into any one phonetically spelled word all the associative forces of the more interesting picture-words.

It may be argued that the actual seeing of the ideograms is more necessary in the study of philosophy and the classics than in the reading of the romantic Noh, but one can not do without it in the latter. Two media are at our disposal which were not at Fenollosa’s disposal, namely the sound film and microphotography.

Fenollosa could not, as I did by the kindness of the Congressional Library in Washington, see and hear [Komparu Zenchiku's]“Awoi no Uye” on the screen with the sound of the singing and the crescendo of excitement as the hero rubs his rosary with ever faster rattling of beads against beads. Every western university should have the complete set of Noh plays on sound-film for study in its dramatic and literary courses.

That will come and will have to come for a dozen reasons as the old half-witted system of Western teaching wakes up (30 or 40 years after modern science has made photographic conveniences a daily accessory to our industries). With proper apparatus we or you could photograph all the most beautiful calligraphic editions and reproduce them as cheaply as we print our worst books.

These editions would allow our students to study the text before and after seeing the cinema-representation of your plays.

And this, I need not say, would get over a good deal of the difficulty that now exists for the simple-minded student. For 1,200 years Japan has meant more than commerce and business wrangles. In fact irritations over trade concessions between our countries are only a man’s life old and need not and shall not be regarded as a permanent and everlasting barrier between the best minds of your country and my country and between your country and the best minds in a dozen European nations.

When we come to the matter of what should be used, we are up against a much thornier proposition. There must of course be a plain literal version somewhere available, with explanations and notes, however tiresome and unpoetic. There should also be the best available translation of the poetic values, in whatever European language this may have been attained.

You can not translate poetry merely by translating words. Some freedom (but not too much) must be left the poet who finds a new verbal manifestation for the original thought. He or she must in some way convey the feel and the aroma of the original play and of the inter-relation of characters.

When I quote Aeschylus, even if only to say “Thus was it” or “These are the facts,” I do something more than state that certain things had occurred. It is that continual assertion of one set of acts in relation to a whole other set of acts, a whole series of backgrounds and memories, that enriches the Noh. The poetic translator must break his back to attain an English version that will keep at least part of this air and color. He must be allowed adequate, but not boundless, freedom toward this end, and only the finest critics and judges will be able to say when he reached it or how nearly he attains, or when he has sinned against the spirit of his original.

At any rate the news value of this article may lie in my stating that Dr. Arthur Hummel, head of the Oriental Department; Dr. Sakanishi, head of the Japanese division of the Congressional Library (Washington) and a few dozen or hundred more of us are interested in any and every attempt toward further diffusion of the plays, and that I personally will do all that I can to correlate the fine work done by the Kokusai Bunka Shinkokai with whatever western nuclei that exist or can be brought into being.

I am merely asking that more plays be printed in two or more languages. The inter-linear printing, first the Japanese spelled out phonetically in the Latin alphabet, then the ideogram and then the English, is preferable to the interleaving, for by it the musical value of Japanese text is also conveyed to the stumbling foreign student. Nevertheless both transliteration of sound and the European version could be printed on a page facing a calligraphic text.

Excerpts, edited for space but retaining the language of the time, from four of the articles Ezra Pound contributed to The Japan Times between May 1939 and September 1940 are used with permission from New Directions Publishing Corporation. © 1991 The Trustees of the Ezra Pound Literary Property Trust