The Raven and The Owl

One of the oldest English translations of the Jia Yi 贾谊 poem 鵩鸟赋 (On The Owl) makes a curious connection to the Edgar Allen Poe poem The Raven, written two thousand years later. William Alexander Parsons Martin even went so far as to name the poem A Chinese Raven, which does seem a little unfair to Jia Yi: really Poe’s poem should be called An American Bird of Fate. (The translation can be found on p32 of this free book.)

The Raven has a famously haunting quality, in part due to its distinctive trochaic octameter (DUM da, DUM da, eight times in a line). It is a meter which is rare in English, but isn’t hard to fit ordinary English language into. I find that after reading The Raven, or sometimes even thinking about it, my own words start to fall into the same pattern, in a kind of poetic Tetris Effect. The same effect is presumably related to the many parodies and reworkings of the poem, as well as the many accusations of plagiarism it suffered in its heyday.

Original Tetris-less raven photo: Anita Gould

There is some similarity to the two stories. In a translator’s note, Martin, who was a 19th century missionary in China, explains the parallels of the evil bird harassing the depressed scholar, and why he found writing his translation in the style of Poe irresistible. He doesn’t mention the form of the original, which after a prose introduction, is mostly in alternating lines of five and four syllables. Poe himself claimed his poem was in a mix of catalectic and acatalectic meters. Given it is easy for an English speaker to read a five syllable line as two and a half feet, I wonder if that pattern helped put the idea in his head too.

I do like connections like this. Once taken by the conceit, Martin did take more than a few translation liberties. He moved April to November so he could rhyme with remember, for one thing. Rather more brutally, he decided to truncate the historical references that decorate the end of the poem, a bit like a carpenter who declares the corpse fit the coffin perfectly once the feet were cut off. On the other hand, he did explain what he was doing. It’s not a translation: it’s a Victorian cross-cultural remix.

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