Wednesday, March 03, 2004



Just received (and quickly!) a very welcome book shipment I ordered from Amazon in the States. Buying foreign books in the bookstores here is a rather pathetic experience; their buyers seem to select books by throwing darts at pages of odd catalogs. It's in English, what the hell.

Among the books just received is the superb Ben Franklin biography by Walter Isaacson, and the translated poems of Han Shan (Cold Mountain) (a single copy of the Ben bio might show up in Kinokuniya bookstore in a few years, to be snapped up immediately at twice the Amazon price and never re-ordered; the Han Shan: never; it's Chinese, after all), whose pinup portrait, together with his buddy Shih Te (a copy of the original that hangs in a subtemple of Daitokuiji), has always hung above my desk.

The trouble with most poetry translations is that they're not translated by poets, but by academics, and the result is frequently terrible, a disservice needless to say to the poets themselves, who, mostly being dead, have little say in who is handling their words. The Collected Songs of Cold Mountain (Translated by Red Pine, Copper Canyon Press) is an extremely welcome exception.

Leafing through the Ben book, I came upon a photo of an early draft of the Declaration of Independence, with editings by Ben and others. Where Thos. Jefferson had written "We hold these truths to be sacred and undeniable" Ben had crossed out "sacred and undeniable" and interpolated "self-evident" (he made few other substantive changes), the phrase that has since become the spiritual "navel" of the document and seed of so much thought-freedom. I'd always assumed that it was Jefferson's phrase. Thanks Ben, for that profound foresight.

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