I Have Changed Nothing: Seven Paradoxes in Pursuit of Arthur Waley

Fourth in Josh Billings' "Lives of the Translators" Series


Of all outdoor sports, skiing is the most dependent on “conditions”; so it is with some confusion that we come across this incredible sentence, from Arthur Waley’s short essay “Waiting for the New”:

But the truth is that for the skier time does not count.

As truths go, this one sounds strange—especially coming from the man who essentially introduced ancient Chinese and Japanese literature to 20th century-English readers. But Waley knew what he was talking about. Over four decades and over two dozen books (an output rivaled only by his fellow Fabian, Constance Garnett), he developed an exquisite ear for the way that time changed words. At the same time, as a poet, he understood that the gulfs separating two seemingly distant eras could be bridged, unexpectedly, by a single act. Later in the same article, he described the skier’s patience:

Waiting is waiting, whether it be for a night or for six months; and inversely the prospect of a ski-run is as exciting, day after day, to the rentier or pensioner who spends Michaelmas to May Day on the snow, as to the breadwinner who snatches a fortnight at Christmas. Each, on waking, thrills at the thought ‘today I am going to ski’; each has sat for hours in heavy and perhaps wet skiing boots, merely to put off the moment when he must confess to himself ‘today the skiing is over.’

The skier in Waley’s description no more ignores the weather than the translator would ignore the echoes of an archaic verb tense; on the contrary, he steeps himself in the conditions of his art, sure that if he waits long enough, his moment will come. The clouds will part and time collapse like a Mad Fold-In, creating a moment that is simultaneously a repetition of previous moments and unique. The name that Waley’s article gives to this miracle will be familiar to readers of either ancient Chinese literature or 20th century poetry. It is “The New.”


In a note to his 1934 translation and study of the Tao Te Ching, Waley explains the concept of fan-yen:

The ‘which of you can assume murkiness…to be clear’ is a fan-yen, a paradox, reversal of common speech. Thus ‘the more you clean it, the dirtier it becomes’ is a common saying, applied to the way in which slander ‘sticks’. But the Taoist must apply the paradoxical rule: ‘The more you dirty it, the cleaner it becomes.’

As a tool for thought, paradox has a long history in Western and Eastern literatures, but its use in biography has been limited. The mythmaking urge is too great, which means that most of the time biographers from Samuel Johnson to David Remnick have found themselves “cleaning” their subjects’ lives in a way that may sound and even be true, but which hides a certain messiness. The life in question becomes a story with a plot and theme—which is all well and good until you think about your own life, and the thousand things that any story about it would have to leave out in order to make any sense.

The life of Arthur Waley breaks the biographer’s storytelling urge in a number of ways, not the least of which is the fact that Waley didn’t write much about himself. He kept no diary and destroyed his letters, leaving a space, or network of spaces, where most of his contemporaries left maps. Perhaps most importantly, his insane productivity occurred almost exclusively in translation—a discipline that traditionally prides itself on self-erasure. Because of this, any attempt to make a story out of him has to confront the fact that there is, ostensibly at least, not much “him” to make a story out of.


Like many translators, he is glaring in his lacks. Formal education in Chinese and Japanese, the languages that he taught himself in order to catalogue the war-chest of drawings in the British Museum, are lacking. As is any understanding of the modern or spoken versions of these languages. Or any desire to gain an understanding. Travel. He never physically visited either country, despite multiple invitations and opportunities. He never seemed to want to. When asked to assume a visiting lectureship at Columbia University, he replied that he was “invincibly set against deplacements of any kind.” An interest in modern politics (about World War II: “One must not be distracted from good work by things one cannot influence”). An interest in modern theater (“I don’t think one need wait any longer,” he said, on his way out of the first act of Waiting for Godot). Also, interestingly, the fastidiousness that we tend to expect from translators. “He described to me once how he had translated The Tale of Genji,” writes Donald Keene. “He would read a passage over until he understood its meaning; then, without looking back at the passage, he wrote out an English assimilation.” His version of Genji is hundreds of pages longer than the versions produced by Edward Seidensticker and Royall Taylor. “So much is inevitably lost in the translating of Oriental literature that one must give a great deal in return,” he said.

His freedom with the original did not prevent his translation from becoming a favorite of Japanese readers, though—a fact that seems strange until we remember that the language of Genji is itself different enough from modern Japanese that it has been translated into the latter multiple times. Eleventh-century Japan is an invention, like the Wild West for Americans or medieval Europe for Game of Thrones fans. Indeed, despite its distance from us in time and space, we might say that Genji is the most translatable book in world literature, if only because its obsession with loss finds a complement in the feeling that we get from reading translation. Despite its many lacks, Waley’s translation has flourished over the years because of the particular way that its mandarin English serves this design. It possesses that rarest of qualities for a translation: restraint. An organ of subtle knowledge, it knows when to stop, what not to pretend it knows. In this way, we can say that Waley took advantage of the loss inherent in translation to create a Genji that was even more “Genjian” than the original.


Reading his short article on dreaming in Eastern literature (“Some Far Eastern Dreams”), it is difficult not to think about translation—this despite the fact that, at no point in the article does Waley himself make this connection. If anything, one of the most mysterious parts of “Some Far Eastern Dreams” is how persistently it refrains from the elaboration that comes so naturally to people when they talk about dreams. Like a scholar in a Borges story, Waley speaks with rigorously lowered eyebrows, uttering sentences that, taken seriously, would blast holes in most peoples’ views of how reality works. Some of these sentences sound like they have been taken from an instruction manual for an alien board game. “Dreams can be bought and sold, or stolen.” “Anyone who hears a dream and has a good enough memory to repeat it word for word can rob the dreamer of its benefits.”

The more we read, the more we get the sense that what Waley is really talking about here is his own work, and the dreamlike knack it has for opening questions that we thought had been settled. A dream, which is after all nothing more than a story, belongs to one person—until it’s told, at which point it can be stolen, sold, bought, improved, ruined. It can be changed, in other words. The results of such traffic are weird—a fact that Waley admits with all the excitement of Buster Keaton in a sinking lifeboat. “Dreams in these stories not only give warning of what is about to happen in real life, they impinge on reality, sometimes with embarrassing results.” His unwillingness to comment on this embarrassment is liberating, since it encourages us to believe that he is not telling something. He is leaving something out, holding something back—something that we come to see, strangely enough, is the whole point of the article. We are dreaming, opening progressively smaller doors, each of which leads to another small room, and another door.

Charles Dickens

For all the poets that he introduced to a Western audience, he wrote about exactly one translator. It happened in “Notes on Translation,” a late (1958) article that begins as a sort of ars translatica, but which digresses halfway through into a relatively detailed account of Lin Shu. Who was Lin Shu? Waley’s habitual deadpan cannot disguise his excitement at being able to tell us that he was a translator, and not just any translator, either, but one of the most successful translators in early 20th-century China—maybe in all of Chinese history. Such a distinction would have been noteworthy enough; but two aspects of Lin Shu’s career make him particularly interesting, to Waley at least. The first of these is that he translated European novels into ancient, as opposed to colloquial, Chinese, as was the norm at the time. The second is that he knew none of the languages he translated from firsthand. Waley:

“There were, of course, great disadvantages to Lin Shu’s method of work. Knowing no foreign language he was, as he more or less confesses…rather in the position of a blind man at a picture gallery, whose friends are able to tell him everything about the pictures except what they actually look like.”

We might expect a linguist to be horrified by such a method; but the truth is the opposite. Waley holds Lin Shu up as a model for translators, not because of his taste or productivity, but because of the “immense force and vivacity of his style and the intensity with which he felt the stories that were communicated to him.” He quotes Lin’s own comment on this: “People in a book at once become my nearest and dearest relations. When they are in difficulties I fall into despair; when they are successful, I am triumphant. I am no longer a human being, but a puppet whom the author dangles on his strings.”

Lin Shu imagines the translator as above all else a great reader—that is, as someone whose transcendent receptivity towards a book transforms him into a puppet whose every feeling is a fulfillment of the author’s will. But as Waley is careful to point out, the actual translations that Lin made—particularly the ones of Charles Dickens, for which he became famous—tell a different story. In them, “Dickens, inevitably, becomes a rather different and to my mind better writer. All the overelaboration, the overstatemtent and uncurbed garrulity disappear. The humour is there, but is transmuted by a precise, economical style; every point that Dickens spoils by uncontrolled exuberance, Lin Shu makes quietly and efficiently.” In other words, Dickens is not at all damaged by Lin’s translation; on the contrary, he is enhanced. A new author is born into Chinese literature—someone whose name is not exactly Charles Dickens, and not exactly Lin Shu.

As for Lin Shu’s lack of a thorough knowledge of English, one wonders if this might have had a similarly paradoxical effect on the quality of his translations. Could it be possible, for example, that because he was working from cribs, he had the rare chance to be both faithful and inventive in regard to his original? That he could fill in the spaces that were already so obviously there, in manuscript, creating his “Charles Dickens” at the same time that he was reading him?


We know practically nothing about his childhood. We stake out the important dates of his life, marking birth (1889, in Tunbridge Wells), death (1966, from spinal cancer), and first publication (A Hundred and Seventy Chinese Poems, a pamphlet put out by Roger Fry’s Omega Collective and hand-bound in wallpaper by Waley and his brother), and then step back, scrunching our eyes like museum-goers in front of a blank canvas. The record is so empty that the few small details we do see begin to take on an ambiguous insistence. Are they accidents? Signs? For example, the bicycle that he rode like a windsurfer through Wimbledon Common, “towed by a kite, till this dangerous sport was forbidden by his parents.” Not the weirdest thing for a boy to do; but then notice how the momentum of this rhymes with the arrival of his wife Alison (whom he married a month before his death) and transforms into a Nabokovian epiphany:

Once, in 1947, alighting at a tiny Engadine railway platform and wondering bleakly why I had not been met, I lifted my eyes to the shining mountain peak. Far up the snowy slope a black dot moved, zigzagging at speed. Presently discernible—and incredible –it was shooting hedges, leaping roads, springing soundlessly down, direct and swift as a bird, to swing to my side and break superbly at my feet. I had been met. (“Letter from Alison Waley to Ivan Morris”, in Madly Singing in the Mountains: An Appreciation and Anthology of Arthur Waley)

The beauty of this paragraph, for me, is that Waley seems to be actually slowing himself to allow his language to catch up. His performance is made more poignant by our knowledge that what we’re seeing is an illusion. Arthur Waley is dead, like the turn of the century London that he rode through as a child. The bike has disappeared, vanished into that void that Waley describes, or maybe just refers to, in a late poem:

I had a bicycle called ‘Splendid’,

A cricket-bat called ‘The Rajah’,

Eight box-kites and Scotch soldiers

With kilts and red guns.

I had an album of postmarks,

A Longfellow with pictures,

Coururoy trousers that creaked,

A pencil with three colors.


Where do old things go to?

Could a cricket-bat be thrown away?

Where do the years go to?


The feeling that Arthur’s death had taken us into a world where there moved forces and concatenations bigger than those we encounter in our ordinary existence continued when, a fortnight later, I called at the house in Highgate to see Alison. She took me up to the room where he had died. A great peace filled it and I marveled at such serenity in the place where such pain had been suffered. ‘I have changed nothing,’ she said. ‘But that chair by the window wasn’t green, was it?’ I asked. ‘Oh, that,” she replied. ‘Yes, funny how the creeper has come in.’ I looked again. Through the window left open since he died the creeper had burst in like a lion. It had entirely covered the armchair with a thick coat of green leaves. It had flung tendrils across an entire wall. It had seized the long curtain and twined itself tightly round it in a spiral grip from floor to ceiling. It was as though the world of nature had flung itself into the room, and I thought of the swarms of bees which sometimes alight on the graves of saints or the birds which descend at the funerals of great men. That Arthur should have received this oblation seemed entirely fitting (Carmen Blacker, “Intent of Courtesy”).


Josh Billings is a writer and translator who was born in Vermont, grew up in Papua New Guinea and Zambia, and currently lives in Rockland, Maine. He has worked as an English teacher and nurse. His translations of Alexander Pushkin’s Tales of Belkin and Alexander Kuprin’s The Duel are available from Melville House Books.