People & Places

With old words, Vermont translator mines new wonder

Vermonter David Hinton, a lauded English translator of classical Chinese works, has released his latest title, “I Ching: The Book of Change.” Photo by Kevin O’Connor/VTDigger
Follow the news in China this month and you’ll find that residents of the world’s most populous country will make more than a billion trips — the planet’s largest annual human migration — to travel home and celebrate today’s Lunar New Year.

Some 7,000 miles away in the Vermont village of East Calais, resident David Hinton is doing something equally extraordinary: diving back 3,000 years to discover the underlying meaning of it all — or at least that of the world’s earliest recorded thought.

Hinton, winner of numerous national fellowships, is one of the most lauded modern translators of classical Chinese poetry and philosophy in the English-speaking world.

Upon the 2012 publication of his meditative memoir, “Hunger Mountain: A Field Guide to Mind and Landscape,” he was touted as the first person in more than a century to translate four of the five seminal masterworks of Chinese philosophy: Tao Te Ching, Chuang Tzu, Analects, and Mencius.

Today, Hinton is five-for-five with the release of his latest translation, “I Ching: The Book of Change,” produced by the prestigious New York publisher Farrar, Straus and Giroux.

The work, he says in his introduction, is “perhaps the most ancient of all Chinese texts, full of poetry and mysterious philosophy, alive somehow outside of time, both primal and postmodern at once.”

Composed around 1150 B.C. — long before contemporary alphabetic language — the book is based on ancient hexagrams made up of six lines, each of which is either a solid yang or male line (—) or a divided yin or female line (- -).

In the intervening centuries, subsequent generations have added pages upon pages of explanation and commentary.

David Hinton
Translator David Hinton lives in East Calais. Courtesy photo

“I found all of those layers confusing — they bury the original text,” says the Utah native who studied how to translate at Cornell University and in Taiwan. “I decided to go back and see what was there before.”

Taking the version he bought while living in China 30 years ago, Hinton stripped away everything but the earliest words — those written from its origination to the time of Confucius.

“I wanted to get rid of all the explication and leave only the layers that established the mystery,” he says. “I discovered it has a very distinct form, much more like a primal-postmodern epic poem.”

Most people juggling long to-do lists want Hinton to distill its meaning into a summary short enough to share on Twitter. But communicating what he finds can be challenging.

The earliest surviving writings — on oracle bones from the second millennium B.C. — are pictographic. The symbol for moon, for example, looks like a moon.

“A language of such pictures,” Hinton writes in “Hunger Mountain,” “keeps consciousness close to its original nature.”

Letters, words, sentences and paragraphs only add distance, especially when funneled through earphones or touch screens. Hinton’s aim in translating is to seek the true essence of an original work. And that ultimately means rather than telling someone how to interpret it, he hopes readers, through their own exploration of his English version, will discover and experience it for themselves.

“It’s easy to assume that in language we can grasp the essence of things,” Hinton writes in “Hunger Mountain.” “But everything we know about this cosmos, about its vast and intricate natural history, the equations describing its day-to-day web of energy transfers, and all our stories and myths and legends — all of that imagination and knowledge is part of the center, this body of understanding and memory and thought that I am.”

Rewinding back centuries, Hinton notes that the early Chinese didn’t separate heart and mind, but instead saw them as a single entity.

“There was a belief that seeing deeply into things, feeling them immediately, was the essence of wisdom.”

Consider the I Ching, which many believe to be a fortune-telling “divination text.” Flip open to a particular page, the thought goes, and you’ll find, like inside a Magic 8 Ball, an easy answer.

“I don’t particularly like the idea there’s something controlling fate you can consult and it’s going to take over for your decision-making power,” Hinton says. “What this gives you is a philosophical way to see your question. Everything is moving forward, evolving from the inside, and you are part of a big process of change. The I Ching encourages you to think about yourself and your place in the cosmos, then about how things are going to unfold and how to proceed as part of that change.”

In a plugged-in, stressed-out world wired by electronics and ego, Hinton is practically subversive in his use of a three-millennia-old text to reconnect with the planet and the present moment. He elaborated at a public program last fall at New York’s Rubin Museum of Art.

Asked one audience member: “How might the I Ching be used in the contemporary political climate? Would you use it to ask whether Hillary Clinton will impose an effective climate change policy if she gets elected? That sort of thing?”

Answered Hinton: “No, it doesn’t give you simple yes and no answers like that. It gives you a philosophical disposition to apply to the situation. In your example, of course, the response would be most useful to Clinton. She would ask something like, ‘How can I create an effective climate change policy?’ And she would get advice about how to think through the situation in order to proceed in the best way.”

Asked another attendee: “What role do you think the I Ching can play in modern society where we live in a place of speed and complexity? What can the I Ching do to save us?”

Concluded Hinton: “I don’t think anything can save us, to be honest. Nothing’s going to stop the deep destructive forces driving human society. But I still think there is a political dimension to the I Ching because it articulates a deep ecological worldview in which humans are part of the ecology. Thinking that way can’t help but improve the way we behave.”

But don’t take his word for it. As Hinton reminds, he’s just the translator. One should see — and hear, smell, touch and taste — for oneself.

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Kevin O'Connor

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  • Bruce S. Post

    Vermont boasts two remarkable Davids: Hinton and Budbill.

    The first chapter of David Hinton’s “Hunger Mountain” is titled Sincerity, and the first line is “Things are themselves only as they belong to something more than themselves.” A reader could stop right there and ponder that epigrammatic construction for a lifetime, but I would advise them to read on nonetheless. More wisdom awaits.

    And, every morning, I read one of David Budbill’s poems, so much in the tradition of the ancient Chinese nature poets and so relevant to life today.

    Thank you both, gentlemen, for sharing your talents with us.