About this blog (and me)

I had the great opportunity to learn Manchu from Steve Wadley, Jerry Norman, Mark Elliott, and the many brilliant people I have met through my interest and studies in Manchu language and literature. I originally approached Manchu from a linguistic perspective, but have since become fascinated with Manchu poetry.

I first learned of the existence of Manchu poetry at a presentation given by Jim Bosson and Hoong Teik Toh in 2004 at Portland State University, where they talked about their discovery of Jakdan's own Manchu poetry in the eighth fascicle of his book of translated poems. Later I had a chance to study Jakdan's poetry at Harvard, and using computer models I was able to identify consistent rules of meter and rhyme across most of his compositions.

I found Jakdan's poetry to be impenetrable at first, and I wondered if he was a lone madman who was more obsessed with counting syllables than making sense. A few years ago, however, I was fortunate enough to be at a workshop on Manchu translation when Devin Fitzgerald mentioned the existence of Manchu poetry in a volume at the Staatsbibliothek that had been scanned and made available online.

My first impression, when looking at the Staatsbibliothek poetry, was that it was completely different from Jakdan's. It wasn't until I had looked at three or four poems that I realized the Staatsbibliothek poems followed the same basic rules of rhyme and meter as Jakdan, but used completely different metrical patterns. I came to understand that Jakdan wasn't a lone madman, but was part of a tradition of some kind, and my difficulty with understanding his poetry was my problem and not his.

It was at the same workshop on Manchu translation that, thanks to Carla Nappi, I began to understand how culturally-bound the act of translation is, not only in how culture affects the process of translation, but what translation means in context. Why, after all, did Jakdan translate poetry from Chinese into Manchu at a time when his audience would almost certainly have understood the Chinese original?

In the last year I have been spending some time with Jakdan's translations in order to better understand the special language of Manchu poetry. There are expressions, like wei guwanta, that are common in poetry but I have never seen elsewhere. There are even verb forms, like -rAlame, that appear to exist only in poetry. Through Jakdan's translations I am trying to learn this special language and better understand native Manchu poetry.

Thanks to the generosity of people like those I mentioned above, and of institutions like Harvard, the Staatsbibliothek and the Bibliothèque nationale in Paris, I have been able to greedily amass a collection of more than 160 Manchu poems and other oratorical works. Like the worms slowly chewing away at the Manchu archives throughout the world, I am slowly chewing through what I have amassed.

I am not a career academic, and I am not certain that I will ever have the time to do all of the work I would love to do with Manchu literature, so one of my fondest hopes is that someone else will do all of that work, and I will get to read what they write about it. For that reason, and also because I have benefited so much from the generosity of others, I am happy to share my transcriptions, translations and poorly thought out ideas on this blog.

Brian Tawney

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