Mystery beyond me: A Vt. translators search for meaning
By Kevin O’Connor
STAFF WRITER | February 10,2013
Jeb Wallace-Brodeur / Staff Photo
David Hinton, shown at his East Calais home, combines his life as a Chinese translator with his love of hiking in the new book “Hunger Mountain: A Field Guide to Mind and Landscape.”
For those not celebrating today’s Asian New Year, Vermonter David Hinton is the perfect person to explain what ancient Chinese tradition can teach the average plugged-in, stressed-out American.
Google his name on your iPad or iPhone and you’ll see the East Calais husband and father certainly has the credentials: The winner of numerous national fellowships, he’s one of the most lauded modern translators of classical Chinese poetry and philosophy in the English-speaking world.
But Hinton isn’t looking for more laurels — or at least the figurative kind. Instead, he’s aiming to let go of “academic abstractions” and, harnessing all he has learned from Taoist masters, literally take a hike.
“At the beginning of my walk, there are the two of us — the mountain and me,” Hinton writes in his new book, “Hunger Mountain: A Field Guide to Mind and Landscape.”
“Then I begin to notice: wind scattering leaves off field-edge trees in gusty patterns of brilliant color; a wild apple tree, trunk gnarled, fruit incandescent reds and yellows and greens shimmering with sunlit snowmelt.”
And himself merging into it all, no longer differentiating “human” and “nature,” “no distinction between me and the mountain, only empty consciousness mirroring the mountain’s form.”
Hinton knows central Vermont’s Hunger Mountain — across the Stowe valley from Mount Mansfield, the state’s highest summit — may appear “a seemingly unremarkable peak.” But in a society wired by electronics and ego, it’s the bedrock of his quest to tune out the static and reconnect with the planet and the present moment.
Fellow Vermonter Bill McKibben, in a cover blurb, deems Hinton’s 144-page Shambhala paperback “gorgeous.” London’s Guardian newspaper, declaring it a “book of the year,” sums up its “meditative series of foot-journeys through upstate Vermont and the intellectual landscapes of Chinese philosophy” as “very different.” Publishers Weekly, sharing that sentiment, elaborates in its own review.
“He pairs his own metaphysical insights from living, working and walking around Vermont’s Hunger Mountain with those of China’s classical sage-poets (K’uang Su, T’ao Ch’ien, Tu Fu, and more) to masterful effect,” the latter publication writes. “While this may be rigorous reading for those unfamiliar with Hinton’s specialized topics, there are wonderful stories for all to enjoy.”
Hinton, however, isn’t aiming simply to entertain. Instead, he’s hoping readers dig past his words and ground themselves in direct experience — seeing, hearing, smelling, touching and tasting for themselves.
“I don’t want to just talk about it, I want to make it happen,” he says in an interview. “The center of identity is constructed of those stories we tell ourselves. In the end, you have to pull the rug out from under all of them.”
A Utah native, Hinton discovered classical Chinese poetry and philosophy as a student. Unlike contemporary alphabetic language, the earliest surviving writings — oracle-bone script from the second millennium B.C. — are pictographic. The symbol for moon, for example, looks like a moon.
“A language of such pictures,” he writes, “keeps consciousness close to its original nature.”
Hinton studied how to translate Chinese at Cornell University and in Taiwan. Doing so, he stumbled over many a scholar’s word-for-word deciphering of ancient works. Consider, for example, this reading of the eighth-century writing of Meng Hao-jan: “Not aware beginning autumn night gradually long,” began one line. “Stairs below blaze grass see dew radiance,” ended another.
“I could see,” Hinton recalls, “they were missing most of what was there in the original.”
He found something more: “Autumn begins unnoticed. Nights slowly lengthen,/and little by little, clear winds turn colder and colder,/summer’s blaze giving way. My thatch hut grows still./At the bottom stair, in bunchgrass, lit dew shimmers.”
Unlike Western writers, early Eastern poets didn’t use “I” or metaphor to communicate their state of mind. When Tu Fu (712-770) observed, “Thin slice of ascending light, arc tipped/Aside all its bellied dark — the new moon,” he experienced just that.
Hinton appreciates how such work more closely communicates momentary sensations in a realm of constant change. Then again, it also was written a long time ago in a place far, far away.
“I wanted to do something more direct — and try to make it happen in our own world.”
And so Hinton began chronicling his hikes. Following the spiritual path of his source material, he walks up the mountain as if sitting down for meditation, aiming to let go of mental clouds and open to a larger truth.
“All of the events and landscapes, books and people and experiences that have made me who I am, all of the ideas and what I’ve built from them — that whole life is completely forgotten here, this mountain walk filling my mind with blue sky and all the colors of these autumn leaves shimmering with last night’s rain,” he notes in his book. “If I cast my attention back and tried, I could certainly remember one thing or another. But in that remembering, I would have lost whatever is happening right now.”
People who funnel life through earphones or touchscreens, the author would argue, don’t always realize how such equipment can disconnect them.
“The longer I look,” he writes of the mountain, “the more it becomes another form of meditative practice, for it reveals once again how we are most fundamentally the opening of consciousness, that gaze of awareness, rather than the center of thought and intention with which we normally identify.”
Hinton also has learned from such masters as Lao Tzu, creator of the seminal spiritual text the Tao Te Ching.
“To translate them,” he says, “is to live in their minds.”
As most reviews of “Hunger Mountain” note, communicating the journey can be a challenge.
“It’s sort of a mongrel book because it has all these pieces,” Hinton says. “It can be nature writing or Chinese linguistics, cosmology, Zen or Ch’an Buddhism … There are lots of academics and scholars who look at me and say, ‘he’s a popularizer.’ Then there are people on the other side who say, ‘You’re hopelessly complicated — it’s way too heady.’”
(Cue his daughter, quoted in the book as saying: “The snow is resting in the trees because it’s tired from falling so fast.”)
Yet whether writing about old or new, language or landscape, Hinton ultimately shares his stories to help readers see past their own inner narratives. His book tells the true tale of a Chinese poet named Summit-Gate.
“There was much to speak of in Summit-Gate’s life. The war that ravaged her village, the lost sister and husband, the glue and varnish of government. She once wrote those poems, but eventually she wanted to speak out of something larger than herself.”
And so she collected autumn leaves to release into the wind after the first snowfall.
“Skidding and scratching, snagging and soaring, they each inscribed a script of twists and curls,” Hinton writes. “Each winter, Summit-Gate emptied her library this way. She could see how the poems began, and that was enough.”
In his own words
“It’s easy to assume that in language we can grasp the essence of things. This is a bedrock assumption in the mainstream Western philosophical tradition; 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. Even after the most exhaustive scientific description, the most accurate philosophical account, or the most concise and imagistic poem, the ten thousand things remain, in and of themselves, a mystery beyond me.”
— from David Hinton’s “Hunger Mountain: A Field Guide to Mind and Landscape,” available from Shambhala Publications to buy or order at most bookstores.