23 juin 2023 – Arts, anthropologie et linguistique au début du 20e siècle : Edward Sapir et Ezra Pound

Séance scientifique
vendredi 23 juin 2023

Olympe de Gouges, 533
(lien zoom sur demande)

Cette séance scientifique s’intéressera à l’influence mutuelle des arts, de l’anthropologie et de la linguistique au début du 20e siècle en prenant deux exemples : les travaux critiques et poétiques d’Edward Sapir sur la musique, et la traduction de poésies chinoises d’Ezra Pound dans le recueil Cathay (1915).

Pound’s Cathay Reconsidered: Translation, Language, and Poetics
James Dowthwaite, University of Jena

The story of Ezra Pound’s translations of Chinese poetry in Cathay (1915) is a curious one for literary scholars and particularly for scholars of translation. Pound was a prolific translator. By 1915, drawing on his studies in languages at university, he had translated extensively from Latin, French, Spanish, Italian, Provencal, and Old English. It was a surprise, then, that he should turn to Chinese in his thirtieth year, a language in which he was a novice at best. Pound had been given the manuscripts of notes belonging to Ernest Fenollosa, a sinologist and historian of art, who had worked in Tokyo and who had recently died. Fenollosa had been preparing a series of manuscripts of Chinese literature and philosophy, with a particular focus on the poetic qualities of the Chinese writing system. Fenollosa believed that Chinese characters were graphic representations of natural processes and the structures of being. Amongst Fenollosa’s papers were also notes towards translations of old Chinese poetry, including many poems by Li Bai (Rihaku in Japanese). From these notes, Pound wrought the poems collected in Cathay. William Carlos Williams said that if these poems were originals they would be ‘the best in the language’, a sentiment echoed by T.S. Eliot at the time, and Harold Bloom over half a century later. Pound has been central to literary theories of translation, his radical technique of foregrounding his own poetic practice prompting Lawrence Venuti to make him the centre of his The Translator’s Invisibility (1995) and Jacques Derrida commented on the ‘irreducibly graphic poetics’ that Pound gleaned from Fenollosa. The translations have also, however, been controversial. Pound did not read Chinese when he produced them, Fenollosa himself was approaching the texts from a second-hand remove in Japan, and – if accuracy is a virtue of translation – they are error-strewn. This means, then, that Cathay asks interesting questions of translation, of the creative potential of foreign literatures, and of the theory of language that apparently underpins them. Numerous scholars have explored the influence that Fenollosa’s theories had on Pound’s thought on language. My argument is that the poems in this collection do reveal much about Pound’s view of language, but not in the way one would think. Where Pound has been seen to base his theory of poetry on a Fenollosan theory of language, I argue it is the other way round: Pound, like Fenollosa, is not a theorist of language at all, but a theorist of poetry; his linguistics are subordinate to his poetics. When Pound came upon Fenollosa’s notes, he saw a kindred spirit, and an approach to writing that matched theories he had already developed. I will outline what these are, how Cathay fits in to them, and what they say about the relationship between poetry and language.

Early Linguistic Anthropology and the Musical Poetics of Edward Sapir
A. Elisabeth Reichel, Osnabrück University

“The Clog-Dancer,” original manuscript by Edward Sapir.

My talk ventures back in the history of linguistic anthropology to consider Franz Boas’s ethnographic concern with ‘sound-blindness’ in his landmark essay “On Alternating Sounds” (1889) for profitable use in current debates around sound and music. By revealing his evolutionist contemporaries’ diagnosis of “alternating sounds” in the languages of their “primitive” subjects to be the result of their own, alternating apperception and its contingency on such parameters as nationality and linguistic knowledge, Boas tackled the Euro- and ethnocentrism that has remained unchallenged in much twentieth- and twenty-first-century sound studies scholarship. Through the lens of his forceful early challenge to the idea of immediate, not always already culturally coded acoustic perception, my talk explores how the Boasian questions of sound-blindness and acoustic enculturation play out in the musico-literary imagination of Edward Sapir, one of Boas’s first students as well as a prolific early-twentieth-century poet and critic. In the first part of the talk, I focus in particular on the case of jazz music, which provides a recurring theme and point of contention in Sapir’s poetic and critical writing, figuring prominently, for instance, in the poem “On Hearing Plaintive Jazz by Radio” (1924) and his review of The Book of American Negro Spirituals, edited by the NAACP leader James Weldon Johnson (1928). The second part examines the rivalry between music and literature in Sapir’s treatments of European classical music and of what he thought of as “primitive” and “folk” music. My analysis of the poems “The Clog-Dancer” (1919) and “To Debussy: ‘La Cathédrale Engloutie’” (1917) together with the essays “Percy Grainger and Primitive Music” (1916) and “The Musical Foundations of Verse” (1921) shows that this rivalry is inflected by the cultural associations with which the respective acoustics are fraught. Thus while primitive and folk music are denied equal standing, placed in an earlier stage of musical development, and serve as a mere adjunct to literary writing, European classical music engages with literature in a mutually complementary relationship. In stark contrast to the salvage imperative that informs Sapir’s take on primitive and folk music, and which requires a separate medium that is able to capture what he calls “unwritten” music, his literary treatment of European classical music is inspired by hopes that the dominant writing system will ultimately change in a way that renders the musical rhythms of his poems not “intrinsically alien to” his words (Sapir to Ruth Benedict, December 12, 1924), not a strange system of signs but their well-sounding counterpart.


Boaz, Franz. On Alternating Sounds. American Anthropologist 2(1). 47-54.

Dowthwaite, James. 2019. Ezra Pound and 20th-Century Theories of Language. Faith with the Word. New York: Routledge. (Routledge Studies in Twentieth-Century Literature).

Pound, Ezra. 1915. Cathay. London: Elkin Mathews.

Reichel, A. Elisabeth. 2021. Writing Anthropologists, Sounding Primitives. The Poetry and Scholarship of Edward Sapir, Margaret Mead, and Ruth Benedict. Linclon: The University of Nebraska. (Critical Studies in the History of Anthropology Series).

Sapir, Edward. 1916. Percy Grainger and Primitive Music. American Anthropologist 18(4). 592– 597.

Sapir, Edward. 1917. To Debussy: “La Cathédrale Engloutie”. Dreams and Gibes.Boston: Gorham. 57.

Sapir, Edward. 1919. The Clog-Dancer. [manuscript] March 3, 1919. Edward Sapir Papers. American Philosophical Society Library, Philadelphia PA.

Sapir, Edward. 1921. The Musical Foundations of Verse. Journal of English and Germanic Philology 20(2). 213–228

Sapir, Edward. 1924. On Hearing Plaintive Jazz by Radio. [manuscript] June 15, 1924. Edward Sapir Papers. American Philosophical Society Library, Philadelphia PA.

Sapir, Edward. 1928. Rev. of The Book of American Negro Spirituals, ed. by James Weldon Johnson. Journal of American Folklore 41/159. 172–74

23 juin 2023 – Arts, anthropologie et linguistique au début du 20e siècle : Edward Sapir et Ezra Pound
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