'Red Pine' talks translation, fluff and writing

Robin Dudley news@ptleader.com
Posted 10/18/16

Atop Morgan Hill in Port Townsend lives a writer who doesn't write.

"I've told both my publishers, I'm not writing any more books," said Bill Porter, a translator, scholar of Chinese language and …

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'Red Pine' talks translation, fluff and writing


Atop Morgan Hill in Port Townsend lives a writer who doesn't write.

"I've told both my publishers, I'm not writing any more books," said Bill Porter, a translator, scholar of Chinese language and culture, and travel writer who earlier this year finished three books about southern China, bringing his total to 20 books in print.

"It's enough. I never planned to write books, it just happens," he said.

Many of his books are translations of Chinese poetry accompanied by commentary. He translates under the pen name Red Pine.

When he lived in a monastery in Taiwan in the 1970s, he had a Buddhist name: Victorious Cloud, given to him in New York City by "the guy who taught me how to meditate."

Chinese students of English sometimes choose as English names words like "Snowball," he said, while talking about his moniker.

"When I moved out of the monastery, I needed a street name." Coming down a mountain on a bus, he saw an ad for Black Pine Cola and liked that name, but not the color. "It's not a Chinese color." So he chose Red Pine.

In 2600 B.C., the Yellow Emperor's rain master was named Red Pine. "He could influence the rain," Porter explained. "So, I realized it was a real name."

Red Pine's first translation, "Collected Songs of Cold Mountain," (1983) was published by Copper Canyon Press, still based at Fort Worden in Port Townsend. "I love to translate. I love the art of translation. It's a performance art," he said. "When you translate, you're very much like a shaman. You're translating things you don't have a name for."


Porter's three most recent books are "South of the Clouds: Travels in Southwest China" (2015); "The Silk Road: Taking the Bus to Pakistan" (2016); and "South of the Yangtze: Travels Through the Heart of China," set to be published in July, all from Counterpoint Press.

Porter is a great writer. "South of the Clouds" is a conversational ramble filled with visceral descriptions of food, buses, hot springs – and legends. He's an anthropologist and a people person; he writes about people he meets and relates the stories of their ancestors without wasting a word.

The books have photos; he brought along Port Townsend residents Finn Wilcox and photographer Steven Johnson on the trips in 1991 and 1992, which the books are based on.

Nine of Porter's books have been translated into Chinese. He may be best known for "Road to Heaven: Encounters with Hermits" (1993), which sold a quarter-million copies, and "made me rather well known in China," he said. "Every time I go to China, I get recognized on the street."

A 2015 documentary film about Porter's interviews with hermits, called "Hermits," screened at the 2016 Victoria Film Festival.

"Chinese hermits are part of society, a really important part of society," he said. "American hermits are misanthropes. Chinese hermits are there to help people. You're getting your Ph.D. in spirituality."

The hermit trips were funded by $9,000 from Winston Wong, a Taiwanese businessman whom Porter met working at a radio station in Taipei.


Porter, 72, was born in Los Angeles and grew up in Idaho.

In 1961, he was studying painting at the University of California, Santa Barbara (UCSB), but flunked out. "I had no talent at all." Also, he was having an affair with a woman in the Bay Area, taking the train there every weekend, he said.

Next, he studied psychology at Palomar College. Flunked out. Then English literature at Pasadena College. Flunked out, again.

Drafted in 1964, he spent three years in the U.S. Army in Germany, then went back to UCSB and studied anthropology.

"Anthropology includes everything," he said. "It's about the human existence. You could study bones ... ideas ... dance."

He went to graduate school because "I just didn't want to work," and chose Columbia University, partly because Margaret Mead and Ruth Benedict were teaching there. He had just read "The Way of Zen" by Alan Watts, and on his application form, he checked a box indicating an interest in Chinese language, which he began studying in 1972 while at Columbia.

"It's a language I'm still learning."

In New York, a Chinese monk taught him how to meditate. "I started thinking meditation is much more interesting than anthropology." After two years, he quit and went to a live at a monastery in Taiwan; a classmate had given him the address. He spent a year there, then moved to a quieter one in the mountains; the first monastery had too many visiting tourists. At the monasteries, one would sit, meditate, take long walks – sometimes play basketball in the afternoons – and study philosophy.

"There was a girl who sat behind me who I fell in love with," he said. That was at the first monastery. While he lived at the second one, he would walk down the hill and take the train 40 minutes to Taipei to meet her at a coffee shop called the Astoria, which was started by Chiang Ching-kuo, Chiang Kai-shek's son, who had gone to Russia and become a Communist. "All the intellectuals hung out there," Porter said. He met Ku Lien-chang there every Saturday. She also studied philosophy. Together they read Taoist texts from the third century B.C., with commentary by a Buddhist from the 15th century.

"No Chinese would read a text without commentary," he said.

Later, he taught English for a few years in a farming community outside Taipei. Eventually, Ku Lien-chang's parents let them get married. She still spends winters in Taiwan, and "comes back [to Port Townsend] around planting season."


After his honeymoon, Porter got a job at a newspaper and was soon hired by International Community Radio Taipei to read newspapers and summarize top stories on the radio. Then, he worked at a radio station in Hong Kong. He traveled around China and gathered stories to tell in the radio, short "fluff" stories; he also did an interview program on the radio.

"I became a fluff master. I was master of my craft," he said. "People would listen every day."

After two years in Hong Kong, Porter returned to the U.S. and lived with the poet Gary Snyder for a while in the Sierra Nevada.

He moved to Port Townsend because "I hadn't found anyplace better." He brought his wife and two kids here – they were in elementary school, didn't speak English and had a hard time here at first, he said. His son, 33, and his daughter, 29, now live in Seattle.

Porter doesn't write anymore – or at least that's what he tells his publishers "so they'll leave me alone," he said.

"Everything I've learned about writing I learned from doing radio," he said. "The hook. You've got to grab people's attention right away, and you have to keep it. You can't digress. You learn naturally to be terse and succinct, and focus on things that people can grasp right away. Not the arcana. What I write, it's for the readers, not myself.

"You don't want people to hear the words. You want them to hear the story. Like translation."

Find his books at

counterpointpress.com and