Bei Dao in WLT Hong Kong feature

As part of its feature on Hong Kong writing, guest-edited by Tammy Ho–featuring writing by Xi Xi 西西 as translated by Jennifer Feeley, poetry by Chris Song 宋子江, and more–World Literature Today has published my translation of “Dwelling Poetically in Hong Kong,” by Bei Dao 北島, published originally in 2010.

“Dwelling poetically” comes from Heidegger. “In short,” Bei Dao explains, “to dwell is the state of being of the human, while the poetic is the attainment via poetry of a spiritual liberation or freedom; therefore, to dwell poetically is to search for one’s spiritual home.” Such thinking inspired Bei Dao to launch the Hong Kong International Poetry Nights, which he explains in the piece.

Bei Dao began Poetry Nights to cure an ill he diagnosed in the youths of Hong Kong. He writes:

Because I teach, I have a lot of contact with the youth of Hong Kong. And I worry for their generation. They were born on a production assembly line—their whole lives are determined for them in advance. This assembly line has the look of being safe and reliable, but their creativity and imagination have been hijacked—by capital, by their fathers, by the media, by the internet; they have no curiosity, no vision, no desire to read or to learn, no independence, no ability to express themselves, yes, none whatsoever. I have no doubt that this is a contributing factor to the high suicide rate of youths in Hong Kong, a contributing factor to the pervasiveness of psychological complexes among the youth of Hong Kong.

After this piece circulated online, I noticed that some were not happy with Bei Dao’s characterization of the youth of Hong Kong. I thought his judgment could use some contextualization, so Tammy Ho and I decided that as translator I should append a note, special for the online edition. I wrote:

Bei Dao wrote “Dwelling Poetically in Hong Kong” in 2010, two and a half years after moving to Hong Kong and not long after what would be the first of the International Poetry Nights in Hong Kong—a poetry festival that has helped change the cultural reputation of this city. At one point Bei Dao strikes a sour note about the youth of Hong Kong, whom he knew as his students. Much has changed in Hong Kong since he wrote this piece—the activation of the younger generation’s political engagement with Occupy Central (2014), or what was known as the Umbrella Movement, but also Bei Dao’s International Poetry Nights, which have taken place biennially since 2009. If his critique of students now rings false, then, to a certain extent, Bei Dao himself is partially to thank for that.

Click here to read the piece in full.

Shan on Yu Yoyo and Translation

The Asymptote blog has posted Xiao Yue Shan’s take on Yu Yoyo 余幼幼, as translated by Henry Zhang. Shan writes:

Floating signifiers are especially insecure in translation, in which one often has to choose between music and intention, double meanings or single ones, visual effect or faithful retellings. They present a particular dilemma because a floating signifier in one language may not be one in the other. The Chinese language, painting with a full palette of the pictorial, the symbolic, the historical, and the literal, has a tangibility that does not lapse into the vague as easily as English does. Ernest Fenollosa, in his (flawed but admirable) studies, characterized Chinese characters as a medium for poetry. It is not that Chinese is inherently more possessive of the elusive idea of poetics, but rather that the facets of Chinese language that enchanted Fenollosa with their invocation of poetry are also what result in headaches for translators. We do not count our losses in translation. Instead, we admire the growth a poem may undergo as it leaves its writer’s hand and wanders onto the page, how it may cross oceans and national borders, how it lives, how it is alive, the way we know language to be.

Shan notes that in Henry Zhang’s English version of Yu’s poem “Letter of Regret,” the word “‘love’ is applied much less liberally, turning up only four times” to Yu’s six for aiqing 爱情. “There is no retracing the tangled process of translation,” she says, “but one may guess that it has something to do with how ‘love’ weighs lighter in the Chinese language, which has ceded less value to the word in its public consciousness.”

I don’t know about that. But looking at the first stanza of the poem in Chinese and English, I wonder if Zhang was working with another version.

忏悔书

我写了那么多爱情
却从来没有
相信过
爱情到了最后
都让我变成
老死不相往来

Letter of Regret

I wrote so much love
but never
believed
love would make me
two cities, each ignoring the other

Click here to read the piece in full.

On Ha Jin on Li Bai

Lauded Chinese-American novelist and poet Ha Jin 哈金 has written a biography of Li Bai 李白, The Banished Immortal: A Life of Li Bai, newly published by Pantheon.

Because it’s by an award-winning author, the biography has been getting reviews–more than I’ve noticed for any other work in English on a Chinese poet! Yet most of these reviews have little of interest to say (I’ve only linked to one, here: Gina Elia writing for SupChina).

Here’s one that offers an interesting take, though: Han Zhang in The New Yorker, “Ha Jin’s Self-Revealing Study of the Chinese Poet Li Bai.”

In 1993, when Jin graduated, with a Ph.D. in English, he fantasized about a future rich in opportunity. Reality soon intervened: he landed only one interview and didn’t hear back. It was then that he thought of Li Bai (or Li Po, as the poet is known in the West) and began to see hardship as a path to literary excellence

Although both Li Bai and Ha Jin accepted their rootlessness, they had different ways of coping with it. Li sought constantly to cloak his pain; he chased the joy of encounters and used wine to suspend his dread. (“The fine wine of Lanling gives off a fragrance— / Held in a jade bowl, it shines with amber light,” he once wrote.) Jin, meanwhile, believes that the past—and one’s home—become a part of you, no matter the distance. In one poem, Jin writes about his grandmother, who passed away in China and spoke English to him in a dream. “No, no, you couldn’t pick up / foreign stuff over there / You must have been here, / here, in me,” he writes. “The Banished Immortal” is a biography, but it is also a document in which a rootless writer nods to the past inside him. Writing about Li Bai—his life, his work, and his country—Jin finally returns home.

Click here to read the article in full.

Daniel Tay on The Reciprocal Translation Project

Daniel Tay has written a review of The Reciprocal Translation Project, edited by James Sherry and Sun Dong 孙冬, which gives a different take from Eleanor Goodman‘s (“There is no acknowledgement of the structure, form, tone, emotional texture, repetition, surprise, rhythm, rhyme, sound effect, level of diction, intent, etc., etc., of the original,” posted here earlier). He writes:

All in all, the poems and their translations are strong and successful. That is, they make good on the editors’ aims, and do so without conclusively declaring any single work as ideal, final, better, or best. The poets generate translations that expose and negotiate the similarities and differences between Chinese and American language, poetic interests, and cultures. In doing so, they expand the criteria available for writing and considering translations.

Put another way, the poets and editors show that poems, translations, and their writers can create and function together in a poetic ecosystem. Normally placed in an evaluative hierarchy, with different works competing for critical praise and attention, these poems and their translations function in an inclusive hierarchy. This means that the poems and translations develop meaning in one another, symbiotically, with none being superior in status to the other. Moreover, no poem or translation is the title work of the collection, and no work is inferior to the collection as a whole …

In this poetic ecosystem, writers do not, as generally understood, hand down their original works to translators; instead, they hand them off – in this case to contemporaries and peers. Critics and publishers often claim that translations have “captured” an original work or its voice. The environmental model for poetics, embodied in The Reciprocal Translation Project, introduces nonlinear goals for translations, and adds a useful complexity to their relationships with original works.

This far, the review only reiterates what Sun and Sherry write in their introduction. But Tay goes on:

in observing the ways in which these questions overwhelmed me, I came to see that my questions manifested a personal resistance. With so many choices, I was refusing to settle into and engage any particular way of reading. After all, each way of reading would preclude, prevent, or worse predetermine certain understandings of the texts. How could I see past my particular way of reading to identify the aims and maneuvers of the various writers?

In showing multiple translations side by side and without commentary, the book invites readers to take stock of and maintain awareness of their own assumptions, preconditions, and demands for texts. At the same time, it asks readers to observe the variety of writers’ considerations, expectations, and intentions as expressed through their works. In essence, readers must reflect, look inward, and ultimately accept and take responsibility for their ways of reading. Only then can they negotiate, and translate between, those ways of reading and the translators’ ways of translating.

Click here to read the review in full.

Chinese Translation of 19 Ways of Looking at Wang Wei

Nineteen Ways of Looking at Wang Wei in Chinese

Eliot Weinberger’s classic study of “how a Chinese poem is translated,” Nineteen Ways of Looking at Wang Wei, has just been published in Chinese translation.

Here’s a quick write-up about it, from The World of Chinese:

For American translator and writer Eliot Weinberger, this is all part of the charm of the job. Weinberger has collected different versions of “The Deer Park” from all over the world, and in his book 19 Ways of Looking at Wang Wei, chose a select number to introduce and review, from simple transliterations to Kenneth Rexroth’s highly loose interpretation. As Octavio Paz writes in an afterword to the book: “Eliot Weinberger’s commentary on the successive translations of Wang Wei’s little poem illustrates, with succinct clarity, not only the evolution of the art of translation in the modern period but, at the same time, the changes in poetic sensibility.”

Now, Weinberger’s book has been translated back into Chinese, and published by the Commercial Press. Whether you are interested in Chinese poetry, or simply curious about the vagaries of translation, it comes highly recommended.

Click here for more.

Tammy Ho “On Xi Xi”

Xi Xi_Tammy Lai-Ming Ho.png
On Xi Xi” by Tammy Ho Lai-Ming

Xi Xi 西西 has been awarded the 2019 Newman Prize for Chinese Literature, and on March 7, at the University of Oklahoma, Tammy Ho, who nominated her, read a speech about her work.

It begins:

Both Xi Xi’s prose and fiction have inspired my own writing over the years. When I was an undergraduate student at the University of Hong Kong, I wrote a short story modelled on Xi Xi’s A Girl Like Me … Xi Xi does not always write from the perspective of women, of course—her range is too great for that and her concerns and interests too broad—but her writings that do explore the daily lives of women and their interior thoughts and feelings have, no doubt, given voice to many women and emboldened them to start writing themselves. And Xi Xi’s poetry about the small, often ephemeral, things that make life more delightful and contemplative, the people she meets, the places she frequents, the tales of seemingly insignificant individuals—what we call 小城故事 (small city stories)—have touch that is simultaneously light and profound. Xi Xi’s approach to poetry has also informed my own verse: to take inspiration from what can be seen, concretely felt, happily or patiently experienced—to take inspiration from life and living itself.

Click here for the speech in full.

Clifton on China in The Irish Times

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Harry Clifton and Bao Huiyi

Here’s a let-down of a travelogue: Irish poet Harry Clifton went to China and wrote about it for The Irish Times. At the invitation of Bao Huyi 包慧怡, and also led around by Zhai Yongming 翟永明, he nevertheless manages not to be able to write anything of particular insight into contemporary Chinese poetry–despite the article’s tag being about how “Harry Clifton was bowled over by nation’s teeming life on trip through its poetic heartland,” despite being in the company of two of China’s most interesting poets.

He writes:

This wonderfully preposterous event, involving Chinese professors, university students, joint-smoking hill-tribe poets and illiterates off the street, left me with an abiding conviction – that there is such a thing as inspired misunderstanding between peoples of goodwill comically ignorant of each other, which creates an energy that never would otherwise have existed. Beneath the flashing lights and projected texts on the walls, with Ms Zhai in her feisty hat puffing away in front of me, I realised something as old as the transfer of Zoroastrian texts up the Silk Road was happening, and with roughly the same level of comprehension.

Yes, there is “inspired misunderstanding,” but there’s also just not really connecting. I hope the next time an English-language newspaper commissions a poet to write something about a trip to China, the paper can be sure that the poet will do the appropriate research to make some sense of what goes on during the trip.

Disappointed with W.H. Auden’s Chinese sonnets, which he calls “all gigantism and moralising abstraction, with the human reality lost in its shadow,” Clifton promises “to write [his] own Chinese sonnets, with the life of the place inside them.” 加油!

Click here for the article.