A persuasive theory equates the English-language poets of the Elizabethan age (Shakespeare, Wyatt, Surrey, Sidney, Marlowe, Raleigh, Campion, and others) with the Chinese-language poets of the T’ang (or Tang) dynasty (618 to 907) which is often considered to be the Golden Age of Chinese poetry. Poets like Wang Wei, Tu Fu, Li Bai (or Li Po), and later poets like Su Shih, have in common with the Elizabethan poets and with many modern American poets that they were highly-educated and at the same time virtually unemployable. The emphasis on academic qualifications and the impossibility of attaining proper employment haunt these three eras: the Elizabethan Age, the Tang Period, and the modern American age.This means that many scholars from those three periods are highly trained in the various branches of rhetoric, yet afflicted with a world-view that is highly complex, negative, and painfully aware of the likelihood of unemployment.
The picture we in the west have of Li Bai is that of cheerful mastery through excess: he wrote millions of poems, threw most of them away, drank lots of alcohol and drowned on a drunken swim, trying to catch the reflection of the moon in the water. So legend has it.
Queen Mob’s Teahouse now features Greg Bem’s review of Lost Wax, poems by Jonathan Stalling with Chinese and English re-translations by Zhou Yu, Yao Benbiao, Nick Admussen, Jennifer Feeley, Jami Proctor-Xu, Eleanor Goodman, Andrea Lingenfelter, and me. Here’s how it ends:
Moving from poem to poem, curiosity strikes me: is the primary goal of this book to bring us toward an understanding of the nuances of multilingual and multi-personal translation? Is this just an editor’s paradise to see how the process of a significant body of learned, engaged writers see the shape of a work? If there some collective meaning across the pages? By the end of the book, I hoped for commentary. I hope for more “meta.” An afterward from or an interview between the technicians. But in its absence, I was left with my own thoughts and theories (and a drive to learn some Chinese) in hopes of getting towards an understanding of what the core meaning of “lost wax” really is.
The National (“Scotland’s only daily newspaper supporting independence”) has a write-up on Staunin Ma Lane, Brian Holton’s translation into Scots of a selection of classical Chinese poetry.
The originals date back as far as the eighth century and Holton, who says his Scots versions retains the emotional resonance, holds a strong respect for the material, saying: “If you step outside your own culture and start opening doors you never regret it.
“Pre-modern China is so different. There are more books in Chinese than any other culture in the world. It is the oldest continuous culture in the world.
“The book is an introduction to Chinese poetry in my attempt to show it can be funny and daft. It isn’t all sages sitting under trees.”
Born in Galashiels, Holton lived in Nigeria with his socialist parents, a former commando father who could speak French and Swahili and a Border Scots mum.
Holton added: “I’ve been pushing for Scots all my life. It’s an old tongue with a long history and a big range.
“I want to say to the reader, ‘deek whit the mither tongue can dae – gin it can dae this, whit’ll it no can dae?’”
Her answer is clearly yes. She asks, “why would I want to read a translation that has departed from the original? Wouldn’t I be better off reading original poetry in the target language, instead of a half-baked translation?”
She looks at Han as presented in two translations, one the recent Phone Call from Dalian with translations by Nicky Harman and Maghiel van Crevel, and the other the anthology Another Kind of Nation. Eberlein writes:
Why do we read translated poetry after all? If specific manners of expression and thinking, different uses of words and images, serve as the carrier of a different culture and reality, the stuff that draws in the translator and reader alike, what can translation accomplish? For poetry, language—the nuance of language—is paramount. We care not only about a poem’s meaning; we care equally, if not more, about how thoughts and observations are expressed in unfamiliar, refreshing ways. Form is part of content in poetry translation.
Matt Turner writes in Jacket2 about Austin Woerner’s translations of Ouyang Jianghe 欧阳江河, as published in the two Zephyr volumes Doubled Shadows 重影 and Phoenix 凤凰. He lays out the problem:
Ouyang Jianghe’s poetry presents to any translator the difficult decision of whether or not to pursue his work as a language artifact to be translated as close to literally as possible, or whether to amplify its implicit beliefs, and its abstractions — through a historical lens, or otherwise. But since he is said by translator Austin Woerner to be known as the “most hermetic of the Chinese hermetic poets,” we can expect a pronounced “cryptic language” that doesn’t easily yield access to, as Woerner describes it, “the poem’s mystery.” In such a case, translating in a straightforward manner may be an unproductive task.
quarrel with Woerner here is not over his translations per se — his Chinese is fantastic, Ouyang Jianghe is a difficult poet, and Woerner’s translation methods are up-front and consistent. My quarrel is with Woerner’s poetics, which relies upon clichés about the mysterious quality of poetry and the imagination in order to, as he ironically says, “reduce poetry to its purest essence” — an essence that apparently resides in readers’ faculties … Such renditions say more about the translator’s ideas of how poetry sounds than they do Ouyang Jianghe’s, and, more importantly, deflate any ambitious poetic work that may be happening in the Chinese. Should the reader, unaware of the details of the Chinese language or its material context, be expected to do any better? Or is the supposed “mystery” of this line the beginning of a rewarding imaginative journey?
Ouyang Jianghe 欧阳江河 gave a reading at the China Institute on May 7th, moderated by Yibing Huang (poet Mai Mang 麦芒). Here’s Matt Turner’s write-up of the event:
BUILDING POETRY WITH MATERIAL
Poet Ouyang Jianghe gave a poetry reading at the China Institute in New York, followed by a discussion with poet and professor Yibing Huang, as part of a delegation of writers from mainland China brought to the US by the Beijing Contemporary Art Foundation. The event was in Chinese and English, with the help of a very skilled interpreter.
Around 20 people came to see the reading in a small lecture hall, and all could probably speak at least some Chinese. Notably, I didn’t recognize anyone from the local poetry scene there. For the US, it was an audience of outsiders: ethnically, linguistically, and also outside of the New York literary world.
Ouyang Jianghe began his reading with a long poem from his collection Doubled Shadows, followed by several sections of his serial poem “Phoenix.” After each poem, the interpreter would read from the English translation. Despite some problems with the microphone, Ouyang Jianghe captured the attention of the audience with his distinct style of dramatic reading.
The discussion included questions from Yibing Huang about the manner in which Ouyang Jianghe wrote, about his sources of inspiration, about his poetics, and about the relationship of contemporary Chinese poetry to Classical poetry. Audience members also asked about the relationship of his poetry to current economics, and about his language use. I will try to summarize a few of Ouyang Jianghe’s points below.
Poetry in China has lately been suffering a regression: in addition to avoiding content which engages with the present moment, the language is often a repetition of what you would only see in the present: in conversation, in advertising, and so on.
He is trying to draw on a Chinese history of poetry while also not pigeonholing it as a genre limited to a particular geography, content, or even language. The combination of vernacular Chinese with its written roots, as well as an awareness of foreign languages, allows him to write to the present moment in a way that any “pure” poetry would not.
His recent poetry, as can be seen in the Chinese text of “Phoenix,” is written less for sound than to convey the materiality of language. This materiality is conveyed in a rough, even clunky, “built” language that mimics that material reality around him: constant urban construction and the shifting populations, and the assembling of new realities out of pre-existing materials, almost like collage.
The existing English translations of his work smooth-over this materiality, and focus on sound and an established idea of “poetic” language which is not there in the original.
Traditionally in China, the poem is associated with breath (qi, 气): to a certain degree the line is an allegory of the biological process of inhalation and exhalation. His poetry is interested in the moment in-between breaths, that moment of anxiety.
Stock subjects are of little interest to him. If he were to write about the natural world, he is interested in transformational moments. For example, instead of observing the movements of a fish in the water, he is interested in the moment at which that fish is removed from the water and its existence is transformed. It could be when it is taken from the water and placed on a piece of paper, or something along those lines.
Yibing Huang ended the discussion by noting that the bi-lingual forum in which this event took place was a good analog for Ouyang Jianghe’s work: impure, always shifting, and seeking to engage in different modes of discourse.
As for me, I left the reading thinking to myself that I had just seen a reading and talk by a significant poet and very imaginative theorist of contemporary poetry, but also shaking my head over the fact that so few people had been there to hear it. Part of the blame for that lies with China Institute—rarely have they been able to attract the attention of the literary world, with their often stereotypically “Chinesey” events. On the other hand, significant blame can definitely be assigned to a literary world so self-confident that it forgets the rest of the world exists, and is significant. As Ouyang Jianghe receives more publications in English, it’s my hope that the society of small presses and innovative poets in the US will begin to take notice.
At the Boston Review, Nick Admussen writes about the language of John Ashbery and Mang Ke 芒克–especially in “Sunflower in the Sun” 阳光中的向日葵 as translated by Jonathan Stalling and Huang Yibing (and forthcoming in my October Dedications from Zephyr and Chinese University Press)–in light of recent political protests.
One cannot always feel the mark of past violence in poems written later, during a time of relative peace, but such feeling is evident in the work of the poet Mang Ke, who lived and wrote through that intense moment of transition when the organized and disorganized political violence of Maoist China gave way to the uncertain openness of the early Deng era … It is possible to read this complex tableau through familiar psychological categories: PTSD, the epidemiology of violence, the mirror neuron. But I prefer to understand the poem as an aesthetic rather than deterministic reaction: we make decisions about how to construct our lives around the violence in our history. The stories we tell and the relationships we draw are like works of art, escapist, realist, obscure, lyrical, or haunted, all tethered to but not defined by the experience of the creation of pain in others.
And on Ashbery, he sees “some small proportion of Ashbery’s late poems as having a thereness-but-not-presence, an abstract understanding of a distant and unsensual truth.”
Issue 1 of the new journal Seedingsis now out, featuring a great collection of work by some of English’s best poets: Rachel Blau DuPlessis, Nathaniel Tarn, Rosmarie Waldrop, Will Alexander… and translators: Keith Waldrop (Paul Verlaine), Cole Swensen (Jaime Montestrela), Johannes Göransson (Sara Tuss Efrik)…
Worth mention on this blog are the three new translations by Matt Turner of prose poems by Lu Xun 魯迅. From “Waking” 一覺:
Planes on a mission to drop bombs, like the start of class at school every morning, fly over Beijing. Everytime I hear the sound of their parts pound the air I repeatedly feel a light tension, as though witnessing a “death” raid. But at the same time intensely feeling the “birth” of existence.
The Harvard Gazette has run a write-up promoting Stephen Owen’s complete Poetry of Du Fu: “A monumental undertaking (the prolific Du Fu left 1,400 extant poems), Owen spent nearly a decade working on the translation, which resulted in a 3,000-page, six-volume book that weighs in at nine pounds.”
Along with recordings of Owen reading some of this translations, the article also quotes Owen’s appreciation of the poet:
“He’s a quirky poet. When he moves to Chengdu with his family, he has to set up house and writes a poem to people asking for fruit trees and crockery. No one had ever done this kind of poem. He has a poem praising his bondservant Xinxing for repairing a water-piping system in his house … He’s forgotten what you can and can’t do in poetry, and 30 years later poets looked back and said, ‘This is the greatest poet we have,’” Owen said.
Here’s a recording of Owen reading his translation of “Having Been Thrown From My Horse While Drunk“:
The new Cha also features my review of László Krasznahorkai’sDestruction and Sorrow beneath the Heavens, translated from Hungarian by Ottilie Mulzet. Semi-fictional reportage about Krasznahorkai’s travels through China, it features transcripts of discussions with Chinese poets–which I elaborate on in my review:
My own reading experience was one of being amazed at the representative resonances with those whom I know among the book’s characters—critic Tang Xiaodu and poets Yang Lian and Ouyang Jianghe as well as Xi Chuan—while also being enwrapped in the dramatic tension of its various frustrations.
I also take a look at whether the book is fictional, and how Krasznahorkai plays with central questions in Chinese literary studies to
While those trained in European literature are equipped to believe that writing is in itself a fictional act, others have argued, “In the Chinese literary tradition, a poem is usually presumed to be nonfictional: its statements are taken as strictly true.” But this statement is itself at the core of further debates in Chinese literary studies, such as about Orientalism and the mental sequestering of China as an object of study that comprises much scholarship in Chinese literature.
These debates play out implicitly in the pages of the book, I say:
This is the game Krasznahorkai plays. His self-aware presentation of his Westerner’s vision is embodied and embedded in his structure. In Hungarian, Stein’s name is Dante. Changing it to Stein invokes Aurel Stein (1862–1943), the Hungarian-British archaeologist who discovered the grottoes at Dunhuang and removed four cases of relics and paintings and twenty-four cases of medieval manuscripts to the British Museum in London, where they are preserved, or to which they were stolen. But the moniker Dante also implies Destruction and Sorrow‘s knowing Eurocentrism: the book’s three-part structure proceeds through the hell of the narrator’s exasperation to the utopia of the Suzhou gardens … By positing his China as a passage through the hereafter, Krasznahorkai acknowledges his enclosure within the Western tradition. Not that all narratives in Western literature are fulfilled: from Exodus to Ulysses, heroes have failed in their journeys, too. Or that unfulfilled narratives are the only Chinese authentic: don’t the pilgrims in Journey to the West reach Buddha’s Western Heaven?