If poets are, as P. B. Shelley wrote, “the unacknowledged legislators of the world,” then translation must be one of the unacknowledged legislators of poetry. Certainly translation of Chinese poetry has been essential to modern American writing: Ezra Pound’s Cathay didn’t just invent, as T. S. Eliot put it, “Chinese poetry for our time,” it invented the possibility within English for modes of writing recognizable as somehow Chinese. Poets as dissimilar as Charles Reznikoff and Stanley Kunitz, or Charles Wright and J. H. Prynne, have built careers inhabiting these modes; from Gary Snyder’s Mountains and Rivers Without End to John Ashbery’s Mountains and Rivers, we know Chinese whispers when we hear them in American poetry because we have read Chinese poetry in an English first invented by Pound.
Never mind the inaccuracies that have often come with translating poetry from Chinese to English; inaccuracies have been one of poetic translation’s more fruitful possibilities: Aramaic gamla may mean both “camel” and “rope,” but would we cite the Bible’s suspicion of the rich entering heaven if not for the striking surrealism of camels passing through needle-eyes? Or, in that case, mind the inaccuracies, because through them a kind of poetry is born. And this is the kind of poetry that Jonathan Stalling brings us with Yingelishi: Sinophonic English Poetry and Poetics.
Some time ago this blog received a comment from Agnès Dupuis, a PhD candidate in Montréal writing her dissertation on Xi Chuan and translation into French. We started a brief but illuminating (for me, anyhow) correspondence, with her explaining the background of her argument to me via email.
Recently I came across some of her published translations of Xi Chuan’s early work, including three poems I’ve translated for Notes on the Mosquito–“Écho” 回声, my “Echo”; “Il a vieilli” 一个人老了, my “A Man Ages”; and “Mener un troupeau à la mer” 把羊群赶下大海, my “Send Your Flock to the Sea” (her first translation, “L’automne, en Quatorze Lignes,” is from Xi Chuan’s 秋天十四行, which we decided not to include). Here’s how she begins “Écho“:
Tout être est comme une ville
Il est un écho
Les briques et les pierres entassées repoussent l’océan vers le lointain
Le brouillard, aux petites heures du matin, se confine
Et toutes ces forteresses qui nous protègent de l’horizon
Mais qui donc autrefois allait faire paître le troupeau ?
Xi Chuan’s Notes on the Mosquito intercepts the traditional loveliness of the pastoral lyric with the close inspection of city eyes. This remarkable book traces the evolution of a poet who is simultaneously contemplative and social, a world-wanderer firmly rooted in his native Beijing. After the quashing of the student movement in 1989 and several years of self-imposed silence, Xi Chuan resumed writing at a point between two ends—between poetry and history, between poetry and philosophy, poetry and religion. He writes with a calm, ever-curious, and questioning intellect—a poet supremely interested in “now” and firmly resistant to either nostalgia for, or amnesia of, “then.” This welcome, bilingual selection by one of China’s preeminent contemporary poets opens more long-sealed doors to the complexity of his homeland.
I received my copy of Jade Ladder: Contemporary Chinese Poetry from Bloodaxe Books yesterday. Edited by Yang Lian 杨炼, W N Herbert, Brian Holton, and Qin Xiaoyu 秦晓宇, it’s brimming with Chinese poetry from the last thirty-five years, mostly translated by Holton with Lee Man-Kay 李漫琪 and / or Herbert. Jade Ladder includes five Xi Chuan poems–one, “Exercises in Thought” 思想练习, in my translation (which Herbert calls “marvellous work”!), one in Holton’s translation, and two done by Xi Chuan with Bill Herbert. This allows for readers to get a sense of how different translators work, and of course to see different aspects of Xi Chuan’s poetry as they find different expressions in English.
Also of interest, both to scholars and general readers, are the preface by Herbert, the introduction by Yang Lian, the essays by Qin Xiaoyu, and the afterword by Holton.
The Poetry Society of America has published my translation of Xi Chuan’s “Written at Thirty” 写在三十岁, along with a brief commentary in which I provide some background on Xi Chuan’s life and works, and discuss translating his poetry. Here’s how I end the piece:
“Written at Thirty” comes from right after Xi Chuan’s switch from lyric to expansive prose poem. While it’s not prose, obviously, it nevertheless contains the multitudes that any open look at one’s biography requires. Other translators have published their versions—both online and in print—but my translation takes advantage of Xi Chuan’s explanation to me of what he meant by the line I had earlier translated as “I grew up with the whole world’s crickets”: he said his teenage years coincided with the end of the Cultural Revolution (1966 – 1976), which also entailed a change in Chinese people’s relationship with Maoist rhetoric. Much of his poem, he said, was an attempt to “write through” his upbringing and the language around him. English-speakers being, for obvious reasons, much less attuned to Marxist diction, I rewrote my translation through the final appeal of The Communist Manifesto, to translate the line as “with working crickets of all countries I grew up.”
Last week Words Without Borders was reporting on location from the London Book Fair, and their report from Day 3 is full of excitement about Chinese poetry in English and the newly published Jade Ladder: Contemporary Chinese Poetry, which includes my translations of some of Xi Chuan’s work. Here’s the beginning of their writeup:
The highlight of the third and final day at the Literary Translation Center was a conversation among poets, editors, and translators about an exciting new book of contemporary Chinese poetry. The book is called Jade Ladder—and the panelists discussing it, and related subjects, sounded like just the playful, dissenting and sensitive voices you’d hope to find in such company.
As I posted before, Xi Chuan was one of the panelists at the event, but for some reason WWB didn’t mention him by name; nor did they mention him as part of the Chinese poetry panel with Han Dong 韩东 and Nicky Harman, either, which he also participated in. Ah well.
Last week at the London Book Fair Xi Chuan was interviewed in Chinese by China Arts Critique 中國藝術批評, a discussion covering internet poetry, the state of translations of international poetry into Chinese, and the state of Chinese poetry abroad, including the new anthology Jade Ladder: Contemporary Chinese Poetry and my translation of his selected poems, Notes on the Mosquito.
It’s a nice, quick interview, but I do have one gripe. Instead of giving our book its proper title, Notes on the Mosquito in Chinese (蚊子志), they wrote it as 蚊子痣–which means “mosquito’s mole.”
The New Directions website posts a featured “Poet of the Week,” and this week it’s Xi Chuan!
In addition to posting sections of my translations of Xi Chuan’s “The City I Live In” 我居住的城市, “Beast” 巨兽, and “On My Meaningless Life” 关于我的无意义的生活, the feature also quotes from my introduction giving some of the context and background of Xi Chuan’s life and work.
Take a loook!