TIME on the Poet who Died for your Phone

Time Magazine has a feature on Xu Lizhi 许立志, the former poet and Foxconn employee who committed suicide last September, whom they call “The Poet who Died for your Phone.”

In his 3½ years in Shenzhen, Xu captured life there in brutal, beautiful detail. In the city, the country kid found a voice that roared, publishing poems in company newspaper Foxconn People and sharing his work online. Factory workers are often treated as interchangeable, anonymous. To readers, his words were a reminder that every laborer has a mind and heart; for him, writing was a way out. “Writing poems gives me another way of life,” he told a Chinese journalist in an unpublished interview that TIME has seen. “When you’re writing poems, you’re not confined to the real world.”

As sidebars to their article, Time runs and links to translations of Xu’s poems by The Nao Project as published at libcom.org. In the body of the article, however, they quote (and alter, incorrectly: mala tang is not soup) my translation of “I Speak of Blood” 我谈到血, published by China Labour Bulletin–though without crediting me:

In the 2013 “I Speak of Blood,” Xu Lizhi captured the teeming cosmopolitanism of his adopted home, observing from his “matchbox” room a mix of: “Stray women in long-distance marriages/ Sichuan chaps selling mala soup/ Old ladies from Henan running stands/ And me with my eyes open all night to write a poem/ After running about all day to make a living.”

Translators, too, are often treated as interchangeable, anonymous. (Nao had their own problems with their translations being run, uncredited, by Bloomberg).

Time also notes that “Chinese poet Qin Xiaoyu [秦晓宇] is making a documentary film about Xu’s life and work.”

Translation, Chineseness, & World Literature in Chinese Poetry

May 8, 2015 (Friday), 4:00-5:30 pm
Room 730, Run Run Shaw Tower, Centennial Campus, HKU
Foreign Echoes & Discerning the Soil:
Translation, Chineseness, & World Literature in Chinese Poetry
Presenter: Lucas Klein; Commentator: Xiaofei Tian 田曉菲
What constitutes the relationship between world literature and Chineseness? How has translation shaped Chinese poetry, and can translation be understood as at the foundation not only of world literature, but of Chineseness, as well? This talk will begin to answer these questions by demonstrating how Chineseness as an aspect of the Chinese poetic tradition is itself a result of translation. Looking at Chinese poetry’s negotiation with concepts central to translation—nativization and foreignization, or the work’s engagement with the Chinese historical heritage or foreign literary texts and contexts, respectively—I argue not only that Chinese poetry can be understood as translation, but for an understanding of the role of such translation in the constitution of both Chineseness and world literature. After contextualizing recent debates in the field of Sinology and translation studies, I will examine the work of Bian Zhilin 卞之琳 (1910 – 2000) and his implicit vision for a world literature able to merge the Chinese literary heritage with Western influence. Since debates around world literature, especially in Chinese literary studies, focus on the modern era, however, I shift focus with a discussion of the Tang dynasty (618 – 907), when China had earlier become highly international, even cosmopolitan, in a detailed look at the history of regulated verse (lüshi 律詩), describing not only its origins in Sanskrit but how it maintained associations with Buddhism. Following this, I consider the work of Du Fu 杜甫 (712 – 770) to understand how the canonization of his work nativized regulated verse through its historiography. I conclude with a reconsideration of the ethics of world literature and translation in determining our understanding of the local.
Click the image above for more information.

Sound & Image: Chinese Poets in Conversation

IMGP0652As part of the “Birds of Metal in Flight” event, Columbia University hosted a panel discussion with Bei Dao 北岛, Ouyang Jianghe 欧阳江河, Xi Chuan 西川, Zhai Yongming 翟永明, Zhou Zan 周瓒, and Xu Bing 徐冰, as moderated by Lydia Liu 刘禾 and John Rajchman and introduced by Eugenia Lean, titled “Sound and Image: Chinese Poets in Conversation with Artist Xu Bing.” Click the image above for more information & photos, or here to stream the discussion via iTunes.

Alex Beecroft on Untranslated World Literature

To promote his new book, An Ecology of World Literature: From Antiquity to the Present Day, Alexander Beecroft blogs for Verso on “a list of five works of world literature which you may not be able to read (even if perhaps you should) – because they haven’t been translated into English, or there is no readily available translation into English.” He adds, “Let these five stand in for the thousands of other books, great, good, and bad, we won’t be able to read until somebody translates them.” He starts with Ruan Ji 阮籍 (210-261), Poems which sing my emotions. 詠懷詩:

I’ll begin with a text I have read (and one which has actually been translated; a translation by Graham Hartill was published in China in 1988 and reprinted there in 2006, but it’s available in only a handful of university libraries, and not for sale at Amazon) … One of the most memorable of these voices belonged to Ruan Ji, one of the so-called “Seven Sages of the Bamboo Grove.” The Seven Sages were a group of intellectuals who had risen to prominence under the Wei dynasty, the short-lived successor to the Han. The Wei ruling house, the Cao family, produced several great poets themselves, and poetry, painting, religious learning and “pure conversation” flourished in their era, but under their successors, the Western Jin, life got more complicated for intellectuals, and the Seven Sages (we are told) cultivated an air of eccentricity to provide an alibi for their detachment from court and continued artistic and scholarly production.

Click the image for the full list.

Jonathan Stalling’s translingual synesthesia of Rimbaud’s Bateau Ivre

I raced, stained by the moon’s electric
爱  日北四大, 四大北那大 八爱  浊舌呀 么  马乌乌那’四   弟拉也吃丝卡 
fragments, timbers crazed, black sea-
发日言言哥马么那台四, 台丝丝马八么儿四   卡日北浊四  大, 八拉言卡   四弟
horses as my escort, July’s battering me—
哈够日四么浊四    言浊四   马爱   也四卡啊日台,扎乌乌拉爱’ 浊四    八言台么儿冰   马弟—

So begins Jonathan Stalling’s version of Arthur Rimbaud’s Le Bateau ivre for the twentieth anniversary of Drunken Boat, which he explains,

In this reworking of Rimbaud’s “The Drunken Boat,” I wanted to set the poem adrift through a disordering of the senses corresponding to systems of writing (alphabets, syllabaries, or logographies) which create the conceptual foundation for imagining languages as irrevocably separate from one another. I believe that we can access forms of linguistic synesthesia that will free us to see different writing systems not as walls between but bridges into other languages … Unlike the system I used in my book Yingelishi, the script below sequences English speech sounds at the level of phonemes (individual sounds) rather than morphemes (in the case of Chinese full syllables). In short, this poem is English, just not through the same Romanized senses.

And read Anna Rosenwong‘s excellent essay, which starts with Eliot Weinberger and Octavio Paz on Wang Wei 王維, and goes on to explain the feature:

The project’s irreverence—anthropophagism— is made possible by this journal’s sense of “Le bateau ivre,” of Rimbaud, of French symbolist poetry, even of the French language, as too well-respected, too established to tarnish or appropriate in a problematic way. Working with classic texts, one feels she is at liberty to be a punk. Framing is likewise an enabler: in an envelope-pushing journal and section such as this, introduced by this hedging editorial note, the boats are clearly marked as a kind of risky play, their transgression a testament to the aura of the original.

Follow the links for the sites in question.

Occupy Translation

Some weeks ago I took a walk and wrote about it. After a few more walks, I wrote a letter about something I often think about, “the ins and outs of the inter-lingual feedback loop that occurs when global events put languages and cultures in contact,” which was featured in the Asia Review of Books. Here’s how it begins:

Though many of my students have been boycotting classes, if they pay the right kind of attention, they can pick up on some of the lessons I would have led them to anyway.

Click the image above to read the brief post in full.

Occupied

2014-09-29 15.44.38I went for a walk the other day and wrote about it. Robert Archambeau posted it on his (aptly named) Samizdat blog. Here’s the passage that’s gathered the most attention:

One thing she said to me, though, I almost wish she hadn’t: “Stay safe.” It’s something I’ve heard or read from any number of friends in Hongkong and around the world, and of course it’s generally good practice as well as something of a filler when you don’t know what else to say. It’s also a reminder that we’re dealing with a police force that has used brutality already, and that behind that police force is a national government that has called the military and their loaded and aimed weapons onto peaceful demonstrators in the not too distant past. And yet. “Stay safe” verges on blaming the victim: it puts the responsibility on us as politically active individuals acting collectively in solidarity to temper our demands and actions so that they don’t provoke violent retaliation. That, I think, is wrong. It’s the job of the police and the state that employs them to keep us safe, and when they fail at their job, we need to stop their vehicles and halt the economy that offers them legitimacy. And when that happens, well, I’ve rarely felt safer than I did today

Click on the image above for my full post.

Notes on the Mosquito at M-Dash Untranslatables

Egyptian Translator 700x428 copyM-Dash, the new literary journal from Autumn Hill Books, is running a series called “The Untranslatables” — “about those words or phrases that give us pause as translators, that stump us and then, sometimes, enlighten us.”

To inaugurate their feature, they invited me to contribute something from my translation of Xi Chuan’s Notes on the Mosquito. I wrote about my translation of the line there is a crowd of commoners as purple as red cabbage 有一群百姓像白菜一样翠绿. Here’s a teaser:

The line deals with the essences of Chinese, but with a twist. While many scholars have codified the Chinese aesthetic as metonymic and literal, the poetry of Xi Chuan’s line operates by revealing the fiction in the Chinese language’s conceptualization: white cabbage is not white (that it is modified by the quintessentially Chinese “jade green” twists the twist with even more torque) … In this instance, though, I sacrificed the insinuation about Chinese in particular to imply that all languages may contain such falsehoods and misnomers: as purple as red cabbage, because, of course, red cabbage is not red. And to reproduce the poïesis of Xi Chuan’s alliteration, such as with the chiasmus of /b/ and /x/ (IPA [ɕ]) and the repeated /c/ (IPA [tsʰ]) in yǒu yìqún bǎixìng xiàng báicài yíyàng cuìlǜ, I preceded it with, there is a crowd of commoners.

Click the image above to link to the full piece.

Oleander Press’s Selected Poems of Xu Zhimo and Denial of the Translator

PictureOn their promotional webpage for the Selected Poems of Xu Zhimo 徐志摩, Oleander Press cites Andrew Hamilton’s praise for the volume’s “excellent translations.”

Hamilton’s praise, however, must not have registered enough with the Oleander editors, since nowhere in the book do they credit any translator, and on the copyright page the press–not the translator–asserts copyright over the translation.

I’ll quote The Complete Review on a similar case:

Folks, this is not okay. This is not acceptable. This is outrageous.
… any publisher that is commissioning ‘work for hire’ translations, or that retains the translation copyright, is not doing right by authors, translators, readers, or the literary culture in general.
I remind you that PEN explicitly advises translators: “We do not recommend accepting work-for-hire agreements”. No kidding. But translators often don’t have bargaining power; publishers with any sort of integrity shouldn’t even be suggesting it. (Alas, many, many still do — you know who you are, and shame on you.)

My sources tell me that Oleander, a Cambridge UK-based press, is only publishing this book to sell as a souvenir to tourists to their city (a demographic that in recent years has trended Chinese), where Xu famously attended classes for a year. I do not see this as a sufficient excuse for refusing to credit the translator, particularly when they advertise their publication of “excellent” versions.

The Aurora Borealis Prize

People’s Daily reports:

On the afternoon of August 2nd, during the member’s assembly of the 20th World Conference of the Federation of International Translators (FIT), FIT conferred The “Aurora Borealis” Prize on Xu Yuanchong, a Chinese translator. This international award is hosted every three years. Xu is the first Chinese winner of the award.

As this blog often hosts links to goings-on in Chinese poetry (from any era) as translated into or reported in English, I try to keep things civil–there is a lot of Chinese poetry, and a lot of different tastes, and not much translation, so I want to accommodate and encourage as much breadth as possible. Translation is an expression not of oneself but of another, and I don’t feel the need to parade my opinions on this format. If I don’t want to repeat something, I’ll pass over it in silence, as they say–and maybe you can’t tell whether I’m relegating it to oblivion out of spite or if I just missed it.

But sometimes I can’t resist letting my opinions be known. The People’s Daily article quoted above, about the Aurora Borealis award going to Xu Yuanchong 许渊冲 (sometimes written as Xu Yuanzhong, I think because he likes his initials being X. Y. Z.), is unclear about whether the prize is from FIT or the Norwegian Association of Literary Translators, so my opinions will have to remain untargeted. At any event, they praise him for “facilitating communication between Chinese, English and French,” and though I can’t say anything about his translations into Chinese, I will say that I draw a different conclusion from the article’s note about “how painstakingly Xu applies himself to Shakespeare’s texts” when I read of his “plan to finish the complete works of Shakespeare in five years.”

More importantly, though, I will say this as clearly as I can: Xu Yuanchong is the absolute worst translator of Chinese poetry into English I have ever read.

Nor am I the only one to think so. I defy any reader of English poetry to get through a translation of Xu’s without an eye roll. As Brian Holton has written in “When the Blind Lead the Blind” :

The egregious Xu Yuanzhong, … though he has the impudence to style himself ‘the greatest living Chinese-English translator’ (personal communication 2000), he is the worst possible role model and a pernicious influence on younger scholars and students in China, who are not aware that seniority and self-advertisement do not confer literary skill in English.

I recommend reading Holton’s short piece. I do not recommend reading any of Xu’s translations into English. And I have no idea what the FIT or the Norwegian Association of Literary Translators could have possibly been thinking in giving this guy such an award.