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.

Daryl Lim on Yeh’s Yang Mu at Cha

Over at Cha, Daryl Lim reviews Hawk of the Mind: Collected Poems (Columbia University Press), the selected poems of Yang Mu 楊牧, edited by Michelle Yeh. Though Lim credits Yang’s poetry as “lyrical, urbane, cosmopolitan and deeply humanist,” he’s less impressed with the volume:

We are not told whether Collected in fact represents Yang Mu’s entire poetic oeuvre, or whether the editor has made selections. If so (which I suspect to be the case), it is also unclear how the editor went about making these choices or what organising principle lies behind them. I gather the poems are arranged chronologically. (But I can’t be sure.) Finally, the foreword tells me that I, the reader, will through engagement with Yang Mu’s poetry, “emerge more aware of the world and what it means to be human.” As it is though, I am still unaware of the shape of Yang Mu’s poetic corpus and career.

As for the translations,

No less than eleven translators are listed in the final pages of the book … I wish then that the editor, Michelle Yeh, had also written about the possible issues arising from this: did she consider whether having eleven translators for the work of one poet might lead to issues of coherence or dissonance? Did she consider re-translating (she is one of the translators) some of the poems? Did she edit any of the translations? Without the benefit of the original texts on the facing page (or even the original Chinese titles), it is difficult for the reviewer to judge whether the diversity of translators has had any effect on the final product. It is very difficult to look up specific poems. (There is also no index of poems or first lines.)

Not that Lim names them, of course (other than Arthur Sze, in one example). Then again, neither does Columbia UP on its web page for the book.

Click here for the full review.

Meng Lang, 1961 – 2018

Shanghai-born poet Meng Lang 孟浪, co-founder of Independent Chinese PEN, passed away following a battle with cancer on December 12 in Hong Kong.

The New York Times has run an article on his life, mentioning a few friends of this blog:

Meng Lang was born in Shanghai in 1961 and participated in several unofficial poetry movements in China throughout the 1980s, according a short biographical sketch published by Cha: An Asian Literary Journal, where Ms. [Tammy] Ho is a founding editor.

He later helped edit the book “A Compendium of Modern Chinese Poerty, 1986-1988,” and was a writer in residence at Brown University from 1995 to 1998, according to the sketch. Professor Huang [Yibing] of Connecticut College said that Mr. Meng moved to Hong Kong from the United States in 2006, and to Taiwan in 2015.

Mr. Meng “played an important, fearless role in championing an unorthodox, experimental and free-spirited poetry in China back in the 1980s,” Professor Huang, who is also a poet, said in an email.

The article also quotes lines from a poem of Meng’s, as translated by Anne Henochowicz:

Broadcast the death of a nation
Broadcast the death of a country
Hallelujah, only he is coming back to life.
Who stopped his resurrection
This nation has no murderer
This country has no bloodstain.

An article in Radio Free Asia also provides context on his life and works:

He had also managed an Archive of Chinese Underground Literature and Exile Literature after moving to the democratic island of Taiwan.

According to Taiwan poet Hung Hung, Meng always felt he was in exile after moving to Taiwan and Hong Kong to live with his Taiwan-born wife, Tu Chia-chi [杜家祁].

“He would say that it’s hard for trees to uproot and move somewhere else, and that he was forced into exile as a Chinese,” Hung Hung [鴻鴻] said. “This exile was thrust upon him, and it was particularly hard for him.”

“His last poem, about a fallen leaf finally blowing back home, is very beautiful and moving,” Hung said. “I think now he has passed away, the fallen leaf has finally returned home.”

Nick Admussen tweeted with links to more of his poems in English translation.

There has been an outpouring of affection and remembrances of Meng Lang on his Facebook page, and there is a reading in his memory in Hong Kong tomorrow night (Tuesday, December 18).

Alexander Dickow on Li Shangyin and Mang Ke

The new issue of Plume is here, and with it Alexander Dickow’s “Mystery and Surprise: Two Chinese Poets,” reviewing two quite different books of Chinese poetry in translation: Li Shangyin 李商隱, translated by Chloe Garcia Roberts, Lucas Klein, and A.C. Graham (NYRB), and October Dedications, the selected poetry of Mang Ke 芒克, translated by Lucas Klein with Yibing Huang and Jonathan Stalling (Zephyr / Chinese UP).

The review begins:

The contemporary Chinese poet Mang Ke and the Tang dynasty poet Li Shangyin (9th century) could hardly be more different. The former, particularly in the later poems of the chronologically arranged collection, seems fresh and spontaneous, capricious; the latter hermetic and mysterious. The contrast lends itself to an examination of what makes both poets’ work alluring. Li Shangyin seems to offer the mystique of an authentically coded poetic language. While both Mang Ke and Li Shangyin are highly allusive, Mang Ke feels bright and sensuous, Li Shangyin dark and richly layered.

It’s rare enough for translated poetry to be reviewed at all, but when it is reviewed it tends to be reviewed by other experts in the field. I think it’s wonderful that these books are reviewed by a translator of French poetry with no expertise in China or Chinese literature. If our readers are only those who can check our work, what’s the point of translating in the first place? The whole purpose of translation is bringing work from one language to new audiences, so it’s wonderful that Plume went with a reviewer who doesn’t need to know Chinese, but clearly understands poetry and translation.

Click here to read the review in full.

Goodman on Poetry and Translation at NüVoices

In the newest installment of the NüVoices Podcast, Eleanor Goodman talks to Alice Xin Liu and guest host Lijia Zhang 张丽佳 about poetry, translation, poetry translation and the place of women in these fields in the US and China.

She reads from her translations and from her own poetry, with particular attention to her translations of Wang Xiaoni 王小妮 and migrant worker poetry.

Listen here, or click the image above to listen at the SupChina.com host site.

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Lucas Klein Talking Translation with Leeds Centre for New Chinese Writing

As a follow-up to Xi Chuan’s being October 2018 author-of-the-month at the Leeds Centre for New Chinese Writing, the Centre is now hosting a Talking Translation interview with me!

They ask, and I answer:

Do you have any advice for readers new to Xi Chuan about where best to begin or how to approach his poetry?

My advice to new readers of Xi Chuan would be different depending on what those readers are used to reading, because he made a pretty big stylistic change in the early nineties. If you like well-crafted lyrical poems, calm and deep, then start with his earliest publications at the beginning of Notes on the Mosquito and work your way through the whole book. If you like more expansive prose poems, long sequences, and the poetics of knowledge with a good sense of humor, then maybe skip Xi Chuan’s earliest work and start with his prose poetry—or what he calls “poessays”—coming back to his earlier lyrics later.

Click the link above for the full interview.

James Sherry’s reply to Goodman’s review of The Reciprocal Translation Project

As I posted in early August, Eleanor Goodman reviewed The Reciprocal Translation Project (Roof Books), edited by James Sherry and Sun Dong, for LARB‘s China Channel. She called the book a “messy, fraught endeavor”:

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.

Well now James Sherry has replied, in the form of a letter to the editor of China Channel. “I agree with Goodman,” he writes, “that we should expand our description of the ‘bilingual specialists’ to include these translators’ other roles as mentioned above. In the second printing, we have amended that.” He concludes, though:

I do appreciate Goodman’s term “responses” to describe some of the poetic translations of the original poems, but her tendency to look at the translation process from a single perspective undermines her own well-framed statement “translation is a notoriously tricky business.” The Reciprocal Translation Project establishes a range of solutions, not all of which will be imitated, but will all be read as relevant to the process of communicating between languages and cultures. Clearly, the standard approach has not produced great understanding between our two cultures. Perhaps this discussion with all its outliers, queerness and experiments can promote a willingness to see poetry in global and environmental terms instead of only in terms of our prior understanding. Thanks, Eleanor, for inviting this discussion.

Click the image above for the letter in full.

 

The 2018 Lucien Stryk Prize

DarkeningMirrorFinalCoversThe 2018 Lucien Stryk Asian Translation Prize shortlist has been announced, with Diana Shi and George O’Connell’s Darkening Mirror, translations of Wang Jiaxin 王家新 (Tebot Bach) on the list. Congratulations to Shi and O’Connell!
But a look at the rest of the list: There’s Sonic Peace, by Kiriu Minashita, translated by Eric E. Hyett and Spencer Thurlow
(Phoneme Media), which is poetry. But Junichirō Tanizaki’s Devils in Daylight, translated by J. Keith Vincent, and The Maids, translated by Michael P. Cronin (both New Directions), and Notes of a Crocodile by Qiu Miaojin 邱妙津, as translated by Bonnie Huie (New York Review Books)? Those are works of fiction.
The Stryk Prize is–or was–a poetry translation prize. The prize’s Wikipedia page still makes that clear:
Eligible works include book-length translations into English of Asian poetry or source texts from Zen Buddhism, book-length translations from Hindi, Sanskrit, Tamil, Thai, Vietnamese, Chinese, Japanese, and Korean into English.
But this year, for the first time, works of prose fiction are on the shortlist.
I think this is a problem.
Seems to me that the Stryk prize was endowed with the mission of promoting a certain kind of work–translation of poetry and Zen texts from Asian languages. I believe in, and I’d bet a lot of translators believe in, the room to interpret those categories broadly. But for the Stryk nominations to be suddenly–and without public consultation–open to works of fiction, the poetry translations in question are bound to be crowded out, not recognized or promoted.
A look at Paper Republic’s wrap-up of translations published in 2017 gives a sense of what I’m talking about, even if it also offers an idea why some might want the prize to be eligible to translated fiction. Something like twenty titles of fiction translated from Chinese, but only five books of poetry. And yet look at that list: Liu Waitong 廖偉棠, one of Hong Kong’s most interesting poets; Narrative Poem 敘事诗, by Yang Lian 杨炼, translated by Brian Holton, and two titles translated by Eleanor Goodman (who won the Stryk in 2015 for her translations of Wang Xiaoni 王小妮), including the anthology Iron Moon, the most reviewed anthology of Chinese poetry to appear in English in decades. I think it’s scandalous that neither Goodman nor Holton are on this year’s Stryk shortlist. Which just goes to show: if poetry is going to compete with fiction, and if the judges are primarily translators of fiction, then poetry translators are not going to get recognized. Are they?
Word is that ALTA didn’t make this change to increase the number of submissions, but rather simply received submissions of fiction from overzealous publishers. They asked the source of the funding about whether prose was eligible, and the source seemed not to have any issues with the eligibility of fiction. So the description of the award was revised.
But this is a problem not only because of crowding out poetry (which indeed already gets the short end of the proverbial stick when it comes to modern Asian literature), but also because this change was not done transparently. If this was really going to be a prize that includes prose, then more presses that published prose translations should have been informed so they could submit their books. Not to mention how this affects the translators–as well as the poets in Asia hoping to gain readership in translation (I don’t know about poets in other countries, but Chinese-language writers are very aware of the Stryk Prize). The more I think about it, the bigger I think this problem is.
Good luck to this year’s shortlisted candidates!

Goodman on The Reciprocal Translation Project

Writing for the LARB China Channel, Eleanor Goodman reviews The Reciprocal Translation Project, edited by James Sherry and Sun Dong 孙冬. And she comes out swinging!

The Reciprocal Translation Project is a messy, fraught endeavor. Here is the back blurb, which is also the first paragraph of the editors’ introduction:

In The Reciprocal Translation Project, six Chinese and six American poets have translated each other’s works. Since few of these poets speak both languages, bilingual specialists have fashioned literal translations including several options for words that have multiple meanings. These literal translations have been given to three poets in the other language to write poetic translations. In this volume, then, the reader will find an original poem, a literal translation, and three poetic translations of each poem as well as explanatory notes and biographies.

One hardly knows where to begin with this tangle. Here we have poets who have “translated” each other’s work, despite largely not knowing each other’s languages. This is done grâce à people mysteriously labeled “bilingual specialists,” who put together something called “literal translations, including several options for words that have multiple meanings.” That is to say: they translate the poems. So why are these “bilingual specialists” not the “translators”? The point, as I take it, is to save that particular appellation for “the poets” involved in the project, an issue which I will return to below.

She comes out swinging, but can she be wrong when she frames Xi Chuan this way?

Forgive me for being stodgy, but to my mind, a “translation” that changes the mode of address, the timing, the references, the places and the priorities of the original is not a translation at all. It is a new poem that stands on its own, or not.

The “literal translation” of Xi Chuan’s poem “Travel Diary” (出行日记) begins:

I drove the car onto the highway, which was precisely to begin a massacre of butterflies; or the butterflies seeing me speeding toward them, just decided to launch a suicide flight. The smashed to death on the windshield. They stubbornly mashed to death on my windshield.

This is an awkward but not inaccurate rendering of the Chinese. Nada Gordon’s “translation” is:

Wanted to massacre some fucking butterflies so drove my fucking car onto the fucking highway to massacre them. They were kamikaze butterflies, they were going to fucking kill themselves on my windshield. Splat. Fuck those fucking butterflies, stubborn assholes all up on my windshield.

Whatever one thinks of this, it certainly does not represent Xi Chuan’s tone or intention.

And she goes further:

The editors comment in their introduction: “Many modern translators present themselves as poets, not simply facilitators of communication. Revaluing translation in this way brings the translator out of the shadow of the author, leveling their identities.”

But this anthology has precisely the opposite effect. By involving “bilingual specialists” who actually do the grunt work of the translation, and then privileging the non-English-speaking or non-Chinese-speaking poet by labeling him or her the “translator,” the real translators are effectively hidden. There is also an underlying assumption that the act of translating involves grasping the literal meaning of a word (“including several options for words that have multiple meanings” – as though there are words that do not!) and that’s all that is needed. 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.

Click the image above for the full review.

Chinese Poetry of the Cup?

As part of its Mingbai series (“a daily newsletter that drops knowledge on things ‘everyone in China knows, but almost nobody outside the country knows'”), SupChina has posted a feature on “Chinese poetry of the cup.”

First it introduces baijiu 白酒, “the Chinese king of liquors … made primarily with sorghum, although other bases like wheat and rice are often added to the mix.”

Then it asserts:

Some of China’s finest poets — perhaps even the finest — were admirers of the merry drink. Let’s take a look at Li Bai 李白, whose immortal poetry is learned by heart in every classroom across China … Li Bai lived during the Tang Dynasty (618-907), often known as China’s Golden Age. His poems were often about the beauty of friendship, the wonders of nature, and wine … One of Li Bai’s poems, “Drinking Alone Under the Moon” (月下独酌 yuè xià dúzhuó), is a particularly beautiful ode to the beloved drink.

The entry then quotes an “artful translation” by John Derbyshire, with the poem in simplified Chinese characters and pinyin transcription.

Among the flowers with wine beneath the sky
Alone I drink — no friend or kin, just me
I raise my cup to toast the moon on high
That’s two of us; my shadow makes it three

But… is there any evidence (other than a tipsy inference from Li Bai’s name) that Li Bai was drinking baijiu when he wrote his poems about drinking?

There’s a long tradition of referring to jiu 酒 as “wine” when translating classical Chinese poetry, and because of decorum, zui 醉, which means drunk, has often been translated euphemistically with phrases like “rapt with wine.” It’s good that SupChina isn’t passing on that misconception, but my understanding is that the archaeological record of medieval Chinese drinking vessels is that they were goblets, and that they were drinking something pretty much like what we refer to today as beer.

See what Stephen Owen has had to say about it:

“Do you really think [those warriors] are running around drinking out of little sake cups?” Owen asked his colleague. “These guys drank from huge flagons made of metal”–he has actually seen one–“and sloshed their ale down by the gallon.” Owen objects to the old “translation language,” partly because it creates a false image of a very effeminate, aged, and weak China, but also because it makes no distinction in language between the “high-sensibility” people and “the guys that ride horses, assassinate people, and drink flagons of ale.”

Take a look at the back pages of The True History of Tea, by Erling Hoh and Victor Mair, for more on medieval Chinese jiu.

Click the image for the SupChina article.