“A Wen Yiduo Poem Is Like a Jewel”

China Digital Times has interviewed Robert Hammond Dorsett about his newly released Wen Yiduo 聞一多 translations, Stagnant Water & Other Poems.

CDT: Wen himself worked within the tension between the classical Chinese of his education and the vernacular advocated by his contemporaries. Are there poems where one type of language wins over the other, or where one makes a conciliatory bow to the other?

RD: I believe after the beginning of the May Fourth Movement, Wen Yiduo was committed Robert Dorsett (with permission from BrightCity Books)almost entirely to the vernacular. After his return to China from the United States, he became a leading expert in classical Chinese literature but always sought to make that literature immediate and relevant. He resisted most of his contemporaries who urged the use of politically dominated free verse …  Wherever he found a conflict within himself, he didn’t resolve it, but used that conflict as a source of power. Only by the possession of the past and by its application to the present can a future be built: I believe this was his philosophy.

Click the images above for the full interview.

Letter from Hong Kong on Your Impossible Voice

Xi Chuan reading at International Poetry Nights. Photo by Lucas Klein.Your Impossible Voice has published my “Letter from Hong Kong,” about the International Poetry Nights.

Reviewing exiled Chinese poet Bei Dao’s first full-length collection The August Sleepwalker in English in 1990, a professor quipped, “These could just as easily be translations from a Slovak or an Estonian or a Philippine poet. It could even be a kind of American poetry….”

From a certain perspective—say, that of the seventeenth century—the reviewer was right … But from the perspective of poetry today, which is to say, from the perspective of people who habitually, consciously, and conscientiously read contemporary poetry around the world, do all cultures and languages and poetries blend together?

We have not had Slovak or Estonian poets, but Albanian poet Luljeta Lleshanaku, from the 2009 festival, and Russian Arkadii Dragomoshchenko and Slovene Tomaž Šalamun, from 2011, may serve as sufficient examples, as will 2013 Filipina participant Conchitina Cruz and American Jeffrey Yang.

And then I translate Chen Maiping’s 陳邁平 Chinese translation of Aase Berg’s Swedish poetry into English, to compare against the English by Johannes Göransson.

Click on the image above for the whole piece.

Interview with Robert Hammond Dorsett on Wen Yiduo’s Stagnant Water

book cover: Stagnant Water and Other PoemsRobert Hammond Dorsett, translator of the newly released Stagnant Water & Other Poems by Wen Yiduo 聞一多 (1899 – 1946), agreed to answer a few of my questions by way of interview:

Can you describe how you got interested in Chinese / poetry / translation and in Wen Yiduo  in particular?

An undergraduate course, entitled Keats and His Circle, started my interest: I have read and written poems ever since. After my residency in pediatrics, my wife, daughter and I traveled to Hong Kong, where I studied at the Yale-in-China program at the Chinese University. It was there I was introduced to Wen Yiduo, and, from then till now, I have carried his poems about, making notes and deciding on interpretations. It was only after I left medicine, decades later, that I had enough time to prepare my poems and translations for publication.


Do you see any parallels between Wen Yiduo’s time and place and ours?

There are so many parallels, as well as differences, that it is difficult for me to answer simply; I’d rather say it is at the depth of the poems of Wen Yiduo that I encounter the same loss, regret, love, outrage at suffering and so forth that is common to humanity. It is from there, from the human realm, the poems emanate their immediacy. I can say I find a Wen Yiduo poem as fresh and current as any poem written now in English.


I find a tight condensation in your English, often more condensed than I find Wen Yiduo’s Chinese to be. Can you say something about the audience you have in mind for Stagnant Water, and what you imagine that audience’s expectations to be?

Condensation in poetry, that is condensation that does not hinder either rhythm or clarity of voice, is, for me, a desideratum. I try to approach translation much the same way a composer approaches transcription—as a reconstruction rather than a substitution. The key to Wen Yiduo, for me, is voice; I first decide who the speaker is, whether the voice is general or specific, and, if specific, who the speaker is, to whom she or he is speaking, under what conditions etc., and I try not to use any language that an ordinary person in that same situation wouldn’t use. I have attempted not to make the foreign sound strange. I made these translations for anyone who loves poetry.

Thanks to Robert Hammond Dorsett for his answers!

Click the image for ordering information on the book.

In Other Words: a discussion about translation and translators at Asian Review

Julia Lovell, Sophie Lewis, Arunava Sinha, Marcia Lynx Qualey and I took part in a discussion at Asian Review of Books on the nature of translation and the role of translators in bringing Asian literature to the English-speaking world. Here is an excerpt from the conversation:

Peter Gordon, editor: A work in translation is, obviously, not the same as a work in the original language. But what is it exactly that readers are actually reading when they read a translation?

Lucas Klein: First, what a translation is not: a genetic clone of some original. Many criticisms of translation—such as that translation is “impossible”—are based on impossibly narrow definitions of translation.

Peter Gordon, editor: When setting up the Man Asian Literary Prize, I included an additional award for the translator (if there was one) of the winning novel. This was not just a matter of acknowledging the translators’ contribution: the Prize was initially for as yet unpublished works, and I figured if anyone would know what interesting works were in the pipeline, it would be translators … Where do translators and translations fit in this “eco-system”?

Lucas Klein: The role of translators in that ecosystem can seem both very large and very small. If Faulkner was influenced by the Bible and the great nineteenth century Russian novelists, say, and in turn influenced Gabriel García Márquez and Mo Yan, then not only was Faulkner influenced by the King James translators, but also by Constance Garnett, who translated Tolstoy and Dostoevsky in the early twentieth century, as García Márquez and Mo Yan are influenced by the translators of Faulkner into Spanish and Chinese, while Howard Goldblatt is in turn influenced not only by Faulkner but by Gregory Rabassa and Edith Grossman—García Márquez’s main translators into English—in the formation of the literary style he has used to represent and recreate Mo Yan’s voice in English.

Click the image above for the full discussion.

Chinese Literature Dissertation Reviews: Cosmopolitanism & Cinema in Hongkong, Taiwan

Cosmopolitanism & Cinema in Hong Kong, Taiwan Dissertation Reviews has posted Kristof Van den Troost’s review of Brian Hu‘s Worldly Desires: Cosmopolitanism and Cinema in Hong Kong and Taiwan. Here’s how it begins:

Much of the growth in the field of Chinese cinema studies over the last two decades has been fuelled by a questioning of the category of Chinese cinema itself. With the national cinema paradigm considered outdated and inadequate, scholars have explored new ways to understand the film industries of China, Taiwan, and Hong Kong, as well as the many transnational connections forged by Chinese filmmakers in an increasingly globalized world. Despite the wealth of research already produced on this topic, Brian Hu’s dissertation manages to break new ground, and makes an important theoretical intervention in the field. But Hu’s contribution goes further than this. Methodologically, he combines archival research and close readings of films with less explored avenues of research—particularly the study of film music, industrial texts, and audiences. Covering a period of more than sixty years (from the 1950s to the 2000s), Hu consistently looks at film genres, production cycles, and stars that have been relatively ignored, in the process offering a fresh perspective on Hong Kong and Taiwanese film history.

Click the image above for the full review.

Johannes Göransson on Aase Berg / Ye Mimi / Tomas Tranströmer / Translation Studies

5_Ye_Mimi_photoOver at Montevidayo, Johannes Göransson has posted “Exploded Tranströmer: On Ye Mimi and Translation.” A hyperopticon of connections, it links Taiwanese poet Ye Mimi 葉覓覓 to Nobel lit. prizewinner Tomas Tranströmer via what Swedish poet Aase Berg’s reading:

A few months ago, after she came back from the Hong Kong poetry festival, Aase Berg wrote to me that she had come across an amazing poet: Ye Mimi. (Apparently YM appeared with a very impressive guitar player as well.)

That is funny because when I first read Ye Mimi what came to my mind was a somewhat controversial article Aase wrote in Expressen after Tomas Tranströmer won the Nobel Prize the other year … Ye Mimi’s poems are wonderful in that way: as “banality and surprising intelligence in unexpected union.” In fact they read a little like Tranströmer poems in which the metaphors flip out, go off in tangents. And a Tranströmer poem in which the tenor of the metaphor is not privileged – not over the vehicle, not over the “banal” everyday stuff (pink hoodies, telephone booths etc).

From there, he indicates a critique of Translation Studies as it’s come to be known under the direction of Lawrence Venuti, which he says “quarantines the work in translation: we never have the work in translation.”

Click the image above to read the post in full.

A Conversation With Eleanor Goodman at Beijing Cream

Poetry Night in Beijing - Eleanor Goodman featured imageBeijing Cream has posted a conversation with poet-translator Eleanor Goodman. Here’s a teaser:

Has translation made you more aware of how you write? Does thinking in two languages help your writing, and if so, in what ways?

EG: Translation has had an enormous influence on my own poetry. Chinese is structurally very different from English, and the norms of Chinese poetry are different too, so I’ve consciously (and surely unconsciously) imported some of that into my own work. In particular, I’ve gotten very interested in the lack of punctuation in a lot of contemporary Chinese poetry. Merwin does that too, but few other American poets write straight-up sentence-based poetry that relies on line break and emphasis instead of punctuation. It opens up a lot of new space, at least for me. It’s cliché now to say this, but I do think that writing, thinking, living in another language brings out a different personality that otherwise doesn’t have a chance to emerge. At least that’s true for me.

Click the image for the back-and-forth in full.

Name the Translator

Words Without Borders has posted an editorial of mine. Here’s how it begins:

Recently two of my Facebook friends posted links to reviews of their work that neither named nor noticed them. This would be inconceivable if my friends were authors, film or stage actors, or artists, but my friends are translators, so not being mentioned is par for the proverbial course…

For reviews not to discuss or even mention the translator is so standard, in fact, that my friends felt they had to backpedal their outrage. Don Mee Choi, translator of Kim Hyesoon’s All the Garbage of the World, Unite! (Action Books), can’t bring up how she was overlooked without apologizing: “I despise self-centeredness, so I hope I’m not being [self-centered] right now…” Likewise, Elizabeth Harris, translator of This is the Garden by Giulio Mozzi (Open Letter Books), writes, “It’s such a strange feeling: I’ve read two reviews now that don’t mention me at all and yet quote the book. Very, very strange. I am glad they like what they’re reading, though. I can take some pleasure in that.”

Click the image above for more.

Pastreich’s Confucius on Shifts in Institutions

In “Wise Words of Confucius on Shifts in Institutions” Emanuel Pastreich presents a translation of Confucius so as (per an explanation elsewhere) “to write something that does not sound too sage-like [but rather] is essentially of the same style as contemporary American political discourse … If Confucian writings are translated as the words of sages, closer to the register of the Bible or of Plato, their impact on contemporary American political discourse will be limited.” He translates:

If the terms that we employ to describe the institutions in society cease to be accurate representations of what those institutions have become, then, although we can discuss the problems of our age, the discussion will not correspond with the actual reality in a political or economic sense.

Pastreich applies this to the banking industry:

Confucius suggested that the problems we encounter in the political realm are the result of a slippage in the meaning of the terms that we use to describe. For example, there has been tremendous slippage in the significance of the term “bank” and that slippage has introduced chaos into our society. Although we use the word “bank” without even thinking about its meaning, the term’s significance is far from clear. Whereas the word “bank” referred to an organization with a rather limited mandate to lend money under strict regulations, it has evolved into a complex financial instrument whose roles are multifarious and changing rapidly as money itself has shifted in its significance as a result of the IT revolution. We need perhaps to redefine “money” at the same time.

What I find so striking about this is that while the method of translation is very, very different than translation of Chinese according to the imagined Confucian notion by Ezra Pound, both present us with a similar investigation of the morality of economics, specifically as relates to banking.

Stonecutter is kept from his tone
weaver is kept from his loom
wool comes not to market
sheep bringeth no gain with usura
Usura is a murrain, usura
blunteth the needle in the maid’s hand
and stoppeth the spinner’s cunning.