San Francisco State University Chinatown reading and discussion of Hong Kong poetry by Ya Si 也斯 (P K Leung 梁秉鈞) & Chris Song 宋子江
C. Derick Varn of Former People: A Journal of Bangs and Whimpers interviewed me with a series of complex questions on modernity and modernism in and about China. And of course, I couldn’t resist talking about Xi Chuan and Chinese and international poetry. Here’s an excerpt:
So that’s the problem. But as I’ve argued in a piece that’s forthcoming, modernism in literature is postmodernist in its philosophical implications … And I don’t think I’ve ever believed in modernism so much as modernisms. An interesting observation is that modernist writers who come from countries that claim an ownership of tradition—modernists from France or Italy or Russia—are often the ones to say, like Marinetti, “Museums, cemeteries!” while the modernists from countries that cannot claim such ownership—Pound and Eliot from the US, Joyce from Ireland—are the ones who want to revivify the ancient amidst the machinations of the modern (this isn’t foolproof, of course: William Carlos Williams and Gertrude Stein stand against such generalizations). As for whether there’s a Chinese modernism, the interesting thing is that after the Cultural Revolution, you get both: those feeling like their country has too much a claim on tradition, and is overwhelmed and stifled by it, as well as those who feel like their country is too displaced from tradition, and needs to re-own it and re-define it. So at any given moment Bei Dao might read like a shrugging off of tradition, and Yang Lian might read like a refitting of it, and Xi Chuan a refitting of that refitting, but they’re also specific responses to the relationship between tradition and modernity as have played out in China in the past hundred years and more.
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World Literature Today has published Josh Stenberg’s review of Zephyr books A Phone Call from Dalian by Han Dong 韩东, translated by Nicky Harman, and Doubled Shadows by Ouyang Jianghe 欧阳江河, translated by Austin Woerner:
Ouyang Jianghe and Han Dong … both occupy established places in what, for over thirty years, has been known as avant-garde Chinese literature. In poetic approach, they represent divergent tendencies—Ouyang cosmopolitan, clean, and heavily referential; Han craftily offhand, personal, confidently bizarre, not tetchy about grime or sex. Where Ouyang often seems to offer an argument about the cultural currents and skirmishes of today’s China, Han’s work most often reads as a lament for the failure of attempts to bridge the spaces between people
Someone was impressed enough by my acceptance speech for the Lucien Stryk prize to suggest I share it here. So I am!
It’s a wonderful honor, both for me and for Xi Chuan, to be awarded the Lucien Stryk Prize for Asian poetry in translation. Any prize awarded by ALTA would be an honor, because ALTA is one of my favorite organizations to belong to—I’ve often said that literary translators are by definition interesting people, because by definition we’re interested in more than one thing. ALTA as a group and many of its members as individuals were very helpful in offering their time, patience, insight, and scolds as I worked on translating Xi Chuan, and much of my success as a translator is owed to the wisdom I gained from them.
The Lucien Stryk prize, in particular, is also a special one for me and for Xi Chuan, because of its dedication to honoring Asian poetry in translation, and the tradition of Asian poetry in translation—in addition to Asian poetry in general—was very much in my mind when translating the pieces in Notes on the Mosquito, as it was in Xi Chuan’s over the three decades in which he wrote the poems. As an undergrad English major, Xi Chuan wrote his senior thesis on Ezra Pound’s translations from Chinese, he recently published a translation of Gary Snyder’s poetry, and in many ways Xi Chuan was reintroduced to the literary history of his own culture from the attention and presentation he encountered in Pound, Snyder, and others, including Jorge Luis Borges.
I’m also especially honored to be part of the group of previous Lucien Stryk honorees—a group that already features some of my favorite translators! I find inclusion in such a group both humbling and inspiring, as the best Asian poetry in translation has always been.
I would like to extend my deepest gratitude to New Directions, to my editor Jeffrey Yang, and most of all to Xi Chuan, whose cooperation and friendship were essential to the success of this book. Until three years ago there were no single-author collections of poetry by Chinese-language poets currently living in mainland China published in the US, but now we are living in what appears to be a golden age of contemporary Chinese poetry in English translation, to match what may be a golden age of poetry in China itself. Thanks to New Directions for contributing to that golden age, and thanks to Xi Chuan for helping make that golden age in the first place!
Thank you very, very much!
"Written in a Pavilion Lost in the Mists"spring flowers, fall'sfull moon:the stuff of poems.cloudless sun. clearnights. here: mountainspirits, loosed.no reason I raisedthe pearl-sewn blinds.won't lower them.my couch is moved for good now.I'll turn toward these hillsand sleep.(Yu Xuanji trans. by Geoffrey Waters)
What I have noticed is that aspiring poets can reproduce the simple description in this form-- reminiscent of e.e. cummings--but when it comes to the real point of the poem, where the observing eye moves inward, when the poetic sensibility must construct meaning from the passive moment of watching flowers and moon and mountain--this is where the trouble begins. Most pastiches of this sort of transparent poetry miss the point right at the line "I'll turn toward these hills/and sleep." What? Isn't the romantic (and it is the easiest thing in the world to think of Chinese and Japanese "nature" poets as "romantics"--maybe not as loquacious as Wordsworth, but with the identical set of feelings) supposed to regard the hills? Isn't it rather anti-climactic to fall asleep? And that's the way these deceptive poems often work: they take us to the edge of a simple truth and turn it against us--this is the art of disappointment, or of beauty as emptiness rather than fulfillment.
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In “To foreword or not to foreword?” Turkish – French translator Canan Marasligil and Chinese – English translator Nicky Harman discuss how the translator does, should, and shouldn’t frame the translation for the reader. Here’s an excerpt from Harman’s contribution:
Let me illustrate with a further question: Why do teachers consider it necessary to explain the role of the fool in Shakespeare’s King Lear? Because the modern meaning of the word doesn’t communicate the dramatic and social importance of the role. Granted, the reader will get some idea by the time they’ve finished the play. But why expect them to run barefoot through King Lear when we could give them a pair of running shoes, by way of an introductory note? Fundamentally, I think that expecting the reader to appreciate a book without understanding the context in which the writer was writing and, even more importantly, what he or she was trying to do, is to do the writer an injustice. This is especially true when readers are unlikely to know much about a history and a culture far removed from their own experience. For example, in a collection of Hong Kong stories I translated recently, by the writer Dorothy Tse, I felt it was very important to explain her surrealism by quoting her own words: “Contrary to mainland literature that tried to borrow languages from the working class as well as the farmers in the 50s as a way to reach the public, Hong Kong’s literature has a tradition of resistance to the language of daily life. Its highly experimental language is a strategy to distinguish a literary work from an entertaining and commercial one. In Hong Kong, writing itself is an active rejection of utilitarian society and mundane everyday life.”
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In February the South China Morning Post ran a review I called “horribly written” and said made me feel “embarrassed to say I like the translations in a book that could inspire such homely homilies.”
Here’s another stupid review of contemporary Chinese poetry in the SCMP, of I Can Almost See the Clouds of Dust 我几乎看到滚滚尘埃 by Yu Xiang 宇向, translated by Fiona Sze-Lorrain. It starts badly:
I Can Almost See the Clouds of Dust differs from other poetry anthologies due to its simplicity. However, that doesn’t mean this collection is easy to understand.
(The book is not an “anthology,” it’s a collection; the interest of the poetry is not whether it’s easily understandable; simplicity is not a rare feature of poetry collections…). It continues with ignorant and sexist remarks:
This doesn’t follow traditional poetic rhythms or even the cadences of normal conversations; it’s like reading a woman’s tangled thoughts.
And concludes with platitudes, clichés, and mixed metaphors all at once!
This anthology is a refreshing breeze that highlights the little details of our daily lives.
It can be helpful to address a non-poetry-reading audience in a poetry review–especially in a newspaper in a place such as Hongkong. But I hope this is the last time the SCMP runs a poetry review by someone who hasn’t read a poem since middle school.
In Memoriam Prof. Martha Cheung 張佩瑤
10 September 2013 saw the sad passing of our distinguished and beloved colleague, Prof. Martha Cheung. Prof. Cheung was both a leading scholar in her field and a superb and much-respected teacher, and had served Hong Kong Baptist University at many levels – as Head of the Translation Programme, Head of the Centre for Translation, and Associate Vice-President, to name only some of her roles. Her passing is a tremendous loss to the University, to her academic discipline, and to the broader scholarly community, as well as to all who have known and loved her.
Prof. Cheung was one of the premier translation scholars in the world. In particular, she was at the forefront of what has become known as the “international turn”, the drive to bring to the discipline insights beyond Western-oriented conceptualizations of translation through the exploration of non-Western approaches. Concerned to be inclusive in this endeavour, she strove to make available to non-Chinese scholars the full panoply of traditional Chinese writings on translation, and indeed other writings that might implicitly be of use to translation scholars. The result was her 300-page groundbreaking Anthology of Chinese Discourse on Translation, volume 1 of which, titled From Earliest Times to the Buddhist Project, was variously hailed as “awe-inspiring”, “superb” and “meticulously presented”. Such innovative work made her a much sought-after speaker on the international conference circuit, and at prestigious doctoral research training programmes such as that at CETRA in Leuven, Belgium, and the Nida School in Misano, Italy. Prof. Cheung continued work on volume 2 of her Chinese Discourse project even through her illness.
As a teacher, Prof. Cheung combined the same exacting standards with a genuine desire to help her students achieve more. She was fully capable of letting a student know if they were not doing as expected, and she believed strongly in pointing out directly what could be improved. Yet such directness was always done with the student’s best interests at heart, and was combined with a deep sense of kindness and care.
As a colleague, too, she showed the same deep caring attention to both excellence and emotional support. Asked to glance through a prospective paper by a colleague, she would come back with pages of detailed written feedback consisting mainly of sharply-worded queries, yet all prefaced with the injunction to “take the following in the spirit of a friend”; many a problematic paper was thus saved, the writer considerably the wiser for Prof. Cheung’s insights. No doubt many scholars benefited from such assistance without even knowing their reviewer, for her peer reviews were always thoroughgoing and designed to provide maximum help: she would never allow herself to write a few perfunctory lines. Such demonstrations of complete commitment to the cause of cultivating up-and-coming scholars were part of a philosophy that sought always to nurture the positive in people. She once observed that young scholars were not praised enough for research well done, and that far more such encouragement should be given.
Prof. Cheung loved teaching and scholarship far more than administrative duties, but she always believed in serving the institution she loved, and not only accepted important administrative roles—including Associate Vice President—but brought to her tasks in those roles the same broad humanistic focus on whole people and the big picture, while still paying the closest possible attention to minute details. Even when she did not have an official administrative role to play, she was always an academic leader, because she invariably exuded an influence that was at once stabilizing and inspiring. She was loved and respected by everyone at HKBU who had the good fortune of working with her.
Above all, Prof. Cheung was someone who lived life with a tremendous energy, throwing herself into whatever new possibilities presented themselves. The enthusiasm, good humour, and sheer zest with which she approached her work and life in general were infectious, and a crucial motivating force for achieving new goals, for inspiring colleagues and students, and for building the Translation Programme that she loved into one of the most respected translation programmes in the region. Her inspired leadership in that programme, as well as in the Centre for Translation and the Translation Research Summer School, has established Hong Kong Baptist University as an internationally renowned centre for translation studies.
Her passing came far, far too soon. But the commitment, positive energy, kindness and meticulous care with she worked and lived are a legacy that shall not fade.
A memorial service will be held at the University on Saturday 5 October from 10:30 to 12:30 a.m. to honour the memory of this dear and much-missed friend and colleague. More details of the event will be sent later.
NA: You translate poetry from around the world including a Chinese, Russian, and Polish series. How do you pick your nationality?
JK: Again, one thing led to another. One of the editors working on an anthology of Polish poetry came to me for advice, based on my experience with the Russian. She thought she had a publisher already for her book; but, when that opportunity fell through, Zephyr picked up the book, Carnivorous Boy Carnivorous Bird, which in turn led to a spin-off of Polish poetry books initially based on the anthology.
Meanwhile, our new managing editor, Cris Mattison, brought with him to Zephyr a knowledge of both Russian and Chinese. His acquaintance with the Chinese poet Bei Dao led us to issue first Fissures, an anthology of contributions to the Chinese journal Jintian; and then a collection of Bei Dao’s essays, Blue House. More Chinese books followed; and, for the past couple of years, Cris has been living in Hong Kong, working with the Jintian Foundation, and finding more Chinese poets for us.
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Yu Xiang’s poems are the poetic equivalent of shoegazer rock. She takes the mundane—a whiff of cigarette smoke, a falling leaf, a housefly—and stares at it so intently that it splits open to reveal something unexpected. In the introduction to I Can Almost See the Clouds of Dust, the translator Fiona Sze-Lorrain writes that Yu “is adamant that a mundane life does not lack poetry. Rather, it lacks being discovered.” And indeed, throughout this bilingual collection the everydayness of life is keenly observed, giving rise to poems that reveal as much about the self as they do the world.
Click on the image above for the full review.