The current issue of Standmagazine features an interview with Chinese poetry translators Eleanor Goodman, Canaan Morse, and Heather Inwood–and the translations they’ve curated for the issue. In answer to the question “What kind of poetry translates best and is any simply ‘untranslatable’?” Morse writes:
CM: Let’s not wrongly ascribe agency here. Poetry doesn’t translate; translators translate. Inspired, dedicated translators translate best. No poetry is untranslatable as such, except for the mountain of government-sponsored, sycophantic screed that is literally too painful to translate.
Issue three of the literary journal Seedings, edited by Jerrold Shiroma, is now out, featuring sections of my translation of “Taj Mahal Tears” 泰姬陵之泪 by Ouyang Jianghe 欧阳江河–alongside new work by Will Alexander, Marry Oppen, Matt Turner, Elizabeth Willis, Osip Mandelstam, Michael Palmer, and more!
Poetry does not have an identity of its own, its prajñā and insight
are polyphonic, beginning in two, exerted from other objects. …………….The gods and the departed face off
like the narcissus, intoning the original poem’s splendor
and its fragrance. Tears extract themselves from polysemy,
elapsing and simultaneously creating their boundaries ……………. and plasticity,
because the tears of poetry’s minstrelsy flow from a statue,
within which flow the materials of consciousness,
e.g., the crystals in the nightingale’s throat, …………….those tiny metals.
But in rural India, why is the peacock’s cry choked up,
why does the history of words again become a history of dust?
In “A Poet Who Survived Mao,” Wenguang Huang reviews City Gate, Open Up 城门开, the new memoir by Bei Dao 北岛, for the Wall Street Journal. Huang writes:
In 18 essays, crafted with poetic precision and enriched by Jeffrey Yang’s assiduous translation, Bei Dao depicts a cast of memorable characters with humor and insight: a tenacious family nanny always on the lookout for revolutionary opportunities; a talented schoolmate who sneaked across the border to Burma to join guerrilla forces; and the author’s father, a former government propaganda official and a moody authoritarian at home. Bei Dao devotes a long chapter to the universal theme of a troubled father-son relationship.
“City Gate, Open Up” made me want to retrieve my old college journal filled with the poet’s quotable stanzas. When I called my family back in China, however, I found out that it had been tossed out long ago. “There’s no room for old stuff,” a family member said indifferently. That now seems to be the national slogan. It only makes Bei Dao’s book more poignant.
Similar to the way the industrial revolution in England enforced a whole new concept of time as it severed workers from seasonal rhythms, so these poets speak of disrupted menstrual cycles, the blurring of night and day and the sense of unbelonging, where both countryside and city are rendered uninhabitable (several refer to themselves as “lame ducks,” maimed and unable to complete their journey back home). Of course, they are not the only ones concerned with the spiritual vacuum of China’s brutish capitalist economy or the devastating destruction of the environment, but what makes their eco-poetry so vital is that they are not writing from a distance, but at the coalface.
They work hellish hours without job security, drink water from rivers they see dumped with pollutants and chemicals, inhale air fouled by poisonous gases. They risk injury from merciless, vampiric machines that consume not only their youth, but their body parts (in 2005 there were an estimated 40,000 incidents of severed fingers each year alone in China’s southern economic zones). And they find the time outside of the 14-hour shifts and the space in their crowded dorm rooms to engage, to write about their lives and publish it online using a basic cell phone… This confluence of China’s industrialization with easy internet access has created an unprecedented opportunity in the history of working class literature.
In a piece titled “A Poem of Shame: In the Words of China’s Workers” published at Hyperallergic, Matt Turner gives his take on Iron Moon: An Anthology of Chinese Worker Poetry, edited by Qin Xiaoyu 秦晓宇 and translated by Eleanor Goodman. He explains,
In 1923, not long after returning from working as a correspondent in Moscow, becoming the Chairman of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), and translating “The Internationale” for the first time into Chinese, Qu Qiubai wrote the poem “Iron Flower” (which I’ve translated below). It was written at an odd moment in CCP history: a literati like Qu could accomplish all he did politically and write modernist poetry, as much about the revolution as about signifying a new kind of beauty.
I’m not of a soft and smooth nature, I’m not in the midst of glam and grace; inside this smoke-filled factory, forging my iron flower, fire surges. Iron flower not receiving the warmth of sunlight,
iron flower not getting the solace of moonlight; the unifying gale of fire in the furnace, it cracks to burst the pistils into flame. That place’s sound of hammers is dull, that place’s sound of metal is staccato; like a copper pine whipping the hard wind, I’ve fallen in love, and can’t bear desertion.
This isn’t a fan dance, lightly circling across the floor — but wherever you look are callouses — strong hands. The inextinguishable flame burns in the factory, and shines on my resolute and bold chest.
I billow labor’s rage in the iron furnace, I envision, envision the Great Community, and drunkenly belt out a song… the masses! Forging my iron flower, fire surges.
… A volume of similar indictments, Iron Moon: An Anthology of Chinese Worker Poetry, edited by Qin Xiaoyu and translated by Eleanor Goodman, collects work by Xu Lizhi and 30 other worker poets. Their poetry ranges from lyrical, like the above piece, to experimental (exemplified by another of Xu’s poems, a verbatim listing of a peanut butter production slip).
Poems are in verse, prose, and combinations thereof. Some tell stories, some list facts, some offer only fragments. The formal variety is on par with what you would get from any major anthology in the US (excepting spoken-word poetry).
The authors are not members of literary coteries, either. Aside from being poets, all they have in common is that they are migrant laborers.
The New York Times books section has published an obituary of Burton Watson, over a month after he passed away. William Grimes writes:
Burton Watson, whose spare, limpid translations, with erudite introductions, opened up the world of classical Japanese and Chinese literature to generations of English-speaking readers, died on April 1 in Kamagaya, Japan. He was 91.
He rendered the poems of such classic Chinese writers as Su Tung-p’o, Po Chu-I and Du Fu and the Japanese poets Ryokan and Masaoka Shiki in a contemporary idiom informed by his wide reading in modern American poetry. In “Nineteen Ways of Looking at Wang Wei” (1987), the essayist Eliot Weinberger described Mr. Watson as not only “a prolific and particularly fine translator” but also “the first scholar whose work displays an affinity with the modernist revolution in American poetry: absolute precision, concision, and the use of everyday speech.” His admirers included the poets Gary Snyder and W. S. Merwin.
In 2015, the literary organization PEN awarded Mr. Watson its Ralph Manheim Medal for Translation, calling him “the inventor of classical East Asian poetry for our time.”
On his own page at Language Log, Victor Mair has added to his earlier remembrance of Burton Watson:
Many of Watson’s works appeared under the under the imprint of Columbia University Press (CUP), and I have also had a long association with CUP. Our scholarly paths crossed again in the early 90s when Jennifer Crewe, my editor at Columbia, asked me to take a look at Watson’s translation of the Lotus Sutra, which she hoped to publish. Much as I admired Watson’s translations, I said to Jennifer, “Why would you want to do that? You already have Leon Hurvitz’s great translation of the Lotus. Why would you want to have two competing translations on your list?”
I was referring to the Scripture of the Lotus Blossom of the Fine Dharma, which had been published in 1976, and which I consider to be a work of genius. In it, Hurvitz (who was one of my teachers) had worked out a method whereby the reader could tell at a glance whether a given Buddhist term in Chinese had been translated or transcribed from the corresponding term in Sanskrit.
Jennifer confided in me, “But people can’t read the Hurvitz translation. You know what I mean, Victor. It’s only for specialists. I want a version of the Lotus that anyone can pick up and read.”
So I agreed to evaluate Watson’s manuscript, and I could see at once how vastly different and more accessible it was than Hurvitz’s. CUP went on to publish Watson’s translation and it has been a big success. Happily, both the Hurvitz Lotus and the Watson Lotus are both in print, each meeting the needs of a different readership: Hurvitz for the Indologists, Sinologists, and Buddhologists, and Watson for the literarily minded and anyone with an interest in Asian religions.
Just a word about Watson’s style: spare, yet elegant. Reading a translation by Burton Watson is like contemplating the creation of a master Scandinavian designer: the lines are clean, neat, and beautiful. He kept the blooming to a minimum.
I once heard a story, perhaps apocryphal, told to me by someone who visited Burton’s Tokyo apartment and watched as he sat at his manual typewriter looking at whatever book he was translating and simply typing the translation as he read the original, without having to look up any words. As a nonspeaker of Chinese and Japanese, I rely on experts to tell me whether a transition is an accurate and faithful rendition of the original. But as a reader I rely on my ear. It was clear to me that Burton was an avid reader of American poetry—particularly of the Williams era. His translations, particularly of poetry, are concise, deceptively simple, and evocative. And they employ the language of everyday speech, which is why they are so successful with students. Burton’s translations opened up the world of East Asian culture to countless students and general readers. Over the years I would occasionally hear criticisms—Watson’s translations were not “scholarly” enough. Burton eschewed notes, and it was often difficult to coax even an introduction out of him. But his translations will last because of the simple beauty of his English idiom. Many “scholarly” translations do not display that inner beauty. Burton’s translations seem effortless. He strove for that.