Brian Haman of The Shanghai Literary Reviewhas interviewed poet and translator Eleanor Goodman “about translating Chinese literature, gender dynamics within contemporary Chinese poetry, linguistic and geographical liminality, and the meaning of home.”
The questions start out rote, but it’s not long before the conversation gets going:
BH: Do you think that there’s a cross-pollination between the translation work and your work as a poet? Is there a continuity of images, themes, or ideas? And how do you choose the works that you translate?
Goodman: … On a linguistic level, I’m very interested in the plasticity of Chinese, the way that the different grammatical elements can be put together in more configurations than can generally be done naturally in English. For a while I was very interested in this technique that some Chinese poets use where you have what seems to be an integral line of poetry and then the next line casts a different meaning on it. Ambiguous subject or ambiguous nouns, leaving out “he” or “she” or “it,” the lack of certain things like noun markers – there’s a kind of ambiguity that Chinese poets manipulate beautifully and to great effect and I sometimes try to play with that in my own work.
And, on the role of gender in the field of Chinese poetry today, she says:
In Chinese poetry there are shiren (诗人) [poet] and nü shiren (女诗人) [female poet]. Poetry is still considered a male game: men write about the important topics; they have an expansive, outward looking view; they’re philosophical; they have deep thoughts. Women, in stark contrast, write about jiating shiqing (家庭事情) [the household]: they write about domestic things such as children and making dinner. They’re inward looking rather than outward looking. And those kinds of attitudes are deeply entrenched in the Chinese poetry world, and not just among male poets but also to some degree among a minority set of women poets, who have internalized this and who do write about flowers in springtime – not that there’s anything wrong with that (after all, Wordsworth wrote about such things). But the majority of female poets that I come into contact with are infuriated by this assumed hierarchy and the limitations that they constantly come up against.
The Sydney Review of Books has published an interview with Bonnie McDougall, by Jeffrey Errington, covering topics ranging from her experiences with translation and poetry and politics.
The interview spends some time on her experiences getting to know Bei Dao 北岛, and translating his work in the eighties:
Did you meet Bei Dao at the Foreign LanguagesPress? I had published a book of poetry and essays by the 1930s writer He Qifang [何其芳] and this book, somehow, reached Harbin in North China where a young woman read it and, in response, sent a letter to me via my publisher. When I went to China we finally met. Her journalist husband asked me, ‘would you like to meet the best young poet in China?’ This was Bei Dao, and it turned out that he was also working at the FLP, in the Esperanto office. He was obliged to study Esperanto and scour literary magazines to find writers to be translated into that language. Around 1980-81 a lot of the young men and women who were sent to factories or the countryside returned to Peking and other cities at the end of the Cultural Revolution and started to work for educational and cultural institutions such as the FLP. This included Bei Dao. It was a good job: reading through magazines and recommending works to be translated and published. As we worked in the same institution we were able to meet without attracting unwelcome attention—or so we thought. After some time the FLP told my office in the English section, rather bluntly, that Bei Dao needs to stop wasting my time as I was paid a rather large salary while his was less. So they tried to put a stop to us working together.
So when you get the world of a Bei Dao poem and bring it into English is it a Chinese reality that we are getting or by being reconstructed using English words is it an English-language reality — or is it swinging back and forth? I think maybe swinging is one way to put it. There was not such a wide gap between educated young men and women in China and the young foreigners who flocked around them in the late 1970s and early 1980s. The young men and women who grew up in Cultural Revolution China were able to get books by foreign authors including works about foreign writing. So to some extent they were self-educated in twentieth-century English or French or German writing. So the lack of supervision was a major factor in the life of someone like Bei Dao, who for several years was working in a factory. Not surprisingly he was not a very effective factory worker as he was no good at pouring cement. He just sat in a corner and read. So they were self-educated in a way that produced a fairly good understanding of early twentieth-century British and American poetics.
Between 1984 and his death, Hai Zi is estimated to have written two million words worth of work, spanning lyrics, epics, and verse dramas. For all his output, however, Hai Zi’s poems attracted little attention from his contemporaries. There is still debate today over his mental state, and why he decided to commit suicide, but one theory might have been his lack of success. Some have pinned his suicide on an idealization of death; others believe, as his final notes indicate, that he suffered from delusions. Another factor might have been a meeting with his former student; Hai Zi was greatly upset when he learned that his old flame was married and planning to move to the United States.
At any rate, in the aftermath of Hai Zi’s suicide, his friends Luo Yihe 骆一禾 and Xi Chuan 西川 helped to spread his work. Posthumous publications of Hai Zi’s work in the 1990s earned him a cult following, with some fans considering him a martyr to poetry. Critics embraced him, scholars studied him, and foreigners translated him. In 1990, Xi Chuan prophesied that “the death of Haizi the poet will become one of the myths of our time.” For his young Chinese fans, who still follow in his path and makes pilgrimages to the places connected to him, Hai Zi has become a mystical, legendary figure.
I think about translation as a kind of listening to the echoes created as meaning moves between languages. I mark a space [ ] in the title of my translation of Chinese WWII era poet Mu Dan’s original “我” and my “I”. I ask: What knowledge is generated by putting languages in relation to one another? What can be gained through a greater attention to the process rather than the product of translation? More specifically, what can be discovered within the movement and change occurring in the act of translation between Mu Dan’s study of the individual in his poem “我” and my translation ”I”?
Click here to read the translation and her explanation of her process and product.
As part of SupChina‘s feature on poetry last month, translator Dave Haysom selected five books to introduce Chinese poetry in English translation: Chinese Poetic Writing by François Cheng (translated by Donald A. Riggs & Jerome P. Seaton), The New Directions Anthology of Classical Chinese Poetry(edited by Eliot Weinberger), Jade Ladder: Contemporary Chinese Poetry (edited by W.N. Herbert & Yang Lian, with Brian Holton), Iron Moon: An Anthology of Chinese Worker Poetry (translated by Eleanor Goodman), and Nineteen Ways of Looking at Wang Wei: How a Chinese Poem is Translated by Eliot Weinberger.
Click through to see more on these titles, as well as Dave’s honorable mentions.
The Monsoon 2019 issue of Almost Islandis here, and with it a feature of poetry and prose from last October’s India-China dialogues in Hong Kong and Hangzhou.
Almost Island writes, announcing the feature:
This issue continues our dialogue with leading Chinese poets and novelists, ongoing since 2009. The dialogue was begun by Chinese poet Bei Dao [北岛] and Indian novelist and poet Sharmistha Mohanty. The most recent meeting between Indian and Chinese writers, curated by Almost Island and the Chinese journal Jintian [今天], took place in October 2018 in Hong Kong and Hangzhou.
“Confucius traveled from state to state—across many warring states before the unification in BCE 221—offering advice to the heads of states and attempting to counsel them, but everywhere he went, Confucius’s ideas were met with indifference and rejection. With his noble aspirations getting nowhere, Confucius gained the reputation of a homeless dog. The astonishing thing is that not only did the Master not mind being called homeless dog but he found the epithet to be a suitable description of his plight. I suspect that the story tells us something interesting about the defeat and survival of rootless intellectuals, and this story is the polar opposite of what you get from the official discourse of Confucianism in China.
Like Confucius, all rootless intellectuals are, in a sense, homeless dogs. This story lives on in our midst, like a gift to the present. As we share more of each other’s stories, the Chinese and Indian writers are essentially building a transnational literary alliance based on our melancholy knowledge of the living pasts. That our friendship can grow and form a lasting bond is owing to the fact that, in Nandy’s words, ‘India and China are both in some fundamental sense societies which negotiate the past and the future similarly despite all differences. This similarity lies in the fact that in both countries the past is as open as the future.’”
This openness of time speaks through Bei Dao’s new book length poem, from which we have excerpts here, translated by Eliot Weinberger and seen for the first time in English in this issue.
Ouyang Jianghe [欧阳江河] follows Sufis and drifters in his poems in which “A screw and a flower embrace, tightening time.” The luminous translations are by Lucas Klein.
The poems of Xi Chuan are hard, sharp and brilliant, diamond like. Once again Lucas Klein achieves this in English.
Zhai Yongming [翟永明] has, on the surface, a seemingly lighter touch, but underneath she walks the razor’s edge. Andrea Lingenfelter renders this deftly into English.
We have an excerpt from novelist Han Shaogong’s [韩少功] deeply original A Dictionary of Maqiao, written in fact in the form of dictionary entries, each entry looking closely at different aspects of the village of Maqiao during the Cultural Revolution. Translator Julia Lovell catches the extraordinary within the ordinary in Shaogong’s prose.
And Ashis Nandy’s opening talk at the last India-China Dialogues held in Hong Kong and Hangzhou, Oct. 2018, where in his inimitable way he pries open the twentieth century to find that its most lasting legacy is genocide.
Click the highlighted links to download the .pdf files and begin reading!
Matches Polished into Lights: Tiananmen Thirty Years On June 3, 2019, at Bleak House Books, Hong Kong
Speakers: Jennifer Anne Eagleton, Guo Ting, Louisa Lim, William Nee, Mei Kwan Ng, Kate Rogers, and Lian-Hee Wee (with two special guest readers, Jeff Wasserstrom and Andrea Lingenfelter). Moderator: Tammy Lai-Ming Ho
For selected texts by featured speakers, click here.
For Tammy Ho’s piece, published as South China Morning Post‘s “Young Post,” see here:
Zheng is, by any measure, an anomaly. When she won the Liqun Literary Prize in 2007, she was completely unknown in the literary world. Now, she is a seminal figure in the emerging genre of migrant worker poetry and one of the most significant living Chinese poets, as her recent nomination for the Newman Prize attests.
Zheng’s poetry is well-known for its stylistic complexity. But what I find most interesting in her poetry is the relationship between two seemingly opposed landscapes: the classic pastoral landscape on the one hand and the landscape of mass-production on the other.
Shieh also quotes a poem by Zheng alongside its translation into English by Samantha Toh.
4 June 2019 will mark thirty years since the Tiananmen Square Massacre in Beijing, when the Chinese government crushed the nascent democracy movement led by students and workers. The ensuing decades have brought tumultuous changes to the culture, politics, economics of China and the whole world. To honour the struggle of the democracy protesters, mourn their defeat, and take stock of the last three decades, Cha: An Asian Literary Journalis convening a special feature of translations and original English works, to be co-edited by Tammy Ho Lai-Ming and Lucas Klein, for publication in the June 2019 issue of the journal.
We are looking for high-quality and previously unpublished poems, stories, remembrances, essays, and works of creative nonfiction, either originally written in English or translated from any of China’s languages into English, on the topic of the Tiananmen Square democracy movement and its aftermath.
Please email submissions to firstname.lastname@example.org. The subject line should read “Tiananmen—[Your name]—Genre”. The extended deadline for submissions is 30 April 2019. Please follow our guidelinesclosely.
As Mori’s English was poor, and Fenollosa’s Japanese probably not advanced, an expert in both, the professor of international law Ariga Nagao, was employed as a translator. Also fluent in classical Chinese, he prepared the crib for one of the most important poems in the book, “Song of the Bowmen of Shu.” Mori and Ariga used what is called the kundoku method of reading and translating. This is Timothy Billings’s quite remarkable discovery in this extraordinary edition of Cathay. Kundoku allowed scholars who couldn’t speak Chinese, who could pronounce the characters only in the Japanese fashion, to read the texts closely. This is reminiscent of the study of Latin in the West, where for centuries the texts were pored over by students and scholars who sometimes could not speak the language and whose pronunciation would undoubtedly have driven ancient Romans mad—though ancient Romans in their polyglot city were used to foreigners mangling their tongue and delighted in making nasty remarks about it.
The full book is very worth reading for anyone interested in Ezra Pound’s Cathay and/or in Chinese poetry in English translation (and its history). But Logan’s review is also an excellent summary of what is most important and urgent in Billings’s edition.