Klein on New Premodern Chinese Poetry Translations in LARB

2016-07-15_1030The Los Angeles Review of Books @lareviewofbooks has published “Tribunals of Erudition and Taste: or, Why Translations of Premodern Chinese Poetry Are Having a Moment Right Now,” my take on what looks like something of a resurgence in translation into English.

I use a nineteenth-century debate between Matthew Arnold and Francis Newman to frame a review of Chloe Garcia Roberts’s translation of Li Shangyin 李商隱, David Hinton’s translation of Wang An-shih 王安石, an anthology / travelogue by Red Pine (Bill Porter), and Stephen Owen’s translation of the complete Du Fu 杜甫, alongside Ira Nadel on Ezra Pound and the New Directions re-release of Ezra Pound’s Cathay (and mention of Gary Snyder, Bob Perelman, Paul Kroll, Eliot Weinberger, and more). Here’s how it ends:

The stakes of poetry translation from Chinese are indeed the stakes both of how we understand translation and how we in the English-speaking world understand China. Translation is neither simply a matter for scholars to judge, nor is it something that can be left to the unaccountable imaginings of revelers in poetry — any more than China should be something only specialists or tourists alone can pronounce upon. Rather, bringing expertise and excitement together, translation can help expand our conceptions of poetry and of China, demanding more from ourselves, and more from it. The contentiousness may remain, but it can motivate us to create new and better representations.

So will American poetry turn outward again, and in the process help redefine China as more than a strategic competitor, accused of currency manipulation by presidential candidates, or more than a polluted manufacturer to which we outsource abuses of human rights and labor? Will Chinese literature prove an old repository of poetic presentation from which the United States can both learn and create new beauty? Certainly larger historical and socioeconomic forces will determine the directions our poetry turns, but insofar as what we publish has any role, I see reasons for optimism — and in that optimism, a readiness to engage in the tensions of global and local that inhere in translation.

The recent poetry collections covered in this essay demonstrate a hunger for new ways of understanding and appreciating China, and more are coming soon … With these additions reaching new audiences, we may see premodern Chinese poetry making it new once again.

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Morse Reviews Balcom’s Xiang Yang

Canaan Morse reviews John Balcom’s translation of Grass Roots: Selected Poems by Xiang Yang 向陽 (Zephyr) for World Literature Today:

Balcom’s ubiquitous preference for merging verbs into adjectival phrases or deleting them entirely strengthens static image and removes dynamic energies that might be considered noisier in English than in Chinese.

And yet the poems are not quiet. They are vividly aware of the aporias and ambiguities inherent in the classical Chinese narrative that iterates time through space, and they speak to them … Balcom’s flexible English represents some of these differences with facility; lines like “A bloody rain falls on fields plowed by bullets” stand apart from lines like “The surprise encounter of the fish and the leaves,” which are brilliant for entirely different reasons. Yet many of his decisions, especially his frequent deletions, seem hard to justify … Balcom’s introduction makes no mention of his process. Translation is frequently maligned as either a derivative act or a violent, domineering one. Perhaps greater transparency could prevent it from being either.

Click on the image for the full review.

New Issue of CLEAR

The new issue of Chinese Literature: Essays, Articles, Reviews (CLEAR) is hitting the shelves (or stacks), along with it my article “Indic Echoes: Form, Content, and World Literature in Tang Dynasty Regulated Verse,” Charles Laughlin’s “New Translators & Contemporary Chinese Literature in English,” my review of Jonathan Stalling’s Shi Zhi 食指 translation, and Nick Admussen’s review of Notes on the Mosquito. Here’s an excerpt from his review:

Biography is a crucial dimension of contemporary poetry: the drive to make biography meaningful, to use it as a means of self-expression, is shared by poets not just in China, but all over the world. Klein notes that Xi Chuan read every draft of every translation, and was important to the processes of selection and organization (xii-xiii). Xi Chuan is a scholar and translator of English and American literature. His ability and willingness to be involved in this translation from start to finish makes it valuable and rare in the world of translated literature; in addition to being the transformation of original work by a translator, Notes on the Mosquito is a direct product of the artist himself. For this reason, readers get much more from the book than they might otherwise. Concretely, the narrative of Xi Chuan’s art undergoing transformations in 1989 is one that the poet himself wants to share.

This is, however, still a translated volume, and the hand of the translator is also visible in the English versions of the poems. Perhaps because of his ability to get Xi Chuan’s opinion on his final drafts, Lucas Klein’s translations are unafraid of taking significant risks with the original texts. This feels like the correct — perhaps the only correct — strategy in dealing with these poems. Because his lyric poetry is so syntactically complex, and because his prose work moves between intricate intertextuality and tonally layered vernacular, a bold attempt to render the feeling of a poem into English is almost always preferable to the uninterpretability of a literal translation.

For more information, click the image above.

Karen An-hwei Lee reviews Notes on the Mosquito

ReviewXiChuan_slideKaren An-hwei Lee reviews Notes on the Mosquito at Your Impossible Voice! Here’s how it begins:

If I could sing well enough—or play acoustic guitar, for that matter—I would sing Xi Chuan’s early lyric poems in a quiet studio with a swept parquet floor. A single lightbulb or a candle burning. Enormous shadows on BioKarenLee_1the walls. Pot of cold black tea on a small table. Photographs of unadorned scenes from modern life: a power outage, a nurse’s youth dissolved by acid, a man pacing the room late at night. The title poem, “Notes on the Mosquito,” alludes to ironies existing between the collectivist ideal of proletariat rule versus actual bourgeois realities, a political motif in both his pre- and post-Tiananmen writings.

For the full review, click the image above.

Lilburn on Xi Chuan & Zhai Yongming in Brick

The Canadian literary journal Brick has published Tim Lilburn’s essay on “A Mandelstamian Generation in China,” on Xi Chuan and Zhai Yongming 翟永明. He writes,

There has been a tendency in North America and Europe to imagine Chinese writers, poets especially perhaps, as inevitably and necessarily political, dissidents in a way that flatters the West. This was true for writers in the Soviet Union too, which made it difficult, for example, to appreciate the complete range of someone like Joseph Brodsky once he first became known outside of Russia. Taking Xi Chuan this way, or any in his generation, would bring on similar reductive distortions. It is true that in China’s current state of cultural undefinition, some intellectuals, as Xi Chuan told [Eleanor] Wachtel, “are trying to rethink or reflect on history, not only ancient history but also on modern history, revolutionary history,” in order to imagine a possible, more coherent China. It’s also true that traditionally poets, like scholars, in the Confucian scheme of things, have seen themselves as serving the state by helping to shape its notion of itself, either by speaking directly to the masses or by educating the ruler. But the West is chiefly keen to identify dissidents wherever it can, because these, it supposes, are warriors for its own cause within an opposing power, who work utterly at their own risk. It’s hard to believe that any of the major Chinese poets I spoke to seeks to fulfill the role of furthering Western cultural expansion. As Xi Chuan said in the Wachtel interview: “I don’t think Cnia will one day become, for instance, Canada, America, England, or France.” Nor, it seems, does he wish exactly that it would. When I asked the Chinese poets gathered in 2008 at White Stone Town in Anhui Province how they thought of being seen by the West as dissidents, Ouyang Jianghe, one of the most fiery of the group, exploded that he had no wish to be regarded as a writer who was professionally a disaffected Chinese intellectual. Such a vocation was far too soft and besides was a self-serving invention from elsewhere.

For ordering information and the journal’s table of contents, click the image above.

Notes on the Mosquito awarded Lucien Stryk Prize

The 2013 Lucien Stryk Prize went to Lucas Klein for his translation of the Chinese poetry collection Notes on the Mosquito by Xi Chuan. The $5,000 prize, which was established by an anonymous donor, recognizes the best book-length translation into English of Asian poetry or of source texts from Zen Buddhism.

“Klein’s volume is the most deserving of the prize by virtue of the quality of many of the translations and the caliber of the poems they represent,” said the Stryk Prize committee. “Judging from this collection, Xi Chuan is clearly a major poetic voice whose formal versatility and relentlessly unswerving insights into the often grim but fascinating here and now of China’s comédie humaine represent a significant contribution to Chinese letters and are well-deserving of a Western readership.”

Why Notes on the Mosquito Should Win Best Translated Book Award 2013

This week the 3% blog is highlighting all 6 BTBA Poetry Finalists one by one, building up to next Friday’s announcement of the winners. This review of Notes on the Mosquito is by BTBA poetry judge Jennifer Kronovet. It begins:

When I had the chance to meet the Chinese poet Xi Chuan at a conference on translation in Beijing, I asked him about the choice to write prose poems. Prose poems make up approximately half of Notes on the Mosquito, his selected work translated by Lucas Klein. He responded that years ago, an artist asked if he would write a poem in relation to a photograph of someone washing with a plastic wash basin. He told this artist that he did not know how to write about plastic basins, only wooden ones. Prose was a way for Xi Chuan’s poems to step outside of the imagery and language of traditional Chinese poetry and reenter with a different idiom and perspective. Xi Chuan’s prose poems are nodes of intense and felt thinking in relation to China’s present, expressed in a voice that is starkly contemporary and layered with history. Form and voice in Xi Chuan’s work feel like rooms where impossible thinking explains everything. In one poem he writes:

“In a crowd of people some people are not people, just as in a flock of eagles some eagles are not eagles; some eagles are forced to wander through alleyways, some people are forced to fly in the sky.”

Read the whole review by clicking here or the image above.

Notes on the Mosquito on New Books on East Asian Studies

Carla Nappi of New Books in East Asian Studies spoke with me (yes, me!) about my translation of Xi Chuan’s Notes on the Mosquito: Selected Poems. Here’s her flattering write-up:

First things first: this is a book of amazing, beautiful poetry, and you should read it.

In translating Xi Chuan’s Notes on the Mosquito: Selected Poems (New Directions, 2012), Lucas Klein has given readers access to a bilingual journey through more than two decades of Xi Chuan’s evolution as a writer, a person, and a historian. The poems collected and rendered in Notes on the Mosquito range from evocative lyric verse about shepherds and loneliness to historical essays that consider the “New Qing History.” (It is a striking range, and one that was quite unexpected for this reader and historian.) In our conversation, Lucas was generous enough to explain many aspects of his process and approach as a translator, and to read a number of the translated poems collected in the volume. We talked about several aspects of his work, including both practical issues and more conceptual questions about the linking of history and poetry in the writing of a poet and a reader’s approach to the resulting work. It was a pleasure, and I hope you enjoy listening.

Click the image above or listen here:

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Review of Words & the World

Kevin Carollo’s review of Words & the World, the publication from the 2011 International Poetry Nights in Hong Kong, has just appeared at Rain Taxi online. Carollo writes:

Enter Words & the World, the material result of 2011’s International Poetry Nights in Hong Kong. A white box roughly 7 x 11 x 2.5 inches in dimension houses a collection of twenty chapbooks, black ink on white paper, with at least two languages guaranteed in each chapbook (Chinese and English). The collection “begins” with the younger generation Mexican poet María Baranda (b. 1962), and “ends” with Chinese writer Yu Xiang (b. 1970), integrating them with better-known or longer-standing international versifiers, including Irish trickster Paul Muldoon, American spiritualist C.D Wright, Japanese lyric master Shuntaro Tanikawa, and Slovenian dynamo Tomaz Salamun. The box-set effect encourages reading at cross-cultural purposes, to be sure, and a nice leveling effect emerges between poets, poems, and languages. The work inside is generally stunning, strange, and vibrant, in no small part due to having crossed so many borders to appear before your very eyes.

Today’s English speaker is more than likely aware of the myriad forms of English informing the polyphonic Anglo poetry world, and the inclusion of such diverse poets as Muldoon, Wright, and Indian Vivek Narayanan intimates as much. Perhaps because the “West” often conveniently forgets that a billion people speak the language, Words & The World importantly underscores the heterogeneous nature of living and writing in Chinese by showcasing writers from mainland China, Hong Kong, and Taiwan. All of them seem engaged in some form of epic conversation with a “West” that is far from predictable or uniform in its concerns or manifestations. The addition of poets like Brazilian Régis Bonvicino (writing in Portuguese, despite his French-Italian name) and German-born Russian poet Arkadii Dragomoshchenko further reinforces the sense of a grandiloquent, irreverent dialogue occurring across the seven seas. Bonvicino’s chapbook includes an untitled poem dedicated to Dragomoshchencko, which begins: “Almost no one sees / what I see in the words / byzantine iconoclasm / the clock reads midnight or mid-day?” (56). Indeed, the byzantine iconoclasm of this box set is what astonishes most of all, the overriding and often overwhelming sense that, night or day, it is high time for all of us to wake up.

Click on the image above for the full review.