Introduction to Chinese Poetry in Translation in SupChina

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.

India-China Dialogues on Almost Island

The Monsoon 2019 issue of Almost Island is 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.

Scholar Lydia H. Liu, in her essay The Gift of a Living Past, a tribute to Ashis Nandy, which we publish here, says:

“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

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:

No photo description available.

Shieh on Zheng Xiaoqiong

Last month was Poetry Month (T.S. Eliot called April “the cruellest month”), and SupChina ran a host of short essays on Chinese poetry.

As part of the series, Simon Shieh wrote about Zheng Xiaoqiong
郑小琼:

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.

Click here to read the whole article.

Cha Journal Call for Submissions for Tiananmen Square Massacre 30th Anniversary Issue

[Call for Submissions] Special Feature on Tiananmen (June 2019)
Deadline Extended!

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.

June 4th.jpeg

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 submissions@asiancha.com. The subject line should read “Tiananmen—[Your name]—Genre”. The extended deadline for submissions is 30 April 2019. Please follow our guidelines closely.

Logan on Billings’s Critical Cathay

William Logan’s long review of the new Cathay: A Critical Edition, edited by Timothy Billings

The New Criterion has published William Logan’s long review of the new Cathay: A Critical Edition, edited by Timothy Billings (Fordham, 2019).

Logan likes the book. He summarizes:

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.

Click here for the full review.

Bei Dao in WLT Hong Kong feature

As part of its feature on Hong Kong writing, guest-edited by Tammy Ho–featuring writing by Xi Xi 西西 as translated by Jennifer Feeley, poetry by Chris Song 宋子江, and more–World Literature Today has published my translation of “Dwelling Poetically in Hong Kong,” by Bei Dao 北島, published originally in 2010.

“Dwelling poetically” comes from Heidegger. “In short,” Bei Dao explains, “to dwell is the state of being of the human, while the poetic is the attainment via poetry of a spiritual liberation or freedom; therefore, to dwell poetically is to search for one’s spiritual home.” Such thinking inspired Bei Dao to launch the Hong Kong International Poetry Nights, which he explains in the piece.

Bei Dao began Poetry Nights to cure an ill he diagnosed in the youths of Hong Kong. He writes:

Because I teach, I have a lot of contact with the youth of Hong Kong. And I worry for their generation. They were born on a production assembly line—their whole lives are determined for them in advance. This assembly line has the look of being safe and reliable, but their creativity and imagination have been hijacked—by capital, by their fathers, by the media, by the internet; they have no curiosity, no vision, no desire to read or to learn, no independence, no ability to express themselves, yes, none whatsoever. I have no doubt that this is a contributing factor to the high suicide rate of youths in Hong Kong, a contributing factor to the pervasiveness of psychological complexes among the youth of Hong Kong.

After this piece circulated online, I noticed that some were not happy with Bei Dao’s characterization of the youth of Hong Kong. I thought his judgment could use some contextualization, so Tammy Ho and I decided that as translator I should append a note, special for the online edition. I wrote:

Bei Dao wrote “Dwelling Poetically in Hong Kong” in 2010, two and a half years after moving to Hong Kong and not long after what would be the first of the International Poetry Nights in Hong Kong—a poetry festival that has helped change the cultural reputation of this city. At one point Bei Dao strikes a sour note about the youth of Hong Kong, whom he knew as his students. Much has changed in Hong Kong since he wrote this piece—the activation of the younger generation’s political engagement with Occupy Central (2014), or what was known as the Umbrella Movement, but also Bei Dao’s International Poetry Nights, which have taken place biennially since 2009. If his critique of students now rings false, then, to a certain extent, Bei Dao himself is partially to thank for that.

Click here to read the piece in full.

Shan on Yu Yoyo and Translation

The Asymptote blog has posted Xiao Yue Shan’s take on Yu Yoyo 余幼幼, as translated by Henry Zhang. Shan writes:

Floating signifiers are especially insecure in translation, in which one often has to choose between music and intention, double meanings or single ones, visual effect or faithful retellings. They present a particular dilemma because a floating signifier in one language may not be one in the other. The Chinese language, painting with a full palette of the pictorial, the symbolic, the historical, and the literal, has a tangibility that does not lapse into the vague as easily as English does. Ernest Fenollosa, in his (flawed but admirable) studies, characterized Chinese characters as a medium for poetry. It is not that Chinese is inherently more possessive of the elusive idea of poetics, but rather that the facets of Chinese language that enchanted Fenollosa with their invocation of poetry are also what result in headaches for translators. We do not count our losses in translation. Instead, we admire the growth a poem may undergo as it leaves its writer’s hand and wanders onto the page, how it may cross oceans and national borders, how it lives, how it is alive, the way we know language to be.

Shan notes that in Henry Zhang’s English version of Yu’s poem “Letter of Regret,” the word “‘love’ is applied much less liberally, turning up only four times” to Yu’s six for aiqing 爱情. “There is no retracing the tangled process of translation,” she says, “but one may guess that it has something to do with how ‘love’ weighs lighter in the Chinese language, which has ceded less value to the word in its public consciousness.”

I don’t know about that. But looking at the first stanza of the poem in Chinese and English, I wonder if Zhang was working with another version.

忏悔书

我写了那么多爱情
却从来没有
相信过
爱情到了最后
都让我变成
老死不相往来

Letter of Regret

I wrote so much love
but never
believed
love would make me
two cities, each ignoring the other

Click here to read the piece in full.

On Ha Jin on Li Bai

Lauded Chinese-American novelist and poet Ha Jin 哈金 has written a biography of Li Bai 李白, The Banished Immortal: A Life of Li Bai, newly published by Pantheon.

Because it’s by an award-winning author, the biography has been getting reviews–more than I’ve noticed for any other work in English on a Chinese poet! Yet most of these reviews have little of interest to say (I’ve only linked to one, here: Gina Elia writing for SupChina).

Here’s one that offers an interesting take, though: Han Zhang in The New Yorker, “Ha Jin’s Self-Revealing Study of the Chinese Poet Li Bai.”

In 1993, when Jin graduated, with a Ph.D. in English, he fantasized about a future rich in opportunity. Reality soon intervened: he landed only one interview and didn’t hear back. It was then that he thought of Li Bai (or Li Po, as the poet is known in the West) and began to see hardship as a path to literary excellence

Although both Li Bai and Ha Jin accepted their rootlessness, they had different ways of coping with it. Li sought constantly to cloak his pain; he chased the joy of encounters and used wine to suspend his dread. (“The fine wine of Lanling gives off a fragrance— / Held in a jade bowl, it shines with amber light,” he once wrote.) Jin, meanwhile, believes that the past—and one’s home—become a part of you, no matter the distance. In one poem, Jin writes about his grandmother, who passed away in China and spoke English to him in a dream. “No, no, you couldn’t pick up / foreign stuff over there / You must have been here, / here, in me,” he writes. “The Banished Immortal” is a biography, but it is also a document in which a rootless writer nods to the past inside him. Writing about Li Bai—his life, his work, and his country—Jin finally returns home.

Click here to read the article in full.

Daniel Tay on The Reciprocal Translation Project

Daniel Tay has written a review of The Reciprocal Translation Project, edited by James Sherry and Sun Dong 孙冬, which gives a different take from Eleanor Goodman‘s (“There is no acknowledgement of the structure, form, tone, emotional texture, repetition, surprise, rhythm, rhyme, sound effect, level of diction, intent, etc., etc., of the original,” posted here earlier). He writes:

All in all, the poems and their translations are strong and successful. That is, they make good on the editors’ aims, and do so without conclusively declaring any single work as ideal, final, better, or best. The poets generate translations that expose and negotiate the similarities and differences between Chinese and American language, poetic interests, and cultures. In doing so, they expand the criteria available for writing and considering translations.

Put another way, the poets and editors show that poems, translations, and their writers can create and function together in a poetic ecosystem. Normally placed in an evaluative hierarchy, with different works competing for critical praise and attention, these poems and their translations function in an inclusive hierarchy. This means that the poems and translations develop meaning in one another, symbiotically, with none being superior in status to the other. Moreover, no poem or translation is the title work of the collection, and no work is inferior to the collection as a whole …

In this poetic ecosystem, writers do not, as generally understood, hand down their original works to translators; instead, they hand them off – in this case to contemporaries and peers. Critics and publishers often claim that translations have “captured” an original work or its voice. The environmental model for poetics, embodied in The Reciprocal Translation Project, introduces nonlinear goals for translations, and adds a useful complexity to their relationships with original works.

This far, the review only reiterates what Sun and Sherry write in their introduction. But Tay goes on:

in observing the ways in which these questions overwhelmed me, I came to see that my questions manifested a personal resistance. With so many choices, I was refusing to settle into and engage any particular way of reading. After all, each way of reading would preclude, prevent, or worse predetermine certain understandings of the texts. How could I see past my particular way of reading to identify the aims and maneuvers of the various writers?

In showing multiple translations side by side and without commentary, the book invites readers to take stock of and maintain awareness of their own assumptions, preconditions, and demands for texts. At the same time, it asks readers to observe the variety of writers’ considerations, expectations, and intentions as expressed through their works. In essence, readers must reflect, look inward, and ultimately accept and take responsibility for their ways of reading. Only then can they negotiate, and translate between, those ways of reading and the translators’ ways of translating.

Click here to read the review in full.