Jesse Glass on Burton Watson (1925 – 2017)

In honor of Burton Watson’s passing, I am collecting statements and memories from friends and fans, to be posted as they come in. The following remembrance is by Jesse Glass, adapted from his entry in Salutations; a Festschrift for Burton Watson (Ahadada / Ekleksographia, 2015), which he edited with Philip Williams:

When I made my exit from America I threw a party: poets, painters, cabaret singers, gallery owners, teachers, philosophers of the street, strangers and passersby looking for a bargain, everyone was welcome. Somehow I had managed to shake free from everything and everyone I thought I loved, reduced my worldly goods to a suitcase and a few boxes in friends’ attics, and it was time to make my way to Japan the very next morning. But first we’d have a party: I’d play a record on my little black plastic machine, then give it away, and by the end of the night I gave the record player away too; I made sure my suits, my hats, my ties, some paintings, a Haitian deity in repousse steel, went walking out the door. My 1928 Underwood typewriter grew unsteady legs too after we’d typed dozens of drunken, communal, but surprisingly dry-eyed verses. I remember we’d all staggered down to the Milwaukee river an hour or two before sunrise, laughing at the lights reflected lights, at the trees and at the few cold stars left in the sky. I was poorer and happier than I had been in a long time and I was not afraid. I kept referring in my mind to the one book I did not give away but would take with me on the plane, and keep with me through the coming years in countryside Japan, in south China, in Korea and in Japan again: the book told me of trees that were useless, and best that way, and of a butcher who never needed to sharpen his knife, and of a giant bird and a vast fish that divided the waters of the deep beyond the skill of anyone to catch, and a skull existing in a perpetual dream of autumn, and of an unbearably ugly man who for some reason proved so attractive that everyone wanted to be near him and even princesses would fight to be his mistress, and of butterflies dreaming they were philosophers and philosophers dreaming they were butterflies. These stories nourished and consoled me then as they do even now. After many years, when I finally met the gentleman who gave me those precious stories, wrestling them expertly from the ancient Chinese into memorable English, I showed him the dog-eared, coffee-stained, annotated, and deeply decrepit pages and he wrote on the fly-leaf of Chuang Tzu; Basic Writings: “ October 22, 2005/ For Jesse Glass, / In appreciation of a well-read copy, Burton”.

Due to the incredible generosity of Burton Watson with his gifts we all have been given a key to the intellectual riches of a part of the world that is just as crucial to the collective future of humanity as it is to its past. The stories, the poems, the teachings of great sages and the epic histories that Burton Watson has given us, both directly in his superb translations from the Chinese and the Japanese, and indirectly through his role as teacher and exemplar to dozens of other scholars, translators, poets, writers, and artists, continue to unpack their treasures. No, Burton, the appreciation, the pleasure, has been ours as well. Please accept this small gift from us, sensei.

Contact me if you would like to add your own remembrance.

Victor Mair on Burton Watson (1925 – 2017)

In honor of Burton Watson’s passing, I am collecting statements and memories from friends and fans, to be posted as they come in. The following remembrance is from Victor Mair, professor of Chinese at University of Pennsylvania:

Sometime around the mid-70s, I had the great, good fortune to be invited to a dinner at the home of my mentor, Patrick Hanan. Also in attendance that evening were James Hightower and Burton Watson. I distinctly recall, already at that time, my impression of Watson being a venerable scholar of enormous accomplishments. Yet think of all that he has accomplished since that time four decades ago!

Despite his stature as a preeminent translator, Burton displayed no pretensions whatsoever. He put me completely at my ease. We had a pleasant, relaxed conversation about how we both had gotten into the study of Chinese literature and our mutual joy in translating it well.

Contact me if you would like to add your own remembrance.

Burton Watson, 1925 – 2017

https://i1.wp.com/xichuanpoetry.com/wp-content/uploads/2015/04/A41A6373-2.jpg?resize=229%2C307Burton Watson, the greatest translator of premodern poetry and prose from Chinese and Japanese, passed away on the evening of April 1, 2017, at Hatsutomi Hospital in Kamagata City, Chiba, Japan. He was 91.

I have so far been unable to find an obituary. I am reposting “Not Altogether an Illusion: Translation and Translucence in the Work of Burton Watson,” which I wrote for World Literature Today, published in May of 2014.

Ascent and grounding describe as well Watson’s reconciliation of the scholarly and poetic demands of translation: the solidity of his knowledge of classical Chinese finds expression in an English that calls attention to itself primarily in how it barely calls attention to itself. It is an extension of the overall architecture of the regulated verse form, down to the “succession of highly disciplined maneuvers” that define the antithetical parallelism of their middle couplets at their best. Where others have presented poetry and translation as forever at odds, Watson’s work sees this conflict as its own static tableau and reduces it to a productive part of his own translational poetics.

Click on the image for the full article.

Emerson’s Laozi-in-Progress Online

John Emerson is working toward a new translation of the Daode Jing 道德經, and he’s posting his progress online. “In the course of time,” he writes, he will “add comments, a translation, crossreferences, notes on the interesting variants, and summary discussions of key topics.” He adds:

My editing might be called aggressive. Beyond selecting from the variant forms,  I have also divided and redistributed a few chapters (and have even abolished a few),  and I and have substantially changed the order of the chapters. This new arrangement is intended to make the Daodejing more coherent  and show its internal relationships more clearly. This new text is made up entirely of old materials, but it is not a scientific edition. It is an attempt to  produce a more readerly DDJ by clearing away some of the historical encumbrances it is burdened with, while at the same time making its history more apparent.

And,

The original DDJ never existed. At every stage the DDJ has been an editorial composite made up of materials of diverse origins, and many of the individual chapters are composites too. This editorial process never ended, and the Guodian text shows us that earlier versions were not necessarily better. Over the centuries editor after editor has tinkered with the text in search of the ideal and unattainable Daodejing, and during this process of tinkering interesting themes have emerged. I am merely  the latest tinkerer in that long line.

Track his work here.

Stephen Procter on Xi Chuan & the Contradictory Aesthetics of Revolution

https://i2.wp.com/pbs.twimg.com/profile_images/811513661680394240/CB0sEUlb.jpg?resize=311%2C311&ssl=1The PN Review has published Stephen Procter’s article on Xi Chuan, “Xi Chuan & the Contradictory Aesthetics of Revolution.” Procter writes:

While potentially a contradiction might be logically fertile, assisting in the discovery of meaning, the indissolubility of the oxymoron must simply be accepted, with no meaning being made to adhere to it. As Xi Chuan points out, the latter pervade contemporary discourse, in phrases such as ‘Party-member capitalist’ and ‘Socialist Market Economy,’ and they are the linguistic legacy of the early days of communist China, which proclaimed the ‘People’s Democratic Dictatorship.’ According to Xi Chuan, Chinese literary tradition is not just a matter of immersion in the classics, but also of coming to terms with the ‘minor tradition’ of socialism which has played its own role in shaping the language.

and

Xi Chuan reflects the way in which the margins feed into the centre. As he points out, marginal annotation is the primary means through which Chinese culture has been transmitted. In ‘That Person Writing,’ it is the unnamed ancient scribe whose modifications flow into the mainstream: ‘Wittingly or not certain words are altered, wittingly or not he retains his own breath within the views of another. From a humble stenographer, he unwittingly transforms into a minor author, like an ant tethering thought’s kite against the wind.’ By focusing only on the central currents, we miss the process of accumulation through which a culture comes into being, its essential force. The life of tradition is in its transmission, not its preservation.

Click the image above for the paywalled article.

Publishers Weekly on Bei Dao’s Memoirs

City GatePublishers Weekly has a brief review of Bei Dao’s 北岛 memoirs about growing up in Beijing, City Gate, Open Up 城门开, translated by Jeffrey Yang (forthcoming from New Directions). It reads:

In this ruminative, lyrical memoir, revered Chinese poet Bei Dao (The Rose of Time) reflects on his father, the Beijing of his youth, and China’s Cultural Revolution. Returning to Beijing after over two decades away, including 13 years of exile from China, the poet was inspired to record his memories of a city he found drastically altered, reflecting on an idyllic childhood of hide-and-seek and ghost stories. He captures the unique timbres of street peddlers, and remembers treasuring a bowl of wonton soup during the Great Famine. There are comic tales as well: two rival cultural discussion groups coming to blows over a Paganini record; a protest of the middle school cafeteria’s less-than-stringent sanitation standards led by the poet as a swaggering youth. As he reached adulthood, the Revolution cast a pall: the Red Guards confiscated “counterrevolutionary” materials, and beatings and suicides became routine. In the final pages, Bei Dao recalls his complicated relationship with his father, whose illness brought Bei Dao back to Beijing after so many years. This is a nuanced account of China in the era of the Cultural Revolution, seen through one young man’s eyes. Since that young man became a poet, it is also beautifully textured, full of the sounds, sights, and scents of a Beijing that is no more.

And for an excerpt from the memoir, see The Manchester Review:

Around age six or seven I composed a musical invention: to the sounds of car horns I hummed a tune in counterpoint. Together these two sounds defined the metropolis for me. As dream became reality, the proliferating noises of the metropolis (particularly the sounds of drills and jackhammers) tormented me to madness; after many long nights of fleeting sleep, I ultimately concluded that to the children of our agricultural empire, the so-called metropolis, the great city, has had little relation to their verbal creativity…

Click on the image for the full review.

 

van Crevel on Chinese Migrant Worker Poetry

At Modern Chinese Literature & Culture Maghiel van Crevel reviews Iron Moon the film (directed by Qin Xiaoyu 秦晓宇 and Wu Feiyue 吴飞跃) and the anthology (edited by Qin Xiaoyu, translated by Eleanor Goodman).

The review begins:

Poetry is the most ubiquitous of literary genres. It is written and recited and read and heard for families and festivals, in love and on stage, in prayers and protests, at imperial courts and in factories. In China, associations of poetry and factories, and of poetry and manual labor at large, are anything but far-fetched. One recalls the story of poetry production, which is really the only right word here, being whipped up to keep up with steel production during the Great Leap Forward (quite aside from the results in terms of quality, for poetry or for steel). And less frenetic, more sustainable instances of the linkage of poetry and labor throughout the Mao era, with factories – and drilling rigs, construction sites, and so on – generally depicted as good places. But today, poetry + factories + China conjure up a different picture. One thinks not of the proletariat but of the precariat, and not of glory but of misery.

And on the translation and the poetry, he writes:

Goodman is to be commended for the many places in which she handles the particulars of migrant worker poetry astutely in terms of style. If we allow for some generalization, this poetry tends to be less polished – to cite a cliché that may fit the present context better than most – than professional writing. It is, for instance, often unsteady or unbalanced in terms of register and tone, line length, rhythm, and so on. This raises the old question of whether the translator is at liberty to “improve the original,” and of what determines whether the changes they make are improvements. Beyond textual and linguistic issues, this question often involves reflection on cultural difference and, sometimes, more directly political considerations of what one wants the translation to be and do – with migrant worker poetry, prison writing, and so on as cases in point. On the whole, in this respect, Goodman’s engagement with the texts is highly effective, especially because she knows when to honor the literal, and when to shun it. For the great majority of the poems, she treads a fine line between respecting the original and ensuring that the translations read well, maximizing the chance that the reader will stay tuned and get the message. In all, the poetry in Iron Moon remains true to life in translation, so to speak.

For the full write-up, click the image.

Tammy Ho on Contemporary Faces of the River Merchant’s Wife

Writing at World Literature Today, Tammy Ho Lai-ming 何麗明 talks about the “Contemporary Faces” of “The Merchant River’s Wife: A Letter,” Ezra Pound’s translation of Changgan Xing 長干行 by Tang poet Li Bai 李白 (whom he called Rihaku) in Cathay (1915). Specifically, she focuses on contemporary extensions, responses, and rewritings: Luca L.’s “Letter to Ru Yi, the River-Merchant’s Wife”; “The Expat’s Partner: An Email,” by Alistair Noon; and “Ghost Husband,” by Renée M. Schell. Here’s how she ends her piece:

In his introduction to Derrida’s ideas of deconstruction and photography, the painter Gerhard Richter suggests that translation means that “something is presented, interpreted, explained, and even understood in terms of something else.” Seen in this way, the three contemporary poems discussed can be called transgender, transtemporal, and transcultural translations of Li Bai’s poem, read through the prism of Pound’s rendering.

Click on the image for the full article.

Gao on Feeley’s Xi Xi

notwritten_wAt the Hong Kong Review of Books, Yunwen Gao reviews Jennifer Feeley’s translation of Not Written Words 不是文字, by Xi Xi 西西:

Covering a wide range of poems from 1961 to 1999, Not Written Words is the first collection of Xi Xi’s poems selected from Stone Chimes (1982) and The Selected Poems of Xi Xi: 1959-1999 (2000) translated in English. The 168-page book is a nicely edited collection with the original text in Chinese and the English translation facing each other, as well as translator’s notes attached at the end of the book. Being multilingual and well-read in world literature, Xi Xi molds her poems into a versatile medium to connect literary traditions from different cultures and address issues across the globe. Her sources and influences include classical Chinese poetry and Western poetry. Readers will find references to French New Wave cinema (“At Marienbad”), The Book of Songs (“Pebble”), Tang poems (“Moon”), English metaphysical poems (“Aria”), Allan Ginsberg’s poem “A Supermarket in California” (“Supermarket”) in her writing, to name just a few. Thanks to the translation, readers of world literature can learn more about Xi Xi’s career as a poet in addition to her fictional writing.

Click the image above for the review in full.

Ndesandjo’s Li Shangyin at A Tang Poet from Nairobi

no-21A Tang Poet from Nairobi is a new website featuring the collected poems of Li Shangyin 李商隱 as translated by Mark O. Ndesandjo, with his calligraphy and often contextualized with anecdotes or fictions of his own. Such as:

I once visited a city in a strange land called America. The people there were stoic and violent. They also were so alone, as though they had never had a father or a mother, and were always flying in the cold air without roots to tether them to the earth. The path of solitude, their president had declared, is the only one worth valuing. It was winter in Boston. As was my wont, I spent the evening looking for sordid pleasures, or love for sale. The alley was narrow, surrounded by brick walls far larger and higher than anything in Chang’An. In the darkness I saw the figure of a woman. Her body was lithe, and the shadows slashed her face. With a little hesitation I passed her and then, a few yards away, turned back. She was waiting for me by some large refuse bins …

The story continues, and is followed by his translation:

Princess Shou Yang’s marriage makeup is bold,
Noble slanted eyebrows touch a forehead sparkling with gold,
Seeing me, she pretends to blush, as usual just for show!
Regarding this whoring rascal, how little does she know!

寿阳公主嫁时妆,
八字宫眉捧额黄。
见我佯羞频照影,
不知身属冶游郎。

Ndesandjo writes:

I want the general public to know the Chinese wrote great poetry, and help avoid searching for this great poet’s works in bits and pieces. Furthermore, not being a professional translator, I wanted to post my interpretations as a work in progress that will benefit from other’s input and ideas, including academics. Finally, I think it is important to express personally how Li Shangyin’s insights can inspire across three cultures: America, Kenya, and China.

Click the image above for all the poems.