My review of Narrative Poem 敘事诗, by Yang Lian 杨炼 and translated by Brian Holton (Bloodaxe, 2017), is out in the new issue of Translation and Literature (Vol. 27, issue 2).
It’s paywalled but for subscribers and certain academic institutions, but here’s a paragraph free:
That so much of Yang Lian’s poetics – indeed, his mythopoetics – centres on the Chinese past is a particular challenge for Holton as translator. Of course, some critics from China and elsewhere have accused Yang of writing a China of and for western understanding – but why not? In any event, that it is for westerners to understand does not make it easier to translate. Holton has not shied away from providing notes to mark moments where Yang makes allusions to people and places that fall outside the expected anglophone frame of reference. Mostly, however, it is in the strength of his diction that the power of his verse lies, just as the force of Yang Lian’s word choice is what makes his poetry most compelling in Chinese. The thought and emotion of Yang Lian’s writing are immanent in the words he uses – and the same is true of Holton’s translations.
Narrative Poem, Yang Lian’s most personal work to date, is built around a series of family photographs, the first of which was taken on the day when he was born, on 22 February 1955, and the last of which dates from the time he spent undergoing ‘re-education through labour’ – and digging graves – during the mid-1970s.
The poetry ranges backward and forward in time, covering his childhood and youth, his first period of exile in New Zealand, and his subsequent adventures and travels in and around Europe and elsewhere.
In ‘this unseen structure written by a ghost’ Yang Lian weaves together lived experience with meditations on time, consciousness, history, language, memory and desire, in a search for new/old ways of speaking, thinking and living.
Xinyi Jiang and Lindsay Macgregor at the Dundee Review of the Artsgive their take on Brian Holton’s Staunin Ma Lane, a collection of classical Chinese poetry translated into Scots (with English “glosses”). They write:
The archaisms of the classical Chinese language, the multiple meanings of individual Chinese characters, as well as the very different cultural allusions must surely have made translation a daunting task. But if so, it never shows. There’s a natural ease to Holton’s Scots which belies the compromises which translation necessarily incurs when qualities of sight and sound, meaning and allusion jostle for survival in each line. Holton’s improvisations, translations and cover versions – faithful and playful, confident and experimental – make classical Chinese poetry both highly accessible and hugely enjoyable.
Michael Johnston blogs about Staunin Ma Lane, Brian Holton’s translations of classical Chinese poetry:
Brian Holton’s passions for language and languages, for the poetic and the pawky, his musicianship which adds rhythm, melody, counterpoint and grace notes to his translations are all sweetly evident in the poems in this beautiful book. It not only reads well; it looks good, such is the care taken in the design.
Brian is working in the tradition of Hugh MacDiarmid whose drunk narrator gazed at a thistle and Lewis Grassic Gibbon whose Scots Quair caught the language and the land fair and square. A long time ex-pat, my own knowledge of Scots needs this stimulus. The book and the poems should be on the syllabus of Scottish schools teaching Scots and Chinese.
The National (“Scotland’s only daily newspaper supporting independence”) has a write-up on Staunin Ma Lane, Brian Holton’s translation into Scots of a selection of classical Chinese poetry.
The originals date back as far as the eighth century and Holton, who says his Scots versions retains the emotional resonance, holds a strong respect for the material, saying: “If you step outside your own culture and start opening doors you never regret it.
“Pre-modern China is so different. There are more books in Chinese than any other culture in the world. It is the oldest continuous culture in the world.
“The book is an introduction to Chinese poetry in my attempt to show it can be funny and daft. It isn’t all sages sitting under trees.”
Born in Galashiels, Holton lived in Nigeria with his socialist parents, a former commando father who could speak French and Swahili and a Border Scots mum.
Holton added: “I’ve been pushing for Scots all my life. It’s an old tongue with a long history and a big range.
“I want to say to the reader, ‘deek whit the mither tongue can dae – gin it can dae this, whit’ll it no can dae?’”
Renditions Distinguished Lecture Series on Literary Translation
“Translator / Ghostwriter / Ghost Composer”
Speaker: Brian Holton
Date: 16 December 2015 (Wednesday)
Time: 4:30–6:00 p.m. (Tea reception: 4:00–4:30 p.m.)
Venue: LT6, Yasumoto International Academic Park (YIA),
The Chinese University of Hong Kong
A Massively Single Number庞大的单数, now out from Shearsman Press, is an anthology showcasing the work of seven prizewinning poets, chosen from entries to the 2013 Artsbj.com International Chinese Poetry Prize, together with critical essays by prominent Chinese poets, and essays by Baz Kwakman and Antonia Byatt. The book was edited by Yang Lian 杨炼, who was involved in the competition from the very beginning, and was translated by Brian Holton.
The poets–Cao Shu 草树, Liao Hui 廖慧, Zang Di 藏棣, Yu Jian 于坚, Qi Ye 七夜, Zhong Shuo 钟硕, and Guo Jinniu 郭金牛–are mostly new to publication in English, and present a wide range of voices, ranging from the serene and other-worldly voice of the Taoist recluse, to the dispossessed voice of the migrant worker; there is wit, elegance, rough-edged anger, much novelty and startling creativity. The anthology is clear proof that Chinese poetry is alive and well, and going from strength to strength.