Translators of the World, Unite! Asymptote interviews Lucas Klein

Patty Nash of Asymptote interviewed me about my thoughts on translation as a social movement. Here’s an excerpt:

As I understand it, the fact that we have “movie stars” developed out of a need for movie studios to mitigate risk. Basically, there’s no way for us to tell if a movie’s any good before we see it, but we’ll pay for anything our favorite star is in. The story goes that translators get reduced to invisibility because of how publishers want to mitigate risk—as in, they see publishing translation as even more of a risk than publishing anything else, even though translations also come with sales figures in other languages—but it’s conceivable that it could work the same way as it does with movie stars. I know I’ve bought books by authors and poets I’ve never heard of because I trust the taste and style of Gregory Rabassa, Suzanne Jill Levine, Eliot Weinberger, Rosmarie Waldrop, Clayton Eshleman, John Nathan, Susan Bernofsky…

Click on the image above for the full interview.

Cerise Press–The Final Issue

Cerise Press Vol. 5 Issue 13 CoverThe new issue of Cerise Press is here, with Chinese poetry by Wei An 苇岸 (1960 – 1999) translated by Tom Moran and Yuan dynasty poets Guan Hanqing 關漢卿 and Zhong Sicheng 鍾嗣成 translated by David Lunde.

Also see my feature “Xi Chuan: Poetry of the Anti-lyric” from an earlier issue, with translations of “Power Outage” 停电, “Re-reading Borges’s Poetry” 重读博尔赫斯诗歌, and “Three Chapters on Dusk” 黄昏三章. (And my earlier co-translations of poems by Bei Dao 北岛 with Clayton Eshleman).

Note that this will be the last issue of Cerise Press. The journal will remain archived at cerisepress.com as a resource for readers and educators.

Spotlight on Literary Translator Lucas Klein

from Intralingo:

Spotlight on Literary Translators is a regular feature here at Intralingo. The aim of these interviews is to get the word out about our profession and the works we bring into other languages. The insight the interviewees provide is also sure to help all of us who are aspiring or established literary translators. Enjoy!

Spotlight on Literary Translator Lucas Klein

LC: What language(s) and genres do you translate?

LK: The languages I translate from are classical and modern Chinese. By classical I mean wenyanwen, or what’s sometimes called “literary Chinese,” and which was the written language of all formal and literary writing from the bronze age to the early twentieth century; despite the fact that it’s the same language and the grammar stayed the same for thousands of years, vocabulary and especially linguistic conventions did change, which means someone might be more familiar with some periods than others, and I’m most comfortable with writing from the Tang (618 – 907).

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By modern I mean standard written Chinese, which is closest to Mandarin or Putonghua when spoken, but which is also what Cantonese looks like when it’s written formally (that is, I can translate from formal written Cantonese, even though I can’t speak it very well; I suppose I could translate from colloquial Cantonese if it were written down, but it would take a very long time, and there’s not much literature written in the Cantonese vernacular. I notice I’m going into this much detail only because I’ve been living in Hong Kong for two and a half years).

My main interest as far as genre goes is poetry, both medieval and modern / contemporary. Modern poetry is usually written in modern Chinese, though poetry in classical Chinese still gets written today. I’ve also published translations of short stories, essays, non-fiction, and academic prose from modern Chinese, and prose from classical Chinese.

After I lived in Paris a decade ago a non-literary translation I did from French was published, and I think I had a couple poems translated from French published as well, but I couldn’t really do that again.

LC: How did you get started as a literary translator?

When I was an undergrad, double-majoring in Literary Studies and Chinese, and taking creative writing classes here and there on the side, I decided that literary translation must be the hardest kind of writing there was, and therefore the most interesting. My logic was that you had to produce something that was almost as good as the original, but not so good that it would take the place of the original and keep people from learning that language so they could read it as it was originally written. I’m not sure what I think about that anymore, but I remember it being a revelation.

From there I read Eliot Weinberger’s Nineteen Ways of Looking at Wang Wei, which showed me how translations were such an intricate process of reading, and only became more convinced of my earlier decision. I also think this had to do with being a bit disaffected and dissatisfied with the courses I just mentioned I’d been taking: caught between literature classes that were on the one hand very intellectually stimulating but at the same time rather alienated from the emotional connection I thought should be inherent to the reading experience, and then creative writing courses that were energizing and inspiring but a bit allergic to considering meaning, I turned to literary translation as a way for me to reconcile both experiences without sacrificing my antagonistic attitude, since I could still be opposed to how both programs overlooked translation. Anyway, one of my senior theses both included and was about translation, and from there it only deepened. A couple years later, starting to work for a literary journal while living in Paris, I told the editor I was interested in translation; “You’re a translator!” he asked, and, instantaneously crossing the bridge to being from being interested in, I said, “Well, yes!”

LC: What do you love most and least about this work?

LK: What I love least about the work is how roundly and thoroughly it’s ignored. We have been pretty successful at making sure that translators are at least mentioned by name when our books are reviewed, but we’re still in the one- or two-word evaluation ghetto (i.e., “faithfully translated by,” or “superbly translated by,” or “perfunctorily translated by”).

But let me give a more immediate example: I teach in the Translation program of the department of Chinese, Translation and Linguistics at City University of Hong Kong, where each year our raise is calculated based in part on our research output (teaching and service also count). And yet when we publish translations—whether it’s a poem, an article, a book, or whatever—it is not considered part of our output. Let me go over that one more time: I teach translation in a translation program in a department whose name contains the word translation, and yet when I translate, it’s not considered part of my work. I’m hired to teach students about translation, but they learn from people who have no incentive to publish or even perform translation. This is an insult to me and to people like me, and I think it should be an embarrassment to the managerial staff of my university.

And it’s an extension of how often translators go unpaid or underpaid, unacknowledged and overlooked. The idea, of course, is that anyone who is bilingual can do it, though if this were the case I can’t imagine why there would be a need for translation programs in the first place. So what I hate best about translation has little to do with translation itself, but rather with how the act of translation is perceived (I mean, I hate translating when the piece I’m working on is boring, but that’s not really particular to translation; I hate conversations with people I find boring, too).

What I love most about the work is how all knowledge seems to be able to be organized according to instances of translation, and when you’re working on something, any moment could be a revelation of access towards such organization of knowledge. That sounds pretty abstract, so let me see if I can break it down a bit.

The word “cipher” is an instance of many translations: it came to Latin from Arabic şifr صفر, which means “empty, zero,” which was itself a translation of Sanskrit śūnya शून्य, meaning “empty”; but it also describes translation in more ways than one: it’s both a code, or something that needs to be deciphered or translated, but it also refers to a person who is a non-entity, both there and not there at the same time—like a translator. These are the reasons I named the translation-focused literary journal I founded “CipherJournal.”

In a less philosophical way, we come across examples like this all the time when we deal with common expressions. I was telling my class last semester how it’s natural to think that expressions have always been in our language just because we heard them first in our language. For instance, they assumed that “double-edged sword” had always been a Chinese expression, and that the English version must have been someone’s translation of the Chinese. My assumption was the opposite, and I had a lot of circumstantial historical evidence on my side (there are many English expressions that have found their way into Chinese in the last hundred years, but I can only think of “saving face” as a Chinese expression that’s gained currency in English, and words like ketchup from Cantonese): I explained that in classical Chinese, a sword,  jiàn 劍, needed two blades, whereas dāo 刀, which today means “knife,” would have one. Digging a bit deeper, though, I found that the expression probably originated in Persian or Arabic. And it makes sense, too: in Europe, swords were also always double-edged; only in the middle east, where swords could be curved, single-edged sabers, would remarking on the double-edginess of a sword make any sense.

LC: Can you tell us a little about a recent project?

Pic2LK: I have a number of projects going on right now. A long-term project to translate late Tang dynasty poet Li Shangyin (ca. 813 – 858), a nearer-term project translating seminal contemporary poet Mang Ke (b. 1951) for Zephyr Press, and an academic book on how translation theory can be used to elucidate the relationship between Chinese poetry and shifting concepts of “world literature,” as well as a few recent ones, including Endure (Black Widow Press, 2011), a collection of Bei Dao translations I did with the poet Clayton Eshleman. But what still excites me most for the purposes of this spotlight is my translation of Notes on the Mosquito: Selected Poems of contemporary Chinese poet Xi Chuan (New Directions, 2012).

Notes on the Mosquito covers Xi Chuan’s career as a poet from when he began writing lyrical poetry in the mid-eighties to the expansive prose poems he writes today, and in translating it I had to get in touch with all sorts of matters of cultural and literary history involving China and the rest of the world, which offered me all kinds of revelations along the lines I was discussing above.

Xi Chuan is a very allusive poet, though he’s also very accessible (think Ezra Pound meets Jorge Luis Borges), drawing on a wealth of cultural knowledge for his poetry; this meant that I got to trace his references as he wrote about finding a brick engraved with Sanskrit in southwest China, or pearl falcons in the Liao dynasty (907 – 1125), or transcription on wood in the iron age.

He’s also a very internationally-minded poet, and so his allusions are not only to Chinese history, but to the interactions between China and the rest of the world (in fact, I’d say that his interest in ancient China follows his interest in Borges and Pound), which I also got to trace as he wrote about his travels to Xinjiang, or the Sand Sea Scrolls, or Paradise Lost in the Dictionary of Modern Chinese.

There are also moments where, as a translator, I had to challenge received notions of fidelity: at one point he compares something to the emerald green of bok choy; this is a nice image, but the problem is that bok choy in Chinese means “white cabbage,” so I had to find a way to bring out the play of colors unmatched by the nomenclature. I went with “as purple as red cabbage.”

I have a blog to promote Xi Chuan and Notes on the Mosquito, called “Notes on the Mosquito” and online at http://xichuanpoetry.com. You can find links there to reviews of the book, as well as to ordering information and earlier versions published in lit. mags. online; you’ll also find links to other goings-on in translation and Chinese poetry, as well as many other of my writings on translation (I write a lot of book reviews; it’s one way I try to give back to the community of writers and translators—and I got the opportunity to translate Xi Chuan because of a book review I wrote). I expect it will go on for a while; there’s a surprisingly large amount of material online about translation and Chinese poetry available for sharing. And as my new projects come out, I imagine I’ll be making announcements there as well.

Finally, and without a doubt my most important project, I have a young son (born January 12). He’s a translation, too, since we plan to raise him (at least) bilingually!

LC: Lucas, what a pleasure it was to interview you and to ponder all you have to say on this topic! And congratulations on what will undoubtedly be your greatest translation: your son.

Dear readers: Please leave any questions or comments for Lucas Klein in a comment!

klein-lucas-2007Lucas Klein—a former radio DJ and union organizer—is a writer, translator, and editor. His translations, essays, and poems have appeared at Two Lines, Jacket, and Drunken Boat, and he has regularly reviewed books for Rain Taxi and other venues. A graduate of Middlebury College (BA) and Yale University (PhD), he is Assistant Professor in the dept. of Chinese, Translation & Linguistics at City University of Hong Kong. With Haun Saussy and Jonathan Stalling he edited The Chinese Written Character as a Medium for Poetry: A Critical Edition, by Ernest Fenollosa and Ezra Pound (Fordham University Press, 2008), and he co-translated a collection of Bei Dao 北島 poems with Clayton Eshleman, published as Endure (Black Widow Press, 2011). His translations of Xi Chuan 西川 appeared from New Directions in April, 2012, as Notes on the Mosquito: Selected Poems, and he is also at work translating Tang dynasty poet Li Shangyin 李商隱 and seminal contemporary poet Mang Ke 芒克.

New Issue of Cerise Press

The new issue of Cerise Press is here, with work by Stephen Kessler, Ron Padgett, Eileen Tabios, Lu Ye 路也 translated by Dian Li , and more. Click the image above for the full issue.

see my feature “Xi Chuan: Poetry of the Anti-lyric” from an earlier issue, with translations of “Power Outage” 停电, “Re-reading Borges’s Poetry” 重读博尔赫斯诗歌, and “Three Chapters on Dusk” 黄昏三章. (And my earlier co-translations of poems by Bei Dao 北岛 with Clayton Eshleman).

Found in Translation: Five Chinese Books You Should Read

In yesterday’s post on the review of Bei Dao’s The Rose of Time: New and Selected Poems (New Directions, edited by Eliot Weinberger), I also mentioned the short collection of Bei Dao’s poetry Endure (Black Widow Press), which I translated with Clayton Eshleman. That collection earned a gracious mention–along with books by Yan Lianke 阎连科, Han Shaogong 韩少功, Yu Hua 余华, and Nobel Prize-winner Mo Yan 莫言–from the editors of Path Light on their Wall St. Journal blog post, “Found in Translation: Five Chinese Books You Should Read.”

Take a look at the full listing!

Review of Bei Dao’s The Rose of Time: New and Selected Poems

Gryphon by Charles BaxterJonathan Hart reviews Bei Dao‘s 北島 The Rose of Time: New and Selected Poems (New Directions), edited by Eliot Weinberger, speaking “about these translations as if they were poems in English on which the reputation of the poet stands in the English-speaking world.”

He concludes that “Bei Dao’s poetry translates well in its bold imagery and implicit and oblique politics, using nature in a symbolism of indirection that is as subtle as it is apparent,” but he only mentions poems translated by Bonnie McDougall (Bei Dao’s early work) and by Weinberger (Bei Dao’s more recent work), not mentioning the poems translated by David Hinton.

For another recent collection of Bei Dao’s poetry in English, see also Endure (Black Widow Press), translated by Clayton Eshleman and me.

New Issue of Cerise Press

Cerise Press Vol. 4 Issue 10 CoverThe Spring 2012 issue of Cerise Press has been online since the beginning of the month, with new work by Seth Abramson, Sylvia Legris, and others, and poems by Li Jianchun 李建春 translated by Diana Shi & George O’Connell and Yi Lu 伊路 translated by Fiona Sze-Lorrain.

Also see my feature “Xi Chuan: Poetry of the Anti-lyric” from an earlier issue, with translations of “Power Outage” 停电, “Re-reading Borges’s Poetry” 重读博尔赫斯诗歌, and “Three Chapters on Dusk” 黄昏三章. (And my earlier co-translations of poems by Bei Dao 北岛 with Clayton Eshleman).

New Issue of Cerise Press

Cerise Press Vol. 3 Issue 9 Cover

The Spring 2012 issue of Cerise Press is now online, with new work by Cole Swensen, interviews with Chinese translator Nicky Harman and Tibetan-Chinese writer Woeser ཚེ་རིང་འོད་ཟེར་ / 唯色, and an essay by Chloe Garcia Roberts on her translations of the poetry of late Tang poet Li Shangyin 李商隱.

Also see my feature “Xi Chuan: Poetry of the Anti-lyric” from an earlier issue, with translations of “Power Outage” 停电, “Re-reading Borges’s Poetry” 重读博尔赫斯诗歌, and “Three Chapters on Dusk” 黄昏三章. (And my earlier co-translations of poems by Bei Dao 北岛 with Clayton Eshleman).

got a surprise mention from Jacob Edmond the other day on his Common Strangeness blog: discussing the benefit of getting students to appreciate the role of the translator in poetry translation by having asking “them to read several contrasting translations of the same poem,” he said:

Bei Dao 北岛 and Yang Lian 杨炼 … have both been very successful in attracting translators. In the case of Bei Dao, we also have Lucas Klein and Clayton Eshleman’s record of their translation process for Endure, which provides insights into the kinds of decisions that a translator must make.

Thanks for the shout-out!

And be on the lookout for some records of my translation process with Xi Chuan, too.

Anthologies and Anthologies

By this point I expect most readers in the American poetry community have heard something of the Rita Dove-edited Penguin Anthology of 20th Century American Poetry. I’ve made remarks about the need for a discussion on anthologies of Chinese poetry in translation, but I wanted to make a point about anthologies of American poetry for American readers, which I think is pertinent to a discussion about anthologies of foreign language poetry, as well.

The Dove / Penguin anthology has been getting it from all sides (and when you criticize Dove and Penguin, you can hit two birds with one stone). You may have read Helen Vendler’s rightwing criticism of the anthology in the New York Review of Books (as well as Dove’s righteous riposte), but the first I heard of it was Robert Archambeau’s leftwing take on all the anthology’s sins of omission (to which Dove’s husband Fred Viebahn gave lengthy replies in the comments)—in part, at least, because of rival press HarperCollins’s demand for high fees for Penguin to reprint its authors. This cannot account for all that Dove left out, however; Clayton Eshleman, with whom I translated a collection of Bei Dao poems, wrote to me and several other writers and translators with a list, adapted from his 1990 essay “The Gospel According to Norton,” of a systematic absence in the anthology’s table of contents:

Just to let all of you know what a travesty it is, here are some of the most significant people whose work does not appear in it: Zukofsky, Oppen, Reznikoff, Rakosi, Riding, Loy, Bronk, Blackburn, Ginsberg, Eigner, Dorn, Kerouac, Niedecker, Mac Low, Spicer, Plath, Blaser, Bernstein, Schwerner, Lamantia, McClure, Whalen, Corman, Guest, Schuyler, Padgett, Towle, North, Rothenberg, Kelly, Eshleman, Antin, Lansing, Perelman, Armantrout, DuPlessis, Wieners, Tarn, Coolidge, Sobin, Sanders, Taggert, Bromige, Cortez, Fanny Howe, Susan Howe, Keith Waldrop, Rosmarie Waldrop, Grahn, Kleinzahler, Waldman, Rexroth, Joron, Gander, Will Alexander, DiPrima, Notley, Equi.

After I responded about Vendler’s review, he wrote back saying, “Thom Gunn and William Everson are also missing, as is Paul Violi. And Bukowski (who I do not care for at all, but he is certainly a much-read figure in 20th century poetry).” Later, he wrote to add “Penn Warren, Hollo, Ceravolo, Lauterbach, Hoover, Berssenbrugge, Scalapino, Harryman, David Shapiro, and Brenda Hillman.”

Part of the problem, I think, has to do with anthologizing in general, and our expectations as readers that what we consider good or important should also be considered good or important enough to be disseminated through anthologies. I think this is both right and wrong. I have no problem with Rita Dove or anyone coming up with a list of poets she thinks will stand the clichéd test of time, but once that comes out with the word Anthology on the cover—and under the imprimatur of Penguin, which has the institutional pull to put its books in classrooms—then questions of responsibility are in order.

And this is where, I think, the tension over who’s included and who’s excluded—if that’s the right word for it—comes from: will my view and ethics of poetry be taught, or will someone else’s view and ethics of poetry be taught? Vendler wants a limited, and limiting, view of American poetry (“No century in the evolution of poetry in English ever had 175 poets worth reading, so why are we being asked to sample so many poets of little or no lasting value?”), whereas Dove presents herself as upholder of a view and ethics rooted in civil rights-style inclusiveness (faulting Vendler’s review for “its condescension, lack of veracity, and the barely veiled racism”; for more, see Honorée Fanonne Jeffers’s post about the history of white denial of black poetry). But there are at least two wings on the left in American culture, hence the critique of Dove’s anthology for what it leaves out.

Considering this issue, one poster to the Buffalo Poetics List remarked:

Why worry about the nearly-unchecked perpetuation of bias for decades or who has been omitted from the canon / the publishing world down the years because of that bias (something Dove is cursorily addressing in the making of this anthology) when we can focus on the in’s and out’s of how Plath and Ginsberg have been left out in the cold ad nauseum…

There has been a lot of detailed, micro-discussion over why Plath and Ginsberg were omitted and how to remedy that, AT THE EXCLUSION OF the very appearance & existence of this anthology and how it’s a drop in the bucket towards addressing (remedying?) a publishing / canonical history that has excluded numerous writers who were never supported / encouraged and only peripherally published, if at all.

As I understand it, the point is that it’s easier for us to complain about Ginsberg and Plath being “excluded” because it keeps us from recognizing the canon’s denial of certain ethnic and gendered identities—and we have bigger ethical fish to fry. This is true, but I think aesthetic diversity is not only important, it plays a role in creating and maintaining social diversity, as well.

In other words, diversity is more than simply a matter of biological fact. It is better—from the p. o. v. of diversity as a good—for the only black Supreme Court Justice to be Thurgood Marshall than to be Clarence Thomas, and any number of non-black judges could do more than Thomas to support the cause of diversity and inclusiveness in the American body politic. I don’t want to deny Thomas his “blackness” (as this interview discusses); nevertheless, the question is about culture and mentality more than it’s about the skin we were born into.

Along those lines, while most of the writers that comprise the list above, from Louis Zukofsky to Elaine Equi and Brenda Hillman, are white (many are Jewish, which may complicate matters, and I think it’s a bit over 2 : 3 :: male : female), it presents an aesthetic diversity and vision and ethic of American poetic openness that stands in favor of inclusiveness and equality beyond the biological racial makeup of its members. Also, because it is an example of certain writers left out of the Dove / Penguin anthology, it does not exist as its own table of contents, but rather as an addendum to that list to push it towards greater inclusivity and a higher level of diversity. Here in the wilds of Hongkong, I haven’t had a chance to see Dove’s anthology firsthand, so I can’t make claims on how monolithic I find its aesthetic view to be—and I wouldn’t want a table of contents to represent aesthetic diversity while only presenting writers of one biological ethnicity, either—nevertheless, I want to emphasize that just as a black Supreme Court Justice such as Thomas can do damage to the American black community, white American poets such as Clayton Eshleman, Jerome Rothenberg, Rachel Blau DuPlessis, and Rosmarie Waldrop make American poetry more inclusive. They are on the side of Gwendolyn Brooks and Nathaniel Mackey, both of whom are in the Penguin anthology.

This is where the issue ties back to anthologies of poetry translation, and not only because so many of these poets have been involved with translation in the narrow sense, but also because they have been involved with expansion, diversity, and internationalism in the larger sense. Like Zukofsky, Rexroth, Corman, and Eshleman, translation expands the possibilities—and the vision, and ethics—of poetry in the language. An anthology of American poetry can legitimately leave translations out, but insofar as they are also a part of the history of American poetry, I would like to see an anthology that could consider them central, primary, and put translations in.

When I refer to the discussion we need to have about anthologies of Chinese poetry in translation, I’m thinking along the lines of asking: granted, most of the anthologies that have been published so far have had some big problems, but will another anthology make up for these problems or just make the whole situation worse? But the underlying question, I think, has to do with the place of translation in the system of American poetry as a whole: do anthologies of Chinese poetry at this point expand the field of American poetry, or exist at a sequestered, even ghettoized, remove? This is, of course, a different question from whether a given anthology is sufficiently representative of the breadth of American poetry, but at a fundamental level, it is the same: how broad, or how narrow, are our vision and ethics of American poetry going to be?