Narayanan on Bei Dao at Poetry Daily

Poetry Daily has published Vivek Narayanan on “a Poem’s Re-Entering History,” looking at Bei Dao’s 北岛 famous poem from the seventies, “The Reply” 回答 (elsewhere “The Answer”).

“I personally like to read multiple translations against each other,” he writes:

both as a way to see and triangulate what the translator is doing and to think/feel my way into what the source poem could be like. Read the translation on our site, by Clayton Eshleman and Lucas Klein, with its clear lyrical growl, to my ear more explicit in its political echoes, against this one by Bonnie S. McDougall, a little stilted in its language but also perhaps more indirect. If you can, read the version co-authored by Donald Finkel, a seemingly “free”-er version with surprising results. And do read this fourth—unattributed—translation on a “Learn Chinese” site, also very useful, despite what will feel to some like a mildly alienated idiom. Finally, listen to the dramatic recitation of the original Chinese linked on the “Learn Chinese” site above and consider to the extent possible, without fear, the transliterated Chinese. (Tip: also try hovering your mouse over the original Chinese characters!) 

If we look at just the first two lines—

bēibǐ shì bēibǐ zhě de tōngxíngzhèng 
gāoshàng shì gāoshàng zhě de mù zhì míng

—we see that the key lies in repetition—bēibǐ (“contempt,” “debasement,” “shabbiness”) in the first line and gāoshàng (“gravitas,” “nobility,” “refined,” “lofty”, etc.) in the second. This is no simple repetition, however. The translators show us how the word in each case is being turned against itself, in a visceral struggle for personal existence and for language to have any meaning or purpose at all. From this point, the poem should start to emerge. The line “I-do-not-believe”—four stark characters isolated by dashes, like cries from deep within—continues to resonate even in the moment from which I write, thinking of the protestors in Hong Kong, the silencing of Kashmir, or the current American era, with a head of state whose every utterance stokes disbelief. 

(links to the translations and the “Learn Chinese” site in the article).

“But it would be glib to stop there, because we have not yet grappled with the poem’s final paradox: between internal and external, public and private,” Narayanan continues. Click here to read more.

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.