Nan Da on Recent Chinese Poetry in Translation Z. Da knows everything.

In a cover story for the Times Literary Supplement titled “Poetry of the suicide note,” or alternately, “It is useless to live,” she reviews five recent books of Chinese poetry–both modern and premodern–in English translation: Hawk of the Mind, the collected poems of Yang Mu 楊牧, edited by Michelle Yeh; Narrative Poem 叙事诗 by Yang Lian 杨炼,  translated by Brian Holton; Michèle Métail’s study of “reversible” poems in Wild Geese Returning, translated by Jody Gladding for Calligrams; and the Calligrams re-release of The Collected Poems of Li He 李賀, translated by J. D. Frodsham and François Cheng’s Chinese Poetic Writing, translated by Donald A. Riggs, with an anthology of Tang and Song poems translated by Jerome P. Seaton.

The essay begins,

There is a type of Chinese poem called the juemingci [絕命詞], which means, roughly, verses to terminate your life. Almost the poetic equivalent of a suicide note, the juemingci … is a formal acknowledgement of one’s negative relation to the present: the world in whatever configuration it finds itself will never be for you, will never work out for you, and the mark of a fine mind is that it will go to waste.

She also writes:

Perhaps this setting aflame, like all those elements of Chinese poetry that foil translation – its grammar, its sonic and visual elements, its “characters’ formidable power of suggestion” … – might be enfolded into the aesthetics of decadence, so that discussion of Chinese poetry in translation does not have to turn endlessly on arguments about translatability. Even if one is set on regarding translation as subtraction (a tally of what is lost or needlessly added), in decadent poetry you can lose almost all of the valences and still have more than enough meaning.

But what I think is her most moving passage is,

Maybe one does not have the training to catch all the allusions (to both Chinese and foreign literature and history), maybe one does not read difficult Chinese, or maybe one does not read Chinese (or poetry) at all. None of this is to suggest that we should not try. We should, not least because these particular books evince their translators’ responsibility and accuracy, and represent the best possible resources for becoming familiar with the idiosyncrasies of the Chinese language, and accessing levels of meaning previously closed to the uninitiated.

Click the image above for the full piece.

Turner on Cheng and Métail from Calligrams


Cha has published Matt Turner’s review of two French studies of Chinese poetry, Michèle Métail’s Wild Geese Returning: Chinese Reversible Poems, translated by Jody Gladding, and the re-release of François Cheng’s Chinese Poetic Writing, translated from by Donald A. Riggs with classical Chinese poems translated by Jerome P. Seaton, released as part of the Calligrams series by New York Review Books and Chinese University Press.

Turner explains:

NYRB’s Calligrams series publishes titles relating to traditional Chinese literature and Euro-American modernism, calling to mind Guillaume Apollinaire’s book of visual poetry, Calligrammes (1918), and Ernest Fenollosa’s essay on the Chinese written language, “The Chinese Written Character as a Medium for Poetry” (1919). It should also call to mind Ezra Pound, who saw in Chinese literature the tools to “make it new.”

About the books, he writes that Cheng, “a Chinese-French structuralist who trained with Roland Barthes and Jacques Lacan—offers

that the Chinese written language has an emptiness or void at its heart; its written language demonstrates the shifting relationships of person to world, expressing ontological truths … Cheng states that these relationships translate into poetic images … Subject and object become a matter of language, in which the terms serve to reflect each other—not signifying themselves, but projecting outwards as a comprehensive image … Another way of saying this is that the poet and the poem do not unite, but refract each other.

As for Michèle Métail, “French sinologist and OuLiPo member,” her study of “reversible poems,” which “can be written in grids, in which all directions yield different readings or narratives; written in circles that have no discernible starting or ending points or be poems that, although written conventionally, can be read backwards, like palindromes”—reading one poem discussed by Métail, Turner writes:

The message is clear: lust is bad. Yet one has the sense that in a similar poem one could continue the permutations and end up with something very different. Perhaps that’s because of the “void” at the heart of the Chinese written language as much as the form of huiwenshi. The fine line between the “inside” of the poem and the “outside” of the poem functions as an image that refracts the world. So the question this poses is if this theory applies to literature in English today, to Chinese-language literature today, and if the theory can be implemented as a writing method, or only read backwards?

Click on the image above for the full review.