Gewirtz on Bei Dao’s City Gate, Open Up

The Poetry Foundation has published “Bei Dao’s Beijing: The eminent Chinese poet on exile and his native city,Julian Gewirtz’s review of City Gate, Open Up, the newly published memoirs of Bei Dao 北岛, translated by Jeffrey Yang. The review also weaves in decades of Bei Dao’s poetry, creating a compelling narrative of his development and longstanding interests. It ends:

Faced with the weight of history and the force of politics, Bei Dao’s struggle to “refute the Beijing of today” and “rebuild” his Beijing ultimately—perhaps inevitably—proves unattainable in either poetry or prose. He writes in his memoir, “This long-consuming task of rebuilding and reconstruction—I feel it’s almost impossible to achieve.” Yet this does not undermine the value of the attempt. In the 1994 interview, he elaborated on this point: “On the one hand poetry is useless. It can’t change the world materially. On the other hand it is a basic part of human existence… [and] what makes human beings human.” His yearning for a lost Beijing might fit the same rubric: a desire at once “useless,” “impossible,” and intensely human. “Writing is a renaming of the world,” he has said, and his memoir, like his poetry, is fundamentally an act of “renaming.” In a recent poem, “Black Map” (translated by Weinberger), Bei Dao imagines a final salute to his lost city:

Beijing, let me
toast your lamplights
let my white hair lead
the way through the black map
as though a storm were taking you to fly
I wait in line until the small window
shuts: O the bright moon
I go home—reunions
are one less
fewer than goodbyes

Click the image above for the full review.

Burton Watson Obituary in NYTimes Books Section

The New York Times books section has published an obituary of Burton Watson, over a month after he passed away. William Grimes writes:

Burton Watson, whose spare, limpid translations, with erudite introductions, opened up the world of classical Japanese and Chinese literature to generations of English-speaking readers, died on April 1 in Kamagaya, Japan. He was 91.

He rendered the poems of such classic Chinese writers as Su Tung-p’o, Po Chu-I and Du Fu and the Japanese poets Ryokan and Masaoka Shiki in a contemporary idiom informed by his wide reading in modern American poetry. In “Nineteen Ways of Looking at Wang Wei” (1987), the essayist Eliot Weinberger described Mr. Watson as not only “a prolific and particularly fine translator” but also “the first scholar whose work displays an affinity with the modernist revolution in American poetry: absolute precision, concision, and the use of everyday speech.” His admirers included the poets Gary Snyder and W. S. Merwin.

In 2015, the literary organization PEN awarded Mr. Watson its Ralph Manheim Medal for Translation, calling him “the inventor of classical East Asian poetry for our time.”

Click on the image for the article in full.

Link on Weinberger’s 19 Ways of Looking at Wang Wei

Perry Link at the New York Review of Books reviews the expanded re-release of 19 Ways of Looking at Wang Wei, by Eliot Weinberger. Link writes:

Some of the art of classical Chinese poetry must simply be set aside as untranslatable … Weinberger knows all of this and sensibly begins his inquiry at step two—after all the untranslatables have been set aside. Now the question becomes: How can one make another poem from the twenty bundles of meaning that the Chinese characters offer? Weinberger criticizes, astutely if sometimes unkindly, almost every translator he cites … Although he is critical of nearly everyone’s translation in Nineteen Ways, Weinberger wisely adopts the position that “quite a few possible readings” can all be “equally ‘correct.’” Dilemmas about translation do not have definitive right answers (although there can be unambiguously wrong ones if misreadings of the original are involved). Any translation (except machine translation, a different case) must pass through the mind of a translator, and that mind inevitably contains its own store of perceptions, memories, and values.

Link also gives a China-centered take on Weinberger’s new essay collection, The Ghosts of Birds: “Weinberger’s sensitivity to words and gift for clear thinking underlie nearly every page in Nineteen Ways, but in The Ghosts of Birds they spout like a geyser.”

Click the image above for the (paywalled) review in full.

The article is also now available on ChinaFile for free.

Klein on New Premodern Chinese Poetry Translations in LARB

2016-07-15_1030The Los Angeles Review of Books @lareviewofbooks has published “Tribunals of Erudition and Taste: or, Why Translations of Premodern Chinese Poetry Are Having a Moment Right Now,” my take on what looks like something of a resurgence in translation into English.

I use a nineteenth-century debate between Matthew Arnold and Francis Newman to frame a review of Chloe Garcia Roberts’s translation of Li Shangyin 李商隱, David Hinton’s translation of Wang An-shih 王安石, an anthology / travelogue by Red Pine (Bill Porter), and Stephen Owen’s translation of the complete Du Fu 杜甫, alongside Ira Nadel on Ezra Pound and the New Directions re-release of Ezra Pound’s Cathay (and mention of Gary Snyder, Bob Perelman, Paul Kroll, Eliot Weinberger, and more). Here’s how it ends:

The stakes of poetry translation from Chinese are indeed the stakes both of how we understand translation and how we in the English-speaking world understand China. Translation is neither simply a matter for scholars to judge, nor is it something that can be left to the unaccountable imaginings of revelers in poetry — any more than China should be something only specialists or tourists alone can pronounce upon. Rather, bringing expertise and excitement together, translation can help expand our conceptions of poetry and of China, demanding more from ourselves, and more from it. The contentiousness may remain, but it can motivate us to create new and better representations.

So will American poetry turn outward again, and in the process help redefine China as more than a strategic competitor, accused of currency manipulation by presidential candidates, or more than a polluted manufacturer to which we outsource abuses of human rights and labor? Will Chinese literature prove an old repository of poetic presentation from which the United States can both learn and create new beauty? Certainly larger historical and socioeconomic forces will determine the directions our poetry turns, but insofar as what we publish has any role, I see reasons for optimism — and in that optimism, a readiness to engage in the tensions of global and local that inhere in translation.

The recent poetry collections covered in this essay demonstrate a hunger for new ways of understanding and appreciating China, and more are coming soon … With these additions reaching new audiences, we may see premodern Chinese poetry making it new once again.

Click the image for the full article.

Weinberger on Hinton’s and Minford’s versions of the I Ching

‘An Ancient Chinese Poet’; colored engraving of an original Chinese scrollEliot Weinberger writes about two new translations of the I Ching (Yijing) 易經 in the NYRB:

The two latest translations of the I Ching couldn’t be more unalike; they are a complementary yin and yang of approaches. John Minford is a scholar best known for his work on the magnificent five-volume translation of The Story of the Stone … His I Ching, obviously the result of many years of study, is over eight hundred pages long, much of it in small type, and encyclopedic … It is a tour de force of erudition, almost a microcosm of Chinese civilization, much as the I Ching itself was traditionally seen.

David Hinton is, with Arthur Waley and Burton Watson, the rare example of a literary Sinologist—that is, a classical scholar thoroughly conversant with, and connected to, contemporary literature in English … Hinton’s I Ching is equally inventive. It is quite short, with only two pages allotted to each hexagram … Rather than consulted, it is meant to be read cover to cover, like a book of modern poetry—though it should be quickly said that this is very much a translation, and not an “imitation” or a postmodern elaboration.

And here’s how it ends:

One could say that the I Ching is a mirror of one’s own concerns or expectations. But it’s like one of the bronze mirrors from the Shang dynasty, now covered in a dark blue-green patina so that it doesn’t reflect at all … In the I Ching, the same word means both “war prisoner” and “sincerity.” There is no book that has gone through as many changes as the Book of Change.

Click the image above to link to the article.

Owen’s Complete Poetry of Du Fu Poetry of Du Fu 杜甫, edited and translated by Stephen Owen, is now available from the Library of Chinese Humanities (a new venture started by Owen and Paul Kroll and edited by them and Sarah Allen, Christopher Nugent, Anna Shields, Xiaofei Tian, and Ding Xiang Warner). It is not only available for sale, it is also available for open-access free download in .pdf format.

This six-volume opus, totaling almost 3000 pages, is to my knowledge the first translation of the complete poetic output of any individual Chinese poet in history. The promotional materials say,

The entirety of Du Fu’s works provides a more nuanced portrait of the author than the standard selections. It gives testimony to the great rebellion of 755, but also poems on building a chicken coop and repairing bamboo plumbing. In the whole we discover how the sublime and quotidian are united in a larger vision of life.

Likewise, in his introduction, Owen writes,

If there is a justification for translating all of the poems,  it may be deepening our sense of his engagement with the mundane and  not allowing it to resolve into simply a way to talk about “big things.” It is the persistence of his vision of large significance in the everyday—sometimes ironically—that makes a whole Du Fu more satisfying than a selected Du Fu.

This is true. As is Tfrom high-minded loyalist to bereft father to woeful exile to irritable curmudgeon to sycophantic hack to meditative imagist,” which is “a welcome counterbalance to the stereotyped image of Du Fu as a great ‘Confucian’ poet, the sort of thing you find in introductory textbooks to Chinese literature, both in China and abroad.”

But I also think there is a poetic argument, not limited to the specifics of Chinese literature, for a complete Du Fu (or any poet) in English, which is the one Eliot Weinberger makes in his introduction to The Collected Poems of Octavio Paz, 1957-1987:

to study the topography of a major poet we need to see both the peaks and the valleys. One does not exist without the other; the “minor” poems not only lead to, but often illuminate, the more important work. (And, of course, what one editor or critic considers “minor” may turn out to be a revelation for another reader.)

Click the image above for more information and the full free download.

On the Mountain: Two versions of Wang Wei

The online mag. I recently came across an old page on Hilobrow, starting with this:

The Taiyi summit     nears the seat of heaven
linked mountains     stretch to brink of sea


The Taiyi summit nears the seat of heaven;
linked mountains stretch to brink of sea.

Two versions of the opening couplet of a Wang Wei 王維 poem by Hilobrow cofounder Matthew Battles, the second in the style of David Hinton. “We’re always struggling with the apparent multivalence of classical Chinese poetry,” Battles writes, “the way the openness of the language seems to permit so many readings, combined with the difficulty of translocating the tonal, lexical, and ideographic effects of the originals into alphabetically-styled verse without either losing much of the force or going all specious with talk about picture-writing and orientalist exoticism”—and he mentions books by Eliot Weinberger and Yunte Huang to shore up his point. But in the end, after a weekend on Maine’s Mount Katahdin,

In the Wang Wei I found echoes of the work the mountain did on me: the braided vistas merging, the gulfs and abysses seducing, the zones of forest succession merging and disappearing into one another as one moves up and down slope.

Click the image above to read more.

Jonathan Stalling’s translingual synesthesia of Rimbaud’s Bateau Ivre

I raced, stained by the moon’s electric
爱  日北四大, 四大北那大 八爱  浊舌呀 么  马乌乌那’四   弟拉也吃丝卡 
fragments, timbers crazed, black sea-
发日言言哥马么那台四, 台丝丝马八么儿四   卡日北浊四  大, 八拉言卡   四弟
horses as my escort, July’s battering me—
哈够日四么浊四    言浊四   马爱   也四卡啊日台,扎乌乌拉爱’ 浊四    八言台么儿冰   马弟—

So begins Jonathan Stalling’s version of Arthur Rimbaud’s Le Bateau ivre for the twentieth anniversary of Drunken Boat, which he explains,

In this reworking of Rimbaud’s “The Drunken Boat,” I wanted to set the poem adrift through a disordering of the senses corresponding to systems of writing (alphabets, syllabaries, or logographies) which create the conceptual foundation for imagining languages as irrevocably separate from one another. I believe that we can access forms of linguistic synesthesia that will free us to see different writing systems not as walls between but bridges into other languages … Unlike the system I used in my book Yingelishi, the script below sequences English speech sounds at the level of phonemes (individual sounds) rather than morphemes (in the case of Chinese full syllables). In short, this poem is English, just not through the same Romanized senses.

And read Anna Rosenwong‘s excellent essay, which starts with Eliot Weinberger and Octavio Paz on Wang Wei 王維, and goes on to explain the feature:

The project’s irreverence—anthropophagism— is made possible by this journal’s sense of “Le bateau ivre,” of Rimbaud, of French symbolist poetry, even of the French language, as too well-respected, too established to tarnish or appropriate in a problematic way. Working with classic texts, one feels she is at liberty to be a punk. Framing is likewise an enabler: in an envelope-pushing journal and section such as this, introduced by this hedging editorial note, the boats are clearly marked as a kind of risky play, their transgression a testament to the aura of the original.

Follow the links for the sites in question.

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.