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).
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?
LK: 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!
Lucas 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.
World Literature Today has posted its list of seventy-five notable translations for 2012, and it features my translation of Xi Chuan’s Notes on the Mosquito: Selected Poems, along with only three other books by East Asian writers.
See the entire list here.
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!
Jonathan 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.
Montana Ray of Circumference interviews Eliot Weinberger on his translation of Spanish and Chinese poetry:
In this episode celebrated translator and essayist Eliot Weinberger tells how he came to translate Octavio Paz and Bei Dao and talks about the process of translating their work. He discusses how waves of translation in the US have been spurred by changing political realities, and how those translations have impacted contemporary American poetry. The conversation also includes Weinberger’s thoughts on the deeper role of translation, both as a social function (bringing something new into your own language) and as an act (reaching for the inaccessible, unnamable).
Click the image above or listen here:
from the New Directions blog:
This year, essayist and literary critic Eliot Weinberger published Wildlife––a collection of his essays on animals––with Australian publisher Giramondo. While many of these pieces are republished from our editions, there are four previously unpublished works that make their debut in Wildlife. One of these, “What Makes a Poet a Tick?” (written in response to the question “What Makes a Poet Tick?” Mr. Weinberger has graciously allowed us to reproduce here.
“What makes a poet [a] tick?” I think someday soon Weinberger and Xi Chuan should co-edit a New Directions anthology of writers on insects.
It’s fair to say that translation was not completely absent at AWP. Buried in an overwhelming heap of events were a few related to translation, bilingual literature, or teaching bilingual / multilingual students. The most attended translation event I saw was a reading put on by Poets House, headlining Bei Dao, Eliot Weinberger, Forrest Gander, and C. D. Wright. It was held in one of the ballrooms at the Chicago Hilton and attracted a nice crowd that nevertheless looked a bit sparse in the oversized room. The hour consisted mainly of Bei Dao and Eliot Weinberger reading from The Rose of Time 时间的玫瑰, Bei Dao’s “new & selected” of 2010 from New Directions, edited and in part translated by Weinberger. The fun of the event was to see the interactions between Bei Dao and Weinberger, who are old friends and quite comfortable with each other.
It was also amusing to be in a fancy ballroom with a respectfully silent and literary audience after having heard a nearly identical performance the night before, when Bei Dao and Weinberger gave an off-site reading at a Barnes and Noble attached to DePaul University. At that reading, which about fifteen people attended in a cramped space between shelves of romance books and a display of graphic novels, the two had had to compete with rowdy students and a few confused shoppers who stumbled in looking for the latest Danielle Steele novel. In the end, though, the intimacy of that gathering appealed more to me than the larger more formal reading the next day. Also attending both events was Jeffery Yang, who is the New Directions editor for Lucas Klein’s translations of Xi Chuan. Chinese poetry is indeed a small world. So small that on the way out, I ran into Jonathan Stalling and had a lively conversation with him about his fascinating experimental poetry book Yingelishi.
From there, I went to a reading held by Poetry International, which I hoped would involve a lot of translation but didn’t. Perhaps editors think that poets reading their own work is more of a draw than translators reading the work of other poets; perhaps they’re right. There was another disappointment in the form of a panel titled “War is Not Lost in Translation.” The panel itself was pretty interesting, and the translations read aloud were, to my ear, quite good. But it’s a problem at these conferences that much is promised and then not much can be delivered in the time allotted. The panel members were all smart, engaged translators—working from Hebrew, Urdu, Icelandic; I just wished someone there actually translated writing from a current conflict zone.
Downstairs in the belly of the Hilton, which is amazingly dark and warren-like, was the bookfair. It was impossible to locate anything, and if you happened upon what you wanted accidently, there was no way you’d find it again if you turned your back. Wandering the aisles, I did find some presses and journals focusing on translation, though they were fairly few and far between. New Directions had a nice simple setup, manned by Jeffrey Yang when I dropped by. He pointed me a few aisles over to the Dalkey Archives, whose table was crammed with books of translation, although very few from Asian languages. There were also displays from the PEN Center, Poetry International, The Center for the Art of Translation, and Zephyr Press. Most of these were to be found in the low-ceilinged, overcrowded quarters of the Table section of the bookfair. The fancier presses were on the Booth side. Booths, apparently, cost about twice as much as Tables, and afford about twice as much space per outfit. From this I conclude that translation, while acknowledged by everyone I met as very important, vital even (this always said in an earnest tone), is still stuck living in one of the low-rent ghettos of the literary realm.
Probably my favorite of the panels I attended was called “Translation as the Actualization of Poetry and the Blurring of Literary Histories, Nations, and Borders.” The panelists mainly wrote in or translate from Spanish, which is pretty far from my own forte. But they were a lively bunch, and gave spirited presentations to a large room of perhaps a hundred and fifty chairs, eleven of which were occupied. (Yes, I counted.) This meant that the ratio of panelists to audience was almost 1:2. Granted, it was 9 a.m. on the last day of the conference. And none of the presenters were superstars. Nevertheless, I found it discomfiting that in a conference of more than ten thousand participants, only eleven of us had found the translation of poetry interesting enough to attend. I mean, where was everybody?
The panelists were so engaged in their conversation that they went a bit over time, and toward the end, I noticed people trickling in from the back. Could it be that they were translation fanatics who had just overslept? Were all these latecomers kicking themselves from missing the panel they’d been waiting for the whole conference? The panel ended and we all got up to leave, and suddenly we bedraggled, sleep-deprived eleven had to fight our way through the human flood that gushed into the room to fill those one hundred and fifty seats. What were all these enthusiastic, almost frantic, people coming to hear—a poetry panel? a discussion of contemporary fiction? a reading by someone famous? I felt warmed. Perhaps I had misjudged the bulk of the attendees of AWP. They really were interested in something literary, something having to do with art, with creativity, with the beautiful and profound. Then I made the mistake of looking at the schedule: “Agents & Editors: Partners in Publishing. An inside look at the manuscript acquisition process.”
For more, see the New Directions calendar for March. And stay tuned for an update on the state of poetry and translation as seen from the AWP from Eleanor Goodman. Maybe one day Xi Chuan and I will present a panel at the AWP…
Still one of the best go-to spots on the internet for poetry-related news, Ron Silliman’s blog has posted a couple of Chinese-poetry related items in the last couple days. Yesterday on his list of “books received,” he featured–by which I mean of all the books he received, these were two of the three books whose cover images he posted–Red Pine‘s re-release of his Sung Po-jen 宋伯仁 translations (Copper Canyon Press) and a new book titled Chinoiserie by Karen Rigby. I don’t know if Ron’s torqued juxtaposition was intentional or just the product of happenstance simultaneity overdetermined by language (the other book with a pictured cover is Basil Bunting‘s collected translations from the Persian, so it’s hard to think the assertion of “orientalism” is an accident… but at any event, the relationship between title and content in Rigby’s book seems indirect–I haven’t read more than one sample piece, but it’s not about the nineteenth-century representation of Chinese aesthetics; I do note, however, that her bio states that she was born in Panama “to a Chinese mother and a Panamanian-American father”), but it did ring oddly against what Ron posted in his list of Coming Events, pictured above (we all make typos and other mistakes). As you probably know, the poet’s name is Bei Dao 北島, not “Bao Dei.” What you may not know is that this event with Gander, Wright, and Weinberger is at the Poet’s House event at the AWP in Chicago, not in New York.