In his introduction to Derrida’s ideas of deconstruction and photography, the painter Gerhard Richter suggests that translation means that “something is presented, interpreted, explained, and even understood in terms of something else.” Seen in this way, the three contemporary poems discussed can be called transgender, transtemporal, and transcultural translations of Li Bai’s poem, read through the prism of Pound’s rendering.
Jerome Rothenberg has posted his introduction to a collection of the poetry in English of Wai-lim Yip 葉維廉, forthcoming next year. Here’s an excerpt:
But what about [Ezra Pound’s] invention of China or of Chinese poetry?
What is left to say is that Pound set a style that came to typify early twentieth-century translations into English/American and that he later pointed (in Canto 49, say) toward other styles that were possibly closer to the classical Chinese … It fell to Wai-lim Yip – a poet first and foremost – to unearth all this for us – not to invent China over again but to explain and explore aspects of the traditional poetry that link to American works after and beyond Pound and William Carlos Williams. From Yip’s work we get what we might call the montage principle based on both a knowledge and practice of Chinese poetry and an observation of the work of later American poets, including Pound himself in the Cantos. (That Yip’s approach is not only that of a scholar but of a deeply involved poet is also something worth noting.) In the course of doing this Yip has opened for us not only a sensible view of Chinese poetry but a profound understanding of the nature of translation and the possibilities of poetry as they emerge from an actual practice.
Click on the image above for the full piece.
The 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.
Because it’s broadly related to Chinese poetry as understood in English, I wrote something about the recent Best American Poetry controversy, published at Drunken Boat, titled “Yi-Fen Chou: Michael Derrick Hudson and/or Ronald Reagan.”
Here’s an excerpt:
Ezra Pound’s “The River-Merchant’s Wife: A Letter” is a translation of a poem by medieval Chinese poet Li Bai 李白, and was part of the redefinition of Chinese poetry and Chinese culture in English in the early twentieth century. The Love Poems of Marichiko, presented as translations of young Japanese woman’s poetry but which Rexroth admitted to writing after he was nominated for a translation prize, were an attempt at an imagined empathy with a cultural other, the poems narrating a passion with an unknown lover that dissolves boundaries as the passion dissolves as well. And the Araki Yasusada phenomenon undermined our prevailing notions of authorship to expose and critique the cultural double standards at work in the American poetry industry. Yi-Fen Chou, on the other hand, looks motivated by a desire to take advantage of the prevailing notions of authorship and our double standards in the American poetry industry. And this is why I’m thinking of Ronald Reagan.
The Reagan era was when American poetry of all stripes turned inward, as if mirroring not only the government’s xenophobia, but its configuring of trade into a neo-liberal assertion of American dominance, now called globalization. Not that American foreign policy before Reagan had been anything to be proud of, but poets had responded to the Vietnam War by translating more (as they would in the Bush II era, reacting against war by increasing their curiosity about the outside world); in the years afterward the Me Decade took over American poetry, as well, and American poets wrote best about their own personal me. Hudson says “he did briefly consider trying to make Yi-Fen into a ‘persona’ or ‘heteronym’ à la Fernando Pessoa, but nothing ever came of it.” That, at least, would have been interesting, and related his pseudonym to his poetry. As is, both his lack of interest in engaging with the culture he names and his use of a minority name to get published make him the poetic equivalent of the domestic and international policies of the Reagan presidency.
Click the image above for the full piece.
John Bradley has reviewed Sam Hamill’s Crossing the Yellow River: Three Hundred Poems from the Chinese (Tiger Bark Press) at Rain Taxi. He writes:
What is about Chinese poetry, especially the poetry of the T’ang Dynasty (618-907 CE), that has drawn so many translators over the years, such as Ezra Pound, Arthur Waley, Kenneth Rexroth, and Bill Porter, to name only a few? … Li Po’s “Questions Answered” offers a good example of that “depth and clarity and delicacy”:
You ask why I live
alone in the mountain forest,
and I smile and am silent
until even my soul grows quiet.
The peach trees blossom.
The water continues to flow.
I live in the other world,
one that lies beyond the human.
Click the image for the full review.
Since Chinese poetry started being translated into English, poets and sinologists have presented poetry and sinology as if they were locked in eternal conflict. In 1921 Amy Lowell said, “Chinese is so difficult that it is a life-work in itself; so is the study of poetry. A Sinologue has no time to learn how to write poetry; a poet has no time to learn how to read Chinese”; in 1958 George Kennedy said of Ezra Pound, “Undoubtedly this is fine poetry. Undoubtedly it is bad translation”; drawing a distinction between the “poet-translator” and “critic-translator,” James J. Y. Liu wrote in 1982 that while the latter’s “primary aim is to show what the original poem is like, as a part of his interpretation,” the former “is a poet or poet manqué whose native Muse is temporarily or permanently absent and who uses translation as a way to recharge his own creative battery [and] write a good poem in English based on his understanding or misunderstanding of a Chinese poem, however he may have arrived at this”; and in 2004, against those who “believe that translations should consist of word-for-word cribs in which syntax, grammar, and form are all maintained, and in which the translator is merely a facilitator who allows the original poem to speak for itself in a new language,” Tony Barnstone posited that the “literary translator is like the musician who catalyzes the otherwise inert score that embodies Mozart’s genius. . . . Fidelity, true fidelity, comes from a musician’s deeper understanding of the music.” The genius of Watson’s translations is that they reconcile the rift between poetry and scholarship.
Click the image above for the full article.
The Baltimore Sun reports:
Around the turn of the 20th century, ancient Chinese poetry grabbed fresh attention in the West and provided inspiration for some notable works.
Austrian composer Gustav Mahler, for example, found in a set of German translations of Li Po the impetus to create “Das Lied von der Erde” (“The Song of the Earth”). And four years after the 1911 posthumous premiere of that profound music, American poet Ezra Pound published “Cathay,” his influential interpretations of Li Po and other Chinese poets.
A century later, Baltimore-based artist Zhao Jing offers her response to Pound’s “Cathay” in a powerful series of photographic diptychs under the same title, now on exhibit at C. Grimaldis Gallery.
In a way, Zhao has gone through something similar to Mahler’s experience.
Responding to a translation, Mahler composed a kind of second translation — something that captured his own time and style, but also the sensibility of the original. Likewise, Zhao has, in effect, re-translated Pound’s translations and has made her own statement about them and the original poems.
The show will be on exhibit through April 12. Click on the image above for the full article & more information.
In “Wise Words of Confucius on Shifts in Institutions” Emanuel Pastreich presents a translation of Confucius so as (per an explanation elsewhere) “to write something that does not sound too sage-like [but rather] is essentially of the same style as contemporary American political discourse … If Confucian writings are translated as the words of sages, closer to the register of the Bible or of Plato, their impact on contemporary American political discourse will be limited.” He translates:
If the terms that we employ to describe the institutions in society cease to be accurate representations of what those institutions have become, then, although we can discuss the problems of our age, the discussion will not correspond with the actual reality in a political or economic sense.
Pastreich applies this to the banking industry:
Confucius suggested that the problems we encounter in the political realm are the result of a slippage in the meaning of the terms that we use to describe. For example, there has been tremendous slippage in the significance of the term “bank” and that slippage has introduced chaos into our society. Although we use the word “bank” without even thinking about its meaning, the term’s significance is far from clear. Whereas the word “bank” referred to an organization with a rather limited mandate to lend money under strict regulations, it has evolved into a complex financial instrument whose roles are multifarious and changing rapidly as money itself has shifted in its significance as a result of the IT revolution. We need perhaps to redefine “money” at the same time.
What I find so striking about this is that while the method of translation is very, very different than translation of Chinese according to the imagined Confucian notion by Ezra Pound, both present us with a similar investigation of the morality of economics, specifically as relates to banking.
Stonecutter is kept from his tone
weaver is kept from his loom
wool comes not to market
sheep bringeth no gain with usura
Usura is a murrain, usura
blunteth the needle in the maid’s hand
and stoppeth the spinner’s cunning.
C. Derick Varn of Former People: A Journal of Bangs and Whimpers interviewed me with a series of complex questions on modernity and modernism in and about China. And of course, I couldn’t resist talking about Xi Chuan and Chinese and international poetry. Here’s an excerpt:
So that’s the problem. But as I’ve argued in a piece that’s forthcoming, modernism in literature is postmodernist in its philosophical implications … And I don’t think I’ve ever believed in modernism so much as modernisms. An interesting observation is that modernist writers who come from countries that claim an ownership of tradition—modernists from France or Italy or Russia—are often the ones to say, like Marinetti, “Museums, cemeteries!” while the modernists from countries that cannot claim such ownership—Pound and Eliot from the US, Joyce from Ireland—are the ones who want to revivify the ancient amidst the machinations of the modern (this isn’t foolproof, of course: William Carlos Williams and Gertrude Stein stand against such generalizations). As for whether there’s a Chinese modernism, the interesting thing is that after the Cultural Revolution, you get both: those feeling like their country has too much a claim on tradition, and is overwhelmed and stifled by it, as well as those who feel like their country is too displaced from tradition, and needs to re-own it and re-define it. So at any given moment Bei Dao might read like a shrugging off of tradition, and Yang Lian might read like a refitting of it, and Xi Chuan a refitting of that refitting, but they’re also specific responses to the relationship between tradition and modernity as have played out in China in the past hundred years and more.
Click the image above for the full feature.
Someone was impressed enough by my acceptance speech for the Lucien Stryk prize to suggest I share it here. So I am!
It’s a wonderful honor, both for me and for Xi Chuan, to be awarded the Lucien Stryk Prize for Asian poetry in translation. Any prize awarded by ALTA would be an honor, because ALTA is one of my favorite organizations to belong to—I’ve often said that literary translators are by definition interesting people, because by definition we’re interested in more than one thing. ALTA as a group and many of its members as individuals were very helpful in offering their time, patience, insight, and scolds as I worked on translating Xi Chuan, and much of my success as a translator is owed to the wisdom I gained from them.
The Lucien Stryk prize, in particular, is also a special one for me and for Xi Chuan, because of its dedication to honoring Asian poetry in translation, and the tradition of Asian poetry in translation—in addition to Asian poetry in general—was very much in my mind when translating the pieces in Notes on the Mosquito, as it was in Xi Chuan’s over the three decades in which he wrote the poems. As an undergrad English major, Xi Chuan wrote his senior thesis on Ezra Pound’s translations from Chinese, he recently published a translation of Gary Snyder’s poetry, and in many ways Xi Chuan was reintroduced to the literary history of his own culture from the attention and presentation he encountered in Pound, Snyder, and others, including Jorge Luis Borges.
I’m also especially honored to be part of the group of previous Lucien Stryk honorees—a group that already features some of my favorite translators! I find inclusion in such a group both humbling and inspiring, as the best Asian poetry in translation has always been.
I would like to extend my deepest gratitude to New Directions, to my editor Jeffrey Yang, and most of all to Xi Chuan, whose cooperation and friendship were essential to the success of this book. Until three years ago there were no single-author collections of poetry by Chinese-language poets currently living in mainland China published in the US, but now we are living in what appears to be a golden age of contemporary Chinese poetry in English translation, to match what may be a golden age of poetry in China itself. Thanks to New Directions for contributing to that golden age, and thanks to Xi Chuan for helping make that golden age in the first place!
Thank you very, very much!