2012 Best Translated Book Award Finalists for Poetry

It’s nearing on old news by now, but I wanted to offer congratulations to my three friends whose translations have been selected among the six finalists for the 2012 Best Translated Book Award for Poetry (follow the link for a full list, including the ten fiction finalists):

Spectacle & Pigsty by Kiwao Nomura
Translated from the Japanese by Kyoko Yoshida and Forrest Gander
(Omnidawn)

A Fireproof Box by Gleb Shulpyakov
Translated from the Russian by Christopher Mattison
(Canarium Books)

False Friends by Uljana Wolf
Translated from the German by Susan Bernofsky
(Ugly Duckling Presse)

Good luck to all of you–I hope for a three-way tie.

Eleanor Goodman on Poetry Translation & the AWP

Poet and translator from the Chinese Eleanor Goodman attended the AWP in Chicago last week. The following is her report on the state of translation and poetry on display.

 

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.”

New Directions at AWP 2012 in Chicago

The AWP is about to begin in Chicago, so if you’re there, be sure to check out the New Directions events, such as the following poetry & translation-focused panel:

Poets House Presents Bei Dao
Friday March 2, 1:30-2:45pm
(Bei Dao, Eliot Weinberger, Forrest Gander, C.D. Wright)
International Ballroom North, Hilton Chicago, 2nd Floor

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…

Ron Silliman & Chinese Poetry

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.

Forrest Gander Finalist for National Book Critics Circle Award

American poet, translator, and novelist Forrest Gander has been nominated for the National Book Critics Circle Award for his book Core Samples from the World, a book of poems covering his travels around the globe. One of the poems, the fourth “Map of the World,” is dedicated to Xi Chuan, and another, the haibunThe Pamirs Poetry Journal,” makes mention of him:

As Chinese poets, we don’t want to go backward, Xi Chuan observes, but ahead of us the way forks in innumerable directions. Forgetting which language he has just heard, but remembering the substance, the exhausted translator begins to translate the original language into the original language. I find I’m inept at reading the forms of discussion here, much less the subtleties. What I take as evident bounces away from me. I begin to notice tensions, faces shaking no, one translator interrupting another. The topic, Where is Chinese poetry going in the age of globalization, is enormous and of course the answer will be found in poems, not panels, so I try not just to listen, but to listen into.

What else is being
Asked, what’s
At stake for them?

Translation & Cultural Distinction

In his introduction to Xi Chuan and Zhou Zan from their 92nd St. Y reading on October 10th, Forrest Gander referred to something his Brown University colleague John Cayley had said about classical Chinese poetry in English translation. Sylvia Lin and Howard Goldblatt, the translation editors of the NEA anthology Push Open the Window, also picked up on the same statement, writing in their “Translation Co-Editors’ Preface”:

When we agreed to take on this exciting project as translation editors, we were reminded of a comment that has long resonated with us, as readers and translators of Chinese literature and as “shameless” promoters of the best of it, in the original when possible and in translation otherwise. John Cayley, himself a translator and a publisher of Chinese poetry in translation, has written: “Incontestably, the translation of classical Chinese poetry into English has given us a body of work which is culturally distinct from the poetry of its host language but which has immediate appeal, and is often read with intense pleasure and a deep awareness of its moral and artistic significance.” The challenge, for us, was to assist in bringing over contemporary poetry from China such that Cayley’s assertion could be modified by replacing a single word and remain true.

This is interesting to consider. Certainly what Cayley says is true, that English translations of classical Chinese poetry have been loved by readers and influential to poets who have little or no knowledge of Chinese as a language or a culture otherwise; Eliot Weinberger‘s early Nineteen Ways of Looking at Wang Wei and more recent New Directions Anthology of Classical Chinese Poetry are testaments to this fact. And yet, when it comes to contemporary Chinese poetry, I’m not so ready to agree (I’ve been critical, for instance, of anthologies of contemporary Chinese poetry that seem to exploit the creativity of the translator and suppress what makes the original original).

Certainly translating a poem from a thousand years ago and a poem from this decade are somewhat different activities. Certainly the cultural distinction of contemporary Chinese vis-à-vis the contemporary anglophone world is much less than the cultural distinction of China in the Tang or Song. Do facts of proximity–from globalization to immigration to travel to…–mean that we translators have less cultural leeway when dealing with contemporary Chinese writing than with writing from ancient China? In other words, do we have to make our translations less culturally distinct from their originals because contemporary Chinese originals are already closer to us than ancient Chinese originals? I find this question especially relevant to translating Xi Chuan, who often incorporates a view of classical China from (for instance, his series “Thirty Historical Reflections” 鉴史三十章).

This deserves more thought, of course, and I certainly don’t want to prescribe anything all translators everywhere have to follow. I will say this, though: my goal in translation is to satisfy three kinds of readers, those who read Chinese poetry, those who read poetry in English, and those who read translations. If I don’t think what I’ve written satisfies those three very different sets of demands, I don’t think I’ve written a good translation.

Forrest Gander’s Introduction of Xi Chuan & Zhou Zan

The night of October 10 (the hundred-year anniversary of the Xinhai Revolution 辛亥革命 that ended the Qing Dynasty 清朝), Forrest Gander introduced Xi Chuan, Zhou Zan, Marilyn Chin, and Li-young Lee at Manhattan’s 92nd St. Y. Here’s the text of his introduction:

This occasion is as much a celebration of poetry as it is a celebration of translation, that art that plucks from our black hats and blank looks the passport permitting us to cross borders of culture, language and imagination.

But what if the translations are bad?  Picasso claimed, “You don’t need the masterpiece to get the idea,” but is this true of translations?

Historically, mistranslations have contributed in signal ways to literary movements. The supposedly newly discovered poems of third-century warrior-poet Ossian—in translations forged by Scot prankster-poet James MacPherson and then really translated into German—fueled Johann von Herder’s Romantic re-conception of German poetics in the 18th century.

And like von Herder, American poet Ezra Pound helped launch a literary movement stimulated, in part, by translations based on a mistaken interpretation of the nature of the Chinese writing system. Ernst Fenollosa, Pound’s source, was studying Chinese grammar in Japan with Japanese linguistic scholars.

Many of the Chinese poets included in Push Open the Window, the new anthology from Copper Canyon, cut their teeth on bad translations of American poetry. Somehow, they were sufficient for them to get “the idea.”  Or, more importantly for their own work, not necessarily “the” idea but “an” idea.  In the 1980’s and 1990’s in China, better translations– Yunte Huang’s version of Ezra Pound’s Pisan Cantos, for instance, Zheng Min’s pioneering Contemporary American Poetry, and Zhao Yiheng’s Modern American Poetry anthology– began to appear. But poets like Bei Dao, who says he looked abroad for models, and Yang Lian, whose book Concentric Circles is strongly influenced by Pound’s Cantos, had already forged their signature styles. A somewhat younger poet, Yu Jian, discovered translations of Whitman while working in a factory and went on to write poems that reference important but less celebrated American poets like Ron Padgett. Xi Chuan, who straddles two named factions of poets (the Misty and the New Generation Poets), studied English Romantic poetry and wrote a dissertation on Ezra Pound. The post-Mao-generation poets Hu Xudong, who cites Mark Strand and Robert Hass as influences, and Zhou Zan, who translates from English and cites among her influences Denise Levertov and Adrienne Rich, came of age as internet translations of American poetry exploded in China. Both Zhou Zan and Hu Xudong came to study in America, Hu Xudong at the International Writing Program in Iowa and Zhou Zan at Columbia University. Zhai Yongming, also included in Push Open the Window, speaks little English but wrote a whole book documenting her road trips through the deserts and mountains of the American west.

Just this year, at a literary conference in Wuhan, Chinese scholars offered papers on Wallace Stevens, Hart Crane, Elizabeth Bishop, Sylvia Plath, Rita Dove, Charles Olson, William Carlos Williams, and ecopoetry, all that remarkable variety squeezed between twenty panels devoted to the work of Charles Bernstein.

My colleague at Brown University, John Cayley, himself a translator and a publisher of Chinese poetry in translation, notes that historically, English-language translations of Chinese poetry offered to American readers a literature that was “culturally distinct from the poetry of its host language” however much it might be read with “intense pleasure….”

But that, too, has begun to change and more culturally contextualized poetics and better English translations are revising America’s engagement with Chinese poetry. In the United States, the mid-1980s saw the publication of Eliot Weinberger’s essay “A Few Don’ts for Chinese Poets” and his classic translation study 19 Ways of Looking at Wang Wei. More recently, several major anthologies, Michelle Yeh’s Anthology of Modern Chinese Poetry, Zhang Er’s Another Kind of Nation: An Anthology of Contemporary Chinese Writing, Arthur Sze’s Chinese Writers on Writing,  Qingping Wang’s Push Open the Window, and The New Directions Anthology of Classical Chinese Poetry have indeed unlatched the shutters and pushed open the window.

The China-born Ha Jin, mostly known in the United States as a fiction writer who writes in English, says that if he wrote in Chinese now, he would write poetry, not fiction, because “at this moment, poetry is more promising. It can do more for the language.”

Given the explosive richness of contemporary poetry in America now, I would suggest that here too, in this historical moment, poetry offers the most to literature in English.  The early 21st century is one of the most turbulent and critical times for poetry in the cultures of both countries.

Just as American poet Marilyn Chin shuffles fragments, for example, from John Berryman with her own nervy colloquial precision, and unsplices the resonant emotional and political implications of immigrant narratives within American mythologies and vice versa, the Chinese poet Xi Chuan considers China’s past through the lens of a modernized West; he shuffles antique dictions with colloquial ones; he braids the analytical essay with the ode to things. But though he wrote a dissertation on Pound’s Chinese cantos, his work seems most influenced by European philosophy and literature, Kafka, I’d guess, and Nietszche. Chinese poet Zhou Zan, whose poetry often focuses on the process of creation, sometimes writes in short parabolic descriptive sentences and at other times juxtaposes paratactic clauses in stanzas that incorporate multiple voices and windmilling social and personal observations. Well-known American poet Li-young Lee animates his own family memories with a famously sensual palette.

In the writing of Marilyn Chin and Li-young Lee, the entanglement of cultures and languages collaborates with theme and style. Other American poets, notably Charles Wright, Mei-mei Berssenbrugge, and Jeffrey Yang, have found in Chinese poetry a renewable source of inspiration. But with regard to the influence of American poetry on contemporary Chinese poetry, the connections may be hard to specify.  European and Hollywood films, French literary theory, Continental philosophy and increasing opportunities for travel abroad have thoroughly affected contemporary Chinese poetry. As you listen tonight to poems by American poets and translations into English of recent Chinese poems, you may hear indications of influence. But be wary. As Xi Chuan writes in Lucas Klein’s translation of Notes on the Mosquito, coming out next year from New Directions, “No one can tell the difference between the place where a mosquito has landed and a place where a mosquito has not landed…”

Poet in New York

From 8:15 on the evening of Monday, October 10, Forrest Gander will be introducing a night of Chinese and Chinese-American poetry at the 92nd St. Why in Manhattan, featuring Marilyn Chin and Li-young Lee 李立揚 with Xi Chuan and Zhou Zan. If you’re in New York, take a break from occupying Wall Street and head uptown for the reading. Click on the image below for more, including ticketing information.