New Directions editor Jeffrey Yang has a piece at The Atlantic about George Oppen & Time of Grief: Mourning Poems, an assemblage of international poetry he recently edited. Here’s how Atlantic writer Joe Fassler describes the book:
The new poetry anthology Time of Grief: Mourning Poems is an unusual, inventive take on a familiar subject: It explores grief in its various shades and incarnations. Structured like a calendar over a span of 49 days—a traditional mourning period in some Buddhist and Judaic traditions—the book includes a diverse sequence of poems written in more than 20 countries. With authors ranging from an 11th-century Chinese poet to Tomas Tranströmer, the Swedish winner of the 2011 Nobel Prize for Literature, Time of Grief presents human bereavement in unprecedented scale and scope.
Xi Chuan’s poem “Twilight” 暮色 is included in the anthology. Click here or on the image above to read the piece.
Mo Yan 莫言 has given his Nobel acceptance speech, but that doesn’t mean the debates about whether he deserved the award have stopped–or that older pieces haven’t been resurfacing.
A good deal of the debate focuses on the contrast between Mo Yan and Liu Xiaobo 刘晓波, the imprisoned critic who was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 2010. Larry Siems and Jeffrey Yang (my editor at New Directions) make the case in “China’s Nobels” that while Liu is “is serving an 11-year sentence for ‘inciting subversion of state power’ in his writings” (while his wife is under house arrest), Mo Yan “has done little to jeopardize his status as one of the country’s most honored writers.” Yang is the translator of Liu’s poems assembled in June Fourth Elegies念念六四, which has just been noted as one of Poets.org’s Notable Books of 2012. Yang and Siems do note that despite the difference between the two Nobels, their stories do converge: “Mo Yan, who had previously pleaded ignorance of his countryman’s case, told reporters that he hoped that Mr. Liu ‘can achieve his freedom as soon as possible’ and that he should be free to research his ‘politics and social system.’” Another editor of a recent Liu Xiaobo publication in English, however, Perry Link, editor of No Enemies, No Hatred: Selected Essays and Poems of Liu Xiaobo, is less impressed: in “Does This Writer Deserve the Nobel Prize?” Link speculates, “Was Mo Yan’s ‘in good health’ phrase something that Chinese authorities had supplied to him, perhaps to prepare the way in international opinion for Liu Xiaobo’s ‘seeking medical treatment abroad’?”
More than thirty years ago, when I was in the army, I was in my office reading one evening when an elderly officer opened the door and came in. He glanced down at the seat in front of me and muttered, “Hm, where is everyone?” I stood up and said in a loud voice, “Are you saying I’m no one?” The old fellow’s ears turned red from embarrassment, and he walked out. For a long time after that I was proud about what I consider a gutsy performance. Years later, that pride turned to intense qualms of conscience.
–seems to invoke the empty chair of Liu Xiaobo’s Nobel Peace prize two years ago.
Nor do many commentators seem to have read his books very closely. Andrea Lingenfelter, who has, though, says in her review of his forthcoming novel Pow! (translated, as always, by Howard Goldblatt) that it, “like the bulk of Mo Yan’s other novels, is a social and political critique”; interestingly, when I first caught her review online I remember it being less patient with criticisms of Mo Yan’s politics. Perhaps she was convinced by Link’s article, or Mo Yan’s defense of censorship.
The word he uses is jiancha, usually translated as “check,” either as a verb or a noun, rather than “censorship,” which my dictionary tells me would be shencha 审查. Jiancha is, of course, related to security checks, which should help explain his comparison. And as I read it, he doesn’t say that checks should exist but that they do exist. I would give a rough translation of the passage as:
I’m disgusted with checks of all kinds. When I go to the embassy for a visa, I get checked. When I take an airplane and go through customs, I get checked, even have to take off my belt and shoes. But I figure these checks must be necessary, and while I’ve never praised the system of checks on the news, I believe that checks on the news must exist in every country in the world. But measuring checks like this, the method of checking is different. If there were no checks on the news, somebody could go off in the newspapers or on TV and attack someone, or slander someone. I imagine it’s the same in any country. But I would hope all checks on the news adhered to the highest principle: as long as it doesn’t violate the truth it shouldn’t be checked, but rumormongering and defamation that violates the truth should be put under check.
In a related point, Mo Yan was cited in a Time Magazine feature two years ago:
Mo Yan is adamant that he never worries about censorship when choosing what to write about. “There are certain restrictions on writing in every country,” he says, adding that the inability to attack some topics head on is actually an advantage. Such limitations make a writer “conform to the aesthetics of literature,” Mo Yan argues. “One of the biggest problems in literature is the lack of subtlety. A writer should bury his thoughts deep and convey them through the characters in his novel.”
You may disagree. You may find this naïve. You may feel like security checks and censorship are not the same, and that the kinds of governmental controls on the news he imagines do not exist in your country and should not exist in his. You may feel that the restrictions on writing inherent to literature are of a different order from the restrictions on writing imposed by the government, and that writers can be subtle without having to worry about censorship. You may feel like the “highest principle” he wishes for is a pipe dream, that as long as the state has power to limit speech it will use that power, and the only high principle is the principle of freedom. I certainly think all those things. That is different, however, from claiming that Mo Yan advocates, let alone celebrates, censorship. I’ve written about problems of translation in English-language reporting on China before; this example, in which reporters have treated the word jiancha as if it were shencha, is more of the same.
Finally for the commentary, Charles Laughlin argues, in “What Mo Yan’s Detractors Get Wrong” (an article that mentions Xi Chuan) that “when discussing the merits of Mo Yan’s receiving the Nobel Prize in Literature, I think it is misleading for us to compare its validity to that of awarding the Peace Prize to Liu.”
October 17, at 7:00 PM at 110-112 West 27th Street, Manhattan, AAWW and Archipelago Books are hosting Fady Joudah, Sinan Antoon, Susan Bernofsky, Jeffrey Yang, and Ghassan Zaqtan for Translation Night, to “read literature spanning China and Japan to new innovations in Palestinian poetry, including work by Mahmoud Darwish and Nobel Laureate Liu Xiaobo [刘晓波].”
Fiona Sze-Lorrain‘s review of Jeffrey Yang‘s translation of June Fourth Elegies 念念六四 by Liu Xiaobo 刘晓波 is now up on Words Without Borders. Strangely, her review doesn’t mention Yang by name, but she does discuss the translation, calling it “a stylistic rendering of Liu Xiaobo’s plainspoken language, which at times can be physical—gnawing and piercing in its implications.”
Here’s how she begins her review:
Poetry charts a circular path to freedom for Chinese political activist and writer Liu Xiaobo. “I am merely / a discarded wooden plank / powerless to resist the crushing of steel / still, I want to save you no matter if you’re / dead or still barely breathing, breathing,” the poet writes in “Memories of a Wooden Plank,” on the twelfth anniversary of the 1989 Tian’anmen Massacre. Powerless to narrate history as a public intellectual in his own country, Liu finds in poetry a force of resistance and an unlikely promise of solace. “I’m still alive / with a name of some disrepute / I possess neither courage nor qualifications,” he confesses in the second elegy, “For 17.” A year after writing those lines, Liu still believes poetry has a singular power to disarm. As he concludes in the third elegy, “Suffocating City Square:”
This death-cast girl
has become a line of pure poetry
that surrenders all ideograms
At the 3% blog Chad Post writes his take on some of the issues discussed in Creative Constraints: Translation and Authorship, the collection of academic essays on the topic edited by Rita Wilson and Leah Gerber. Like most translators, I find this topic endlessly fascinating (I may end up writing a book on it at some point), and related to what I wrote in my introduction to Xi Chuan’s Notes on the Mosquito: “I am motivated by a belief that the reader not only wants to know but can know both what Xi Chuan says and how he says it.”
Chad focuses on the issue of translations being edited for style. He writes:
At some level, this isn’t just about eliminating terms that American readers aren’t familiar with, but working from the assumption that readers are stupid and have to have everything explained to them. For example, there’s a lot of offensive stuff in the edits of Mima Simic’s story but the thing that bothers me is the sort of flattening out of the prose to make sure that everyone understands. For example, this:
She can tell the time by the smell of the stuff in the pan.
She can tell how long something’s been frying by the way it smells.
As far as that goes I agree, and I don’t endorse dumbing-down challenging writing for the sake of an underestimated American audience. Still, I’m less compelled by the following example, from volume contributor Peter Bush:
libradas de sus mazmorras y grillos, las palabras al fin, las traidoras, esquivas palabras, vibren, dancen, copulen, se encueren y cobren cuerpo (Juan Goytisolo original)
released from their chains and dungeons, words, treacherous elusive words, at last quiver dance copulate strip off and flesh out (Peter Bush)
released from their chains, their dungeons, those words, those treacherous elusive words, quiver at last and dance and copulate, removing their rags and clothing themselves in flesh (edited version)
I don’t know Spanish, but I’m not convinced that either Bush’s version or the edit is better at reproducing and representing Goytisolo’s style: to me, the repeated commas in the Spanish convey something neither version quite captures in English. That said, I don’t see anything so wrong with Bush’s first version that the edit definitely fixes.
Chad’s piece–one of the longer 3% blog posts I’ve read in a while–is well worth reading, and I look forward to seeing Creative Constraints. I should mention, though, that I was very happy with my editing process with New Directions: they made very helpful suggestions, and I had the freedom to accept or make counter-edits as I saw fit.
Yesterday we talked at some length about methods of reading, preparing a text, working with authors, and revising. It is sometimes said that translators can’t do anything about the plot of the works they translate, but this seems to me an oversimplification and not really correct, because the effectiveness of the plot is always dependent on pace, and pace is a function of language at the level of phrase, sentence, and paragraph, which is what translators have control over. They can easily make a plot ineffective, so the obverse must also be true. Our conversation reminded of Amy Leach’s discussion of “exhilirated intermediaries,” which at times seems apt here.
Valentino also mentions the the sessions where writers are visited by their translators, among them translator into German Beatrice Fassbinder visiting Jeffrey Yang, whom she’s translating. In addition to being a poet and translator (most recently of June Fourth Elegies 念念六四 by Liu Xiaobo 刘晓波), Yang is my New Directions editor for my translations of Xi Chuan in Notes on the Mosquito.
Reflecting Liu’s own political turn after 1989, the editors of No Enemies, No Hatred have focused on his more engaged writings–those that led to his most recent prison sentence and that played a significant part in his winning the Nobel Prize–rather than on his literary criticism. Unsurprisingly, the events of spring 1989 loom large throughout the collection, for these protests and their aftermath would prove to be a turning point in Liu’s career and personal life. In the years preceding 1989, he had won notoriety in China primarily for his contrarian literary and cultural views: for excoriating Chinese creative writing of both the Maoist and post-Mao eras. “Shit, the Chinese are just hopeless,” he impishly declared, condemning the new avant-garde writing of the 1980s as stagnant, repetitive, and imitative. In America when the Tiananmen protests broke out, he vowed to “do” rather than “just talk,” and flew back to Beijing to become one of the movement’s leaders. His involvement in the demonstrations led to the loss of his Beijing teaching post, two jail sentences before his 2009 trial, and a publication ban in mainland China.
Despite being a translator herself, Lovell does not mention translation in her review. Nor does she discuss the poetry included in the volume, though she does mention, parenthetically, that “(Those interested primarily in Liu’s poetry can refer to a new parallel-text edition translated by Jeffrey Yang, entitled June Fourth Elegies.)” I would have been interested in seeing a review that could look at both books together, or at least describe the role of the poetry in assessing Liu’s writing–why, for instance, is it included in No Enemies, No Hatred at all?
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.”
After weeks of delays and worrying (the first package vanished somewhere between New York and Hongkong, so a copy had to be re-sent from another service), the editor‘s notes on Notes on the Mosquito, my translation of Xi Chuan’s selected poems, arrived yesterday.
Looking at this is both humbling and exhilarating. Can’t wait to get to work!