Letter from Hong Kong on Your Impossible Voice

Xi Chuan reading at International Poetry Nights. Photo by Lucas Klein.Your Impossible Voice has published my “Letter from Hong Kong,” about the International Poetry Nights.

Reviewing exiled Chinese poet Bei Dao’s first full-length collection The August Sleepwalker in English in 1990, a professor quipped, “These could just as easily be translations from a Slovak or an Estonian or a Philippine poet. It could even be a kind of American poetry….”

From a certain perspective—say, that of the seventeenth century—the reviewer was right … But from the perspective of poetry today, which is to say, from the perspective of people who habitually, consciously, and conscientiously read contemporary poetry around the world, do all cultures and languages and poetries blend together?

We have not had Slovak or Estonian poets, but Albanian poet Luljeta Lleshanaku, from the 2009 festival, and Russian Arkadii Dragomoshchenko and Slovene Tomaž Šalamun, from 2011, may serve as sufficient examples, as will 2013 Filipina participant Conchitina Cruz and American Jeffrey Yang.

And then I translate Chen Maiping’s 陳邁平 Chinese translation of Aase Berg’s Swedish poetry into English, to compare against the English by Johannes Göransson.

Click on the image above for the whole piece.

Poetry & Globalization: Opponents or Partners? International Poetry Nights Hong Kong 2013 Panel

Poetry & Globalization: Opponents or Partners?

Moderator: Prof. Lucas Klein
Thurs, 21 November 3:00 – 4:30 p.m.
Venue: Hong Kong University of Science & Technology

Aase Berg (Sweden), Conchitina Cruz (The Philippines), Jeffrey Yang (USA), Tomasz Różycki (Poland), Un Sio San 袁紹珊 (Macau), Ye Mimi 葉覓覓 (Taiwan)

Islands or Continents

Photo: 2013年香港國際詩歌節出版詩集。赞~Poems by Adonis (Syria), Aase Berg (Sweden), Conchitina Cruz (The Philippines), Menna Elfyn (Wales), Lee Seong-bok (South Korea), Tim Lilburn (Canada), Zeyar Lynn (Burma), Dunya Mikhail (Iraq), Peter Minter (Australia), Tomasz Różycki (Poland), Olvido García Valdés (Spain), Jeffrey Yang (USA), Raúl Zurita (Chile), Natalia Chan 洛楓 (Hong Kong), Han Dong 韓東 (mainland China), Lan Lan 藍藍 (mainland China), Un Sio San 袁紹珊 (Macau), and Ye Mimi 葉覓覓 (Taiwan), with translations into English and/or Chinese.
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International Poetry Nights in Hong Kong 2013

21 – 24 November, 2013

Featuring: Adonis (Syria), Aase Berg (Sweden), Conchitina Cruz (The Philippines), Menna Elfyn (Wales), Lee Seong-bok (South Korea), Tim Lilburn (Canada), Zeyar Lynn (Burma), Dunya Mikhail (Iraq), Peter Minter (Australia), Tomasz Różycki (Poland), Olvido García Valdés (Spain), Jeffrey Yang (USA), Raúl Zurita (Chile), Natalia Chan 洛楓 (Hong Kong), Han Dong 韓東 (mainland China), Lan Lan 藍藍 (mainland China), Un Sio San 袁紹珊 (Macau), and Ye Mimi 葉覓覓 (Taiwan)

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Lucien Stryk Prize Acceptance Speech

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!

‘Lights Have Entered Us’: Jeffrey Yang on Time of Grief

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.

Notes on the Mosquito on WLT’s 75 Notable Translations 2012

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.

The list also includes Jeffrey Yang’s translation of June Fourth Elegies 念念六四 by Liu Xiaobo 刘晓波, as well as Eliot Weinberger’s new Poems of Octavio Paz, also published by New Directions.

See the entire list here.

Mo Yan & Liu Xiaobo: Another Nobel Roundup

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’?”

In his Nobel speech, Mo Yan says, “I would like you to find the patience to read my books” 我希望你们能耐心地读一下我的书. Many commentators have read the speech, such as Chad Post at Three Percent, or Mark McDonald, who notices “‘Garlands and Mud’ for New Nobel Laureate from China,” or Adam Minter, whose “Mo Yan’s Nobel: Parable of a Patsy?” looks at the controversy both outside of China and in, but they don’t seem to notice that one of the stories Mo Yan tells in his lecture about an empty chair–

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.

三十多年前,我还在部队工作。有一天晚上,我在办公室看书,有一位老长官推门进来,看了一眼我对面的位置,自言自语道:“噢,没有人?”我随即站起来,高声说:“难道我不是人吗?”那位老长官被我顶得面红耳赤,尴尬而退。为此事,我洋洋得意了许久,以为自己是个英勇的斗士,但事过多年后,我却为此深感内疚。

–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.

As for his remarks on censorship, under the headline “Censorship is a must, says China’s Nobel winner,” the Guardian reports that he “defended censorship as something as necessary as airport security checks.” This, unsurprisingly, has gathered lots of commentary: Publishing Perspectives asks, “is it?” and Canada’s Globe & Mail says “that’s just wrong.” Salman Rushdie concludes Mo Yan is “a patsy of the régime,” while Pankaj Mishra says Rushdie “should pause before condemning Mo Yan.” But look at what he said in Chinese:

我反感所有的检查。我去大使馆办签证,他们也要检查。我坐飞机出海关,他们也要检查,甚至要解下腰带,拖鞋检查。但是我想这些检查是必要的,我从来没有赞 美过新闻检查这种制度,但是我也认为新闻检查在世界上每个国家都是存在的。但是这种检查的尺度,检查的方式不一样。如果没有新闻检查,这个人就可以在报纸 上或者是电视上攻击其他人,诽谤其他人。这个我想在任何一个国家都是一样的。但是我希望所有新闻检查应该有最高准则:只要不违背事实真相的都不应该检查, 违背了事实真相造谣和诬蔑的都应该受到检查。

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.”

Meanwhile, in Stockholm, people are running naked in protest or else flash-mobbing Red Sorghum style: