Jeffrey Yang, poet, editor, and translator of Uyghur and Chinese poetry (both classical and modern, including Liu Xiaobo’s 刘晓波June Fourth Elegies, Su Shi’s 蘇軾 East Slope, and Bei Dao’s 北岛 forthcoming memoir City Gate, Open Up) answers questions as part of Words Without Borders‘ “Translator Relay“:
You are a translator, but also an award-winning poet. Can you speak about how your work as a poet informs your translations? And in turn, do you find that your work as a translator informs your poetry?
I try not to dissect this back and forth too much as the two so naturally fit together, like Adam and Eve. Both require careful attention to the musical qualities of language. The two can also overtly overlap, in that translating a poem is akin to writing a poem in a new language, or when writing a poem includes translated lines from another language. Both practices thrive in obscurity and with patient tinkering at the minutest level of word and line. As the recent Nobel Laureate said fifty years ago, “People have one great blessing—obscurity.” Each revels in an economy of language while persisting outside of the day-to-day economy, where profit never ventures upon its threshold. The one feeds the other in body and spirit, as with the other arts.
If the end of the year is a time for lists, the beginning of a year is the time for taking stock of the Chinese poetry titles that appeared in last year’s “best of” lists. Here are three:
The PEN Award for Poetry in Translation is a $3,000 prize for a book-length translation of poetry into English. The 2015 includes David Hinton’s translation of The Late Poems of Wang An-Shih 王安石 (New Directions). Wang was an economist, statesman, chancellor and poet of the Song Dynasty; he became prime minister, the publisher writes, “and in this position he instituted a controversial system of radically egalitarian social reforms to improve the lives of China’s peasants … It was after his retirement, practicing Ch’an (Zen) Buddhism and wandering the mountains around his home, that Wang An-shih wrote the poems that made his reputation. Short and plainspoken, these late poems contain profound multitudes the passing of time, rivers and mountains, silence and Buddhist emptiness.”
Not a prize-granting organization, The Washington Post nevertheless also came up with a list of “The best poetry books for December.” Included was Empty Chairs: Selected Poemsby Liu Xia 刘霞, (Graywolf)，translated by Ming Di and Jennifer Stern. The collection draws from thirty years of Liu’s poetry, including what she’s written after she was placed under house following the imprisonment of her husband, Liu Xiaobo 刘晓波, who was sentenced for eleven years in 2009 (he won the Nobel Peace Prize in 2010). “In several of her chiseled poems,” the Post writes, “Liu uses dolls to convey what she cannot—and yet her voice still asserts itself, coming through bold and vital.” Empty Chairs is also the only translation from Chinese to make it onto World Literature Today‘s list of “75 Notable Translations of 2015.”
Finally, at Three Percent non-poetry reader Chad Post has come up with his list of “poetry collections I would’ve read and loved, if I read poetry. Based on my general knowledge of publishers, translators, and titles, I’m pretty much positivie that these are the best collections I should’ve read this year.” In this list he includes my translation October Dedications by Mang Ke 芒克 (Zephyr / Chinese University Press). The book isn’t actually out yet, but I can’t resist including it here because Chad writes, “Lucas Klein is a really stand-up guy who does a lot to promote Chinese poetry. He’s also been a judge for the PEN Translation Prize, and been mistaken for me at several ALTA conferences … He also likes to get all up in my shit about mis-alphabetizing Chinese authors in my various lists and posts. This is totally my fault, although it’s not always that easy to figure out …The beauty of this list that I’ve put together though is that, even if “Ke” is his surname, this book is STILL properly alphabetized. I CANNOT BE BEATENTODAY.” Congratulations, Chad. Mang Ke is a pseudonym, but yes, it should be alphabetized under M. And since the book won’t be out until sometime later in 2016, you still have time to read it and put it on this year’s list again.
The best of Chinese literature doesn’t just give insight into the Chinese condition, but that of all humanity. Mo Yan’s specialty is the uniquely local spectrum through which he plays out the tragicomedy of life as in this case with a rebellion in a small town and its cast of eclectic characters.
“From the perspective of literature and art, it’s undoubtedly a huge loss. My attitude is, forget the translators when you write. Care not about whether they feel happy to translate. The real talented translators aren’t afraid of difficulties,” he says.
[not that I know who translated that passage]
In “White Happy Doves,” Nikil Saval reviews Change, Pow, and Sandalwood Death for the London Review of Books:
When the English translation of Mo Yan’s novel Big Breasts and Wide Hips (1996) was published in 2004, it was seen by some critics as his bid for global literary prestige. It hit all the right notes: it was a historical saga of modern China featuring a proliferation of stories, it was unceasingly violent and nasty, and it came near to puncturing Party myths … the Washington Post praised Mo Yan for having ‘spoken out courageously for freedom and individualism’. Here was a liberal voice in repressive China. ‘The Swedish Academy, which leaps at any chance to mix literature with politics,’ he concluded, ‘might well find in Mo Yan just the right writer through whom to send a message to the Chinese Communist leadership.’
Last year the Academy did indeed give Mo Yan the prize. But this time the Nobel’s literature-politics mix came out all wrong. Rather than taking it as a targeted affront, as it had with the Peace Prize awarded to Liu Xiaobo two years earlier, the Chinese Communist Party was ecstatic. Li Changchun, minister of propaganda, wrote to congratulate Mo Yan on a victory that ‘reflects the prosperity and progress of Chinese literature, as well as the increasing national strength and influence of China’. Mo Yan’s dissident reputation in the West, it turned out, was false. He was an established figure in Chinese literary officialdom. He had been a member of the Communist Party since 1979. He was vice chairman of the China Writers’ Association. He had participated in a public ceremony in which he copied out several Chinese characters from Mao’s Zhdanovite ‘Talk at the Yan’an Forum on Literature and Art’, a text which declared the subservience of literature to the class struggle. And in Stockholm before receiving the prize, Mo Yan spoke up in favour of censorship: it was, he said, a bit like airport security. The cadres were already moving swiftly to turn his ancestral village into a literary theme park.
Mo Yan didn’t send Liu Xiaobo to jail, and there is absolutely nothing he could say or do, up to and including getting the words “FREE LIU XIAOBO” tattooed on his bald pate, that would do one bit of good for Liu Xiaobo or anyone else in China. (This is especially clear given the Chinese government’s continued persecution of Liu’s brother in law Liu Hui, and the ongoing extrajudicial house arrest of Liu’s wife Liu Xia: the authorities are impervious to moral argument, and they have no shame.) Mo is a deputy chairman of the China Writers’ Association, which is to say that he has slightly less power, in actual terms, than your average deputy chairman at the National Endowment for the Arts in the US. Meanwhile, as much as we might wish otherwise, moral/political courage and literary merit are not the same thing — if writing bad poetry were a criminal offense, Liu Xiaobo would never see daylight again. So I wrote that post on Rectified.name in hopes of getting people to disentangle the two. Once you do that, and once you actually read Mo Yan’s books, I think you find that he’s a much sharper writer than he’s been given credit for. His books don’t make any kind of overt criticisms of the system — perhaps because he’s overly cautious; perhaps because he’s just not much interested in lifting his gaze from the village level — but they are all, in one way or another, about the human suffering created, perpetuated, and intensified by that system.
Liao Yiwu, Meng Huang, Maria Rosen: Performance in Stockholm
Liao Yiwu 廖亦武 reading his poem “The Massacre”, Meng Huang 孟煌 reading his “Letter to Liu Xiaobo in Prison” and Maria Rosén singing the Swedish folksong “Ballad from Roknäs”, 19th March 2013, 9 pm, Sergels Torg, Stockholm, Sweden
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.”
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
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?