Nick Admussen has received a 2017 PEN/Heim Translation Fund Grant for his forthcoming translation of Floral Mutter (Zephyr Press), the selected poems of Ya Shi 哑石, which PEN describes as a “master of disjunctive imagery.”
Ya Shi brings language to the precipice of the absurd and holds it over the abyss for all to see. Admussen’s translations, which are perfectly balanced and polished, recreate the source poems for us in a language the judges described as “haunting.” In an age when contemporary Chinese poetry is profoundly influenced by its eastern urban centers, Ya Shi stands out as an inimitable voice from the interior.
To demonstrate, they cite:
In the summer slit open a plump, cool lotus root
taste the sweet juice frothing up from its orifices.
On the rooftop a dense and scorching pressure crowds inward
but… it’s vague and speechless like the long wind.
The great many cruelties of life have gone ignored for ages.
— and what is loathsome is more or less similar
for all that is vulgar, keep strumming on your shiny oddity!
The Cornell Chronicle has a write-up on Recite and Refuse: Contemporary Chinese Prose Poetry, by Cornell’s own Nick Admussen. “Nick Admussen began his study of Chinese prose poetry eight years ago with the expectation that the genre would be similar to its counterpart in Western literature,” the Chronicle writes:
nonconformist poems that reject the structures of most poetry. But … the Chinese poems shared a method in which they imitated some type of prose – whether it was an advertisement, a travelogue or political speech – and then altered it in some way…
“What surprised me the most when I started the process is I had read a lot of American and a lot of French prose poetry,” Admussen said. “I had read scholars from other languages, especially from France, who would argue that with prose poetry, it’s this rebelliousness – breaking the rules of poetry and breaking the lines. But a lot of Chinese prose poetry tends toward the obedient.”
Queen Mob’s Teahouse now features Greg Bem’s review of Lost Wax, poems by Jonathan Stalling with Chinese and English re-translations by Zhou Yu, Yao Benbiao, Nick Admussen, Jennifer Feeley, Jami Proctor-Xu, Eleanor Goodman, Andrea Lingenfelter, and me. Here’s how it ends:
Moving from poem to poem, curiosity strikes me: is the primary goal of this book to bring us toward an understanding of the nuances of multilingual and multi-personal translation? Is this just an editor’s paradise to see how the process of a significant body of learned, engaged writers see the shape of a work? If there some collective meaning across the pages? By the end of the book, I hoped for commentary. I hope for more “meta.” An afterward from or an interview between the technicians. But in its absence, I was left with my own thoughts and theories (and a drive to learn some Chinese) in hopes of getting towards an understanding of what the core meaning of “lost wax” really is.
At the Boston Review, Nick Admussen writes about the language of John Ashbery and Mang Ke 芒克–especially in “Sunflower in the Sun” 阳光中的向日葵 as translated by Jonathan Stalling and Huang Yibing (and forthcoming in my October Dedications from Zephyr and Chinese University Press)–in light of recent political protests.
One cannot always feel the mark of past violence in poems written later, during a time of relative peace, but such feeling is evident in the work of the poet Mang Ke, who lived and wrote through that intense moment of transition when the organized and disorganized political violence of Maoist China gave way to the uncertain openness of the early Deng era … It is possible to read this complex tableau through familiar psychological categories: PTSD, the epidemiology of violence, the mirror neuron. But I prefer to understand the poem as an aesthetic rather than deterministic reaction: we make decisions about how to construct our lives around the violence in our history. The stories we tell and the relationships we draw are like works of art, escapist, realist, obscure, lyrical, or haunted, all tethered to but not defined by the experience of the creation of pain in others.
And on Ashbery, he sees “some small proportion of Ashbery’s late poems as having a thereness-but-not-presence, an abstract understanding of a distant and unsensual truth.”
The new issue of Asymptote is out, with translations of Ya Shi 哑石 by Nick Admussen, plus a special feature on Hong Kong poetry: Tang Siu Wa 鄧小樺, translated by Canaan Morse; Lok Fung 洛楓, translated by Eleanor Goodman; Yau Ching 游靜, with translations by Steve Bradbury and Chenxin Jiang; Eric Lui 呂永佳, translated by Nicholas Wong; Lau Yee-ching 飲江, translated from the Chinese by Emily Jones and Sophie Smith; and Chung Kwok Keung 鍾國強, translated by Emily Jones and Sophie Smith.
From Chenxin Jiang’s translation of Yau Ching’s “Island Country” 島國:
There’s this island
that used to have many languages now they’ve become
one called English
another called Chinese
you’re not allowed to ever use
your own language
if your name is not an English name
the island will give you one
The current issue of the New England Reviewfeatures poetry translations of Ya Shi 哑石 by Nick Admussen, Xiao Kaiyu 萧开愚 by Chris Lupke, and Yin Lichuan 尹丽川 by Fiona Sze-Lorrain–as well as prose translations of Wei An 苇岸 by Tom Moran.
Unfortunately, the NER has made none of these available online, but click on the image for ordering information, along with the full table of contents.
In his editorial statement for ep;phany, Nick Admussen writes on translation:
Either during the translation or as a result of the translation, something happens between the artist and their translator, and for a moment there seems to be a very simple, bilateral relationship, one that feels far distant from the shared stage of the final piece of art. The translator is trying to understand the poet, and also to please them; to learn something from them, and then to make something out of what they’ve learned. The poet is trying to provoke feelings and ideas in the translator (and in all readers), and is checking their poem’s effect against their intent. This is a relationship; it’s a conversation. It is hidden from the final English text, but it’s necessary for it.
The book presents Stalling’s sequence of poems about his wife Amy’s work as a sculptor. These poems are translated into Chinese and back into English by members of a “workshop” of eight fellow translators–Zhou Yu, Yao Benbiao, Nick Admussen, Jami Proctor-Xu, Jennifer Feeley, Eleanor Goodman, Lucas Klein, and Andrea Lingenfelter–then re-amalgamated by Stalling into a new final. Each poem is then presented in a) the original; b) the Chinese; c) the new English version. An additional workshop page illustrates choices made by translators on both sides of the English/Chinese divide.
The clay is the past
The wax inherits
As its own
The conditions, but not the only source
Of her arising
陶泥成为过去 石蜡也有了自己的 传承， 条件，不仅仅是她 出现 的唯一来源。
Clay becomes the past
Paraffin has its own
This condition is not her only
Source of coming into being
Click on the image for more, including ordering information.