And shadows of branches steal in through the window the oak desk
that’s so fragile I am forced to love it has exploded just a little bit
而树枝阴影由窗口潜入 清脆地 使我珍爱的橡木书桌一点点炸裂
“My version of the line,” he writes, “stretches the grammar without apparent rationale … I had inserted an entire concept, so fragile I am forced to love it. It’s not in the poem, I brought it into the poem, and I knew where it had come from.”
What follows is an incredibly moving remembrance of fortune, fathers, and furniture. Admussen ends with,
The translator regrets the error. I am especially sorry to admit that I still don’t know what the translation should look like or if there exists a version that will feel both stable and “right.” I’ll keep trying: perhaps my repeated mistakes will reveal as much about the poem as a translation could. I don’t know how to remember my father or how I should have acted in the Goodwill parking lot. The memorial, if it exists, seems to be happening outside what I think I am saying. All I can do for now is show you what I have done, to describe the psychological result of the process of translation, the experience of the texture, language to language, father to son, writer to reader: how qingcui it is, how fragile, how much like music.
In honor of the recent passing of Liu Xiaobo 刘晓波, here is a link to an old piece, which had slipped by without my noticing it when it was first published: Nick Admussen’s “Awkward, Diligent: Liu Xiaobo’s Love Poetry” for his wife, Liu Xia 刘霞. Admussen writes:
In addition to the essays that have made him famous, Xiaobo generally writes two kinds of poems. One, best represented in translation by Jeffrey Yang, is a series of poems written for the victims of the Tiananmen Square Massacre, often on the anniversaries of the event. The other is a series of poems addressed to Liu Xiaobo’s wife, Liu Xia—a number of these appear in English at the end of Yang’s translation, as well as in the collection No Enemies, No Hatred, which I helped translate. The elegies for Tiananmen are persistent, ritual, endlessly harsh: they display not only the cruelty and excess of the government reaction to peaceful protest, but Liu’s own sense of responsibility, loss, and helplessness. He writes, “Even if I have the courage / to be jailed again / it isn’t courage enough / to dig up corpses from memory.”
Xiaobo’s poems to his wife, though, are the most illuminating to me. During some of his stays in prison, he was able to write and send hundreds of poems and letters to Xia. These poems waver between public documents and interpersonal contact. They wheedle playfully: “. . . think of me as a cigarette / now to light, now to rub out / go ahead, smoke!” They reach out: “One letter is enough / for me to transcend everything and face / you to speak.” They often seem, implicitly or explicitly, to apologize: “Beloved / my wife / in this dust-weary world of / so much depravity / why do you / choose me alone to endure.” But they remonstrate and mock, too: a poem on Kant is dedicated to “Xia, who has never read Kant.” Taken together, the poetry enacts a love in progress, a need, a selfless drive to care for and support the beloved that is deeply tied to a simultaneous, frightening urge to manipulate and transform him or her for self-serving purposes.
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.