This occasion is as much a celebration of poetry as it is a celebration of translation, that art that plucks from our black hats and blank looks the passport permitting us to cross borders of culture, language and imagination.
But what if the translations are bad? Picasso claimed, “You don’t need the masterpiece to get the idea,” but is this true of translations?
Historically, mistranslations have contributed in signal ways to literary movements. The supposedly newly discovered poems of third-century warrior-poet Ossian—in translations forged by Scot prankster-poet James MacPherson and then really translated into German—fueled Johann von Herder’s Romantic re-conception of German poetics in the 18th century.
And like von Herder, American poet Ezra Pound helped launch a literary movement stimulated, in part, by translations based on a mistaken interpretation of the nature of the Chinese writing system. Ernst Fenollosa, Pound’s source, was studying Chinese grammar in Japan with Japanese linguistic scholars.
Many of the Chinese poets included in Push Open the Window, the new anthology from Copper Canyon, cut their teeth on bad translations of American poetry. Somehow, they were sufficient for them to get “the idea.” Or, more importantly for their own work, not necessarily “the” idea but “an” idea. In the 1980’s and 1990’s in China, better translations– Yunte Huang’s version of Ezra Pound’s Pisan Cantos, for instance, Zheng Min’s pioneering Contemporary American Poetry, and Zhao Yiheng’s Modern American Poetry anthology– began to appear. But poets like Bei Dao, who says he looked abroad for models, and Yang Lian, whose book Concentric Circles is strongly influenced by Pound’s Cantos, had already forged their signature styles. A somewhat younger poet, Yu Jian, discovered translations of Whitman while working in a factory and went on to write poems that reference important but less celebrated American poets like Ron Padgett. Xi Chuan, who straddles two named factions of poets (the Misty and the New Generation Poets), studied English Romantic poetry and wrote a dissertation on Ezra Pound. The post-Mao-generation poets Hu Xudong, who cites Mark Strand and Robert Hass as influences, and Zhou Zan, who translates from English and cites among her influences Denise Levertov and Adrienne Rich, came of age as internet translations of American poetry exploded in China. Both Zhou Zan and Hu Xudong came to study in America, Hu Xudong at the International Writing Program in Iowa and Zhou Zan at Columbia University. Zhai Yongming, also included in Push Open the Window, speaks little English but wrote a whole book documenting her road trips through the deserts and mountains of the American west.
Just this year, at a literary conference in Wuhan, Chinese scholars offered papers on Wallace Stevens, Hart Crane, Elizabeth Bishop, Sylvia Plath, Rita Dove, Charles Olson, William Carlos Williams, and ecopoetry, all that remarkable variety squeezed between twenty panels devoted to the work of Charles Bernstein.
My colleague at Brown University, John Cayley, himself a translator and a publisher of Chinese poetry in translation, notes that historically, English-language translations of Chinese poetry offered to American readers a literature that was “culturally distinct from the poetry of its host language” however much it might be read with “intense pleasure….”
But that, too, has begun to change and more culturally contextualized poetics and better English translations are revising America’s engagement with Chinese poetry. In the United States, the mid-1980s saw the publication of Eliot Weinberger’s essay “A Few Don’ts for Chinese Poets” and his classic translation study 19 Ways of Looking at Wang Wei. More recently, several major anthologies, Michelle Yeh’s Anthology of Modern Chinese Poetry, Zhang Er’s Another Kind of Nation: An Anthology of Contemporary Chinese Writing, Arthur Sze’s Chinese Writers on Writing, Qingping Wang’s Push Open the Window, and The New Directions Anthology of Classical Chinese Poetry have indeed unlatched the shutters and pushed open the window.
The China-born Ha Jin, mostly known in the United States as a fiction writer who writes in English, says that if he wrote in Chinese now, he would write poetry, not fiction, because “at this moment, poetry is more promising. It can do more for the language.”
Given the explosive richness of contemporary poetry in America now, I would suggest that here too, in this historical moment, poetry offers the most to literature in English. The early 21st century is one of the most turbulent and critical times for poetry in the cultures of both countries.
Just as American poet Marilyn Chin shuffles fragments, for example, from John Berryman with her own nervy colloquial precision, and unsplices the resonant emotional and political implications of immigrant narratives within American mythologies and vice versa, the Chinese poet Xi Chuan considers China’s past through the lens of a modernized West; he shuffles antique dictions with colloquial ones; he braids the analytical essay with the ode to things. But though he wrote a dissertation on Pound’s Chinese cantos, his work seems most influenced by European philosophy and literature, Kafka, I’d guess, and Nietszche. Chinese poet Zhou Zan, whose poetry often focuses on the process of creation, sometimes writes in short parabolic descriptive sentences and at other times juxtaposes paratactic clauses in stanzas that incorporate multiple voices and windmilling social and personal observations. Well-known American poet Li-young Lee animates his own family memories with a famously sensual palette.
In the writing of Marilyn Chin and Li-young Lee, the entanglement of cultures and languages collaborates with theme and style. Other American poets, notably Charles Wright, Mei-mei Berssenbrugge, and Jeffrey Yang, have found in Chinese poetry a renewable source of inspiration. But with regard to the influence of American poetry on contemporary Chinese poetry, the connections may be hard to specify. European and Hollywood films, French literary theory, Continental philosophy and increasing opportunities for travel abroad have thoroughly affected contemporary Chinese poetry. As you listen tonight to poems by American poets and translations into English of recent Chinese poems, you may hear indications of influence. But be wary. As Xi Chuan writes in Lucas Klein’s translation of Notes on the Mosquito, coming out next year from New Directions, “No one can tell the difference between the place where a mosquito has landed and a place where a mosquito has not landed…”