Ashbery and / or Xi Chuan

I’ve been reading, and reading about, John Ashbery recently, in part because translating Xi Chuan has put me in mind to look at the development of the prose poem in English–and Ashbery’s Three Poems (Viking Compass, 1972), of course, were fundamental in the expansion & popularization of that form–but also because Ashbery’s recently published translation of Arthur Rimbaud‘s Illuminations (Norton, 2011) have just come out, as Steve Bradbury mentioned on this blog in his write-up of the ALTA conference, and I’ve been curious about the relationship between original writing & translation in this writer (also, the model of Ashbery as a writer loved both on the margins and at the peripheries of the literary world seemed appropriate for Xi Chuan, a poet who is at once accessible and experimental, challenging and rewarding).

So I consider it a fine coincidence that I came across the following quote, which struck me as the positive version of Christopher Honey’s question of “who I am reading when I read Rexroth’s beautiful collections of Asian poetry in translation,” in Micah Towery‘s essay at The The on how “Google Translates Poetry“:

why do we want to read Ashbery’s translations of Rimbaud? I see two motivations: the first is to read Rimbaud without learning French; the second is to read Ashbery reading Rimbaud.

The second motivation, accurate as it is, only emerges when we’re dealing with the confluence of two established figures–Rexroth and Du Fu, say, or Ashbery and Rimbaud, or Kenneth Branagh and Hamlet. This does not mean that Google translate is any better for readers who want to read Rimbaud without learning French, but it does mean that, if I think few readers will be interested in reading me reading Xi Chuan, my choices may be different if I’m translating primarily so readers can read Xi Chuan without having to know Chinese.

As Xi Chuan said in an interview with the NEA, “Before I had an ‘I’ in my heart; later I found [that it was multiple] ‘I’s’ and not ‘we.’ I found that all these deceased people live in my heart.” As his translator, my goal has been to express these “I’s” of his–and perhaps find my own amongst them–rather than to subsume any of them into an “I” of my own.