Ian Johnson at the New York Review of Books’ bloghas a nice piece on Chinese poetry translator Bill Porter (a/k/a Red Pine 赤松) and his second life as a writer for a Chinese audience, in Finding Zen and Book Contracts in Beijing. Here’s a key paragraph, which explains the importance of cross-cultural currents that have allowed non-Chinese scholars of pre-modern China to end up explaining Chinese culture to Chinese people:
In the travel writing that has made him so popular in China, Porter’s tone is not reverential but explanatory, and filled with humorous asides (such as the traveler’s need for a good laxative, or his twenty-year pursuit of a Guggenheim fellowship). His goal is to tell interested foreigners about revealing byways of Chinese culture. Unexpectedly, this approach also works for Chinese, many of whom are about as removed from their culture as Porter’s target audience is in the West. But this means that what is a niche market in western countries—the Chinese culture enthusiast—is a mass market in China. It also helps that Porter is a foreigner. Many wonder how foreigners see this complex culture, which during the 20th century Chinese writers, thinkers, and politicians blamed for their country’s demise.
The article also mentions the plight of the translator, economically speaking: “For most of the past decade, he says, his annual income has hovered around $15,000. Several of his books humorously thank the US Department of Agriculture—for providing food stamps that have kept him and his family going.” And as a Facebook friend of mine, a poet and former publisher who lives near Red Pine in WA, wrote: “Bill Porter spends 20 years in a Taiwanese Zendo studying Chinese classics while Stephen Mitchell spends 20 hours in a library studying what other translators have done with Tao Te Ching. Guess who gets rich in America and who gets by on food stamps.” I should add, though, that if it weren’t for Mitchell’s twenty-some hours, I may not have ended up studying Chinese in the first place.
For some of Red Pine’s thoughts on translating Chinese poetry, here’s a piece I published on CipherJournal, back in the day: Dancing with the Dead: Language, Poetry, and the Art of Translation.