Mazanec on Rouzer’s Hanshan Translations

Tom Mazanec has posted about Paul Rouzer’s new translation of Hanshan 寒山 (Cold Mountain) for de Gruyter’s Library of Chinese Humanities–now available for sale and free download.

As Tom notes, some of the Hanshan corpus was “famously translated by Gary Snyder in 1958 [and] later celebrated by Jack Kerouac in his hit novel The Dharma Bums,” which means this publication lacks the punch de Gruyter landed when publishing Stephen Owen’s complete Du Fu 杜甫:

there are already two complete translations of Hanshan out there, by Robert Henricks and Red Pine (personally, I’m fond of the latter), as well as multiple partial translations by such prominent translators as Arthur Waley, Burton Watson, Peter Hobson and T. H. Barrett, J. P. Seaton, and doubtless others. A close reading will show how these translations each contribute something different to our understanding of this poetic corpus, and this in itself is helpful for teaching and understanding Tang poetry.

Worth noting, though, is that Rouzer’s book also includes poems attributed to Hanshan’s companions, Shide 拾得 and Fenggan 豐干. At any rate,

It’s always good to have more translations of Tang poetry in other languages, and especially translations by someone as knowledgeable as Paul Rouzer … He’s a sensitive reader and a smooth writer, and I’m sure his translations are wonderful (I’ve yet to go through them with a close eye).

Tom also notes the forthcoming titles in the Library of Chinese Humanities, Robert Ashmore’s Li He 李賀 and Stephen Owen and Wendy Swartz’s translation of Ruan Ji  阮籍 and Xi Kang 嵇康.

Click the image above for the full write-up.

Klein on New Premodern Chinese Poetry Translations in LARB

2016-07-15_1030The Los Angeles Review of Books @lareviewofbooks has published “Tribunals of Erudition and Taste: or, Why Translations of Premodern Chinese Poetry Are Having a Moment Right Now,” my take on what looks like something of a resurgence in translation into English.

I use a nineteenth-century debate between Matthew Arnold and Francis Newman to frame a review of Chloe Garcia Roberts’s translation of Li Shangyin 李商隱, David Hinton’s translation of Wang An-shih 王安石, an anthology / travelogue by Red Pine (Bill Porter), and Stephen Owen’s translation of the complete Du Fu 杜甫, alongside Ira Nadel on Ezra Pound and the New Directions re-release of Ezra Pound’s Cathay (and mention of Gary Snyder, Bob Perelman, Paul Kroll, Eliot Weinberger, and more). Here’s how it ends:

The stakes of poetry translation from Chinese are indeed the stakes both of how we understand translation and how we in the English-speaking world understand China. Translation is neither simply a matter for scholars to judge, nor is it something that can be left to the unaccountable imaginings of revelers in poetry — any more than China should be something only specialists or tourists alone can pronounce upon. Rather, bringing expertise and excitement together, translation can help expand our conceptions of poetry and of China, demanding more from ourselves, and more from it. The contentiousness may remain, but it can motivate us to create new and better representations.

So will American poetry turn outward again, and in the process help redefine China as more than a strategic competitor, accused of currency manipulation by presidential candidates, or more than a polluted manufacturer to which we outsource abuses of human rights and labor? Will Chinese literature prove an old repository of poetic presentation from which the United States can both learn and create new beauty? Certainly larger historical and socioeconomic forces will determine the directions our poetry turns, but insofar as what we publish has any role, I see reasons for optimism — and in that optimism, a readiness to engage in the tensions of global and local that inhere in translation.

The recent poetry collections covered in this essay demonstrate a hunger for new ways of understanding and appreciating China, and more are coming soon … With these additions reaching new audiences, we may see premodern Chinese poetry making it new once again.

Click the image for the full article.

Owen’s Du Fu in the Harvard Gazette

The Harvard Gazette has run a write-up promoting Stephen Owen translates the poetry of Du FuStephen Owen’s complete Poetry of Du Fu: “A monumental undertaking (the prolific Du Fu left 1,400 extant poems), Owen spent nearly a decade working on the translation, which resulted in a 3,000-page, six-volume book that weighs in at nine pounds.”

Along with recordings of Owen reading some of this translations, the article also quotes Owen’s appreciation of the poet:

“He’s a quirky poet. When he moves to Chengdu with his family, he has to set up house and writes a poem to people asking for fruit trees and crockery. No one had ever done this kind of poem. He has a poem praising his bondservant Xinxing for repairing a water-piping system in his house … He’s forgotten what you can and can’t do in poetry, and 30 years later poets looked back and said, ‘This is the greatest poet we have,’” Owen said.

Here’s a recording of Owen reading his translation of “Having Been Thrown From My Horse While Drunk“:

Click the image for the article and to hear more.

Owen’s Complete Poetry of Du Fu Poetry of Du Fu 杜甫, edited and translated by Stephen Owen, is now available from the Library of Chinese Humanities (a new venture started by Owen and Paul Kroll and edited by them and Sarah Allen, Christopher Nugent, Anna Shields, Xiaofei Tian, and Ding Xiang Warner). It is not only available for sale, it is also available for open-access free download in .pdf format.

This six-volume opus, totaling almost 3000 pages, is to my knowledge the first translation of the complete poetic output of any individual Chinese poet in history. The promotional materials say,

The entirety of Du Fu’s works provides a more nuanced portrait of the author than the standard selections. It gives testimony to the great rebellion of 755, but also poems on building a chicken coop and repairing bamboo plumbing. In the whole we discover how the sublime and quotidian are united in a larger vision of life.

Likewise, in his introduction, Owen writes,

If there is a justification for translating all of the poems,  it may be deepening our sense of his engagement with the mundane and  not allowing it to resolve into simply a way to talk about “big things.” It is the persistence of his vision of large significance in the everyday—sometimes ironically—that makes a whole Du Fu more satisfying than a selected Du Fu.

This is true. As is Tfrom high-minded loyalist to bereft father to woeful exile to irritable curmudgeon to sycophantic hack to meditative imagist,” which is “a welcome counterbalance to the stereotyped image of Du Fu as a great ‘Confucian’ poet, the sort of thing you find in introductory textbooks to Chinese literature, both in China and abroad.”

But I also think there is a poetic argument, not limited to the specifics of Chinese literature, for a complete Du Fu (or any poet) in English, which is the one Eliot Weinberger makes in his introduction to The Collected Poems of Octavio Paz, 1957-1987:

to study the topography of a major poet we need to see both the peaks and the valleys. One does not exist without the other; the “minor” poems not only lead to, but often illuminate, the more important work. (And, of course, what one editor or critic considers “minor” may turn out to be a revelation for another reader.)

Click the image above for more information and the full free download.

How “International” is Poetry?

At the English Pen site, Michele Hutchison has posted an article titled “How international is poetry?” that looks at the kind of poetry included in international literary festivals like Rotterdam. Here’s a bit of what she says:

If international is taken to mean universal and accessible to all, there are a few stumbling blocks. A haiku is not the same as a sonnet is not the same as badi, but cultural context is just as complex as form. […] The reader/listener’s knowledge or ignorance of a foreign culture is just as limiting to the transmission of literature as a translator’s inability to pick up and carry across all of the layers of meaning, without footnotes.

During the course of the symposium, I learn that K. Satchidanandan has translated his own work into beautiful English and in doing so, he has opted to cut out cultural references which might disturb the Western reading process, for example, ‘rain from the Hindu Treta Yuga period’ has become ‘rain from a bygone age’. Is this globalisation that Tim Parks keeps writing about on the NYR blog at work? Have the poets been invited precisely because they write the kind of neutral, non-culturally specific poetry that translates and travels easily?

In addition to what Tim Parks has written w/r/t fiction, this is also close to what Stephen Owen wrote in a review of Bei Dao‘s 北岛 poetry in 1990: a certain kind of “international” or “world poetry” crops up that translates well, but which gives undue weight to the cultural expectations of readers in Europe and North America at the expense of literary traditions in other parts of the world. Hutchison takes this even further, noting that poetry from other parts of the world may still come up short when judged against writing from the center of the current world system, which will find ways of reiterating its own centrality:

Headliner Ron Silliman, one of the L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E poets, reads work that is playful and incomprehensible. Does he get away with this because he writes in English and refers to the dominant culture? […] Are the most complex and impenetrable poets here the ones who write in English?

While this is an interesting argument to pursue, and important for understanding what’s been happening, and what continues to happen, in literary history around the world, the way the argument slides over too easily into value judgment bothers me. Certainly it’s a problem that local traditions are being sacrificed at the altar of international exchange, but a poem is not necessarily good or bad because it embodies or rejects cultural specificity (to be fair, this is the point Hutchison makes at the conclusion of her post).

Moreover, just as translation can be a vehicle for the global propagation of an American Standard poetry (and we should remember that American Standard usually refers to a toilet), translation can also work against that standardization and remind readers in a new language that writing from around the world can be at least as complex and rewarding as what they’re used to. Hutchison quotes Poetry International magazine’s Correen Dekker, who explains that “translators are more willing to work on texts which allow for a successful end product”; this is true, but for me translating Xi Chuan, I do not judge the success of the end product based on how much it adheres to an ethnocentric vision of poetry cleansed of foreign reference points, but rather on how it expresses an aesthetic experience that can include the complex fullness of what both poetry and Chinese culture can entail.

Fact-checking Translations

A new book whose provocations seem to be helping it make the rounds is The Lifespan of a Fact, by John D’Agata and Jim Fingal (click here for a critical NYTimes review), where D’Agata argues that facts are often irrelevant in the pursuit of art, and that “nonfiction”

essentially means ‘not art,’ since the word fiction is derived from the Latin fictio, which itself means ‘to form, to shape, to arrange’ — a pretty fundamental activity in art.

I agree with NYTimes reviewer Jennifer McDonald about the bogusness of this argument–not only does it fall for the “etymological fallacy,” it’s also an ethnocentric claim that has no time for other cultures and their definitions of art from yesterday or today. According to Stephen Owen, for instance, while Euro / American poetry in the 19th and 20th centuries would be considered fictional, pre-modern Chinese poetry was taken as factually true.

Discussions about the nuances of such statements aside, the role of fact-checking in poetry and translation is a complex one (see here for another moment in which I ponder accountability to reality in Chinese poetry and translation). I noticed this recently when I posted Wang Ping’s translation of Xi Chuan’s “Books” 书籍. A couplet in her translation reads,

“All books are the same book,”
pale Mallarmé said with confidence.

But Xi Chuan’s Chinese lines read,


or what I would translate as “‘All books are one book,’ / an effiminate Shelley almost said.” Perhaps Xi Chuan changed his original between its first printing and the time Wang Ping translated it. Or perhaps Wang Ping found out that Shelley didn’t say this at all, that it was in fact Mallarmé (I’ve searched online to see if either one of them said it, but all my hits end up pointing me back here!). But this raises a question: when translating, is the translator accountable to reality, or to the original poem? If the fact-checker doesn’t have a role in editing the original poem, does he or she have a role in editing the translation? I’m afraid I don’t have the answer to these questions.