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.