The Organization of Distance: Poetry, Translation, Chineseness

Announcing the publication of

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The Organization of Distance
Poetry, Translation, Chineseness

by Lucas Klein

What makes a Chinese poem “Chinese”? Some call modern Chinese poetry insufficiently Chinese, saying it is so influenced by foreign texts that it has lost the essence of Chinese culture as known in premodern poetry. Yet that argument overlooks how premodern regulated verse was itself created in imitation of foreign poetics. Looking at Bian Zhilin 卞之琳 and Yang Lian 楊煉 in the twentieth century alongside medieval Chinese poets such as Wang Wei 王維, Du Fu 杜甫, and Li Shangyin 李商隱, The Organization of Distance applies the notions of foreignization and nativization to Chinese poetry to argue that the impression of poetic Chineseness has long been a product of translation, from forces both abroad and in the past.

Sinica Leidensia, 141
Brill,
19 July 2018

ISBN: 978-90-04-37537-6

e-book
€44.00 /
US$53.00

hardback:
€49.00 / US$59.00

 

Complete Review on Weinberger’s 19 Ways of Looking at Wang Wei

I missed this when it was published.

M.A. Orthofer at the Complete Review has reviewed the re-release of Eliot Weinberger’s 19 Ways of Looking at Wang Wei. Here’s an excerpt:

These more than two-dozen variations on the text — and Weinberger’s brief observations of what they get particularly wrong (and also what they seem to get right) — also serve, in sum, as an excellent gloss on the poem. Of course, part of the exercise is to demonstrate the obvious, that there can be no ‘perfect’ 1:1 mapping of the poem — a useful lesson for those who all too readily rely on single translations of their favorite foreign poems and poets … — but beyond that the different perspectives — which is how the translation-attempts can also be seen –, from the most literal attempts to Kenneth Rexroth’s (“perhaps more ‘imitation’ than translation”), also reveal a great deal more about the original to those for whom the Chinese itself remains inaccessible.
Helpfully, Weinberger does not shy away from judging (harshly, where need be) — while giving his reasons for what went right (or oh so wrong) — a reminder, too, of how the often unknowing reader is at the mercy of what is available at the local bookstore or library, or what happens to fall into their hands.

And

The addition of ‘more ways’ to the original collection is also of interest, as it is not just more of the same: as Weinberger notes: “most or all of the English-language translators were aware of the book”, and presumably were influenced in their own takes at least in part by that, writing (or rather translating) in response to Weinberger as well.

Follow the link for the review in full.

John Bradley on Burton Watson (1925 – 2017)

In honor of Burton Watson’s passing, I am collecting statements and memories from friends and fans, to be posted as they come in. The following remembrance is by John Bradley, from his review of Salutations; a Festschrift for Burton Watson (Ahadada / Ekleksographia, 2015), originally published in Rain Taxi #81 (21.1, Spring 2016):

Empty hills, no one in sight,
only the sound of someone talking;
late sunlight enters the deep wood,
shining over the green moss again.

This famous poem by Chinese poet Wang Wei displays the craft not only of the author but also—we all too often forget—of the translator. Burton Watson translated this poem with such craft that some may say “That’s it?” as indeed a student of Lucas Klein’s did, as he relates in his essay “Translation and Translucence in the Work of Burton Watson,” one of the offerings in this festschrift.

Watson certainly deserves acclaim for the quality and the breadth of his Asian translators. His works are much too long to list here, but a few titles will give an idea of his productivity: Cold Mountain: 100 Poems by the T’ang Poet Han-shan, The Selected Poems of Du Fu, and the Complete Works of Chuang Tzu. These are just a fraction of his translations from classical Chinese works. Some of his translation from classical and modern Japanese literature include: From the Country of Eight Islands: An Anthology of Japanese Poetry (collaborating with Hiroaki Sato), Ryokan: Zen Monk-Poet of Japan, and Saigyo: Poems of a Mountain Home.

Salutations offers seventeen contributions, each by a different writer, with some of the texts consisting of scholarly papers on Asian literature, and others offering personal reminiscences of Burton Watson or poems dedicated to him. The scholarly papers cover such topics as “a cultural history of Wenren,” which, as Victor H. Mair and Timothy Clifford explain, refers to a “literary man” (22). While these papers would have interest to Asian scholars, for the non-specialist the personal memories of encounters with Burton Watson are more engaging.

… Perhaps the best remedy will be to turn to one of Burton Watson’s many Asian translations and savor his skill.

Contact me if you would like to add your own remembrance.

Link on Weinberger’s 19 Ways of Looking at Wang Wei

Perry Link at the New York Review of Books reviews the expanded re-release of 19 Ways of Looking at Wang Wei, by Eliot Weinberger. Link writes:

Some of the art of classical Chinese poetry must simply be set aside as untranslatable … Weinberger knows all of this and sensibly begins his inquiry at step two—after all the untranslatables have been set aside. Now the question becomes: How can one make another poem from the twenty bundles of meaning that the Chinese characters offer? Weinberger criticizes, astutely if sometimes unkindly, almost every translator he cites … Although he is critical of nearly everyone’s translation in Nineteen Ways, Weinberger wisely adopts the position that “quite a few possible readings” can all be “equally ‘correct.’” Dilemmas about translation do not have definitive right answers (although there can be unambiguously wrong ones if misreadings of the original are involved). Any translation (except machine translation, a different case) must pass through the mind of a translator, and that mind inevitably contains its own store of perceptions, memories, and values.

Link also gives a China-centered take on Weinberger’s new essay collection, The Ghosts of Birds: “Weinberger’s sensitivity to words and gift for clear thinking underlie nearly every page in Nineteen Ways, but in The Ghosts of Birds they spout like a geyser.”

Click the image above for the (paywalled) review in full.

The article is also now available on ChinaFile for free.

Tranter on China in Tranter

Australian poet John Tranter has published an essay titled “China: The influences of Eastern poetry and calligraphy,” in which:

A persuasive theory equates the English-language poets of the Elizabethan age (Shakespeare, Wyatt, Surrey, Sidney, Marlowe, Raleigh, Campion, and others) with the Chinese-language poets of the T’ang (or Tang) dynasty (618 to 907) which is often considered to be the Golden Age of Chinese poetry. Poets like Wang Wei, Tu Fu, Li Bai (or Li Po), and later poets like Su Shih, have in common with the Elizabethan poets and with many modern American poets that they were highly-educated and at the same time virtually unemployable. The emphasis on academic qualifications and the impossibility of attaining proper employment haunt these three eras: the Elizabethan Age, the Tang Period, and the modern American age.This means that many scholars from those three periods are highly trained in the various branches of rhetoric, yet afflicted with a world-view that is highly complex, negative, and painfully aware of the likelihood of unemployment.

And

The picture we in the west have of Li Bai is that of cheerful mastery through excess: he wrote millions of poems, threw most of them away, drank lots of alcohol and drowned on a drunken swim, trying to catch the reflection of the moon in the water. So legend has it.

Australians like poets who drink too much.

Click the link for the full article.

On the Mountain: Two versions of Wang Wei

The online mag. I recently came across an old page on Hilobrow, starting with this:

The Taiyi summit     nears the seat of heaven
linked mountains     stretch to brink of sea

and

The Taiyi summit nears the seat of heaven;
linked mountains stretch to brink of sea.

Two versions of the opening couplet of a Wang Wei 王維 poem by Hilobrow cofounder Matthew Battles, the second in the style of David Hinton. “We’re always struggling with the apparent multivalence of classical Chinese poetry,” Battles writes, “the way the openness of the language seems to permit so many readings, combined with the difficulty of translocating the tonal, lexical, and ideographic effects of the originals into alphabetically-styled verse without either losing much of the force or going all specious with talk about picture-writing and orientalist exoticism”—and he mentions books by Eliot Weinberger and Yunte Huang to shore up his point. But in the end, after a weekend on Maine’s Mount Katahdin,

In the Wang Wei I found echoes of the work the mountain did on me: the braided vistas merging, the gulfs and abysses seducing, the zones of forest succession merging and disappearing into one another as one moves up and down slope.

Click the image above to read more.

NYTimes Interviews Willis Barnstone on Chinese Poetry

The New York Times features an interview with poet and translator Willis Barnstone about his translations of Chinese poetry and his time in China. Here’s an excerpt:

I’ve always been interested in poetry, and I make no distinction of language or time. I’ve translated Sappho and, with the help of a professor at Yale, Sumerian poetry. But I was equally interested in Chinese poetry … I asked people who were the great contemporary poets, and they said none. It turns out that Mao was the only poet. The only permitted poet!
… So I translated it with the help of a colleague. I sent it in and received a letter saying, “We’re glad to have it and will get back to you.” It sat there for nine months until word came out that Nixon was going to China. In 11 pre-computer days, Harper & Row put it out in a magnificent edition. It became Book-of-the-Month, a New York Times feature review, the whole works.
Then Nixon did fly to Beijing for a summit with Mao, Zhou and Henry Kissinger. Nixon recited two of Mao’s poems in my translation.

He also talks about Wang Wei 王維 and meeting young poets (including Xi Chuan) with his son Tony at the Friendship Hotel in 1984.

Click on the image above for the full transcript.

Translation, Chineseness, & World Literature in Chinese Poetry

May 8, 2015 (Friday), 4:00-5:30 pm
Room 730, Run Run Shaw Tower, Centennial Campus, HKU
Foreign Echoes & Discerning the Soil:
Translation, Chineseness, & World Literature in Chinese Poetry
Presenter: Lucas Klein; Commentator: Xiaofei Tian 田曉菲
What constitutes the relationship between world literature and Chineseness? How has translation shaped Chinese poetry, and can translation be understood as at the foundation not only of world literature, but of Chineseness, as well? This talk will begin to answer these questions by demonstrating how Chineseness as an aspect of the Chinese poetic tradition is itself a result of translation. Looking at Chinese poetry’s negotiation with concepts central to translation—nativization and foreignization, or the work’s engagement with the Chinese historical heritage or foreign literary texts and contexts, respectively—I argue not only that Chinese poetry can be understood as translation, but for an understanding of the role of such translation in the constitution of both Chineseness and world literature. After contextualizing recent debates in the field of Sinology and translation studies, I will examine the work of Bian Zhilin 卞之琳 (1910 – 2000) and his implicit vision for a world literature able to merge the Chinese literary heritage with Western influence. Since debates around world literature, especially in Chinese literary studies, focus on the modern era, however, I shift focus with a discussion of the Tang dynasty (618 – 907), when China had earlier become highly international, even cosmopolitan, in a detailed look at the history of regulated verse (lüshi 律詩), describing not only its origins in Sanskrit but how it maintained associations with Buddhism. Following this, I consider the work of Du Fu 杜甫 (712 – 770) to understand how the canonization of his work nativized regulated verse through its historiography. I conclude with a reconsideration of the ethics of world literature and translation in determining our understanding of the local.
Click the image above for more information.