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.
An evening of reading and discussion with Xi Chuan and Eliot Weinberger, introduced by their New Directions editor Jeffrey Yang. This event is part of BookExpo America’s Global Market Forum Honoring China.
When: 7 pm, Friday, May 15, 2015
Where: Barnes & Noble Upper West Side
2289 Broadway, New York, NY 10024
As part of the “Birds of Metal in Flight” event, Columbia University hosted a panel discussion with Bei Dao 北岛, Ouyang Jianghe 欧阳江河, Xi Chuan 西川, Zhai Yongming 翟永明, Zhou Zan 周瓒, and Xu Bing 徐冰, as moderated by Lydia Liu 刘禾 and John Rajchman and introduced by Eugenia Lean, titled “Sound and Image: Chinese Poets in Conversation with Artist Xu Bing.” Click the image above for more information & photos, or here to stream the discussion via iTunes.
Readings by Marilyn Nelson, Bei Dao 北岛, Afaa Weaver, Zhai Yongming 翟永明, Pierre Joris, Xi Chuan 西川, Mei-Mei Berssenbrugge, Zhou Zan 周瓒, Charles Bernstein, and Ouyang Jianghe 欧阳江河, followed by remarks from Xu Bing 徐冰, introduced by Lydia Liu 刘禾.
For Xi Chuan reading my translation of “Bloom” 开花, jump to 49:21.
For pictures and more information on the reading, click here. For recordings of the readings, visit PennSound.
In the new Chinese Literature Today, editor Jonathan Stalling interviews Wolfgang Kubin about his life and the poets and poetry he’s known.
Zhang Zao and Ouyang Jianghe wanted pure poetry and new vocabulary, whereas the vocabulary of Bei Dao before ’89 is quite conventional and comes close to what the Spanish poets of the ’30s and ’40s made use of. Bei Dao writes short poetry, but the so-called post hermetic poets prefer the longer form and their outlook is quite different. They are not politically naïve anymore; they do know how complicated a society can be. The poetry of Bei Dao or the poetry of the ’80s, however, always believes in a future that will be good and that will be coming tomorrow. You won’t find this kind of naiveté in Ouyang Jianghe … Zhai Yongming’s starting point is so-called hermetic poetry, and her first cycle about women is so complicated that it drives you crazy as a translator. I translated her work into German and published a book of it very early. I translated much more of her poetry, and actually I should have produced another book, but she’s very modest and always asks me to translate others before editing a new volume of her poetry. But before long she left this kind of hermetic poetry. During her second phase, she dealt with a history of women in her mother’s generation in China before and after ’49. She chose a very plain language and she preferred the long poem. The poetry of her second phase is very easy to translate into a foreign language; it’s not complicated at all. During her third phase, when she started criticizing men, when she started making fun of male protagonists, then her language changed again—it was not hermetic, it was not plain, it was something in-between. Nowadays she prefers a very plain language for social critique. This is her fourth phase, so she’s the only Chinese poet about whom we can say that she went through three, no, four phases of different kinds of poetry. Bei Dao has only two phases; Yang Lian, I think you would say he has one phase and has never changed. P. K. Leung the Hong Kong poet—in some respects he’s always good, always the same. Zhang Zao, the same. Ouyang Jianghe has made changes, perhaps with his last long poem. Xi Chuan, he’s riper now, so he’s different, but concerning his form, I do not see much difference. He’s now more philosophical and he’s more sophisticated, he has humor, he makes fun.
I think, to be creative you need to at least be symmetrical to the surroundings. You may get your language from others, from previous writers, but maybe there is another possibility–that is, you can get your language from reality itself, from society itself. And I wrote an essay some years ago in which I talked about the Chinese oxymorons, social oxymorons. So, before, when I wanted to be a new poet, I tried to be a surrealist, or a symbolist, or a futurist, and now I don’t care about all these terms, and I feel that I need to be honest to myself, and I need to be honest to my awkwardness in this society, my embarrassment in this society. And once you admit that you are embarrassed, then maybe, maybe you can go on with your writing.
Click the image above for the full article, which can also be downloaded as a .pdf file.
M-Dash, the new literary journal from Autumn Hill Books, is running a series called “The Untranslatables” — “about those words or phrases that give us pause as translators, that stump us and then, sometimes, enlighten us.”
To inaugurate their feature, they invited me to contribute something from my translation of Xi Chuan’s Notes on the Mosquito. I wrote about my translation of the line there is a crowd of commoners as purple as red cabbage 有一群百姓像白菜一样翠绿. Here’s a teaser:
The line deals with the essences of Chinese, but with a twist. While many scholars have codified the Chinese aesthetic as metonymic and literal, the poetry of Xi Chuan’s line operates by revealing the fiction in the Chinese language’s conceptualization: white cabbage is not white (that it is modified by the quintessentially Chinese “jade green” twists the twist with even more torque) … In this instance, though, I sacrificed the insinuation about Chinese in particular to imply that all languages may contain such falsehoods and misnomers: as purple as red cabbage, because, of course, red cabbage is not red. And to reproduce the poïesis of Xi Chuan’s alliteration, such as with the chiasmus of /b/ and /x/ (IPA [ɕ]) and the repeated /c/ (IPA [tsʰ]) in yǒu yìqún bǎixìng xiàng báicàiyíyàngcuìlǜ, I preceded it with, there is a crowd of commoners.
The Writing China blog caught up with Xi Chuan (and Fan Wen 范稳 and Wang Gang 王刚) at the Copenhagen International Literature Festival, and has posted their replies to a brief questionnaire. Here’s an excerpt from what Xi Chuan had to say:
on STYLE: Earlier I wrote lyrical poems, now I just write texts embodying something not poetic. It’s more like poetic notes. I call it ‘poessay’ (散文诗), because it’s somewhere between poetry and essay. on CHINESE AND EUROPEAN LITERATURE: I once met Doris Lessing. She asked me about the Cultural Revolution and I in turn asked her about European literature. She said that after 1989 it had become less experimental because of the need to deal with real social problems. I also feel that I can’t follow others, but my work has to relate to reality even if that reality is a disaster. on TRANSLATION: When I translated the Polish writer Czeslaw Milosz, I didn’t use a dictionary, instead I asked my Polish friends whenever there was something I didn’t understand. on THE UNIVERSAL POET: Being a poet means you have to make sacrifices. Both in China and Denmark. As the American poet Robert Frost has it: “To take the road less travelled by.”