Klein does a superb job of keeping the English translations as clear as possible, and when compared to others who have attempted the rigorous challenges of Duo Duo, Klein is more succinct, concise, and poetic. Words as Grain offers Zen koan-like poems that call for rereading and contemplation.
Since it’s in the print issue, here’s a photo of the whole review:
Written by one of the most celebrated contemporary Chinese poets Duo Duo 多多 (1951- ) and translated and edited by the award-winning translator Lucas Klein, Words as Grain词如谷粒 moves from Duo Duo’s most recent poems back to his earliest ones, with four sections, each forming a period of his life’s journeys and taking its title from one of his poems of that period. “The Force of Forging Words (2004-2018)” collects every single poem written upon Duo Duo’s return to China from 15 years of exile abroad. “Amsterdam’s River (1989-2004)” includes selected poems written during the period of his exile, mainly in the Netherlands. “Delusion is the Master of Reality (1982-1988)” highlights selected poems written during China’s “reform and opening up” period of the 1980s. “Instruction (1972-1976),” the last of the four sections, features some of Duo Duo’s earliest collected poems written in his twenties during the Cultural Revolution (1966-1976).
As for her reading of Duo Duo’s poetry, she elaborates:
In this context, “words as grain” emerges in vivid configurations and comes alive as a central metaphor for the forging and remaking of poetry and life, which involves planting seeds, picking weeds, and harvesting grain in the fields, among many more layers of a complex web of meanings. In his poetry over four decades, Duo Duo connects grain, weeds, and fields in his musings on life and death, lonesomeness and expression, speeches and silence, and emptiness and harvest …
Lucas Klein, in his translator’s introduction, asks to what degree contextualisation is useful in reading Duo Duo’s poetry (or any poetry), and arranges his selections and translations to move from present into the past, as he considers the recent poems less culturally situated, hence more accessible, than older poems for the non-Chinese reader …
Klein finds the questions—whether the poems are best read as tied to their contexts or as independent works of the imagination—are the same ones we must ask of translations: whether they are best approached as if tethered to the texts they are representing, or can they take on lives of their own in a new language? He hopes to answer yes to both questions in both cases (xxiii). On the one hand, Klein believes in the potential of poems in translation to take on lives of their own, on the other hand, he also demands accuracy. His goal as both translator and compiler of the poems included in this collection, according to the translator’s introduction, “is to let Duo Duo’s style come through” (xxiv).
As readers, we are fortunate to have Klein’s meticulous work and expert guidance in translating and compiling this excellent volume of Duo Duo’s poems, in close dialogue with and filling important gaps in previous translations and scholarly studies.
That bounty is now on full display in English, thanks to Lucas Klein, the translator of Words as Grain: The Poetry of Duo Duo, published by Yale University Press. The volume opens with new work—Duo Duo’s poems last appeared in English twenty years ago, while he was still living abroad—and moves in reverse chronology back to the Cultural Revolution years, which he spent in rural Hebei Province along with other “Misties.” Klein’s introduction helpfully sketches the politics of modern China throughout the poet’s life, but the poems themselves are more concerned with a personal cosmology of memory, desire, and stillness. Many contain explicitly Buddhist references and idioms—“sūtra rivers,” non-self, the “quietude of original dwellings rhetoric abandoned”—as if the poet is forging a new grammar of devotion from his own broken syntax, straying from classical prosody and imagery in a way that recalls—at least for some English readers—the modernists who strayed from Tennyson’s finely cadenced rhetoric into avant-garde mysticism. One might call it modernist Zen: a hunger for unmediated divinity and a deep suspicion of language, with its stale cliches, as a pathway to enlightenment. Ultimately, the impression one gets from the full arc of Duo Duo’s career is that of a poet enraptured by the metaphysics of writing itself.
Click on the image to read the piece in full.
Thanks, Drew Calvert and Asymptote for the great review!
Lucas Klein in discussion with Nick Admussen, Chris Song, and Jami Proctor Xu, moderated by Tammy Lai-Ming Ho
In “The Force of Forging Words,” a poem in Words as Grain: New and Selected Poems by premier Chinese poet Duo Duo 多多 (Yale University Press, The Cecile and Theodore Margellos World Republic of Letters series), translated by Lucas Klein, Duo Duo writes: “outside force, continuing on / from enough, is insufficient hallucination // … // this is rationale’s wasteland / but the ethics of poetry.”
What are the ethics of poetry? Is poetry the wasteland of the rationale, or of the rational? Is translation a kind of hallucination, and is it sufficient? What care needs to be taken to translate such poetry? Our speakers will discuss these questions with the translator to celebrate the publication of Words as Grain. ▁▁▁▁
He’s got lots of criticism as well as praise, but ends up saying the book is as important as the poetry of Huang Tingjian 黃庭堅 (1045-1105).
Huang’s strikingly idiosyncratic, difficult, dense, and sometimes confusing poetry is not beloved by all, but it did herald a new direction in Chinese poetics that challenged both his admirers and detractors to respond. I think that the same could be said of The Organization of Distance. There is a distinct synthetic quality to portions of the book … that is going to rub some readers the wrong way. However, the challenge of Klein’s insights will be of interest and importan[ce] to a range of audiences. His book, quite amazingly, speaks to scholars and readers of both modern and classical Chinese poetry, engaging the scholarship from both of these fields while challenging its members to think outside their disciplinary boxes. The book is suitable for in-depth graduate seminars, especially on the topics of translation and translingual practice … Klein’s book is important because his arguments are in dialogue with a larger movement to reconsider the global dimensions of the medieval world, both the way in which poetry during the Tang-Song period borrowed objects and translated ideas from broader global exchanges of the past and the way that this poetry continues to be recast and reinvented by poets of China’s present.
Click on the image above to read the review in full.
In the midst of a pandemic defined by isolation, our second Poems in Translation Contest brought together 935 poems from 448 poets and 87 countries, translated from 58 languages. We are thrilled to announce, alongside our partners at the Academy of American Poets, this year’s winners, selected by Pushcart prizewinner David Tomas Martinez. The four winning poems will be published in Poem-a-Day and in Words Without Borders every Saturday this September, which is National Translation Month, and into the first week of October. In celebrating these works, we hope to expand the readership of groundbreaking international poetry and to create, in a time of global crisis, opportunities for connection and meaning across borders, languages, and cultures.
Congratulations to Chenxin Jiang for her translation of “Trial Run” 預習 by Yau Ching 游靜!
Writing for 4Columns, Andrew Chan has reviewed My Name Will Grow Wide Like a Tree: Selected Poems (Graywolf) by Yi Lei 伊蕾, translated by Tracy K. Smith and Changtai Bi.
After a nice contextualization of Yi Lei and her poetry, Chan gets to the goods of what he calls the “problematic translation”:
Saturated with Smith’s voice and propelled by her unerring ear for catchy bits of diction, these translations often feel more rewarding to read as a fresh batch of Smith’s own poems than as interpretations of pieces written on the other side of the world decades ago.
it’s unfortunate that the always-fraught issue of translation will be distracting for any reader, like myself, who is proficient enough in both languages to recognize the glaring chasms in style, tone, and content. There exists an understandable but faulty assumption that certain languages are so distant from one another that translation requires a high degree of artistic license. But words still mean what they do. In many instances throughout the book, phrases, images, and metaphors that Smith and Bi could have brought into English with relative ease are needlessly contorted or jettisoned altogether, while elements that do not exist in the less flowery originals are allowed to proliferate like weeds … I emerged from My Name Will Grow Wide Like a Tree in a state of confusion, grateful for having been introduced to Yi Lei’s intoxicating voice and for Smith’s undeniably supple musicality, but concerned about the false conclusions that English-only readers will draw from these willfully unfaithful renditions.
LitHub has published an article by former Poet Laureate of the United States (2017-2019) Tracy K. Smith, about her experiences co-translating (with Changtai Bi) Chinese poet Yi Lei 伊蕾 (1951-2018) for her new book My Name Will Grow Wide Like a Tree (Graywolf).
Smith writes of her initial encounter with Yi Lei:
I’d been given a rough translation of “A Single Woman’s Bedroom,” and I’d been drawn into the expansive sweep of it. The poem is made up of fourteen related sections that follow almost improvisationally from one another, each driven by a sharp emotional insistence. I felt admiration for this poet’s passion, her sense of play, the ways each new gesture brought in a new gust of energy and indelible imagery. Her poem’s relentless availability to love, even in the wake of betrayal or devastation, spoke to feelings of desire, resistance, and loss that live in and have instigated a number of my own poems.
“Would it be okay,” I’d asked Nancy to ask Yi Lei, “if in certain of my translations, instead of being faithful to the literal features of the poem, I sought to build a similar spirit or feeling for readers of American English?”
There was some back and forth in Mandarin. “Yes,” was the eventual answer.
“I want to make the reader feel at home in these poems. Would it be okay if certain details were to shift or be replaced with others rooted in this culture?”
Again, there was more back and forth across the table. And then Nancy told me that Yi Lei was comfortable with my making these kinds of nuanced choices.
We weren’t even midway through our long New Year’s lunch, yet I was brimming with joy at the prospect of living awhile in the vision and vocabulary of these poems and this imagination. Yi Lei trusted me to live with and respond to her poems, and to offer them to readers in the way that I heard and felt them. It was a remarkable freedom and a daunting responsibility. And, yes, I was already committed to the task of shepherding this indispensable voice into a living contemporary English.
Remarkable freedom, daunting responsibility. Toward the end of the essay she explains her working relationship with her co-translator, offering an example of how she revised his work.
Our manner of collaborating was this: working from David’s literal translation of a manuscript of Yi Lei’s poems, I would listen to the poem’s statements and the images, essentially trying to visualize the poem’s realm, and to align myself with the feeling and logic of the work. Then, I’d attempt to re-envision and re-situate these things in English. Occasionally, this was a matter of shifting toward smoother, more active, evocative language. Often, it entailed locating a relationship between verbs and nouns and aligning those features within a new metaphor or image system, as occurred in this passage from David’s literal translation of “Love’s Dance”:
When you quietly evaded It seemed that land sank in front of the chest My shout was blocked by echoes It was invisible hands that forged my mistake To avoid a pitiful tragedy I strangled the freedom of souls
To let my reason be pitch-black from then I am willing to be dominated by you
I allowed land sank, blocked, echoes, forged, tragedy, and pitch-black to guide me toward the metaphor of mining, which resulted in this passage from my version of the poem:
What happened deep in the mountain of me. And then the mine in collapse. The shaft Choked with smoke. Voice burying voice. An absence of air, preponderance of pitch. I don’t want to know, or understand, or be restored To reason. In the wake of certain treasons, I am
Still domitable, a claim in wait. I am Possessed of my depths. I am willing still.
My strategy, whenever I reached a point of hesitation, was to ask the surrounding features of the poem to suggest a continuity that might guide me forward. Sometimes, I’d make a leap of faith, trusting to the larger energetic pull of the poem to keep me from losing the trail. Then I’d send my work to David, who would translate it back into Chinese for Yi Lei. Yi Lei read my version for feeling, image, and intention. If she recognized in my poem something essential from her original, we let things stand. Our conversation took place back and forth in this triangulated fashion.
“I have sought,” Smith writes, “in my translations of Yi Lei’s poems, to cleave to the original spirit, tone, and impetus.” But cleave is an interesting word, a contronym that means both uniting two things and splitting them.