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.
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.
The new issue of the New York Review of Books features “Poems Without an ‘I,’” Madeleine Thien’s review of three books, The Banished Immortal: A Life of Li Bai [李白] (Pantheon, 2019) by Ha Jin 哈金 and The Selected Poems of Tu Fu [杜甫]: Expanded and Newly Translated (New Directions, 2020) and Awakened Cosmos: The Mind of Classical Chinese Poetry (Shambhala, 2019) by David Hinton.
Thien’s is a very informed and informative piece, but as Victor Mair points out on Language Log, even as she’s reviewing translations of Chinese poetry, she seems to believe that translation of Chinese poetry is not really possible:
The essential experience of Chinese poetry is all but untranslatable. Eliot Weinberger, Lucas Klein, Burton Watson, Stephen Owen, and David Hinton, among others, have set down superb translations, while noting that, in bringing Chinese poetry into English, more things go missing than in translations from other languages … Ha Jin describes a particular Li Bai poem as obtaining a beauty that “can be fully appreciated only in the Chinese.” Hinton observes that a particular line, severed from its radically different philosophical context, “fails absolutely in translation.” But the incommensurability of Chinese (logographic) and English (alphabetic) written systems begins the moment a mark is made. Chinese ideograms are composed of strokes, and each of the brushstrokes references others.
I love being put in a list with some of my heroes as having “set down superb translations,” but I cringe at the remark that the “essential experience of Chinese poetry is all but untranslatable.” As Mair writes, “I have never been a fan of the view that Chinese poetry is untranslatable, or that any other genres of Chinese literature, for that matter, are untranslatable. Since I have done a huge amount of translation in my lifetime, if I accepted the notion that Chinese literature is untranslatable, I would long ago have made a gigantic fool of myself.” And I like what Red Pine (Bill Porter) writes, in the comments section to the Language Log post: “How absurd that Chinese poetry would be untranslatable, or anything for that matter. Poems don’t come with moonlight or wind, much less the effects of the wine. They’re just words, until the reader, or the translator comes along and brings them back to life.”
There’s more to Thien’s article than this, of course–and her piece is not the worst offender when it comes to articles mystifying Chinese or poetry written in that language–but it’s worth reiterating: Sure, there are aspects of poetry in Chinese or any language that don’t make it through to other languages well in most translations, but that doesn’t mean the poetry is “untranslatable.” As Maghiel van Crevel points out in an article called “Transgression as Rule” (in Kroll and Silk, eds., “At the Shores of the Sky”: Asian Studies for Albert Hoffstädt; Brill, 2020), “untranslatability” really means hypertranslatability. With more aspects to consider, there are more options for the translator to try out in rendering something from one language into another.
Translation isn’t impossible–it happens all the time. It’s perfection that’s impossible.
I should also add that it’s a strange thing to write “each time we see an ‘I’ in a translation of Tang poetry, it was almost certainly not in the original text” in a discussion of Li Bai–one of the most forceful users of the first-person pronoun in classical Chinese poetics.
Click on the links above to read the pieces in full.
MCLC has published Joanna Krenz’s review of Chinese Poetic Modernisms (Brill, 2019), edited by Paul Manfredi and Christopher Lupke, which includes my chapter “Annotating Aporias of History: the ‘International Style’, Chinese Modernism, and World Literature in Xi Chuan’s Poetry.”
one need only read a few paragraphs of the Introduction, by editors Paul Manfredi and Christopher Lupke, to see that the formula of “Chinese poetic modernisms” is anything but conventional. Each of its three main conceptual components—Chineseness, poeticness, and modernism(s)—alone can provoke endless discussion and debate, not to mention the plethora of contested terms associated with these concepts and their multiple configurations and contextualizations. The fourteen scholars whose contributions are included in the book confront the idea of Chinese poetic modernisms from various, sometimes radically different angles, which add up to a dynamic, multidimensional picture of modernist practice in Chinese poetry.
She has some criticisms of my disagreement with Michelle Yeh about how to handle “Chineseness” as a topic of academic discussion, but she does wrap it up with some praise:
In any event, Klein, who recently published a monograph that demonstrates how Chineseness has been consistently constructed through translation, is definitely not a person who would want to strip Chinese poetry of its complexity, and his chapter on Xi Chuan confirms this. He refers extensively to the International Style in architecture, taking it as a starting point for his reflection on (Chinese) “modernism [which] is already broadly postmodernist from the get-go” (319). Both modernism and postmodernism, he proposes, are in reality “two steps in the same historical movement of post-Romanticism” (319). Following Eliot Weinberger, he calls for inclusive understanding of modernism as a notion rooted in history and embracing specific cultural geographies without detracting from their uniqueness. Klein’s familiarity with Chinese literature at large and with the evolution of Xi Chuan’s poetry is exceptional, as is his “negotiating the relationship between local and universal logic” (335), to borrow from his own description of Xi Chuan.
Follow the link above to see the whole review, which is exemplary as a way to engage an edited volume with breadth and with depth.
As part of its feature on Hong Kong writing, guest-edited by Tammy Ho–featuring writing by Xi Xi 西西 as translated by Jennifer Feeley, poetry by Chris Song 宋子江, and more–World Literature Today has published my translation of “Dwelling Poetically in Hong Kong,” by Bei Dao 北島, published originally in 2010.
“Dwelling poetically” comes from Heidegger. “In short,” Bei Dao explains, “to dwell is the state of being of the human, while the poetic is the attainment via poetry of a spiritual liberation or freedom; therefore, to dwell poetically is to search for one’s spiritual home.” Such thinking inspired Bei Dao to launch the Hong Kong International Poetry Nights, which he explains in the piece.
Bei Dao began Poetry Nights to cure an ill he diagnosed in the youths of Hong Kong. He writes:
Because I teach, I have a lot of contact with the youth of Hong Kong. And I worry for their generation. They were born on a production assembly line—their whole lives are determined for them in advance. This assembly line has the look of being safe and reliable, but their creativity and imagination have been hijacked—by capital, by their fathers, by the media, by the internet; they have no curiosity, no vision, no desire to read or to learn, no independence, no ability to express themselves, yes, none whatsoever. I have no doubt that this is a contributing factor to the high suicide rate of youths in Hong Kong, a contributing factor to the pervasiveness of psychological complexes among the youth of Hong Kong.
After this piece circulated online, I noticed that some were not happy with Bei Dao’s characterization of the youth of Hong Kong. I thought his judgment could use some contextualization, so Tammy Ho and I decided that as translator I should append a note, special for the online edition. I wrote:
Bei Dao wrote “Dwelling Poetically in Hong Kong” in 2010, two and a half years after moving to Hong Kong and not long after what would be the first of the International Poetry Nights in Hong Kong—a poetry festival that has helped change the cultural reputation of this city. At one point Bei Dao strikes a sour note about the youth of Hong Kong, whom he knew as his students. Much has changed in Hong Kong since he wrote this piece—the activation of the younger generation’s political engagement with Occupy Central (2014), or what was known as the Umbrella Movement, but also Bei Dao’s International Poetry Nights, which have taken place biennially since 2009. If his critique of students now rings false, then, to a certain extent, Bei Dao himself is partially to thank for that.
Over at Cha, Daryl Lim reviews Hawk of the Mind: Collected Poems (Columbia University Press), the selected poems of Yang Mu 楊牧, edited by Michelle Yeh. Though Lim credits Yang’s poetry as “lyrical, urbane, cosmopolitan and deeply humanist,” he’s less impressed with the volume:
We are not told whether Collected in fact represents Yang Mu’s entire poetic oeuvre, or whether the editor has made selections. If so (which I suspect to be the case), it is also unclear how the editor went about making these choices or what organising principle lies behind them. I gather the poems are arranged chronologically. (But I can’t be sure.) Finally, the foreword tells me that I, the reader, will through engagement with Yang Mu’s poetry, “emerge more aware of the world and what it means to be human.” As it is though, I am still unaware of the shape of Yang Mu’s poetic corpus and career.
As for the translations,
No less than eleven translators are listed in the final pages of the book … I wish then that the editor, Michelle Yeh, had also written about the possible issues arising from this: did she consider whether having eleven translators for the work of one poet might lead to issues of coherence or dissonance? Did she consider re-translating (she is one of the translators) some of the poems? Did she edit any of the translations? Without the benefit of the original texts on the facing page (or even the original Chinese titles), it is difficult for the reviewer to judge whether the diversity of translators has had any effect on the final product. It is very difficult to look up specific poems. (There is also no index of poems or first lines.)
Not that Lim names them, of course (other than Arthur Sze, in one example). Then again, neither does Columbia UP on its web page for the book.
Shanghai-born poet Meng Lang 孟浪, co-founder of Independent Chinese PEN, passed away following a battle with cancer on December 12 in Hong Kong.
The New York Times has run an article on his life, mentioning a few friends of this blog:
Meng Lang was born in Shanghai in 1961 and participated in several unofficial poetry movements in China throughout the 1980s, according a short biographical sketch published by Cha: An Asian Literary Journal, where Ms. [Tammy] Ho is a founding editor.
He later helped edit the book “A Compendium of Modern Chinese Poerty, 1986-1988,” and was a writer in residence at Brown University from 1995 to 1998, according to the sketch. Professor Huang [Yibing] of Connecticut College said that Mr. Meng moved to Hong Kong from the United States in 2006, and to Taiwan in 2015.
Mr. Meng “played an important, fearless role in championing an unorthodox, experimental and free-spirited poetry in China back in the 1980s,” Professor Huang, who is also a poet, said in an email.
The article also quotes lines from a poem of Meng’s, as translated by Anne Henochowicz:
Broadcast the death of a nation Broadcast the death of a country Hallelujah, only he is coming back to life. Who stopped his resurrection This nation has no murderer This country has no bloodstain.
He had also managed an Archive of Chinese Underground Literature and Exile Literature after moving to the democratic island of Taiwan.
According to Taiwan poet Hung Hung, Meng always felt he was in exile after moving to Taiwan and Hong Kong to live with his Taiwan-born wife, Tu Chia-chi [杜家祁].
“He would say that it’s hard for trees to uproot and move somewhere else, and that he was forced into exile as a Chinese,” Hung Hung [鴻鴻] said. “This exile was thrust upon him, and it was particularly hard for him.”
“His last poem, about a fallen leaf finally blowing back home, is very beautiful and moving,” Hung said. “I think now he has passed away, the fallen leaf has finally returned home.”
Nick Admussen tweeted with links to more of his poems in English translation.
There has been an outpouring of affection and remembrances of Meng Lang on his Facebook page, and there is a reading in his memory in Hong Kong tomorrow night (Tuesday, December 18).
The new issue of Plume is here, and with it Alexander Dickow’s “Mystery and Surprise: Two Chinese Poets,” reviewing two quite different books of Chinese poetry in translation: Li Shangyin 李商隱, translated by Chloe Garcia Roberts, Lucas Klein, and A.C. Graham (NYRB), and October Dedications, the selected poetry of Mang Ke 芒克, translated by Lucas Klein with Yibing Huang and Jonathan Stalling (Zephyr / Chinese UP).
The review begins:
The contemporary Chinese poet Mang Ke and the Tang dynasty poet Li Shangyin (9th century) could hardly be more different. The former, particularly in the later poems of the chronologically arranged collection, seems fresh and spontaneous, capricious; the latter hermetic and mysterious. The contrast lends itself to an examination of what makes both poets’ work alluring. Li Shangyin seems to offer the mystique of an authentically coded poetic language. While both Mang Ke and Li Shangyin are highly allusive, Mang Ke feels bright and sensuous, Li Shangyin dark and richly layered.
It’s rare enough for translated poetry to be reviewed at all, but when it is reviewed it tends to be reviewed by other experts in the field. I think it’s wonderful that these books are reviewed by a translator of French poetry with no expertise in China or Chinese literature. If our readers are only those who can check our work, what’s the point of translating in the first place? The whole purpose of translation is bringing work from one language to new audiences, so it’s wonderful that Plume went with a reviewer who doesn’t need to know Chinese, but clearly understands poetry and translation.
In the newest installment of the NüVoices Podcast, Eleanor Goodman talks to Alice Xin Liu and guest host Lijia Zhang 张丽佳 about poetry, translation, poetry translation and the place of women in these fields in the US and China.
She reads from her translations and from her own poetry, with particular attention to her translations of Wang Xiaoni 王小妮 and migrant worker poetry.
Listen here, or click the image above to listen at the SupChina.com host site.