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.
Hysteria, by Kim Yideum, translated from the Korean by Jake Levine, Soeun Seo, and Hedgie Choi (Action Books)
Pioneers of Modern Japanese Poetry, poems by Muro Saisei, Kaneko Mitsuhara, Miyoshi Tatsuji, and Nagase Kiyoko, translated by Takako Lento (Cornell University Press)
and No Poetry: Selected Poems by Che Qianzi 无诗歌: 车前子诗选, translated from the Chinese by Yunte Huang (Polymorph Editions). This year’s judges are Noh Anothai, John Balcom, and E. J. Koh.
The judges’ statement on Huang’s Che Qianzi translation reads:
In his collection No Poetry, Che Qianzi displays a similar playfulness with convention (literary, orthographical) and expectation (logical, linear)–as well as with geometric shapes, with the layout of words on the page, with the very form of Chinese ideographs. This bilingual edition allows us to appreciate translator Yunte Huang’s finesse at reflecting these verbal and visual elements in English, allowing to take shape a voice that is delightfully experimental and idiosyncratic. Through Huang’s skill, “no poetry” has not meant “no translation.”
Click the image above for the link to write-ups of all three shortlisted titles.
Named after the renowned French Sinologist, Stanislas Julien (1797–1873), The Stanislas Julien Prize has been awarded annually since 1875 by the Académie des Inscriptions et Belles-Lettres to recognize outstanding Western-language scholarship in the field of Asian humanities.
The press website for the book explains:
“Song Lyric,” ci [詞], remains one of the most loved forms of Chinese poetry. From the early eleventh century through the first quarter of the twelfth century, song lyric evolved from an impromptu contribution in a performance practice to a full literary genre, in which the text might be read more often than performed. Young women singers, either indentured or private entrepreneurs, were at the heart of song practice throughout the period; the authors of the lyrics were notionally mostly male. A strange gender dynamic arose, in which men often wrote in the voice of a woman and her imagined feelings, then appropriated that sensibility for themselves.
As an essential part of becoming literature, a history was constructed for the new genre. At the same time the genre claimed a new set of aesthetic values to radically distinguish it from older “Classical Poetry,” shi [詩]. In a world that was either pragmatic or moralizing (or both), song lyric was a discourse of sensibility, which literally gave a beautiful voice to everything that seemed increasingly to be disappearing in the new Song dynasty world of righteousness and public advancement.
Click here for the full announcement from the Fairbank Center for Chinese Studies.
Here is an excerpt of one of Ho’s Chung translations:
Forgetting is near. What are we rushing to clamber over? Blood and sweat of three million people only to demand a fictive rope? Are there balloons up there? Only billowing clouds As though the screaming across the city has muted its own cries Turning into fists lashing out helplessly
Is our energy running low? Are the long streets still beating? The heavy thump in Pacific Place resounds in Fanling Red and white plastic barriers blossom in Golden Bauhinia Square Taller than the people. Tomorrow, ah, there’s still tomorrow Tomorrow the wealthy and powerful will start feasting Indifferent to the rancid-smelling blood that rises from their heads
Cha: An Asian Literary Journal has published Joanna Krenz’s review of the selected poems of Ya Shi 哑石, Floral Mutter 花的低语, as translated by Nick Admussen (Zephyr and Chinese University Press). Read the epic and erudite review here:
I came across Ya Shi’s works some two or three years ago in Admussen’s renditions on the Lyrikline and Poetry International websites. I was initially attracted by the author’s short bio, identifying a kindred spirit in this practitioner of mathematics and poetry—two disciplines that are particularly dear to my heart—a graduate of Peking University who left the capital to settle in the countryside in his native Sichuan. I gratefully devoured the handful of texts that were available online in English at the time and kept searching for his collections of poetry and essays in Chinese, planning to include Ya Shi in the Polish-language anthology of Chinese poetry I have been working on. One of the first texts I read and translated was “Full Moon Night”, with the “cursed” qingcui in line 8. I was troubled mostly by semantics and not by the tortuous syntax which is quite easy to recreate in highly fusional and structurally flexible Slavic languages. Admussen recalls he tried to retain at least two aspects of qingcui: frailty and clearness-and-melodiousness, but “the superimposition of the two” proved impossible. In Polish there is no perfect solution either, but I was quite satisfied with a near-superimposition, that is an adverb dźwięcznie (‘clearly, sharply, melodiously’) generously prompted by the ghost of the past. The word in question—and this is lucky for me—often happens to be misheard and misrepeated as wdzięcznie (meaning  ‘gracefully’ or  ‘gratefully’), which preserves part of the semantics of frailty, implying delicateness and proneness to destruction. I recalled a popular song often heard in my grandma’s small village church when I was a child, in which “nightingales are singing ah singing in a clear-and-melodious / graceful-or-grateful voice”; half of the congregation persistently sticking to dźwięczny, and the other half to wdzięczny. I still do not know which one is correct, but the memory of the rough, untrained but energetic and unswervingly faithful voices belonging mostly to old women, one of whom was my beloved grandma, proved quite instrumental in dealing with the lines in question. At the same time, it also influenced my reading of the parenthesized line 10, which I interpreted similarly to Admussen. Now when I look at the poem, I think it may well be taken much more literally, simply as a distance from the smooth maroon surface in the place where one keeps one’s elbows to the coarse far end of the desk, but both of us somehow naturally extended the desk to infinity, to undefined “coarse distance”, leaving the poem open to more ghosts.
The new site Hong Kong Protesting has published four poems by Liu Waitong 廖偉棠 in my translation. The whole site–an offshoot of Tammy Ho Lai-ming’s literary journal Cha–is very much worth digging into, but here are the poem translations as one way in.
From “Two Million and One” 二百萬零一:
After white snow is black snow after two million is two million and one. The numbers that come after will always add onto him tattoos coming after will always seep blood you cannot remove his raincoat.
After yellow is a golden torrent to replace the mud of shopping malls and the central government complex. You cannot pluck his star rays one after two million is always just one pens pierce the armor of the arrogant.
ZOOM: https://bit.ly/2YHxitE (Meeting ID: 959 2591 8289) Saturday June 13, 11:00 a.m. Hong Kong time (click here to find the date & time for you)
Congratulations to Zephyr Press! They are celebrating their 40th anniversary this year, and “Translators Speak: Translating Chinese Poetry” is part of the celebrations.
“Translators Speak: Translating Chinese Poetry,” co-sponsored by Zephyr Press, features several translators from Zephyr’s Jintian Series of Contemporary Chinese Poetry. Nick Admussen, Lucas Klein, Andrea Lingenfelter, and Jami Proctor Xu will talk about and introduce the poets they translated, the translation process, their views on translating Chinese poetry (as opposed to translating other genres), and advice and suggestions they would give other translators. They will also read from their books and contextualise the poems and their translations. We will have a Q&A session as well. This discussion will take place via Zoom and people from all over the world are welcome to listen in. [Find out what time it will be where you are: https://bit.ly/2W8O57q] Moderated by Cha’s co-editor Tammy Lai-Ming Ho.
TRANSLATORS SPEAK: TRANSLATING CHINESE POETRY Date: Saturday 13 June 2020 Time: 11:00 a.m. – 12:30 p.m. (GMT+8) Platform: Zoom https://bit.ly/2YHxitE (Meeting ID: 959 2591 8289) Languages: English Speakers: Nick Admussen, Lucas Klein, Andrea Lingenfelter, and Jami Proctor Xu Moderator: Tammy Lai-Ming Ho
◓ NICK ADMUSSEN (speaker) Nick Admussen is an associate professor of Chinese literature and culture at Cornell University. He is the author of Recite and Refuse: Contemporary Chinese Prose Poetry, the translator of Ya Shi’s poetry collection Floral Mutter, and a poet whose most recent chapbook is titled Stand Back, Don’t Fear the Change. He was the recipient of a 2017 grant from the PEN/Heim fund for translation, has been anthologized in Best New Poets 2018 and Best Short Fictions 2017, and was a 2018 National Poetry Series finalist.
◓ LUCAS KLEIN (speaker) Lucas Klein (PhD Yale) is a father, writer, and translator. His scholarship and criticism have appeared in the monograph The Organization of Distance: Poetry, Translation, Chineseness (Brill, 2018), as well as in Comparative Literature Studies, LARB, Jacket, CLEAR, PMLA, and other venues. His translation Notes on the Mosquito: Selected Poems of Xi Chuan (New Directions, 2012) won the 2013 Lucien Stryk Prize; other publications include his translations of the poetry of Mang Ke, October Dedications (Zephyr and Chinese University Press, 2018), and contributions to Li Shangyin (New York Review Books, 2018). His translations of the poetry of Duo Duo, forthcoming from Yale University Press, won a PEN/Heim Translation Fund grant, and he co-edited Chinese Poetry and Translation: Rights and Wrongs (2019) with Maghiel van Crevel, downloadable for free from Amsterdam University Press. He is an associate professor in the School of Chinese at the University of Hong Kong.
◓ ANDREA LINGENFELTER (speaker) Andrea Lingenfelter is a writer and translator whose published books include The Changing Room: Selected Poetry of Zhai Yongming (Northern California Book Award winner), Hon Lai Chu’s The Kite Family, (NEA Translation Fellowship grantee), Li Pik-wah’s Farewell My Concubine and The Last Princess of Manchuria, and Candy and Vanishing Act by Mian Mian. Her poetry and prose translations have appeared in Manoa, Granta, Chinese Literature Today, Pathlight, Zoland Poetry Annual, Words Without Borders, Cha: An Asian Literary Journal, Two Lines, Chicago Review, and elsewhere. Her own work has appeared in various publications, including Strix and Cha. Current book-length translation projects include a collection of poems by Wang Yin, Zhai Yongming’s Following Huang Gongwang Through the Fuchun Mountains, and Wang Anyi’s novel Scent of Heaven. She is a contributor to the Los Angeles Review of Books and its affiliated China Channel, and is a two-time Vermont Studio Center Luce Translation Fellowship recipient (with Wang Yin [2017) and Cao Shuying  respectively). Currently based in Northern California, she teaches literary translation and literature and film of the Asia Pacific at the University of San Francisco.
◓ JAMI PROCTOR XU (speaker) Jami Proctor Xu is a poet, mother and translator. She writes in English and Chinese and splits her time between Northern California, Arizona, and China. Her publications include, among others, a Chinese chapbook, Shimmers (EMS, 2013) a Chinese poetry collection Suddenly Starting to Dance (Yi, 2016), an English chapbook, Hummingbird Ignites a Star, the translated collection of Jidi Majia, Words from the Fire (Manoa, 2018), and the translated collection of Song Lin, Sunday Sparrows (Zephyr, 2020). Her current translation projects include translations of poetry collections by Zhao Ye, Xiao Xiao, and Shu Cai. Jami is also editing an anthology of Chinese translations of US poets born in the 1970s as well as anthologies of international poets forthcoming from Beijing Normal University. Since 2016, she has co-organised an annual international poetry exchange at Beijing Normal University’s International Writing Center, and since 2019, she has collaborated with Zolani Mkiva to co-organise international poetry events in South Africa. Jami frequently reads at festivals around the world, and her poetry and translations have been published in anthologies in several languages. She is a recipient of the Zhujiang Poetry Award (2013) and the First Reader Best Poet Award (2016).
◒ TAMMY LAI-MING HO (moderator) Tammy Lai-Ming Ho is the founding co-editor of the first Hong Kong-based international Asia-focused journal, Cha: An Asian Literary Journal, an editor of the academic journals Victorian Network and Hong Kong Studies, and the first English-language Editor of Voice & Verse Poetry Magazine 聲韻詩刊. She is an Associate Professor at Hong Kong Baptist University, where she teaches poetics, fiction, and modern drama. She is also the President of PEN Hong Kong, a Junior Fellow of the Hong Kong Academy of the Humanities, an advisor to the Leeds Centre for New Chinese Writing, and an Associate Director of One City One Book Hong Kong. Tammy’s first collection of poetry is Hula Hooping (Chameleon 2015), for which she won the Young Artist Award in Literary Arts from the Hong Kong Arts Development Council. Her first short story collection Her Name Upon The Strand (Delere Press), her second poetry collection Too Too Too Too (Math Paper Press) and chapbook An Extraterrestrial in Hong Kong (Musical Stone) were published in 2018. Her first academic book is Neo-Victorian Cannibalism (Palgrave, 2019). Tammy edited or co-edited seven literary volumes having a strong focus on Hong Kong, the most recent one being Twin Cities: An Anthology of Twin Cinema from Singapore and Hong Kong (Landmark Books, 2017). She guest-edited a Hong Kong Feature for World Literature Today (Spring 2019) and the Hong Kong special issue of Svenska PEN’s PEN/Opp (formerly “The Dissident Blog”). She is currently editing a Hong Kong chapbook for Cordite Poetry Review and she will be co-editing 2020: A Bilingual Anthology of Hong Kong Poetry with Chris Song. Tammy is also a translator and her literary translations can be found in World Literature Today, Chinese Literature Today, Pathlight: New Chinese Writing, among other places, and International Poetry Nights in Hong Kong (香港國際詩歌之夜) volumes (2015, 2017 and 2019). Her own poems have been translated into a number of languages, including Chinese, French, German, Latvian and Vietnamese.
The Harvard Reviewhas just published my translation of “That Time” 那时, by Duo Duo 多多, a section from his series The Desire of the Rose Now the Same as the Desire of Swords 玫瑰的欲望已经与剑的欲望一致.
In the brief introduction, I write:
The sequence as a whole is about the vicissitudes of memory: its pains but also its joys. The images that end “That Time,” horses and gravestones, are familiar throughout Duo Duo’s oeuvre, but here they are defamiliarized. The whole sequence ends with “remembrance” being the pursuit of “what is ahead,” while “the moment of happiness is the moment of memory.”
Here is how the poem begins:
why does the camel need twin humps to make it through the desert?
I look at you, you only look at yourself I look there, I only see you
I look at things I cannot see I see time—that long, long rose
at that time the lion could still think, no flames of fury in the beauty’s eyes at that time we could still walk into things we could not understand
it’s the heart that creates the invisible, between riddle and its four walls, letting the parable of life pass through the ring
the way my sunlight might pierce your eyes to see some even farther place
Many thanks to Tammy Lai-ming Ho for her suggestions on my translations!
While the coronavirus is keeping most of us indoors, artist Elizabeth Briel has been reading poems and posting them to Instagram and Facebook. Here she is reading my translation of Xi Chuan’s new poem, “Ode to Facemasks” 口罩颂.
“Ode to Facemasks” will be published in the forthcoming “Masks” feature, edited by Tammy Ho 何麗明, in the Hongkong-based literary journal Voice & Verse聲韻詩刊 (edited by Chris Song 宋子江). Voice & Verse is accepting submissions on the theme of Masks until May 15.