Ridgway reviews Klein’s Organization of Distance

The MCLC Resource Center has published Benjamin Ridgway’s review of my academic monograph, The Organization of Distance, Poetry, Translation, Chineseness (Brill, 2018).

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.

Chan on Smith’s “problematic translation” of Yi Lei

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.

He concludes:

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.

Click on the image above for the review in full.

Joanna Krenz reviews Admussen’s Ya Shi for Cha

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 [1] ‘gracefully’ or [2] ‘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.

Follow the link above for the review in full.

Jeje on Bei Dao’s Blue House

Writing for Cha, Akin Jeje reviews Blue House (Zephyr, 2000) by Bei Dao 北島, transalted by Ted Huters and Feng-ying Ming.

Bei Dao’s memoirs in Blue House are stunning in their modesty, candour and startling clarity. As placid and yet as intense as his poetry, his anecdotes of colleagues, countries, cats, crows and the irrepressibility of expression (artistic and otherwise) mark him as one of the world’s greatest contemporary writers, something that he himself would unassumingly deny.

Follow the link to read the review in full.

Elia on Ha Jin’s life of Li Bai

The Banished Immortal Ha Jin

Ha Jin 哈金 has written a biography of Li Bai 李白, The Banished Immortal: A Life of Li Bai, newly published by Pantheon–and Gina Elia has reviewed it for SupChina.

At points, her review gets into the intricate issues of what different contexts do to and for our readings of specific texts:

I, for one, feel that this understanding of Li Bai the man, rather than Li Bai the legend, causes the beauty of his poetry to resonate all the more. For example, Ha Jin explains that Li Bai wrote his poem “Please Drink” while in the midst of a lovely moonlit night he spent with two friends drinking, joking, and shouting out improvised lines of original poetry to one another. The scene represents a rare moment of levity and delight for Li Bai in a life largely full of failure and disappointment. My favorite part consists of the last few lines of the poem, which reads, “Let us buy wine and enjoy it at any cost. My dappled horse and gorgeous fur robe, let your boy take both to the shop and exchange them for good wine so we can drown our sorrow of ten thousand years.” Before I read Jin’s book, I read these lines as a pleasantly-worded ode to the delights of drinking. Reading it again in the context of Li Bai’s personal life, it takes on a more nuanced and bittersweet air to me. Now it speaks to me as an observation of the fleeting and transient nature of moments of joy in life, which is otherwise mostly fraught with difficulties.

But for all of Jin’s valiant attempts at excavating the man from the myth under which he’s buried, it is admittedly difficult to separate fact from legend when discussing someone who lived over a millennium ago, and Jin occasionally does fall under the trap of mythologizing his subject. Take the poet’s ethnicity, for instance. There’s plenty of evidence that suggests Li Bai may have been born in Suyab, Kyrgyzstan, and that his family relocated to Sichuan when he was a young child. After explaining this, Jin writes, “The truth is that the poet has long been uprooted from any specific place and belongs to the world,” a lovely turn of phrase implying that this important part of Li Bai’s family history is irrelevant to appreciating him as a poet.

Yet in the next paragraph, Jin insists that it’s fair to consider Li Bai Chinese at least in his heart, since he wrote about China as his home throughout his life. The author says, “For our purposes, it is entirely reasonable to assume that he was an overseas Chinese — a Chinese from a foreign land — if not a half Chinese.” For our purposes? What purposes? The attempt here to urge readers to consider Li Bai Chinese — in essence, if not in reality — perhaps reveals a bias of the author.

Click here for the full review.

Daryl Lim on Yeh’s Yang Mu at Cha

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.

Click here for the full review.

Li Shangyin reviewed in the new Asymptote

Li Shangyin, from New York Review Books, edited by Chloe Garcia Roberts with translations by with translations by Roberts, A. C. Graham, and Lucas Klein, won’t be available until July 31, but it’s already gotten reviewed in the new issue of Asymptote. Theophilus Kwek writes:

Reading sense in tandem with—and sometimes as secondary to—sound and sight can be slow and even frustrating for those of us accustomed to more expository translations. With this sensory emphasis Garcia Roberts holds the reader at a careful distance from conventional ideas of authorial “intention,” providing a space in which meaning can shimmer into view. Not unlike the equally allusive poems of John Ashbery or Geoffrey Hill that may be more familiar to Anglophone readers, Garcia Roberts’s translations force us to accept a necessary, unbridgeable gulf between what we know and what Li knew, the specificity of his experiences forever locked away in his language. And yet, as we pore over a translated text that is brimming with suggestion, we marvel nonetheless at the beauty and complexity of Li’s worlds.

It’s not a bad review, over all, but it still operates according to the same, lame untranslatability bias that’s familiar from most takes on premodern Chinese poetry put into English: Roberts, Kwek writes,

aims to reconcile Li’s bookish manner with naturalistic modern phrasing, but English, which affords few visual and tonal possibilities compared to Chinese characters, proves unable to handle both.

With that as your starting point, there’s not much of a chance you could be satisfied with any translation, is there?

Click the image for the full review.

Klein on Holton’s Narrative Poem by Yang Lian

Free first pageMy review of Narrative Poem 敘事诗, by Yang Lian 杨炼 and translated by Brian Holton (Bloodaxe, 2017), is out in the new issue of Translation and Literature (Vol. 27, issue 2).

It’s paywalled but for subscribers and certain academic institutions, but here’s a paragraph free:

That so much of Yang Lian’s poetics – indeed, his mythopoetics – centres on the Chinese past is a particular challenge for Holton as translator. Of course, some critics from China and elsewhere have accused Yang of writing a China of and for western understanding – but why not? In any event, that it is for westerners to understand does not make it easier to translate. Holton has not shied away from providing notes to mark moments where Yang makes allusions to people and places that fall outside the expected anglophone frame of reference. Mostly, however, it is in the strength of his diction that the power of his verse lies, just as the force of Yang Lian’s word choice is what makes his poetry most compelling in Chinese. The thought and emotion of Yang Lian’s writing are immanent in the words he uses – and the same is true of Holton’s translations.

Click the image above to link to the full review.

Turner on Bei Dao & Weinberger at Columbia

Image may contain: 2 people, people sitting

To promote City Gate, Open Up, Bei Dao 北岛 appeared with Eliot Weinberger at Columbia University on September 26. Matt Turner was in the audience, and here he gives his report on the evening:

We sat down in a very bright, medium-sized lecture hall that looked like it was modeled after a circa-1985 computer case. It filled up quickly with Chinese students. As much as their elders may complain about the ’90s generation, here they were—listening, taking notes, and asking questions. I looked around and noticed a couple of local poets in the audience. Bei Dao and Eliot Weinberger (along with an interpreter for Bei Dao whose name I didn’t catch) were introduced, read passages from his recent memoir, City Gate, Open Up, and launched into a discussion about the organization of the book (it was written in installments for a financial magazine) and the difficulty remembering the details necessary for its writing (photographs were needed).

Weinberger would ask a question in English, Bei Dao would look at him and say something brief in English—and then look at the interpreter for a translation of Weinberger’s comments. Bei Dao would reply in Chinese, Weinberger would look at the interpreter, and so on… Given that it was not billed as a Chinese-language event, the English was necessary—even if 95% of the audience understood Chinese.

The conversation had a number of moments like this:

Bei Dao (in English): I will tell you how my parents met, and how they made me.

Weinberger: You’ll tell me how they made meat?!?

This lightened the mood of the talk, which focused on Bei Dao’s childhood and youth during the Great Leap Forward and the Cultural Revolution. And Bei Dao made dark jokes about not having enough to eat and about missing exams because the schools were closed. To deflect some of the more pointed questions about Chinese history, he repeatedly insisted that the history of China during the period in question was tai fuza: too complex for easy summary or simple statement of fact. Bei Dao did not discuss the traumas of the Cultural Revolution (he goes into detail in his book), but emphasized the free travel for students unbound by the demands of a structured education. The period opened the door for its survivors to discover and reinvent themselves.

One person asked (paraphrasing): What do you think of the poetry written in China today, and what is your relationship to it.

Bei Dao: Tai fuza! Next!

Another person asked (paraphrasing): When you wrote your book, did you try to reconstruct the city you grew up in, or did you try to make it into a new home?

Bei Dao (paraphrasing): It would be impossible to reconstruct the city, as it’s changed beyond recognition. And whenever I travel through China I notice the cities now all look the same, which is the problem of modernization in China.

He also said: When I’m at home, I feel lonely. When I travel, even back to Beijing, I feel the same. This is the basic contradiction of being a poet…

Afterwards, I was nervous about talking with Bei Dao. When we met, I forgot all the Chinese I had just rehearsed in my mind. I gave him a magazine with my review of him memoir in it. He seemed very happy about this, and signed my book. We stumbled through. Next!

–Matt Turner

Klein on New Premodern Chinese Poetry Translations in LARB

2016-07-15_1030The Los Angeles Review of Books @lareviewofbooks has published “Tribunals of Erudition and Taste: or, Why Translations of Premodern Chinese Poetry Are Having a Moment Right Now,” my take on what looks like something of a resurgence in translation into English.

I use a nineteenth-century debate between Matthew Arnold and Francis Newman to frame a review of Chloe Garcia Roberts’s translation of Li Shangyin 李商隱, David Hinton’s translation of Wang An-shih 王安石, an anthology / travelogue by Red Pine (Bill Porter), and Stephen Owen’s translation of the complete Du Fu 杜甫, alongside Ira Nadel on Ezra Pound and the New Directions re-release of Ezra Pound’s Cathay (and mention of Gary Snyder, Bob Perelman, Paul Kroll, Eliot Weinberger, and more). Here’s how it ends:

The stakes of poetry translation from Chinese are indeed the stakes both of how we understand translation and how we in the English-speaking world understand China. Translation is neither simply a matter for scholars to judge, nor is it something that can be left to the unaccountable imaginings of revelers in poetry — any more than China should be something only specialists or tourists alone can pronounce upon. Rather, bringing expertise and excitement together, translation can help expand our conceptions of poetry and of China, demanding more from ourselves, and more from it. The contentiousness may remain, but it can motivate us to create new and better representations.

So will American poetry turn outward again, and in the process help redefine China as more than a strategic competitor, accused of currency manipulation by presidential candidates, or more than a polluted manufacturer to which we outsource abuses of human rights and labor? Will Chinese literature prove an old repository of poetic presentation from which the United States can both learn and create new beauty? Certainly larger historical and socioeconomic forces will determine the directions our poetry turns, but insofar as what we publish has any role, I see reasons for optimism — and in that optimism, a readiness to engage in the tensions of global and local that inhere in translation.

The recent poetry collections covered in this essay demonstrate a hunger for new ways of understanding and appreciating China, and more are coming soon … With these additions reaching new audiences, we may see premodern Chinese poetry making it new once again.

Click the image for the full article.