Translation & Cultural Distinction

In his introduction to Xi Chuan and Zhou Zan from their 92nd St. Y reading on October 10th, Forrest Gander referred to something his Brown University colleague John Cayley had said about classical Chinese poetry in English translation. Sylvia Lin and Howard Goldblatt, the translation editors of the NEA anthology Push Open the Window, also picked up on the same statement, writing in their “Translation Co-Editors’ Preface”:

When we agreed to take on this exciting project as translation editors, we were reminded of a comment that has long resonated with us, as readers and translators of Chinese literature and as “shameless” promoters of the best of it, in the original when possible and in translation otherwise. John Cayley, himself a translator and a publisher of Chinese poetry in translation, has written: “Incontestably, the translation of classical Chinese poetry into English has given us a body of work which is culturally distinct from the poetry of its host language but which has immediate appeal, and is often read with intense pleasure and a deep awareness of its moral and artistic significance.” The challenge, for us, was to assist in bringing over contemporary poetry from China such that Cayley’s assertion could be modified by replacing a single word and remain true.

This is interesting to consider. Certainly what Cayley says is true, that English translations of classical Chinese poetry have been loved by readers and influential to poets who have little or no knowledge of Chinese as a language or a culture otherwise; Eliot Weinberger‘s early Nineteen Ways of Looking at Wang Wei and more recent New Directions Anthology of Classical Chinese Poetry are testaments to this fact. And yet, when it comes to contemporary Chinese poetry, I’m not so ready to agree (I’ve been critical, for instance, of anthologies of contemporary Chinese poetry that seem to exploit the creativity of the translator and suppress what makes the original original).

Certainly translating a poem from a thousand years ago and a poem from this decade are somewhat different activities. Certainly the cultural distinction of contemporary Chinese vis-à-vis the contemporary anglophone world is much less than the cultural distinction of China in the Tang or Song. Do facts of proximity–from globalization to immigration to travel to…–mean that we translators have less cultural leeway when dealing with contemporary Chinese writing than with writing from ancient China? In other words, do we have to make our translations less culturally distinct from their originals because contemporary Chinese originals are already closer to us than ancient Chinese originals? I find this question especially relevant to translating Xi Chuan, who often incorporates a view of classical China from (for instance, his series “Thirty Historical Reflections” 鉴史三十章).

This deserves more thought, of course, and I certainly don’t want to prescribe anything all translators everywhere have to follow. I will say this, though: my goal in translation is to satisfy three kinds of readers, those who read Chinese poetry, those who read poetry in English, and those who read translations. If I don’t think what I’ve written satisfies those three very different sets of demands, I don’t think I’ve written a good translation.