Spotlight on Literary Translators is a regular feature here at Intralingo. The aim of these interviews is to get the word out about our profession and the works we bring into other languages. The insight the interviewees provide is also sure to help all of us who are aspiring or established literary translators. Enjoy!
Spotlight on Literary Translator Lucas Klein
LC: What language(s) and genres do you translate?
LK: The languages I translate from are classical and modern Chinese. By classical I mean wenyanwen, or what’s sometimes called “literary Chinese,” and which was the written language of all formal and literary writing from the bronze age to the early twentieth century; despite the fact that it’s the same language and the grammar stayed the same for thousands of years, vocabulary and especially linguistic conventions did change, which means someone might be more familiar with some periods than others, and I’m most comfortable with writing from the Tang (618 – 907).
By modern I mean standard written Chinese, which is closest to Mandarin or Putonghua when spoken, but which is also what Cantonese looks like when it’s written formally (that is, I can translate from formal written Cantonese, even though I can’t speak it very well; I suppose I could translate from colloquial Cantonese if it were written down, but it would take a very long time, and there’s not much literature written in the Cantonese vernacular. I notice I’m going into this much detail only because I’ve been living in Hong Kong for two and a half years).
My main interest as far as genre goes is poetry, both medieval and modern / contemporary. Modern poetry is usually written in modern Chinese, though poetry in classical Chinese still gets written today. I’ve also published translations of short stories, essays, non-fiction, and academic prose from modern Chinese, and prose from classical Chinese.
After I lived in Paris a decade ago a non-literary translation I did from French was published, and I think I had a couple poems translated from French published as well, but I couldn’t really do that again.
LC: How did you get started as a literary translator?
When I was an undergrad, double-majoring in Literary Studies and Chinese, and taking creative writing classes here and there on the side, I decided that literary translation must be the hardest kind of writing there was, and therefore the most interesting. My logic was that you had to produce something that was almost as good as the original, but not so good that it would take the place of the original and keep people from learning that language so they could read it as it was originally written. I’m not sure what I think about that anymore, but I remember it being a revelation.
From there I read Eliot Weinberger’s Nineteen Ways of Looking at Wang Wei, which showed me how translations were such an intricate process of reading, and only became more convinced of my earlier decision. I also think this had to do with being a bit disaffected and dissatisfied with the courses I just mentioned I’d been taking: caught between literature classes that were on the one hand very intellectually stimulating but at the same time rather alienated from the emotional connection I thought should be inherent to the reading experience, and then creative writing courses that were energizing and inspiring but a bit allergic to considering meaning, I turned to literary translation as a way for me to reconcile both experiences without sacrificing my antagonistic attitude, since I could still be opposed to how both programs overlooked translation. Anyway, one of my senior theses both included and was about translation, and from there it only deepened. A couple years later, starting to work for a literary journal while living in Paris, I told the editor I was interested in translation; “You’re a translator!” he asked, and, instantaneously crossing the bridge to being from being interested in, I said, “Well, yes!”
LC: What do you love most and least about this work?
LK: What I love least about the work is how roundly and thoroughly it’s ignored. We have been pretty successful at making sure that translators are at least mentioned by name when our books are reviewed, but we’re still in the one- or two-word evaluation ghetto (i.e., “faithfully translated by,” or “superbly translated by,” or “perfunctorily translated by”).
But let me give a more immediate example: I teach in the Translation program of the department of Chinese, Translation and Linguistics at City University of Hong Kong, where each year our raise is calculated based in part on our research output (teaching and service also count). And yet when we publish translations—whether it’s a poem, an article, a book, or whatever—it is not considered part of our output. Let me go over that one more time: I teach translation in a translation program in a department whose name contains the word translation, and yet when I translate, it’s not considered part of my work. I’m hired to teach students about translation, but they learn from people who have no incentive to publish or even perform translation. This is an insult to me and to people like me, and I think it should be an embarrassment to the managerial staff of my university.
And it’s an extension of how often translators go unpaid or underpaid, unacknowledged and overlooked. The idea, of course, is that anyone who is bilingual can do it, though if this were the case I can’t imagine why there would be a need for translation programs in the first place. So what I hate best about translation has little to do with translation itself, but rather with how the act of translation is perceived (I mean, I hate translating when the piece I’m working on is boring, but that’s not really particular to translation; I hate conversations with people I find boring, too).
What I love most about the work is how all knowledge seems to be able to be organized according to instances of translation, and when you’re working on something, any moment could be a revelation of access towards such organization of knowledge. That sounds pretty abstract, so let me see if I can break it down a bit.
The word “cipher” is an instance of many translations: it came to Latin from Arabic şifr صفر, which means “empty, zero,” which was itself a translation of Sanskrit śūnya शून्य, meaning “empty”; but it also describes translation in more ways than one: it’s both a code, or something that needs to be deciphered or translated, but it also refers to a person who is a non-entity, both there and not there at the same time—like a translator. These are the reasons I named the translation-focused literary journal I founded “CipherJournal.”
In a less philosophical way, we come across examples like this all the time when we deal with common expressions. I was telling my class last semester how it’s natural to think that expressions have always been in our language just because we heard them first in our language. For instance, they assumed that “double-edged sword” had always been a Chinese expression, and that the English version must have been someone’s translation of the Chinese. My assumption was the opposite, and I had a lot of circumstantial historical evidence on my side (there are many English expressions that have found their way into Chinese in the last hundred years, but I can only think of “saving face” as a Chinese expression that’s gained currency in English, and words like ketchup from Cantonese): I explained that in classical Chinese, a sword, jiàn 劍, needed two blades, whereas dāo 刀, which today means “knife,” would have one. Digging a bit deeper, though, I found that the expression probably originated in Persian or Arabic. And it makes sense, too: in Europe, swords were also always double-edged; only in the middle east, where swords could be curved, single-edged sabers, would remarking on the double-edginess of a sword make any sense.
LC: Can you tell us a little about a recent project?
LK: I have a number of projects going on right now. A long-term project to translate late Tang dynasty poet Li Shangyin (ca. 813 – 858), a nearer-term project translating seminal contemporary poet Mang Ke (b. 1951) for Zephyr Press, and an academic book on how translation theory can be used to elucidate the relationship between Chinese poetry and shifting concepts of “world literature,” as well as a few recent ones, including Endure (Black Widow Press, 2011), a collection of Bei Dao translations I did with the poet Clayton Eshleman. But what still excites me most for the purposes of this spotlight is my translation of Notes on the Mosquito: Selected Poems of contemporary Chinese poet Xi Chuan (New Directions, 2012).
Notes on the Mosquito covers Xi Chuan’s career as a poet from when he began writing lyrical poetry in the mid-eighties to the expansive prose poems he writes today, and in translating it I had to get in touch with all sorts of matters of cultural and literary history involving China and the rest of the world, which offered me all kinds of revelations along the lines I was discussing above.
Xi Chuan is a very allusive poet, though he’s also very accessible (think Ezra Pound meets Jorge Luis Borges), drawing on a wealth of cultural knowledge for his poetry; this meant that I got to trace his references as he wrote about finding a brick engraved with Sanskrit in southwest China, or pearl falcons in the Liao dynasty (907 – 1125), or transcription on wood in the iron age.
He’s also a very internationally-minded poet, and so his allusions are not only to Chinese history, but to the interactions between China and the rest of the world (in fact, I’d say that his interest in ancient China follows his interest in Borges and Pound), which I also got to trace as he wrote about his travels to Xinjiang, or the Sand Sea Scrolls, or Paradise Lost in the Dictionary of Modern Chinese.
There are also moments where, as a translator, I had to challenge received notions of fidelity: at one point he compares something to the emerald green of bok choy; this is a nice image, but the problem is that bok choy in Chinese means “white cabbage,” so I had to find a way to bring out the play of colors unmatched by the nomenclature. I went with “as purple as red cabbage.”
I have a blog to promote Xi Chuan and Notes on the Mosquito, called “Notes on the Mosquito” and online at https://xichuanpoetry.com. You can find links there to reviews of the book, as well as to ordering information and earlier versions published in lit. mags. online; you’ll also find links to other goings-on in translation and Chinese poetry, as well as many other of my writings on translation (I write a lot of book reviews; it’s one way I try to give back to the community of writers and translators—and I got the opportunity to translate Xi Chuan because of a book review I wrote). I expect it will go on for a while; there’s a surprisingly large amount of material online about translation and Chinese poetry available for sharing. And as my new projects come out, I imagine I’ll be making announcements there as well.
Finally, and without a doubt my most important project, I have a young son (born January 12). He’s a translation, too, since we plan to raise him (at least) bilingually!
LC: Lucas, what a pleasure it was to interview you and to ponder all you have to say on this topic! And congratulations on what will undoubtedly be your greatest translation: your son.
Dear readers: Please leave any questions or comments for Lucas Klein in a comment!
Lucas Klein—a former radio DJ and union organizer—is a writer, translator, and editor. His translations, essays, and poems have appeared at Two Lines, Jacket, and Drunken Boat, and he has regularly reviewed books for Rain Taxi and other venues. A graduate of Middlebury College (BA) and Yale University (PhD), he is Assistant Professor in the dept. of Chinese, Translation & Linguistics at City University of Hong Kong. With Haun Saussy and Jonathan Stalling he edited The Chinese Written Character as a Medium for Poetry: A Critical Edition, by Ernest Fenollosa and Ezra Pound (Fordham University Press, 2008), and he co-translated a collection of Bei Dao 北島 poems with Clayton Eshleman, published as Endure (Black Widow Press, 2011). His translations of Xi Chuan 西川 appeared from New Directions in April, 2012, as Notes on the Mosquito: Selected Poems, and he is also at work translating Tang dynasty poet Li Shangyin 李商隱 and seminal contemporary poet Mang Ke 芒克.