Writing for the LARB China Channel, Eleanor Goodman reviews The Reciprocal Translation Project, edited by James Sherry and Sun Dong 孙冬. And she comes out swinging!
The Reciprocal Translation Project is a messy, fraught endeavor. Here is the back blurb, which is also the first paragraph of the editors’ introduction:
In The Reciprocal Translation Project, six Chinese and six American poets have translated each other’s works. Since few of these poets speak both languages, bilingual specialists have fashioned literal translations including several options for words that have multiple meanings. These literal translations have been given to three poets in the other language to write poetic translations. In this volume, then, the reader will find an original poem, a literal translation, and three poetic translations of each poem as well as explanatory notes and biographies.
One hardly knows where to begin with this tangle. Here we have poets who have “translated” each other’s work, despite largely not knowing each other’s languages. This is done grâce à people mysteriously labeled “bilingual specialists,” who put together something called “literal translations, including several options for words that have multiple meanings.” That is to say: they translate the poems. So why are these “bilingual specialists” not the “translators”? The point, as I take it, is to save that particular appellation for “the poets” involved in the project, an issue which I will return to below.
She comes out swinging, but can she be wrong when she frames Xi Chuan this way?
Forgive me for being stodgy, but to my mind, a “translation” that changes the mode of address, the timing, the references, the places and the priorities of the original is not a translation at all. It is a new poem that stands on its own, or not.
The “literal translation” of Xi Chuan’s poem “Travel Diary” (出行日记) begins:
I drove the car onto the highway, which was precisely to begin a massacre of butterflies; or the butterflies seeing me speeding toward them, just decided to launch a suicide flight. The smashed to death on the windshield. They stubbornly mashed to death on my windshield.
This is an awkward but not inaccurate rendering of the Chinese. Nada Gordon’s “translation” is:
Wanted to massacre some fucking butterflies so drove my fucking car onto the fucking highway to massacre them. They were kamikaze butterflies, they were going to fucking kill themselves on my windshield. Splat. Fuck those fucking butterflies, stubborn assholes all up on my windshield.
Whatever one thinks of this, it certainly does not represent Xi Chuan’s tone or intention.
And she goes further:
The editors comment in their introduction: “Many modern translators present themselves as poets, not simply facilitators of communication. Revaluing translation in this way brings the translator out of the shadow of the author, leveling their identities.”
But this anthology has precisely the opposite effect. By involving “bilingual specialists” who actually do the grunt work of the translation, and then privileging the non-English-speaking or non-Chinese-speaking poet by labeling him or her the “translator,” the real translators are effectively hidden. There is also an underlying assumption that the act of translating involves grasping the literal meaning of a word (“including several options for words that have multiple meanings” – as though there are words that do not!) and that’s all that is needed. There is no acknowledgement of the structure, form, tone, emotional texture, repetition, surprise, rhythm, rhyme, sound effect, level of diction, intent, etc., etc., of the original.
Click the image above for the full review.