Madeleine Thien on Chinese Translation and “Poems Without an ‘I’”

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.

5 thoughts on “Madeleine Thien on Chinese Translation and “Poems Without an ‘I’”

  1. dear Lucas,

    I read Victor Mair’s post and your incisive response, and have been reflecting on my choice of words. I find that I (perhaps wrongly) still lean towards the untranslatable description, as my position (as a reader but not a translator) is that translation is art and thereby grapples with what all great art does: the representation of reality. The gap between the poem and its existence into another language is, for me, a real gap. And art lies in the degree to which this gap – which can never be closed – can be approached.

    Perhaps my fault in using this line is that I’m stating the obvious: that all translation is an attempt (I think you say this in a different way when you say there is no perfect translation).

    I disagree strongly with Prof Mair’s assertion that to note untranslatability is to dismiss the act of translation. For me the complete opposite holds. My observation on untranslatability is the starting point for examining a collection of truly extraordinary translations: Hinton’s lifetime of work on Du Fu’s poems (including re-translations).

    What I hope to highlight are the formal and innovative choices Hinton makes to close the gap; but Hinton also seems to accept that the gap, too, must appear. I wrote, “He isn’t afraid to baffle us; the gaps remind us that we are only guests here, and that the poems do—indeed should—hover a bit beyond our grasp.” Perhaps this – actually – is the controversial opinion I’m putting forth. But I do think that readers over the last decades are beginning to appreciate this rupture and to not see it as a ‘flaw’ of translation.

    How to signal the philosophical weight of a word (absence, solitude, tzu-jan) that does not hold (even close to) a similar weight or history in the English language? Hinton very much seems to be grappling with this in Awakened Cosmos, and thus the tripartite structure he turns to (and which many Sinologists and translators use): a) word-for-word translation; b) translation; c) essay or exegesis. For English-language readers who will never be able to read the original, this is how we begin to approach the gap, and therein – I really strongly feel – lies the beauty, erudition and art. We readers are given a way to read differently, and that is what I hoped to draw attention to in my essay.

    About the ‘I’ – yes, this is my fault. I was referring to Tang forms in general, and lü-shi in particular where, as Cheng notes, the absence of ‘I’ is “practically total.” Hinton notes it as well, “And again, this is the perspective of most all classical Chinese poems, for they are at once selfless (the grammatically absent “I”) and full of the concerns of selfhood.” Of course, in turning to other forms and in his own innovations, Li Bai is (no surprise here) the outlier.

    These are my thoughts. They come from deep admiration for the act of translation – and my own reliance on the translator. There is, of course, a personal aspect for me as well, as my parents (Hakka and Cantonese speakers) did not raise me in Chinese (nor did they fluently speak each other’s dialects). They also felt the stigma of living in an English-language world and knowing they would never feel entirely at ease – at home – in the English language. (I said earlier I was not a translator, but more truthfully I was only ever a translator for them.) Consequently, I’ve spent many years thinking about the real and unavoidable gap of untranslatability in our own lives – but more importantly the ways in which we do attempt translation, and find ways to approach one another.


  2. May I make an unrelated remark about the paragraph under discussion here? I generally enjoyed Ms. Thien’s well researched and beautifully written review, and it’s high time that the NYRB took Chinese literature (and not just politics) more seriously, so kudos for that. And while I deeply respect all of the translators on this list – indeed, several of them are personal friends! – and admire their work, the article as a whole perpetrates the impression that translation from Chinese and more broadly the field of Sinology is a man’s arena. All of the figures mentioned (all!), including the above along with Pound, Rexroth, and Snyder, are men. While this may reflect Sinological circles as they existed half a century ago, this certainly does not reflect the field now. Carolyn Kizer wasn’t taken very seriously at the time for her translations of classical poetry, but she deserves much better now. Current translators of Chinese poetry Chloe Garcia Roberts, Andrea Lingenfelter, Chenxin Jiang, Jennifer Feeley, Tammy Lai-Ming Ho, Jami Proctor-Xu, and many other women all do spectacular work and deserve to be recognized. Obviously, not every review can name every name, and I’m sympathetic to time and space restraints, having faced them myself. I also hate sounding like broken record sitting on a soap box. But I hope that moving forward in the field we can broaden our range and give credit where credit is richly due.

    With the greatest respect –

    • dear Eleanor,

      you are absolutely right and this is a stunning gap in my own reading and library, with poetry though not with fiction. I’m going to seek out these translations. Thank you. I’m working on a different essay now, concerning a very different kind of work by a woman translator which has sat waiting, unpublished, for 170 years. So this is at forefront of my thoughts lately. Thank you again: “give credit where credit is richly due.”


  3. Dear Madeleine,

    I’m looking forward to reading your next piece! Were all reviewers and scholars to receive critique as graciously and productively as you do, the world would be a far better place. We can only hope our less enlightened colleagues take careful note.

    And thank you, Lucas, as always, for hosting this highly beneficial forum –

    my very best,

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