Eleanor Goodman on Poetry Translation & the AWP

Poet and translator from the Chinese Eleanor Goodman attended the AWP in Chicago last week. The following is her report on the state of translation and poetry on display.


It’s fair to say that translation was not completely absent at AWP. Buried in an overwhelming heap of events were a few related to translation, bilingual literature, or teaching bilingual / multilingual students. The most attended translation event I saw was a reading put on by Poets House, headlining Bei Dao, Eliot Weinberger, Forrest Gander, and C. D. Wright. It was held in one of the ballrooms at the Chicago Hilton and attracted a nice crowd that nevertheless looked a bit sparse in the oversized room. The hour consisted mainly of Bei Dao and Eliot Weinberger reading from The Rose of Time 时间的玫瑰, Bei Dao’s “new & selected” of 2010 from New Directions, edited and in part translated by Weinberger. The fun of the event was to see the interactions between Bei Dao and Weinberger, who are old friends and quite comfortable with each other.

 It was also amusing to be in a fancy ballroom with a respectfully silent and literary audience after having heard a nearly identical performance the night before, when Bei Dao and Weinberger gave an off-site reading at a Barnes and Noble attached to DePaul University. At that reading, which about fifteen people attended in a cramped space between shelves of romance books and a display of graphic novels, the two had had to compete with rowdy students and a few confused shoppers who stumbled in looking for the latest Danielle Steele novel. In the end, though, the intimacy of that gathering appealed more to me than the larger more formal reading the next day. Also attending both events was Jeffery Yang, who is the New Directions editor for Lucas Klein’s translations of Xi Chuan. Chinese poetry is indeed a small world. So small that on the way out, I ran into Jonathan Stalling and had a lively conversation with him about his fascinating experimental poetry book Yingelishi.

 From there, I went to a reading held by Poetry International, which I hoped would involve a lot of translation but didn’t. Perhaps editors think that poets reading their own work is more of a draw than translators reading the work of other poets; perhaps they’re right. There was another disappointment in the form of a panel titled “War is Not Lost in Translation.” The panel itself was pretty interesting, and the translations read aloud were, to my ear, quite good. But it’s a problem at these conferences that much is promised and then not much can be delivered in the time allotted. The panel members were all smart, engaged translators—working from Hebrew, Urdu, Icelandic; I just wished someone there actually translated writing from a current conflict zone.

 Downstairs in the belly of the Hilton, which is amazingly dark and warren-like, was the bookfair. It was impossible to locate anything, and if you happened upon what you wanted accidently, there was no way you’d find it again if you turned your back. Wandering the aisles, I did find some presses and journals focusing on translation, though they were fairly few and far between. New Directions had a nice simple setup, manned by Jeffrey Yang when I dropped by. He pointed me a few aisles over to the Dalkey Archives, whose table was crammed with books of translation, although very few from Asian languages. There were also displays from the PEN Center, Poetry International, The Center for the Art of Translation, and Zephyr Press. Most of these were to be found in the low-ceilinged, overcrowded quarters of the Table section of the bookfair. The fancier presses were on the Booth side. Booths, apparently, cost about twice as much as Tables, and afford about twice as much space per outfit. From this I conclude that translation, while acknowledged by everyone I met as very important, vital even (this always said in an earnest tone), is still stuck living in one of the low-rent ghettos of the literary realm.

Probably my favorite of the panels I attended was called “Translation as the Actualization of Poetry and the Blurring of Literary Histories, Nations, and Borders.” The panelists mainly wrote in or translate from Spanish, which is pretty far from my own forte. But they were a lively bunch, and gave spirited presentations to a large room of perhaps a hundred and fifty chairs, eleven of which were occupied. (Yes, I counted.) This meant that the ratio of panelists to audience was almost 1:2. Granted, it was 9 a.m. on the last day of the conference. And none of the presenters were superstars. Nevertheless, I found it discomfiting that in a conference of more than ten thousand participants, only eleven of us had found the translation of poetry interesting enough to attend. I mean, where was everybody?

 The panelists were so engaged in their conversation that they went a bit over time, and toward the end, I noticed people trickling in from the back. Could it be that they were translation fanatics who had just overslept? Were all these latecomers kicking themselves from missing the panel they’d been waiting for the whole conference? The panel ended and we all got up to leave, and suddenly we bedraggled, sleep-deprived eleven had to fight our way through the human flood that gushed into the room to fill those one hundred and fifty seats. What were all these enthusiastic, almost frantic, people coming to hear—a poetry panel? a discussion of contemporary fiction? a reading by someone famous? I felt warmed. Perhaps I had misjudged the bulk of the attendees of AWP. They really were interested in something literary, something having to do with art, with creativity, with the beautiful and profound. Then I made the mistake of looking at the schedule: “Agents & Editors: Partners in Publishing. An inside look at the manuscript acquisition process.”