That bounty is now on full display in English, thanks to Lucas Klein, the translator of Words as Grain: The Poetry of Duo Duo, published by Yale University Press. The volume opens with new work—Duo Duo’s poems last appeared in English twenty years ago, while he was still living abroad—and moves in reverse chronology back to the Cultural Revolution years, which he spent in rural Hebei Province along with other “Misties.” Klein’s introduction helpfully sketches the politics of modern China throughout the poet’s life, but the poems themselves are more concerned with a personal cosmology of memory, desire, and stillness. Many contain explicitly Buddhist references and idioms—“sūtra rivers,” non-self, the “quietude of original dwellings rhetoric abandoned”—as if the poet is forging a new grammar of devotion from his own broken syntax, straying from classical prosody and imagery in a way that recalls—at least for some English readers—the modernists who strayed from Tennyson’s finely cadenced rhetoric into avant-garde mysticism. One might call it modernist Zen: a hunger for unmediated divinity and a deep suspicion of language, with its stale cliches, as a pathway to enlightenment. Ultimately, the impression one gets from the full arc of Duo Duo’s career is that of a poet enraptured by the metaphysics of writing itself.
Click on the image to read the piece in full.
Thanks, Drew Calvert and Asymptote for the great review!
Lucas Klein in discussion with Nick Admussen, Chris Song, and Jami Proctor Xu, moderated by Tammy Lai-Ming Ho
In “The Force of Forging Words,” a poem in Words as Grain: New and Selected Poems by premier Chinese poet Duo Duo 多多 (Yale University Press, The Cecile and Theodore Margellos World Republic of Letters series), translated by Lucas Klein, Duo Duo writes: “outside force, continuing on / from enough, is insufficient hallucination // … // this is rationale’s wasteland / but the ethics of poetry.”
What are the ethics of poetry? Is poetry the wasteland of the rationale, or of the rational? Is translation a kind of hallucination, and is it sufficient? What care needs to be taken to translate such poetry? Our speakers will discuss these questions with the translator to celebrate the publication of Words as Grain. ▁▁▁▁
He’s got lots of criticism as well as praise, but ends up saying the book is as important as the poetry of Huang Tingjian 黃庭堅 (1045-1105).
Huang’s strikingly idiosyncratic, difficult, dense, and sometimes confusing poetry is not beloved by all, but it did herald a new direction in Chinese poetics that challenged both his admirers and detractors to respond. I think that the same could be said of The Organization of Distance. There is a distinct synthetic quality to portions of the book … that is going to rub some readers the wrong way. However, the challenge of Klein’s insights will be of interest and importan[ce] to a range of audiences. His book, quite amazingly, speaks to scholars and readers of both modern and classical Chinese poetry, engaging the scholarship from both of these fields while challenging its members to think outside their disciplinary boxes. The book is suitable for in-depth graduate seminars, especially on the topics of translation and translingual practice … Klein’s book is important because his arguments are in dialogue with a larger movement to reconsider the global dimensions of the medieval world, both the way in which poetry during the Tang-Song period borrowed objects and translated ideas from broader global exchanges of the past and the way that this poetry continues to be recast and reinvented by poets of China’s present.
Click on the image above to read the review in full.
In the midst of a pandemic defined by isolation, our second Poems in Translation Contest brought together 935 poems from 448 poets and 87 countries, translated from 58 languages. We are thrilled to announce, alongside our partners at the Academy of American Poets, this year’s winners, selected by Pushcart prizewinner David Tomas Martinez. The four winning poems will be published in Poem-a-Day and in Words Without Borders every Saturday this September, which is National Translation Month, and into the first week of October. In celebrating these works, we hope to expand the readership of groundbreaking international poetry and to create, in a time of global crisis, opportunities for connection and meaning across borders, languages, and cultures.
Congratulations to Chenxin Jiang for her translation of “Trial Run” 預習 by Yau Ching 游靜!
Writing for 4Columns, Andrew Chan has reviewed My Name Will Grow Wide Like a Tree: Selected Poems (Graywolf) by Yi Lei 伊蕾, translated by Tracy K. Smith and Changtai Bi.
After a nice contextualization of Yi Lei and her poetry, Chan gets to the goods of what he calls the “problematic translation”:
Saturated with Smith’s voice and propelled by her unerring ear for catchy bits of diction, these translations often feel more rewarding to read as a fresh batch of Smith’s own poems than as interpretations of pieces written on the other side of the world decades ago.
it’s unfortunate that the always-fraught issue of translation will be distracting for any reader, like myself, who is proficient enough in both languages to recognize the glaring chasms in style, tone, and content. There exists an understandable but faulty assumption that certain languages are so distant from one another that translation requires a high degree of artistic license. But words still mean what they do. In many instances throughout the book, phrases, images, and metaphors that Smith and Bi could have brought into English with relative ease are needlessly contorted or jettisoned altogether, while elements that do not exist in the less flowery originals are allowed to proliferate like weeds … I emerged from My Name Will Grow Wide Like a Tree in a state of confusion, grateful for having been introduced to Yi Lei’s intoxicating voice and for Smith’s undeniably supple musicality, but concerned about the false conclusions that English-only readers will draw from these willfully unfaithful renditions.
LitHub has published an article by former Poet Laureate of the United States (2017-2019) Tracy K. Smith, about her experiences co-translating (with Changtai Bi) Chinese poet Yi Lei 伊蕾 (1951-2018) for her new book My Name Will Grow Wide Like a Tree (Graywolf).
Smith writes of her initial encounter with Yi Lei:
I’d been given a rough translation of “A Single Woman’s Bedroom,” and I’d been drawn into the expansive sweep of it. The poem is made up of fourteen related sections that follow almost improvisationally from one another, each driven by a sharp emotional insistence. I felt admiration for this poet’s passion, her sense of play, the ways each new gesture brought in a new gust of energy and indelible imagery. Her poem’s relentless availability to love, even in the wake of betrayal or devastation, spoke to feelings of desire, resistance, and loss that live in and have instigated a number of my own poems.
“Would it be okay,” I’d asked Nancy to ask Yi Lei, “if in certain of my translations, instead of being faithful to the literal features of the poem, I sought to build a similar spirit or feeling for readers of American English?”
There was some back and forth in Mandarin. “Yes,” was the eventual answer.
“I want to make the reader feel at home in these poems. Would it be okay if certain details were to shift or be replaced with others rooted in this culture?”
Again, there was more back and forth across the table. And then Nancy told me that Yi Lei was comfortable with my making these kinds of nuanced choices.
We weren’t even midway through our long New Year’s lunch, yet I was brimming with joy at the prospect of living awhile in the vision and vocabulary of these poems and this imagination. Yi Lei trusted me to live with and respond to her poems, and to offer them to readers in the way that I heard and felt them. It was a remarkable freedom and a daunting responsibility. And, yes, I was already committed to the task of shepherding this indispensable voice into a living contemporary English.
Remarkable freedom, daunting responsibility. Toward the end of the essay she explains her working relationship with her co-translator, offering an example of how she revised his work.
Our manner of collaborating was this: working from David’s literal translation of a manuscript of Yi Lei’s poems, I would listen to the poem’s statements and the images, essentially trying to visualize the poem’s realm, and to align myself with the feeling and logic of the work. Then, I’d attempt to re-envision and re-situate these things in English. Occasionally, this was a matter of shifting toward smoother, more active, evocative language. Often, it entailed locating a relationship between verbs and nouns and aligning those features within a new metaphor or image system, as occurred in this passage from David’s literal translation of “Love’s Dance”:
When you quietly evaded It seemed that land sank in front of the chest My shout was blocked by echoes It was invisible hands that forged my mistake To avoid a pitiful tragedy I strangled the freedom of souls
To let my reason be pitch-black from then I am willing to be dominated by you
I allowed land sank, blocked, echoes, forged, tragedy, and pitch-black to guide me toward the metaphor of mining, which resulted in this passage from my version of the poem:
What happened deep in the mountain of me. And then the mine in collapse. The shaft Choked with smoke. Voice burying voice. An absence of air, preponderance of pitch. I don’t want to know, or understand, or be restored To reason. In the wake of certain treasons, I am
Still domitable, a claim in wait. I am Possessed of my depths. I am willing still.
My strategy, whenever I reached a point of hesitation, was to ask the surrounding features of the poem to suggest a continuity that might guide me forward. Sometimes, I’d make a leap of faith, trusting to the larger energetic pull of the poem to keep me from losing the trail. Then I’d send my work to David, who would translate it back into Chinese for Yi Lei. Yi Lei read my version for feeling, image, and intention. If she recognized in my poem something essential from her original, we let things stand. Our conversation took place back and forth in this triangulated fashion.
“I have sought,” Smith writes, “in my translations of Yi Lei’s poems, to cleave to the original spirit, tone, and impetus.” But cleave is an interesting word, a contronym that means both uniting two things and splitting them.
“Missteps, Errata, Discoveries: A Translation Forum” features literary translators Nick Admussen, Eileen Chow, Brian Holton, Joanna Krenz, Chris Song, and Matt Turner, who will talk about how mistranslations might also be ‘portals to discovery’, as Stephen Dedalus put it. There will be a short Q&A session as well.
This discussion will take place online and people from all over the world are welcome to listen in. Moderated by Cha’s Co-editor Tammy Lai-Ming Ho and Cha’s Translation Editor Lucas Klein.
Date: Saturday 21 November 2020 Time: 10:00 – 11:45 p.m. (HK) [Find out what time it will be where you are] Platform: Zoom (Meeting ID: 931 7624 26950) Language: English Speakers: Nick Admussen, Eileen Chow, Brian Holton, Joanna Krenz, Chris Song, and Matt Turner. Moderators: Tammy Lai-Ming Ho and Lucas Klein
BIOS—Speakers: ◒ NICK ADMUSSEN (speaker) Nick Admussen is an associate professor of Chinese literature and culture at Cornell University. He is the author of Recite and Refuse: Contemporary Chinese Prose Poetry, the translator of Ya Shi’s 哑石 poetry collection Floral Mutter, and a poet whose most recent chapbook is titled Stand Back, Don’t Fear the Change. He was the recipient of a 2017 grant from the PEN/Heim fund for translation, has been anthologized in Best New Poets 2018 and Best Short Fictions 2017, and was a 2018 National Poetry Series finalist.
◒ BRIAN HOLTON (speaker) Brian Holton translates poetry and prose from modern and classical Chinese into English and Scots. He has published many books of Yang Lian’s 杨炼 work, most recently, Anniversary Snow (Shearsman Books, 2019), Venice Elegy (Edizioni Damocle, 2019), and Narrative Poem (Bloodaxe Books, 2017). His collection of classical poetry in Scots, Staunin Ma Lane, was published by Shearsman Books in 2016, and his Hard Roads An Cauld Hairst Winds: Li Bai an Du Fu in Scots will be published by Taproot Press in 2021. Brian makes regular appearances at conferences and literary festivals, and has lectured at universities in the UK, Europe, the USA, New Zealand, China, and elsewhere. He has won prizes for his translations and his own original poetry. He is currently recording Hassan’s Dream, his first solo album.
◒ JOANNA KRENZ (speaker) Joanna Krenz is an Assistant Professor at the Institute of Oriental Studies of Adam Mickiewicz University in Poznań, Poland. Her research focuses on contemporary literature in a comparative perspective, in particular literature’s connections with science, technology, and philosophy. She is also an active translator of Chinese poetry and prose into Polish, her recent translations include Yan Lianke’s 阎连科 novels Dream of Ding Village (Sen wioski Ding, 2019) and Explosion Chronicles (Kroniki Eksplozji, 2019). Currently, she is working on two projects: In Search of Singularity: Polish and Chinese Poetry Since 1989 and The World Re-versed: New Phenomena in Chinese Poetry as a Challenge and Inspiration to Literary Studies.
◒ CHRIS SONG 宋子江 (speaker) Chris Song is a poet, translator, and editor based in Hong Kong. He has published four collections of poetry and many volumes of poetry in translation. He received an “Extraordinary Mention” at Italy’s UNESCO-recognised Nosside World Poetry Prize 2013 and the Young Artist Award at the 2017 Hong Kong Arts Development Awards. In 2018 he obtained a PhD in Translation Studies from Lingnan University. More recently he won the Haizi Poetry Award in 2019. Chris is now Executive Director of the International Poetry Nights in Hong Kong 香港國際詩歌之夜 and Editor-in-Chief of Voice & Verse Poetry Magazine 聲韻詩刊.
◒ MATT TURNER (speaker) Matt Turner is the author of Not Moving (2019, Broken Sleep Books) and Wave 9: Collages (2021, Flying Island Books), and is the translator of Lu Xun’s 魯迅 Weeds 野草 (2019, Seaweed Salad Editions). With Weng Haiying he is co-translator of works by Yan Jun, Ou Ning, Hu Jiujiu and others. His essays and reviews have been published in Heichi, Cha, Music & Literature and many other journals. He lives in New York City, where he works as a freelance translator and editor.
◒ TAMMY LAI-MING HO (moderator) Tammy Lai-Ming Ho is the founding co-editor of the first Hong Kong-based international Asia-focused journal, Cha: An Asian Literary Journal, an editor of the academic journals Victorian Network and Hong Kong Studies, and the first English-language Editor of Voice & Verse Poetry Magazine 聲韻詩刊. She is an Associate Professor at Hong Kong Baptist University, where she teaches poetics, fiction, and modern drama. She is also the President of PEN Hong Kong, a Junior Fellow of the Hong Kong Academy of the Humanities, an advisor to the Leeds Centre for New Chinese Writing, and an Associate Director of One City One Book Hong Kong. Tammy’s first collection of poetry is Hula Hooping (Chameleon 2015), for which she won the Young Artist Award in Literary Arts from the Hong Kong Arts Development Council. Her first short story collection Her Name Upon The Strand (Delere Press), her second poetry collection Too Too Too Too (Math Paper Press) and chapbook An Extraterrestrial in Hong Kong (Musical Stone) were published in 2018. Her first academic book is Neo-Victorian Cannibalism (Palgrave, 2019). Tammy edited or co-edited seven literary volumes having a strong focus on Hong Kong, the most recent one being Twin Cities: An Anthology of Twin Cinema from Singapore and Hong Kong (Landmark Books, 2017). She guest-edited a Hong Kong Feature for World Literature Today (Spring 2019), the Hong Kong special issue of Svenska PEN’s PEN/Opp (formerly “The Dissident Blog”), and an e-chapbook of Hong Kong poetry published by Cordite Publishing. She is currently co-editing 2020: A Bilingual Anthology of Hong Kong Poetry with Chris Song. Tammy is also a translator and her literary translations can be found in World Literature Today, Chinese Literature Today, Pathlight: New Chinese Writing, among other places, and International Poetry Nights in Hong Kong (香港國際詩歌之夜) volumes (2015, 2017 and 2019). Her own poems have been translated into a number of languages, including Chinese, French, German, Latvian and Vietnamese.
◒ LUCAS KLEIN (moderator) Lucas Klein (PhD Yale) is a father, writer, and translator. Executive editor of the Hsu-Tang Library of Classical Chinese Literature from Oxford University Press, his scholarship and criticismhave appeared in the monograph The Organization of Distance: Poetry, Translation, Chineseness (Brill, 2018) and in Chinese Poetry and Translation: Rights and Wrongs (2019), co-edited with Maghiel van Crevel (downloadable for free from Amsterdam University Press), as well as in Comparative Literature Studies, LARB, Jacket, CLEAR, PMLA, and other journals. His translation Notes on the Mosquito: Selected Poems of Xi Chuan (New Directions, 2012) won the 2013 Lucien Stryk Prize; other translations include the poetry of Mang Ke, October Dedications (Zephyr and Chinese University Press, 2018), and contributions to Li Shangyin (New York Review Books, 2018). His translations of the poetry of Duo Duo, forthcoming from Yale University Press, won a PEN/Heim Translation Fund grant. He is an associate professor in the School of Chinese at the University of Hong Kong and the Translation Editor of Cha: An Asian Literary Journal.
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.