Renditions Distinguished Lecture Series on Literary Translation
A Massively Single Number 庞大的单数, now out from Shearsman Press, is an anthology showcasing the work of seven prizewinning poets, chosen from entries to the 2013 Artsbj.com International Chinese Poetry Prize, together with critical essays by prominent Chinese poets, and essays by Baz Kwakman and Antonia Byatt. The book was edited by Yang Lian 杨炼, who was involved in the competition from the very beginning, and was translated by Brian Holton.
The poets–Cao Shu 草树, Liao Hui 廖慧, Zang Di 藏棣, Yu Jian 于坚, Qi Ye 七夜, Zhong Shuo 钟硕, and Guo Jinniu 郭金牛–are mostly new to publication in English, and present a wide range of voices, ranging from the serene and other-worldly voice of the Taoist recluse, to the dispossessed voice of the migrant worker; there is wit, elegance, rough-edged anger, much novelty and startling creativity. The anthology is clear proof that Chinese poetry is alive and well, and going from strength to strength.
Click the image above for purchasing information.
Brian Holton reads his translation of a section of the forthcoming Narrative Poem 叙事诗 by Yang Lian 杨炼.
People’s Daily reports:
On the afternoon of August 2nd, during the member’s assembly of the 20th World Conference of the Federation of International Translators (FIT), FIT conferred The “Aurora Borealis” Prize on Xu Yuanchong, a Chinese translator. This international award is hosted every three years. Xu is the first Chinese winner of the award.
As this blog often hosts links to goings-on in Chinese poetry (from any era) as translated into or reported in English, I try to keep things civil–there is a lot of Chinese poetry, and a lot of different tastes, and not much translation, so I want to accommodate and encourage as much breadth as possible. Translation is an expression not of oneself but of another, and I don’t feel the need to parade my opinions on this format. If I don’t want to repeat something, I’ll pass over it in silence, as they say–and maybe you can’t tell whether I’m relegating it to oblivion out of spite or if I just missed it.
But sometimes I can’t resist letting my opinions be known. The People’s Daily article quoted above, about the Aurora Borealis award going to Xu Yuanchong 许渊冲 (sometimes written as Xu Yuanzhong, I think because he likes his initials being X. Y. Z.), is unclear about whether the prize is from FIT or the Norwegian Association of Literary Translators, so my opinions will have to remain untargeted. At any event, they praise him for “facilitating communication between Chinese, English and French,” and though I can’t say anything about his translations into Chinese, I will say that I draw a different conclusion from the article’s note about “how painstakingly Xu applies himself to Shakespeare’s texts” when I read of his “plan to finish the complete works of Shakespeare in five years.”
More importantly, though, I will say this as clearly as I can: Xu Yuanchong is the absolute worst translator of Chinese poetry into English I have ever read.
Nor am I the only one to think so. I defy any reader of English poetry to get through a translation of Xu’s without an eye roll. As Brian Holton has written in “When the Blind Lead the Blind” :
The egregious Xu Yuanzhong, … though he has the impudence to style himself ‘the greatest living Chinese-English translator’ (personal communication 2000), he is the worst possible role model and a pernicious influence on younger scholars and students in China, who are not aware that seniority and self-advertisement do not confer literary skill in English.
I recommend reading Holton’s short piece. I do not recommend reading any of Xu’s translations into English. And I have no idea what the FIT or the Norwegian Association of Literary Translators could have possibly been thinking in giving this guy such an award.
“Poetry is very hard to translate because no poem means just one thing,” writes George Szirtes, an English poet and translator from the Hungarian.
Or rather, if two of you read a poem you might agree on a lot, but you’d take away some impressions that were different. That might be because your experiences were different – one reader might like spiders and enjoy being reminded of them because of the delicacy of their webs in the sunlight, while another might hate them and prefer not to think of their scuttling on the floor. So one reader thinks about webs, the other about scuttling.
I usually focus on Chinese poetry, of any time period, on this blog, though from time to time that will involve raising questions of translation. Less often will I draw attention to writing on translation per se, regardless of the language it comes from. But this is one of those times.
Part of why I’m linking to George Szirtes’s “attempt to categorise translated poetry” is that Szirtes is translator of László Krasznahorkai, who won the Best Translated Book Award two years in a row (including for Szirtes’s translation of Satantango last year), and I’ve become very curious about Krasznahorkai’s life and works (click here for a 3% podcast about László’s relationship with New Directions). But mostly it’s because Szirtes’s categories–“Translations that look and sound much like their originals,” “Translations that are vigorously reinvented and re-imagined so we see them anew,” “Translations that introduce us to poems from less known languages,” etc.–are so accurate and worth repeating.
And in case you absolutely insist that what I post here have something to do with China, know that Krasznahorkai’s wife is evidently a sinologist, and the time he’s spent in Asia has been very important to his developing work (particularly Seiobo There Below, translate by Ottilie Mulzet, as well as much of his yet untranslated oeuvre). Also, Szirtes mentions Du Fu 杜甫 in “Brian Holton’s translation from Classical Chinese into Scots, re-titled ‘Spring Sun on the Watterside Clachan,’” in his mention of “poems that are not translated into standard English.”
Modern Chinese Literature & Culture has published Meng Liansu’s review of Jade Ladder: Contemporary Chinese Poetry, edited by Yang Lian 杨炼 and W. N. Herbert, with Brian Holton and Qin Xiaoyu 秦晓宇. Here’s how she begins her piece:
Jade Ladder is a welcome addition to the handful of anthologies of contemporary Chinese poetry in English, and the most comprehensive one to date. Featuring fifty-three poets born in mainland China and nearly 200 poems written between the 1970s and 2010, this anthology introduces the reader to a significantly larger number of excellent poets and poems than its peers and presents a fascinating overview of contemporary Chinese poetry in the past three decades. It is an important resource for general English-language readers interested in poetry and China, as well as for students, teachers and scholars of Chinese literature and culture.
Click the image above for the full review.
There’s nothing better to take pride in than being human.
You’re a cat.
And a mouser may look at a Mao.
To read the poem in full, click the image above.
At Magma Poetry Mark Burnhope has posted his review of Jade Ladder, the recent anthology of contemporary Chinese poetry published in the UK. Burnhope is new to Chinese poetry, and he doesn’t know whether family names come first or last in Chinese, but he raises some nice questions about translation in his enthusiastic take on Chinese poetry today. Here’s how it begins:
In his essay concluding Jade Ladder, Brian Holton discusses the trials, tribulations, negotiations and compromises involved in translating Chinese poetry into English. Some of Yang Lian and Qin Xiaoyu’s first choices were shelved, he writes, “because the joke just wasn’t funny in English”, poems “were speaking only to Chinese readers’, or they ultimately “fell flat in translation”. The translators generally avoided footnotes unless they appeared in original poems, or unless they would “transform a poem that otherwise would be closed to the reader into something more accessible and enjoyable”.
The Guardian has published Sean O’Brien’s review of Jade Ladder: Contemporary Chinese Poetry, edited by Yang Lian 杨炼, W N Herbert, Brian Holton, and Qin Xiaoyu 秦晓宇. It’s a fine and enthusiastic take written by an obviously engaged reader conversant with the current goings-on of poetry worldwide. Here’s how it begins:
The diversity and richness of contemporary Chinese poetry defy description. As Zang Di understatedly puts it in “Cosmo-Sceneriology”, “We seem / to have come to a new place”, but the place itself is multiple. In “100 Years of Solitude for the New Poetry”, the same poet suggests that poetry “has dismissed language” and finds that “yes, for an instant, it was almost not written by you”. To the reader coming newly to the subject, or with the competing translatorial templates of Ezra Pound and Arthur Waley in mind, these are exciting declarations, even as, or maybe because, they resist confident analysis.
O’Brien also singles out Xi Chuan for mention, with an interesting observation that dovetails with some of what he writes about Chinese and Eastern European literature in the afterword to Notes on the Mosquito, “The Tradition This Instant” 传统在此时此刻:
A western reader is likely to be reminded here of Mandelstam’s ill-fated “Stalin Epigram“. Although Mao is seen posthumously by a poet born in 1960, subsequent Chinese administrations have proved just as interested in the ideological demeanour of the arts as were Kruschev and his successors in Russia. Xi Chuan’s “Commandments” could be a poem from the eastern bloc of the 1950s (in this translation it recalls Zbigniew Herbert): “you shall not covet / so it’s not a bad idea to crown yourself king in a dark room / and why not cut a skeleton key and carry it in your hand? / walk, stop, turn: in that capital city under the light of your sun / you will disdain to open each rusted lock”.
The version of “Commandments” 戒律 quoted here is Holton’s from Jade Ladder. My version is included in Notes on the Mosquito.