Ashbery and / or Xi Chuan

I’ve been reading, and reading about, John Ashbery recently, in part because translating Xi Chuan has put me in mind to look at the development of the prose poem in English–and Ashbery’s Three Poems (Viking Compass, 1972), of course, were fundamental in the expansion & popularization of that form–but also because Ashbery’s recently published translation of Arthur Rimbaud‘s Illuminations (Norton, 2011) have just come out, as Steve Bradbury mentioned on this blog in his write-up of the ALTA conference, and I’ve been curious about the relationship between original writing & translation in this writer (also, the model of Ashbery as a writer loved both on the margins and at the peripheries of the literary world seemed appropriate for Xi Chuan, a poet who is at once accessible and experimental, challenging and rewarding).

So I consider it a fine coincidence that I came across the following quote, which struck me as the positive version of Christopher Honey’s question of “who I am reading when I read Rexroth’s beautiful collections of Asian poetry in translation,” in Micah Towery‘s essay at The The on how “Google Translates Poetry“:

why do we want to read Ashbery’s translations of Rimbaud? I see two motivations: the first is to read Rimbaud without learning French; the second is to read Ashbery reading Rimbaud.

The second motivation, accurate as it is, only emerges when we’re dealing with the confluence of two established figures–Rexroth and Du Fu, say, or Ashbery and Rimbaud, or Kenneth Branagh and Hamlet. This does not mean that Google translate is any better for readers who want to read Rimbaud without learning French, but it does mean that, if I think few readers will be interested in reading me reading Xi Chuan, my choices may be different if I’m translating primarily so readers can read Xi Chuan without having to know Chinese.

As Xi Chuan said in an interview with the NEA, “Before I had an ‘I’ in my heart; later I found [that it was multiple] ‘I’s’ and not ‘we.’ I found that all these deceased people live in my heart.” As his translator, my goal has been to express these “I’s” of his–and perhaps find my own amongst them–rather than to subsume any of them into an “I” of my own.

Review of Push Open the Window

Over at The Rumpus, Christopher Honey has a review of Push Open the Window: Contemporary Poetry from China. It’s not a perfect review, in my mind–he doesn’t acknowledge the translators by name–but he does raise some interesting issues and questions. Here are a few I found worth considering (which is not to say agreeing with):

From my own personal experience, I always wonder who I am reading when I read Rexroth’s beautiful collections of Asian poetry in translation. Am I reading Tu Fu or am I actually reading Rexroth?

The quality and sophistication of the poets seems to go up as the poets get younger and younger. The earliest poets have a sort of untutored enthusiasm – almost like naïve art – touched by the political.

I do not believe I am going out on a limb by saying that the more recent poets in Push Open the Window are much more fully connected to the larger literary world. As barriers to the rest of the world have dropped, poets have benefitted by cross pollination with other traditions.

The number of translators also led to another potential issue. A single translator would have enabled a more accurate understanding of the development and changes within Chinese poetry over the last fifty years. With so many different translators, how can one be sure that a perceived, new rhetorical addition to the bag of tricks available to Chinese poets isn’t just a tic of one translator as opposed to another?

It is hard to escape seeing it a sort of historical or sociological document on the evolution of literary schema rather than as a work of literature. What is more, with the variations in the quality of the poems, I find it hard to believe that historical thinking was not a factor in the selection process – that this book was intended to document the progress of literary evolution and not just to provide the best literary products.