Fact-checking Translations

A new book whose provocations seem to be helping it make the rounds is The Lifespan of a Fact, by John D’Agata and Jim Fingal (click here for a critical NYTimes review), where D’Agata argues that facts are often irrelevant in the pursuit of art, and that “nonfiction”

essentially means ‘not art,’ since the word fiction is derived from the Latin fictio, which itself means ‘to form, to shape, to arrange’ — a pretty fundamental activity in art.

I agree with NYTimes reviewer Jennifer McDonald about the bogusness of this argument–not only does it fall for the “etymological fallacy,” it’s also an ethnocentric claim that has no time for other cultures and their definitions of art from yesterday or today. According to Stephen Owen, for instance, while Euro / American poetry in the 19th and 20th centuries would be considered fictional, pre-modern Chinese poetry was taken as factually true.

Discussions about the nuances of such statements aside, the role of fact-checking in poetry and translation is a complex one (see here for another moment in which I ponder accountability to reality in Chinese poetry and translation). I noticed this recently when I posted Wang Ping’s translation of Xi Chuan’s “Books” 书籍. A couplet in her translation reads,

“All books are the same book,”
pale Mallarmé said with confidence.

But Xi Chuan’s Chinese lines read,


or what I would translate as “‘All books are one book,’ / an effiminate Shelley almost said.” Perhaps Xi Chuan changed his original between its first printing and the time Wang Ping translated it. Or perhaps Wang Ping found out that Shelley didn’t say this at all, that it was in fact Mallarmé (I’ve searched online to see if either one of them said it, but all my hits end up pointing me back here!). But this raises a question: when translating, is the translator accountable to reality, or to the original poem? If the fact-checker doesn’t have a role in editing the original poem, does he or she have a role in editing the translation? I’m afraid I don’t have the answer to these questions.