Klein does a superb job of keeping the English translations as clear as possible, and when compared to others who have attempted the rigorous challenges of Duo Duo, Klein is more succinct, concise, and poetic. Words as Grain offers Zen koan-like poems that call for rereading and contemplation.
Since it’s in the print issue, here’s a photo of the whole review:
Written by one of the most celebrated contemporary Chinese poets Duo Duo 多多 (1951- ) and translated and edited by the award-winning translator Lucas Klein, Words as Grain词如谷粒 moves from Duo Duo’s most recent poems back to his earliest ones, with four sections, each forming a period of his life’s journeys and taking its title from one of his poems of that period. “The Force of Forging Words (2004-2018)” collects every single poem written upon Duo Duo’s return to China from 15 years of exile abroad. “Amsterdam’s River (1989-2004)” includes selected poems written during the period of his exile, mainly in the Netherlands. “Delusion is the Master of Reality (1982-1988)” highlights selected poems written during China’s “reform and opening up” period of the 1980s. “Instruction (1972-1976),” the last of the four sections, features some of Duo Duo’s earliest collected poems written in his twenties during the Cultural Revolution (1966-1976).
As for her reading of Duo Duo’s poetry, she elaborates:
In this context, “words as grain” emerges in vivid configurations and comes alive as a central metaphor for the forging and remaking of poetry and life, which involves planting seeds, picking weeds, and harvesting grain in the fields, among many more layers of a complex web of meanings. In his poetry over four decades, Duo Duo connects grain, weeds, and fields in his musings on life and death, lonesomeness and expression, speeches and silence, and emptiness and harvest …
Lucas Klein, in his translator’s introduction, asks to what degree contextualisation is useful in reading Duo Duo’s poetry (or any poetry), and arranges his selections and translations to move from present into the past, as he considers the recent poems less culturally situated, hence more accessible, than older poems for the non-Chinese reader …
Klein finds the questions—whether the poems are best read as tied to their contexts or as independent works of the imagination—are the same ones we must ask of translations: whether they are best approached as if tethered to the texts they are representing, or can they take on lives of their own in a new language? He hopes to answer yes to both questions in both cases (xxiii). On the one hand, Klein believes in the potential of poems in translation to take on lives of their own, on the other hand, he also demands accuracy. His goal as both translator and compiler of the poems included in this collection, according to the translator’s introduction, “is to let Duo Duo’s style come through” (xxiv).
As readers, we are fortunate to have Klein’s meticulous work and expert guidance in translating and compiling this excellent volume of Duo Duo’s poems, in close dialogue with and filling important gaps in previous translations and scholarly studies.
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.
“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.
Here is an excerpt of one of Ho’s Chung translations:
Forgetting is near. What are we rushing to clamber over? Blood and sweat of three million people only to demand a fictive rope? Are there balloons up there? Only billowing clouds As though the screaming across the city has muted its own cries Turning into fists lashing out helplessly
Is our energy running low? Are the long streets still beating? The heavy thump in Pacific Place resounds in Fanling Red and white plastic barriers blossom in Golden Bauhinia Square Taller than the people. Tomorrow, ah, there’s still tomorrow Tomorrow the wealthy and powerful will start feasting Indifferent to the rancid-smelling blood that rises from their heads
The new site Hong Kong Protesting has published four poems by Liu Waitong 廖偉棠 in my translation. The whole site–an offshoot of Tammy Ho Lai-ming’s literary journal Cha–is very much worth digging into, but here are the poem translations as one way in.
From “Two Million and One” 二百萬零一:
After white snow is black snow after two million is two million and one. The numbers that come after will always add onto him tattoos coming after will always seep blood you cannot remove his raincoat.
After yellow is a golden torrent to replace the mud of shopping malls and the central government complex. You cannot pluck his star rays one after two million is always just one pens pierce the armor of the arrogant.