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.
“Translation Encounters: A Dialogue Between Authors and Translators” features translators Jeffrey Angles, Jennifer Feeley, and Lucas Klein, who will be joined by their writers Hiromi Itō 伊藤 比呂美, Eva Wong Yi 黃怡, and Xi Chuan 西川 to talk about their various collaborations: How long have they been collaborating? How did they ‘find’ each other? How are the translation processes? Have the collaborations changed over time? How much input do the writers provide to the translations, and in what way is this input essential, or not? Were there notable times when translators and writers were in disagreement? Our speakers will also read selected texts, followed by a Q&A session. This discussion will take place online and people from all over the world are welcome to listen in. [Find out what time it will be where you are: https://bit.ly/31IbNun] Moderated by Cha’s co-editor Tammy Lai-Ming Ho.
TRANSLATION ENCOUNTERS Date: Saturday 25 July 2020 Time: 10:00 – 11:30 a.m. (GMT+8) Platform: Zoom https://bit.ly/3eYq7CP (Meeting ID: 958 9545 0608) Languages: Cantonese, English, Japanese, and Mandarin Speakers: Jeffrey Angles, Xi Chuan 西川, Jennifer Feeley, Hiromi Itō 伊藤 比呂美, Lucas Klein, and Eva Wong Yi 黃怡 Moderator: Tammy Lai-Ming Ho
◓ JEFFREY ANGLES (speaker) Jeffrey Angles (1971- ) is a professor of Japanese literature at Western Michigan University in the US. He is the author of Writing the Love of Boys (University of Minnesota Press, 2010), These Things Here and Now: Poetic Responses to the March 11, 2011 Disasters (Josai University Press, 2016), and the award-winning translator of dozens of Japan’s most important modern Japanese authors and poets. He believes strongly in the role of translators as social activists, and much of his career has focused on the translation into English of socially engaged, feminist, and queer writers. His own book of poetry in Japanese, Watashi no hizuke henkō sen (My International Date Line, Shichōsha, 2016) won the Yomiuri Prize for Literature, making him the first non-native speaker ever to win this highly prestigious award for a book of poetry.
◓ XI CHUAN (speaker) Xi Chuan 西川 is a poet, essayist, and translator. He was born in Jiangsu in 1963 and raised in Beijing, where he still lives. A graduate of the Department of English at Peking University in 1985, he was formerly a professor of literature and head librarian at the Central Academy of Fine Arts (CAFA) and is now a professor at the International Writing Center of Beijing Normal University. In China, he has been awarded the National Lu Xun Prize for Literature (2001), named Cultural China’s Person of the Decade (2001–2011) by Shanghai’s Oriental Morning Post, and Author of the Year by the Chinese Book Industry (2018). He was also one of the winners of the Germany’s Weimar International Essay Prize Contest (1999), the recipient of Sweden’s Cikada Prize (2018), and the winner of the Tokyo Poetry Prize (2018). His Notes on the Mosquito: Selected Poems, translated by Lucas Klein, was published by New Directions in 2012 and won the Lucien Stryk Asian Translation award.
◓ JENNIFER FEELEY (speaker) Jennifer Feeley’s original writings and translations from Chinese have appeared in numerous journals and anthologies, including FIELD, Epiphany, Mekong Review, Chinese Literature Today, World Literature Today, Chinese Writers on Writing, and Creating Across Cultures: Women in the Arts from China, Hong Kong, Macau and Taiwan, among others. She is the translator of Not Written Words: Selected Poetry of Xi Xi (Zephyr Press and MCCM Creations, 2016), for which she won the 2017 Lucien Stryk Asian Translation Prize and which received a 2017 Hong Kong Publishing Biennial Award in Literature and Fiction. With Sarah Ann Wells, she is the co-editor of Simultaneous Worlds: Global Science Fiction Cinema (University of Minnesota Press, 2015). Additionally, she is the translator of the first two books in the middle-grade series White Fox by Chen Jiatong (Chicken House Books and Scholastic) and the selected works of Shi Tiesheng (forthcoming from Polymorph Editions), as well as Wong Yi’s libretto for the Cantonese chamber opera Women Like Us, which will premiere at the 2021 Hong Kong Arts Festival. At present, she is translating Xi Xi’s semi-autobiographical novel Mourning a Breast, a project funded by a 2019 National Endowment for the Arts Literature Translation Fellowship. She holds a PhD in East Asian Languages and Literatures from Yale University. (Photography of Jennifer by Shi Lessner.)
◓ HIROMI ITŌ (speaker) Hiromi Itō 伊藤 比呂美 (1955- ) emerged in the 1980s as the leading voice of Japanese women’s poetry with a series of sensational works that depicted women’s psychology, sexuality, and motherhood in dramatic new ways. In the late 1990s, she relocated to southern California, and since then, she has written a number of important, award-winning books about migrancy, relocation, identity, linguistic alienation, aging, and death. A selection of her early work appears in Killing Kanoko: Selected Poems of Hiromi Itō, translated by Jeffrey Angles (Action Books, 2009). Angles has also translated her wildly imaginative, book-length narrative poem about migration Wild Grass on the Riverbank (Action Books, 2014).
◓ LUCAS KLEIN (speaker) Lucas Klein (PhD Yale) is a father, writer, and translator. His scholarship and criticism have appeared in the monograph The Organization of Distance: Poetry, Translation, Chineseness (Brill, 2018), as well as in Comparative Literature Studies, LARB, Jacket, CLEAR, PMLA, and other venues. His translation Notes on the Mosquito: Selected Poems of Xi Chuan (New Directions, 2012) won the 2013 Lucien Stryk Prize; other publications include his translations of 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, and he co-edited Chinese Poetry and Translation: Rights and Wrongs (2019) with Maghiel van Crevel, downloadable for free from Amsterdam University Press [LINK: http://bit.ly/2DrmfZN]. He is an associate professor in the School of Chinese at the University of Hong Kong. (Photograph of Lucas by Zhai Yongming.)
◓ EVA WONG YI (speaker) Eva Wong Yi 黃怡 is a Hong Kong writer, librettist, and editor-at-large at the literary journal Fleurs des Lettres. The recipient of the Hong Kong Arts Development Awards 2018 Award for Young Artist (Literary Arts), she is the author of three short story collections: The Four Seasons of Lam Yip (林葉的四季, 2019), Patched Up (補丁之家, 2015), and News Stories (據報有人寫小說, 2010). Additionally, she is the librettist for the Cantonese-language chamber opera Women Like Us (兩個女子), commissioned and produced by the Hong Kong Arts Festival. She has served as a columnist for various Hong Kong newspapers and magazines and currently co-hosts the program “Book Review” for Radio Television Hong Kong. In 2019, she participated in the Singapore Writers Festival and Los Angeles Architecture Exhibition “Island__Peninsula.” She holds a Master of Arts in English from King’s College London and a Bachelor’s degree in Psychology and Comparative Literature from the University of Hong Kong.
◒ 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.
ZOOM: https://bit.ly/2YHxitE (Meeting ID: 959 2591 8289) Saturday June 13, 11:00 a.m. Hong Kong time (click here to find the date & time for you)
Congratulations to Zephyr Press! They are celebrating their 40th anniversary this year, and “Translators Speak: Translating Chinese Poetry” is part of the celebrations.
“Translators Speak: Translating Chinese Poetry,” co-sponsored by Zephyr Press, features several translators from Zephyr’s Jintian Series of Contemporary Chinese Poetry. Nick Admussen, Lucas Klein, Andrea Lingenfelter, and Jami Proctor Xu will talk about and introduce the poets they translated, the translation process, their views on translating Chinese poetry (as opposed to translating other genres), and advice and suggestions they would give other translators. They will also read from their books and contextualise the poems and their translations. We will have a Q&A session as well. This discussion will take place via Zoom and people from all over the world are welcome to listen in. [Find out what time it will be where you are: https://bit.ly/2W8O57q] Moderated by Cha’s co-editor Tammy Lai-Ming Ho.
TRANSLATORS SPEAK: TRANSLATING CHINESE POETRY Date: Saturday 13 June 2020 Time: 11:00 a.m. – 12:30 p.m. (GMT+8) Platform: Zoom https://bit.ly/2YHxitE (Meeting ID: 959 2591 8289) Languages: English Speakers: Nick Admussen, Lucas Klein, Andrea Lingenfelter, and Jami Proctor Xu Moderator: Tammy Lai-Ming Ho
◓ 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 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.
◓ LUCAS KLEIN (speaker) Lucas Klein (PhD Yale) is a father, writer, and translator. His scholarship and criticism have appeared in the monograph The Organization of Distance: Poetry, Translation, Chineseness (Brill, 2018), as well as in Comparative Literature Studies, LARB, Jacket, CLEAR, PMLA, and other venues. His translation Notes on the Mosquito: Selected Poems of Xi Chuan (New Directions, 2012) won the 2013 Lucien Stryk Prize; other publications include his translations of 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, and he co-edited Chinese Poetry and Translation: Rights and Wrongs (2019) with Maghiel van Crevel, downloadable for free from Amsterdam University Press. He is an associate professor in the School of Chinese at the University of Hong Kong.
◓ ANDREA LINGENFELTER (speaker) Andrea Lingenfelter is a writer and translator whose published books include The Changing Room: Selected Poetry of Zhai Yongming (Northern California Book Award winner), Hon Lai Chu’s The Kite Family, (NEA Translation Fellowship grantee), Li Pik-wah’s Farewell My Concubine and The Last Princess of Manchuria, and Candy and Vanishing Act by Mian Mian. Her poetry and prose translations have appeared in Manoa, Granta, Chinese Literature Today, Pathlight, Zoland Poetry Annual, Words Without Borders, Cha: An Asian Literary Journal, Two Lines, Chicago Review, and elsewhere. Her own work has appeared in various publications, including Strix and Cha. Current book-length translation projects include a collection of poems by Wang Yin, Zhai Yongming’s Following Huang Gongwang Through the Fuchun Mountains, and Wang Anyi’s novel Scent of Heaven. She is a contributor to the Los Angeles Review of Books and its affiliated China Channel, and is a two-time Vermont Studio Center Luce Translation Fellowship recipient (with Wang Yin [2017) and Cao Shuying  respectively). Currently based in Northern California, she teaches literary translation and literature and film of the Asia Pacific at the University of San Francisco.
◓ JAMI PROCTOR XU (speaker) Jami Proctor Xu is a poet, mother and translator. She writes in English and Chinese and splits her time between Northern California, Arizona, and China. Her publications include, among others, a Chinese chapbook, Shimmers (EMS, 2013) a Chinese poetry collection Suddenly Starting to Dance (Yi, 2016), an English chapbook, Hummingbird Ignites a Star, the translated collection of Jidi Majia, Words from the Fire (Manoa, 2018), and the translated collection of Song Lin, Sunday Sparrows (Zephyr, 2020). Her current translation projects include translations of poetry collections by Zhao Ye, Xiao Xiao, and Shu Cai. Jami is also editing an anthology of Chinese translations of US poets born in the 1970s as well as anthologies of international poets forthcoming from Beijing Normal University. Since 2016, she has co-organised an annual international poetry exchange at Beijing Normal University’s International Writing Center, and since 2019, she has collaborated with Zolani Mkiva to co-organise international poetry events in South Africa. Jami frequently reads at festivals around the world, and her poetry and translations have been published in anthologies in several languages. She is a recipient of the Zhujiang Poetry Award (2013) and the First Reader Best Poet Award (2016).
◒ 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) and the Hong Kong special issue of Svenska PEN’s PEN/Opp (formerly “The Dissident Blog”). She is currently editing a Hong Kong chapbook for Cordite Poetry Review and she will be 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.
The Harvard Reviewhas just published my translation of “That Time” 那时, by Duo Duo 多多, a section from his series The Desire of the Rose Now the Same as the Desire of Swords 玫瑰的欲望已经与剑的欲望一致.
In the brief introduction, I write:
The sequence as a whole is about the vicissitudes of memory: its pains but also its joys. The images that end “That Time,” horses and gravestones, are familiar throughout Duo Duo’s oeuvre, but here they are defamiliarized. The whole sequence ends with “remembrance” being the pursuit of “what is ahead,” while “the moment of happiness is the moment of memory.”
Here is how the poem begins:
why does the camel need twin humps to make it through the desert?
I look at you, you only look at yourself I look there, I only see you
I look at things I cannot see I see time—that long, long rose
at that time the lion could still think, no flames of fury in the beauty’s eyes at that time we could still walk into things we could not understand
it’s the heart that creates the invisible, between riddle and its four walls, letting the parable of life pass through the ring
the way my sunlight might pierce your eyes to see some even farther place
Many thanks to Tammy Lai-ming Ho for her suggestions on my translations!
TRANSLATING ASIAN LANGUAGES: PREJUDICES & PRIVILEGES Date: Wednesday 15 April 2020 Time: 8:00-9:30 p.m. (GMT+8) Platform: ZOOM https://bit.ly/2JdMbLs (Meeting ID: 514 122 177) Languages: English Speakers: Lucas Klein, Grace Ting, and Matt Turner Moderator: Tammy Lai-Ming Ho
‘Every translation sparks / another translation.’ In the discussion “Translating Asian Languages: Prejudices and Privileges”, Lucas Klein (Cha‘s Translation Editor), Matt Turner and Grace Ting will talk about the issues pertaining to the translation of Asian literary texts.
They will ponder, among other questions, the following: What are the prejudices, if any, faced by translators of Asian texts? What are the potential privileges some translators may have? Are ‘academic translators’ more privileged? If yes, in what ways? Why are certain Asian languages/writers/texts translated but others are left out? Who make translation decisions? Under what circumstances do we see translators occupying a more visible position than the writers they translate? Is it ever possible to have too many translators translating a particular genre of texts? The three speakers will also read from either their own translations or those of others. There will also be a Q&A session. This discussion will take place via. ZOOM and people from all over the world are welcome to tune in. Moderated by Cha’s co-editor Tammy Ho.
If you would like to participate in a Cha reading, or if there are topics you would like to suggest, please write to us (firstname.lastname@example.org)! Here is the list: https://bit.ly/3dkIFgf
MCLC has published Joanna Krenz’s review of Chinese Poetic Modernisms (Brill, 2019), edited by Paul Manfredi and Christopher Lupke, which includes my chapter “Annotating Aporias of History: the ‘International Style’, Chinese Modernism, and World Literature in Xi Chuan’s Poetry.”
one need only read a few paragraphs of the Introduction, by editors Paul Manfredi and Christopher Lupke, to see that the formula of “Chinese poetic modernisms” is anything but conventional. Each of its three main conceptual components—Chineseness, poeticness, and modernism(s)—alone can provoke endless discussion and debate, not to mention the plethora of contested terms associated with these concepts and their multiple configurations and contextualizations. The fourteen scholars whose contributions are included in the book confront the idea of Chinese poetic modernisms from various, sometimes radically different angles, which add up to a dynamic, multidimensional picture of modernist practice in Chinese poetry.
She has some criticisms of my disagreement with Michelle Yeh about how to handle “Chineseness” as a topic of academic discussion, but she does wrap it up with some praise:
In any event, Klein, who recently published a monograph that demonstrates how Chineseness has been consistently constructed through translation, is definitely not a person who would want to strip Chinese poetry of its complexity, and his chapter on Xi Chuan confirms this. He refers extensively to the International Style in architecture, taking it as a starting point for his reflection on (Chinese) “modernism [which] is already broadly postmodernist from the get-go” (319). Both modernism and postmodernism, he proposes, are in reality “two steps in the same historical movement of post-Romanticism” (319). Following Eliot Weinberger, he calls for inclusive understanding of modernism as a notion rooted in history and embracing specific cultural geographies without detracting from their uniqueness. Klein’s familiarity with Chinese literature at large and with the evolution of Xi Chuan’s poetry is exceptional, as is his “negotiating the relationship between local and universal logic” (335), to borrow from his own description of Xi Chuan.
Follow the link above to see the whole review, which is exemplary as a way to engage an edited volume with breadth and with depth.