Klein on Holton’s Narrative Poem by Yang Lian

Free first pageMy review of Narrative Poem 敘事诗, by Yang Lian 杨炼 and translated by Brian Holton (Bloodaxe, 2017), is out in the new issue of Translation and Literature (Vol. 27, issue 2).

It’s paywalled but for subscribers and certain academic institutions, but here’s a paragraph free:

That so much of Yang Lian’s poetics – indeed, his mythopoetics – centres on the Chinese past is a particular challenge for Holton as translator. Of course, some critics from China and elsewhere have accused Yang of writing a China of and for western understanding – but why not? In any event, that it is for westerners to understand does not make it easier to translate. Holton has not shied away from providing notes to mark moments where Yang makes allusions to people and places that fall outside the expected anglophone frame of reference. Mostly, however, it is in the strength of his diction that the power of his verse lies, just as the force of Yang Lian’s word choice is what makes his poetry most compelling in Chinese. The thought and emotion of Yang Lian’s writing are immanent in the words he uses – and the same is true of Holton’s translations.

Click the image above to link to the full review.

Tinfish Press of the Month at SPD

Tinfish Press

Tinfish Press, which published the Xi Chuan chapbook Yours Truly & Other Poems, is Press of the Month at Small Press Distribution. Click the image for 40% Off Selected Titles and more information.

More on Tinfish:

Tinfish Press publishes experimental poetry from the Pacific Region.

Tinfish has been called “one of the great small presses of the United States” (Ron Silliman). Hank Lazer notes that “Tinfish Press most definitely increases a reader’s sense of the highly specific, highly localized terms of composition.” Marie Carvalho writes that Tinfish “vibes on [a] irreverent cross-cultural mix of language, vision, viewpoint and design.”

Founded in 1995, Tinfish published 20 issues of a journal (now discontinued), as well as numerous chapbooks and full length collections. Their mission has been to inspire conversations between a diverse, far-flung group of writers.

Tinfish is particularly interested in language issues in Hawai`i and the Pacific and has published books in and including Pidgin (Hawaiian Creole English), Samoan, Tagalog, Hawaiian, and Chamorro. While Tinfish does not publish writers for their ethnic or gender identities, they have been leaders in publishing experimental work by Asian Americans, Pacific Islanders, native Hawaiians, Euro-Americans from Hawai`i and others.

More Views on Mo Yan

New Nobel Prize-winner for Literature Mo Yan 莫言 has, for obvious reasons, become a hot topic of discussion. I’ve assembled some of the analysis that’s recently appeared online in various forms.

First, my highschool classmate & translator from Swedish B J Epstein has written about the Nobel from an outsider’s perspective, bringing a discussion she and I had recently into her report.

Next, poet & translator Eleanor Goodman talks about the different reactions to the Nobel from within China and without.

Then, translator Bruce Humes covers the other side of the issue, demonstrating how “references deemed unbecoming to China’s image are often ‘airbrushed'” from a published Chinese translation of the NYTimes report of Mo Yan’s prize. And Brendan O’Kane asks “Is Mo Yan a Stooge for the Chinese Government?” (Brendan sez the short answer is ‘no’).

Next, Sabina Knight (Smith College) on Mo Yan’s Nobel (from NPR):

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Earlier, Granta‘s John Freeman interviewed Mo Yan (from Silliman’s blog):

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And PBS‘s Jeffrey Brown talks to Charles Laughlin (University of Virginia) and Xiao Qiang (University of California, Berkeley) about Mo Yan:

Ron Silliman on World Literature

Ron Silliman doesn’t talk much about world literature or translation (in fact, as he notes, “to this date still no books in a foreign language”), but on the tenth anniversary of the birth of Silliman’s blog, he posted part of his take on “the question of national literatures, the Nation Question,” he says, “as my friends in the Old Left might have phrased it.” This is what he writes:

But the movement of capital, of business – and ultimately of jobs and economic futures – gets carried out in language and through many local cultures, and the transformation of poetry from a series of largely self-contained literary enclaves into a global writing is itself a profoundly complicated phenomenon. There are enormous advantages in 2012 to being an American writing in English, but these do not come about free of complicity with the processes that make these advantages real. Similarly, there are enormous complexities to being a non-American writing in English, as there to being a writer in any other language, especially those that are “minority” languages within a given national context.

See more here.

On Reviewing Translations

I’ve been thinking about book reviews of translated literature. This is a well-worn topic amongst translators–Words Without Borders has a nine-entry feature of translators discussing the matter, and I’ve been on a panel devoted to discussing the topic–but as I think about how I’d like my translations of Xi Chuan’s poetry in Notes on the Mosquito to be discussed, I notice some of my views changing a bit.

When I review translations I make a point to name the translators and discuss the quality of their work; when I review translations from a language I know, I make a point to compare the source and target texts, and when I don’t know the language in question I do what I can either to find someone who does know both languages or else to situate my comments within larger discussions of translation in general. I think this adheres to most of the points made in the WWB feature and adds some. And when I’m reviewing translations from Chinese literature, which for straightforward reasons is what accounts for most of my reviews, I do what I can do draw on my expertise in the subject and base my judgement on what I think will be useful of what I know of the source subject for the target reader. In other words, I want my review to help readers new to Chinese literature make sense of what they are reading.

That’s not all I want my reviews to do, of course: I also discuss questions of poetics and style in English, and how these not only relate to Chinese but how they interact with what’s available in English writing, as well. Yet as I think about the reviews I know are forthcoming of Notes on the Mosquito–which of course I’m very eager to see!–I notice that so far they are all by writers who know Chinese, who are themselves translators and / or scholars, and whom I expect will write reviews much like I do: they will contextualize Xi Chuan and his poetry within Chinese cultural history, and they will offer their expert judgments on my work as a translator.

I want more reviews of this kind, of course, not only for my work but for translated literature in general. But to some extent, the more reviews of this kind we have, the fewer other kinds of reviews we get: fewer reviews by readers who can judge translations more on the merits of what they do for the target reader than on how they represent the source culture. In addition, the more expert reviews we get, the higher we raise the bar for reviews of translation, which may end up meaning that translations receive even fewer reviews than they now have!

Recently, translation studies has tended to value the foreign, to claim that if translation is to be ethical it must consider the foreign as foreign rather than assimilate it into the dominant logic of mainstream American culture. To some degree this is true, but to some degree, treating the foreign as foreign buffers the foreign from making its inroads into mainstream American culture. These are not complete opposites, of course; when my friends at Montevidayo discuss foreignizing translations, they usually do so with an eye and ear to how foreignization performs within the context of American poetry, rather than in how it represents the source text as such. Nevertheless, the fewer non-expert reviews of translated literature we have, the less time we’re able to spend considering–or enacting–the influence of translation on contemporary literature in English. And imagine where literature in English would be if it had never been influenced by the foreign.

In some ways this relates to a discussion I brought up before on this blog, when I quoted Michele Hutchison on “world literature” and whether Ron Silliman can “get away with [work that is playful and incomprehensible] because he writes in English and refers to the dominant culture?” (speaking of Silliman, when he wrote about Gustaf Sobin’s translations of René Char and called Char an Objectivist, I remember people decrying his imposition of American poetic terms on non-American poetry; perhaps it would have been more accurate to say that Sobin’s translations present Char as an Objectivist, but I would like to see Silliman spend more time considering translation and translations, not less). I have had enough discussions with Chinese poets about contemporary American poetry, full of discussions of how it has influenced and impacted their work, to wonder when conversations with American poets would show the same awareness of Chinese poetry. If we do not allow translation to influence American literature, then we are insisting on the international dominance of American literature, not on the ethical representation of the foreign within English writing.

At any event, I look forward to reviews of Notes on the Mosquito that discuss Xi Chuan’s potential impact on American writing at least as much as I look forward to reviews that discuss the context of China today and how it has produced the poetry I have translated.

The War On in American Poetry

Poet / lawyer / blogger Seth Abramson has been blogging, as part of his preparation for his PhD preliminary exams, about the Creative Writing MFA and its place in the polysystem of American literature, especially poetry. His overall point is to overturn the standard narrative of the Creative Writing MFA, which is that it “institutionalizes.” Abramson argues pretty convincingly that the “institutionalization” reading comes from an ideologically-based analysis of the current economy of poetic production that conspicuously overlooks both the history and the present reality of the MFA as an institution. As a poet with an MFA, Abramson clearly has a dog in this fight.

But he’s also getting a PhD, which puts him in an interesting position in what he describes as the “125-year-long battle between two opposing forces in American poetry, ‘creative writing’ and ‘the Academy.’” I take it Abramson is motivated against what he sees as the predominant model of an embattled American poetry scene (as Abramson says, “the Combatants Aren’t Who You’d Suspect“), defined by Ron Silliman as the “post-avant” vs. the “School of Quietude,” and enshrined in places like Cole Swensen’s anthology American Hybrid (a hybrid can only emerge from forces in opposition to each other). Rather than the opposing forces being two different ways of writing poetry, Abramson says, it’s two different ways of conceiving poetry. My tendency in the decade or so that I’ve been following Ron Silliman’s blog has been to see the shifting battle lines historically, that is, what used to be a split between Academic Study of poetry vs. Creative Writing poetry had shifted to be a split between poetry inspired by & engaged with the continued relevance of Pound and / or Stein vs. poetry that would rather imagine that moment had never existed. Abramson is asking that we take another look at the fundamental division; if nothing else, it’s fair to say there are many fronts in this fight, as well as some unexpected allegiances.

I can relate to Abramson’s approach because I think one of the reasons I got so interested in translation during college was my frustration with many of the approaches to poetry I’d witnessed in both the creative writing classes I took and the academic courses for my major. In short, I turned to translation for something that could provide both the rigor I came to expect from academic coursework and the freedom I looked for in the Creative Writing workshop. And yet since then I have also become only more and more of an academic. In many ways this tension within me still exists, as I define the translations I don’t like (mine or by others) as being either too “academic” or too much defined by a “poetic voice” I recognize from the workshop atmosphere but don’t recognize in the poet being translated. But as an academic–albeit not of the English dept., which I think is where the brunt of Abramson’s analysis falls–I have seen a lot of how my colleagues and I and the institutions around us tend to treat the things we treat. And this is where I think Abramson’s reading of the battle between Creative Writing and the Academy falls short: basically, I don’t recognize the academy in his description of “the academy.”

Abramson makes some interesting points about the university–such as how it is “pro-multiculturalism in discourse, anti-multiculturalism in community“–but more often I find myself lost in unexplained statements like “Consistent with their academic affiliations, the forces of the Academy are anti-aesthetics and pro-poetics” and “The Academy equates aesthetics and politics.” Does that mean the Academy is anti-political? I’m confused. If I could recommend a quick corrective to Abramson’s view of the Academy, it would be that he treat it with the same care with which he treats the MFA. Be more clear on its history the recent developments within literature departments, sure (for instance, have discursive appeals to multiculturalism been followed up by increased multiculturalism amongst and within academic communities?), but specifically in terms of the relationship between the Academy as an institution–a university with a bureaucracy, endowment, and workplace regulations–and the Academy as a literature dept. in which people talk about writing. Then I’d be more interested in what he’s got to say about it, and less prone to believe that his appeals for peace between “creative writing” and “the Academy” weren’t disingenuous attempts to ensure his side more respect from the other.

Still, I do agree with his conclusions. He writes, in the last paragraph:

if we could get all these folks together we could probably remake the presence of the literary arts in the academy in a generative way that would take us to the next stage in the development of American poetry. It’s time for those dissatisfied with 125 years of fruitless propaganda-laden battles to put down their swords and seek a better way forward for all.

For me, that would have to include–and even be based on–translation.