Maghiel van Crevel and Lucas Klein, eds., Chinese Poetry and Translation: Rights and Wrongs, Amsterdam University Press, 2019. 356 pgs.
In a previous article about how late 20th/early 21st-century British and American fantasy has used Shakespearean intertexts, I ended up musing on how engaging in literature, comics or cinema (and, one could add, be it as a writer, an everyday reader or a scholar) really means getting involved in an ongoing dialogue between previous writers and readers, between aesthetic and ideological stances that respond to one another, antagonise and enrich one another.
What I didn’t discuss at the time is how this omnipresent dialogue between works is, obviously, also an ongoing dialogue between different cultures. A corollary that seems essential as soon as you land on this particular issue of aesthetic (and/or philosophical) transcultural dialogues through parallel cultural productions is that another art needs to be added—in addition to writing, reading, drawing, filming, viewing, or analysing and commenting. That art is the art of translation—an activity that is, as Yanfang Tang puts it in a 2014 paper on translating Chinese poetry into English, “more than a transfer of linguistic information from a source text to a target text” and actually “deeply embedded in or entangled with multiple other dimensions of the signification process, many of which are not linguistic but cultural […].”
The collective work that I will explore in the following paragraphs is precisely about those “multiple […] dimensions of the signification process” (although language does remain a crucial concern of the writers featured). It is a 2019 collection of scholarly contributions in English, entitled Chinese Poetry and Translation: Rights and Wrongs, co-edited by Leiden University-based Chinese Literature professor Maghiel van Crevel and acclaimed translator and Arizona State University Chinese associate professor Lucas Klein. As the title suggests, it uses the same three central themes as Tang’s paper to frame the array of issues it delves into: poetry, translation, and the Chinese language and culture. The editors’ introduction “The Weird Third Thing” also frequently refers to the idea of a “dialogue,” or a “conversation,” to describe the aims and ambitions of the collection itself, to emphasise the variety of perspectives that collide in the pages of the book, and to signal the roots of the book project in the practice of literal and live conversation. (Indeed, the print (and digital) collection stemmed from a two-day workshop that was held at Leiden University in June 2018, allowing many enthusiastic scholars and translators to meet and share insights.)
The collection starts with a text by Jenn Marie Nunes, an American academic and poet-writer-translator, which includes a sequence of three disjointed and experimental versions of the same text, “Dog I Keep, Called Little Wu,” “I Keep a Dog, Called Xiao Wu” and “Dog I Raise, Called 小巫.” Those form Nunes’s multiple translation of the poem “我养的狗，叫小巫,” by Yu Xiuhua, a female farmer who lives isolated and stricken with cerebral palsy, and who became a star poet in the mid-2010s through her poetry’s Internet virality. After this initial display of her work as a translator, Nunes goes on to explain—and advocate for—her approach, which she characterises as “queer-feminist,” arguing for its relevance both in a broader context of translating Chinese poetry into English, and to the work of Yu Xiuhua specifically. From the former viewpoint, she starts with an explanatory summary of Lawrence Venuti’s theory of the “translator’s invisibility”—according to which translations are usually deemed acceptable, in the mainstream English-speaking publishing world, when “fluency” and an “absence of any linguistic or stylistic peculiarities” allow readers to forget that they are reading a translation, and that a translator worked on it, as if the text were, “in fact […], ‘the original.’” She then argues that this way of dismissing translation as a lesser, perfunctory by-product of the “real” creative process of writing the original text has contributed to, not only a limitation of what translators can do, in terms of rendering the “peculiarities” of some original writers in the target language, but that it has actually led to limitations to what can actually be acceptably translated, i.e. which Chinese poetry sufficiently fits rigid stereotypes of how the West perceives Chinese poetry. This is the first, more general argument in favour of the experimentation and subversions of language and translation conventions that Nunes readily introduces, as a queer-feminist translator, in her English adaptation(s) of Yu Xiuhua’s poem. Her next point is more related to Yu Xiuhua herself, and some aspects of her work and position as a poet—which invite bold choices from a translator in Nunes’s mind. For instance, since her poetry was initially crafted as blog posts, and passed on through online messaging platforms, rather than published in book form from the start, there is something inherently unstable about it that makes the notion of “the original text,” or what is or isn’t “canon,” shaky at best. This is especially true, according to Nunes, since Yu Xiuhua’s success-through-virality “brand” has generally not been enthusiastically embraced by the intelligentsia of Chinese poetry. So she is very popular, her intimate, in-your-face themes and style obviously speak to and are admired by many, but she’s not “canon.” There is something very subversive about this position, which Nunes doesn’t want to obscure in her translations, as it is indeed part of what appeals to her about Yu’s poetry. So it is in the name of subversion, especially against the dogmatism and illusions of conventional, “authoritative” translation—which she ties to the general ethos of patriarchy and imperialism, using, in particular, Donna Haraway’s thought as part of the intellectual framework from which such connections are derived—that Nunes chose to give her translation the peculiar shape that it takes: a) a sequence of multiple versions instead of one single, finished proposal; b) the flow of Yu’s translated description/narrative being frequently interrupted by short or sometimes longer interpolations of Nunes’s own thoughts, be they mere translator’s notes or more personal departures from the substance of the text, like personal memories about her experience of womanhood, and family; c) breaks in the flow of English itself, as Chinese characters remain in some of the versions on display. The very obviousness of those bold manipulations is the way Nunes makes sure to avoid silencing Yu as she “hijacks” her poem (or “womanhandles” it, as she also puts it, borrowing from Barbara Godard). Instead of transforming a text to make it conform to the conventions of fluency in a target language, and making the process as invisible as possible to create the illusion that the translated text is one with the original, what Nunes aims to create for her readers is a manifestly composite and collaborative creation. She wants the original poet’s input and the translator’s to be intertwined in a very transparent way. She wants her translation to show how the translator has been affected by the original poem, and thus she wants to incite the reader to also engage with the text rather than consume it passively.
The next author is Nunes’s fellow American and fellow writer, translator and scholar, Eleanor Goodman, who is well known in particular for translating migrant worker poetry, i.e., as British journalist Megan Walsh puts it, “poems written by rural migrant workers who have, since the economic reform and opening up of the early 1980s, moved to China’s booming cities in search of work in factories, mines and construction.” The anthology Iron Moon: An Anthology of Chinese Worker Poetry (2017) is one of her most famous works of translation. Several of the English versions of Chinese migrant worker poems that she quotes from in her chapter are excerpts from that anthology, although she also draws examples from The Roots of Wisdom: Poems of Zang Di (2017) or the Griffin Poetry-Prize shortlisted Something Crosses My Mind: Poems by Wang Xiaoni (2014), among other works. Critically examining her own translations and looking at them from a comparative perspective, she identifies stylistic and syntactic choices that she sees as signs of the influence of some famous American working-class poets (Langston Hughes, Philip Levine) on her own English renditions of the lines of Xu Lizhi describing the daily toil in the factories of Shenzhen, or of Zheng Xiaoqiong’s “Language” (“语言”) and its vivid expression of “pure alienation in the Marxian sense.” She also argues that her experience of reading poetry about workers by a more affluent American feminist author (Adrienne Rich) may have coloured her renditions of similar lines describing glimpses of laborers in Wang Xiaoni’s “train poems.” Those self-reflexive assessments of Goodman’s own literary references and how they’ve shaped her choices as a translator are combined with a more intimate testimony of her feelings of sympathy towards her own working-class ancestors’ condition. (The sharing of that feeling is, again, mediated through commentary of the words of another American poet, Donald Hall, who expressed similar feelings in his 1993 memoir Life Work.) Those lines of analysis and reflection lead Goodman to re-articulate, and offer some elements of answer to, several “big” questions, such as: What is work? Can translation, poetry or academic writing be considered as work, or is that term only appropriate to refer to manual and physical labour? What is, exactly, a worker poet? (That question leads to a diverse array of quotations from poems written by American examples.) What is specific to the Chinese ones? Basically, “the stakes” of writing in general, especially writing about such a politically fraught subject as labour, in the context of a practically hyper-capitalist, nominally communist, generally oppressive dictatorial regime. Goodman also touches upon the issue of the place of women in Chinese poetry and literature. Finally, she draws from the ties she sees between her own appreciation of Seamus Heaney’s poetic observation of his father’s agricultural work, “Digging” (1966), and her translation of the Heaneyan intertextuality in Zang Di’s 2013 tribute poem “After the New Wisdom Association” (“随着那新鲜的深度协会”), to raise questions related to the issues dealt with by Nunes in the previous chapter. Indeed, those particular examples allow her to ponder the position the translator ought to assume in the eyes of the reader, whether a translation ought to be seen as an unmediated avatar, in a different language, of the original text, or it should be acknowledged as a collaborative work in which original author and translator are engaged in a creative dialogue—a “‘doubly authored’ document” as Goodman puts it, quoting from Sherry Simon.
The next author, Joseph R. Allen, is Professor Emeritus of Asian Languages and Literatures at the University of Minnesota and a translator who contributed to an edited version (1996) of a previous translation (1937) of Shijing詩經. This gigantic (over 300 entries) and very ancient (circa 11th-7th c. BCE) anthology of poems is considered as “the fountainhead of Chinese poetry”—containing the “earliest extant Chinese verse”—as Zong-qi Cai puts it. Allen’s chapter is much more practical than the ones preceding it. Indeed, he is essentially presenting work in progress, as his text mostly consists in a description of his approach in crafting a new translation of the Shijing that he’s been working on, a list of issues he’s encountered, and some solutions he’s adopted, plans to adopt, or is considering. Thus emerges the promising image of a bilingual and philologically critical edition, with front pages dedicated to the poems—with originals and translations juxtaposed in two columns—and each preceding back page dedicated to excerpts from major commentaries of the poems, from various periods. This formatting is part of a strategy to counter the difficulties and ambiguities created by the extreme archaism of the brand of Chinese language encountered in the Shijing—which was, in Allen’s words, already “a ‘foreign’ language” for Chinese readers roughly when BCE became CE. The translator first explains his goal, which is to explicitly emphasise the “intralingual context” of the source text’s growing opacity and evolving reception, through that very inclusion of a diachronic array of commentaries directly facing the text and its translation. He then stresses several of the difficulties he’s had to deal with. One is signifiers (referring to objects, plants or species of fish, for instance) that have no direct equivalent in English, or none that would make sense in the context of the poem in English. Allen details the various kinds of adaptation he’s had to resort to in order to approach something that might be faithful to the poem’s inventories and verbal herbaria and bestiaries, at least in a general, connotative, symbolic and/or stylistic sense. Another problem evoked is the rendering of the proliferation of reduplicatives (“adjectival or adverbial expressions composed of the same, repeated graph, or of two closely rhyming graphs”) in the source text. Reduplication is a well-established part of word formation in Mandarin Chinese, it is at any rate “ubiquitous” in the Shijing, but it is a much more marginal practice in English. In order to, at the same time, make sense in English, and render the stylistic and prosodic specificity of the Shijing’s reduplicative saturation, Allen resorts to what he sees as an equivalent in the target language: idiomatic “alliterative binomes,” of which he provides a wealth of decontextualised examples, to give an idea of the spirit in which his translation handles reduplicatives. The last challenge Allen reports is the vagueness of some of the scholarly commentaries he uses to determine the meaning of some archaic phrasings or passages, and which will adorn the back pages of his translated edition of the Shijing. Indeed, those commentaries, which supposedly explain the ancient use of this or that suffix, actually use, themselves, some quite ambiguous terms that can have many different meanings. Those “explanations” are designed in such a way as to suggest precise and accurate understanding of the contents of the poems was not really necessary for some of the historical commentators of the Shijing. Those seemed more interested in clarifying the references to history that they read between the lines, than in clarifying what this or that word or phrase or turn actually meant in the Chinese language of their time. Allen’s will, regarding such obscure and unclarified passages of the poems, is to retain the ambiguity in English, because this enduring obscurity, perpetuated through the practice of providing partly unhelpful commentaries, is a very crucial part of that “intralingual context” that Allen wants to be integral to his readers’ experience. The “complexities generated by the Shijing’s antiquity and layers of multivocal commentary” is as much the subject of Allen’s work as a translator of the Shijing as the meaning and poetic quality of the Shijing’s verbal contents are. It is in this way that, although his chapter does not theorise as much as the previous two, he does echo the preoccupations of Nunes and Goodman. Indeed, like them, he doesn’t see himself as tasked with providing an unproblematic “English version” meant to mediate, unnoticed, between the original “proto-classical Chinese” text and a modern English-speaking reader. Instead, what he sees as his mission is to show the English-speaking reader all the work, and all the conversations between various interpreters, that needed to come together to result in the translation they are holding and reading.
Allen’s remarks on striving to retain aspects of the source text’s identity through adaptation, through transformation, and recourse to aspects of the target culture and idiomatic trends that can be seen as equivalent, are echoed at the onset of the next chapter. Indeed, the author discusses rendering the classical poetry of medieval poet Hanshan 寒山 (whose name means “cold mountain”), and the very strict formal rules it follows, by adopting, in the target language (Dutch) an equally strict and formal pattern of iambic versification. This chapter is a contribution by Wilt L. Idema, an emeritus professor of Chinese Literature at Leiden and Harvard, and prize-winning translator from Chinese to Dutch, as well as from Chinese to English. His 1977 collection of Dutch translations of Hanshan’s poems is entitled Gedichten van de Koude Berg (which means “Poems of Cold Mountain”). After evoking the reasons for his focus on metre, he proceeds to contextualise his collection, describing it, historically speaking, as an upheaval of what was the common practice regarding Dutch translations of Chinese poetry. At the time, indeed, inauthenticity was the norm. Many translations were either adaptations from the existing German adaptations of French adaptations, or adaptations from English translations, rather than the Chinese original. Some writers created fake Chinese poems themselves, directly in Dutch. Besides upsetting this strange landscape with his “unadorned direct translations” (which were sometimes criticised as containing too few stereotypes), Idema also went against the then prevailing convention (among translators of Chinese poetry worldwide) of doing completely away with verse and rhyme, and trying to render content rather than form. After delineating this historical background, he reflects on the role of target audiences in shaping the approach a translator adopts, comparing the respective target audiences and varying approaches of James Legge, Bernhard Karlgren, Arthur Waley and Ezra Pound to the translation of the Shijing. This line of study leads Idema to discuss the difficulty posed by the need for interpretation when translating classical Chinese poetry. This part of his reflection may be seen as complementary to Allen’s point on the Shijing’s ancient, “foreign” language. Indeed, Idema argues that interpretation is made tricky, for the translator, not so much by a specifically “poetic” obscurity—classical Chinese poetry’s phrasings and syntax are usually simple and straightforward in his opinion—as due to the vast gulfs stretching between a premodern poet’s views, culture, and therefore vocabulary and idioms, but also purposes and target audiences, and those of a modern poet. Idema takes the example of medieval poet Du Fu, contending that his devout Confucianism and dedication to the Emperor are harder to translate than mere idiomatic turns of phrases. This reflection leads Idema to ponder over another difficulty: whether or not, and to what extent, a translator should rely on footnotes and annotations to convey the cultural background necessary to understand this or that line. His position is to try to avoid footnotes, and he concludes that trying to lose nothing in translation is a vain undertaking. Finally, he compares the merits of rhyming translations and unrhymed ones, stressing the unexceptional character of rhymes in the original Chinese as a reason why, in his opinion, rhyming should not be a must for a translation from Chinese. He does the same with “parallel couplets” and “parallel lines,” two rhetorical devices that are very pervasive in “regulated poems,” but which are, too often to Idema’s taste, disregarded by Western translators.
Nick Admussen, associate professor of Chinese literature at Cornell University, provides a theoretical framework to the challenges to traditional visions of translation that can be found in more or less all of the previous chapters, especially Nunes’s. He delineates an opposition between, on the one hand, an ethos of translation relying on the idea that languages are “equivalent” to one another, or “interoperable,” and, on the other hand, what he calls “embodiment,” a concept he derives from Henri Meschonnic’s vision of translation as “an equivalence not of words or languages, but of movements performed by and inside bodies.” The former, normative approach to translation, is depicted by Admussen as a widespread consensus that has become almost instinctive for translators, critics and readers alike, but is in fact the result of efforts from those individuals, and from institutions like publishing companies, to further the most practical way of translating from the point of view of what serves the purposes of globalisation and commodification. As for the alternative framework, that of “’embodied’ translations,” it allows for another kind of fidelity to the source text, not based on equivalent syntax, vocabulary, or semantics, but on equivalent effects on the reader’s feelings, even if it means shunning purely linguistic or semantic equivalence, or adding a lot more of the translator’s creativity and sensibility than a “traditional” reader would accept. You may say “even if it means womanhandling the source text,” as, like Nunes, Admussen quotes that notion of Barbara Godard’s, to suggest Jennifer Feeley’s personal connection to the subjectivity of poetess Xi Xi, whose poems she translated and collected in English in 2016, may be seen as an example of feminist “embodied” translation. Actually, her practice of directly connecting with the source text’s living author seems to be part and parcel of the “embodied” method, as Admussen points out its relevance to both Feeley’s translation of Xi Xi’s poems, and Austin Woerner’s 2012 translation of Ouyang Jianghe’s. Indeed, getting validation and input from the source’s author for the manipulations you imposed on their text instead of applying more abstract rules of semantic equivalence epitomises the process of emancipation from equivalence and of trying other things. Another striking example Admussen dwells on is the 2015 collection Empty Chairs, translated into English by Ming Di and Jennifer Stern, from the original poems of Liu Xia. He contextualises this translation as part of an effort from organisations like PEN to get the poetess released from house arrest and sheltered in Germany, and then argues that adapting the form of their translation to make it fit common patterns and trends of modern Anglophone poetry, rather than reproducing in English Liu Xia’s structural nods to Chinese poetry’s tradition, allowed Ming and Stern to make the poetess appear more “familiar” to Anglophone audiences, and, therefore, easier to empathise with, and engage for, all while making the prospective exile easier for her to navigate. Finally, Admussen addresses two ways in which his notion of “embodied” translation, and his advocacy both for the development and for the scholarly scrutiny of this practice, collide with issues at the heart of today’s global cultural relations in general, and of the world of poetry and its circulation in particular. The first of these issues is the rise of digital publication and communication, as it contributes to an ever-expanding practice of transmediation, which can be seen as a form of “embodied” translation, and is actually often part of otherwise verbal “embodied” translations. The second one is the issue of author’s consent raised by the practice, as not all authors are in a position to interact with all their translators and give informed validation of the way they manipulate the source text to make them fit a specific purpose in the target language. Admussen cites, in particular, the case of Chinese migrant workers, quoting in particular from an essay by Chinese Poetry and Translation’s co-editor Maghiel van Crevel, which shows how grounded in physical reality, outside mere language, these poets’ works are. In Admussen’s view, that makes them particularly susceptible to “embodied” translation, but, as he points out, their living conditions do not make them particularly likely to extensively network with scholars and translators around the world the way Liu Xia or Ouyang Jianghe do; so seeking their informed consent before crafting an “embodied” translation of their work requires extra, but ethically necessary, work.
Jacob Edmond, a specialist in comparative literature and especially contemporary English, Russian and Chinese poetry at the University of Otago, is keen to add the subject of the influence of literary theory on poets and translators to the general discussion on translation and the global circulation of literature. In his opinion, this relationship between the activity of theorists and the people and works they theorise about has been largely neglected in the various discourses developed regarding “the global travels of poetry.” Yet he cites several examples to show how significant this relationship is, from T.S. Eliot’s essay “Tradition and the Individual Talent” (1919)’s influence on poets worldwide to the reliance of American “Language” poets on Russian Formalists’ thought to craft their own theories on poetry and apply them in their own works. As for the rest of Edmond’s chapter, it focuses on one particular case study, an essay on Boris Pasternak penned by legendary Chinese poet Bei Dao. The title of the essay is not provided, but the “Works cited” section identifies it as part of a 2005 collection of essays in Chinese entitled 時間的玫瑰 (meaning “Rose of Time”)—not to be confused with the compilation of poems by Bei Dao published by New Directions in 2009 and also entitled The Rose of Time (after Bei Dao’s poem of the same name). The essay Edmond’s chapter dwells on provides a juxtaposition of several Chinese translations of Pasternak’s poem “February” (“Февраль”) (1912), by Bei Dao and others, alongside Bei Dao’s critical commentary of that very material (the original poem and the juxtaposition of translations). Edmond’s close reading of the essay shows how Roman Jakobson’s concept of “poetic function” is mobilised by Bei Dao to analyse both Pasternak’s poetic devices—parallelisms he creates between the sounds of words, or by picking them out of the same semantic field—and the translations featured, including his own. Under Edmond’s scrutiny, it appears that both Bei Dao’s use of Jakobson’s notion to make sense of Pasternak’s “February” in Russian and Chinese, and the Chinese poet’s use of another Russian Formalist’s key concept (Viktor Shklovsky’s idea of “defamiliarisation”) to illuminate Pasternak’s uncanny mixture of realism and surrealism in his poem “Marburg” (“Марбург”) (1916), have contributed to the shaping of Bei Dao’s very vision of poetry. Additionally, Bei Dao also appears to have been especially inspired by Shklovsky’s defense of the autonomy of art in the face of exploitation and politicisation by Soviet authorities, a cause the Chinese poet sees as mirroring his own commitment against the harnessing of art by similar Maoist forces. Then, Edmond also argues that Bei Dao’s Jakobson-inspired understanding of Pasternak’s use of metonymy to depict characters and their relationship to the world through a focus on the objects around them, and the Chinese poet’s adaptation of this poetic approach in his own “February” (“二月”) poem (1996), named after Pasternak’s, epitomise a particular creative process that draws on literary theory as well as the experience of translation and one’s own poetic practice to develop a specific theoretical and practical approach to poetry, to translation, and to global cultural cross-pollination. Edmond then concludes that this specific example shows rather tellingly, in his opinion, that his advocacy for more studies on the interplay between theory and practice in the transnational circulation of literature is warranted.
The next author, Min Zhou, carried out her doctoral studies at the Chinese University of Hong Kong and wrote a PhD dissertation entitled Narrativity in Translation: The Translator’s Textual Involvement in English Translations of Chinese Ci Poetry (2017), and, along with other writings, her chapter in Chinese Poetry and Translation is part of her research on those very same issues identified in her dissertation’s title. Indeed, the text also deals with English translations of ci poetry (or “song lyric”)—a genre of poetry that emerged around the 7th century BCE, and was, as was the case with several Classical Chinese poetic traditions, based on folk songs collected and imitated by literati. Furthermore, her analysis of this corpus is based on challenging the dichotomy that is often drawn between narrative and the lyric, as she defines “narrativity” in terms of Monika Fludernik’s notion of “experientiality” (i.e. not so much in terms of “plot” as in terms of a “quasi-mimetic evocation of ‘real-life experience’ […][,] of consciousness, or […] the representation of a speaker role”). Finally, the phenomenon that she aims to explain, using this line of analysis, is the constant addition of “function words” by the English translators of ci poems, providing not only grammatical cohesion in English, but also narrative cohesion and/or a sense of “experientiality” to the translations (as, in the original poems, content words are merely juxtaposed). Min Zhou shows that by examining parts of Kenneth Rexroth’s and Ling Chung’s 1979 translation of Li Ching-chao’s “To the Tune ‘The Perfumed Garden’” (“轉調滿庭芳”), Glen W. Baxter’s 1965 translation of Wen Tingyun’s “To the ‘Water-clock’ Tune” (“更漏子”), Jerome P. Seaton’s 1975 translation of Ouyang Xiu’s “Tune: ‘Song of Picking Mulberry’” (“採桑子”) and Lois Fusek’s 1982 translation of Wen Tingyun’s “Deva-like Barbarian” (“菩薩蠻”) and listing all the words added from the paratactic source text and the ways in which they give it more experientiality than the target text has. This goes from prepositions creating spatial relations between the referents of the content words, or verbs and prepositions that transform the original series of words into sequences of events, to definite articles that allow the translator to pretend that a word from the source text refers to a specific place or object, supposedly known to the reader, thus immersing the latter into a newly generated fictional diegesis. Dr. Zhou also points out a conjunction that gives the poetic persona the ability to have and express a point of view on what it describes (although it is actually completely impersonal and unnoticeable in the source text) and personal pronouns that conjure up a gendered character while the source text barely contains two words referring to human body parts. She also analyses a full poem (Wang Jiaosheng’s 1989 translation of Li Qingzhao’s “Tune: ‘Song Washed by Waves’ In Memoriam” (“浪淘沙”), and finds that a whole relationship between two gendered characters, and a relationship between their present situation and one of their memories of a moment they shared in the past, are conjured up through adding linking words from a source text that is, again, paractactic and elusive. Besides this record and analysis of various examples, Min Zhou also offers a theory to explain this tendency of translators to add elements and create stories and characters’ viewpoints that are not present in the source texts. She uses Fludernik’s notion of “narrativization,” which refers to the part a reader plays in giving narrativity to a text they read, in activating the potential the writer has peppered their text with. The fact that so many English translators choose to actually impose a specific narrativization on poems that are, originally, designed to give as few clues as possible of an underlying “story” behind their short lines of juxtaposed noun phrases is therefore a rather common example of what readers do, according to Fludernik’s depiction of the reception of texts. So the case of English translations of Chinese ci poems allows Zhou to emphasise an aspect of being a translator that is not so often highlighted, in her opinion: the fact that translators are, among other things, but importantly, what she calls “immersive readers,” whose contribution to a text’s voyage from one place/culture/language to another is not just that of an expert technician specializing in how to render a given idea in a different language, but also that of an ordinary reader who infuses the original text with their own sensibility and imagination.
Nicholas Morrow Williams is an associate professor at Arizona State University, though at the time Chinese Poetry and Translation was published he was at the University of Hong Kong. His chapter deals with a specific poem, Qu Yuan’s famous elegy “Li Sao” (“離騷”), in which the 4th/3rd-century-BCE poet is believed by some exegetes to announce his own suicide by drowning (although, for others, he merely announces his will to become a Daoist recluse). In such a context, with not only the exact meaning of the poem questioned, but also the historical accuracy of all the conflicting accounts of the life of Qu Yuan himself, Morrow argues for a translation that embraces the ambiguities of the text, especially the polysemous character li (離). Indeed, quoting from historical exegetes of Qu Yuan’s poem, Williams lays out two main possible translations for it: “depart” (according, in particular, to 3rd-century-BCE historian Sima Qian and his contemporary, prince Liu An, who both interpreted the title “Li Sao” as meaning “departing from one’s troubles” and understood this withdrawal from the world as mystical self-exile from society after the poet, then an advisor to King Huai of Chu, was slandered by his “jealous colleagues”) and “encounter” (according to 1st-century historian Ban Gu’s “Preface to the Encomium to the Li sao” (“離騷贊序”)). Williams notes that those two possible meanings make li an “auto-antonym” (a.k.a. a “Janus word”) like “sanction” (i.e. “penalty” and “permission”) and “cleave” (i.e. “separate” and “unite”), and indeed, when combined with the negative ideas of “turbulence,” “trouble,” “anxiety” or “sorrow” that the character sao (騷) can express, li’s auto-antonymy has allowed such contradictory glosses or translations as “departing from one’s troubles” (as aforementioned) and “On Encountering Trouble.” A close reading of the poem by Williams shows that li is actually a leitmotiv in the poem, and that it is used in both of its senses (plus other ones), so that it has been translated in different ways each time. Consequently, Williams believes that this word should not lead to translators’ adoption of one of those senses as the right one in this context, but should be considered as a deliberate staging of a clash of conflicting meanings, reflecting multiple “planes” between which the poem goes back and forth (“the shamanistic and the political, or the literal and allegorical”). To find a translation that he deems properly double-sided, Williams takes a detour through German philosophy. He summons Hegel’s notion of Aufheben, a word which means both “keep” and “cancel,” or, in the terms of Sir James Black Baillie’s translation, “to negate and to preserve,” before arguing that the best English translation for both Hegel’s philosophical Janus word “aufheben” and Qu Yuan’s poetic Janus word “li” is “sublimate,” because its chemical sense implies both destruction (of a solid) and creation (of the gas that the solid is transformed into), and its spiritual or emotional sense basically combines those two conflicting aspects of transformation, but with the added notion that the state in which the destroyed is recreated is a higher state—a semantic expansion that Williams sees as a perfect fit for the interpretation of the “Li Sao” as the announcement of a spiritual retreat from the affairs of the world. Embracing this spiritual interpretation of the poem, as well as its emotional/romantic aspects, Williams ends up introducing “Sublimating Sorrow” as his preferred translation for the title “Li Sao.” It is interesting to note that Williams’s vision of translation, in this essay, is in line with the general idea promoted by many of the previous chapters. Indeed, in his insistence that translation (of Classical Chinese poetry at any rate) is a matter of interpretation and creativity rather than mere mechanical application of word-for-word equivalence, he does suggest, like the other authors of Chinese Poetry and Translation, a more conspicuous involvement of the translator in the creation of meaning than what is favoured in the traditional ethos of translation described and not embraced by Nunes or Admussen in particular—although, contrary to the others, Williams doesn’t explicitly focus on the translator as the key agent of the bold creativity he advocates for, since what he evokes is the creativity of the target language itself (“‘extravagant’ language […] in translations into Chinese,” “the extravagant resources of English”). Yet, the “we” that “should [, in his opinion,] use all the tools available in the target language” “when rendering challenging words” is obviously translators, and his moody conclusion (“A translation continues to reconfigure these images of an irretrievable past, at best a double exposure of an already fragmented vision.”) certainly acknowledges the role of translation as a point of view on the source text.
In the following chapter, co-editor Lucas Klein continues his argument, previously expounded on in The Organization of Distance: Poetry, Translation, Chineseness, which discusses the connections between premodern and modern Chinese poetry and argues that poems are the product of a form of translation, either by deriving their formal rules and structure from foreign-language material (e.g., foreign music -> Chinese lyrics written for it that then became ci poetry; or Sanskrit poetics -> Chinese regulated verse), or by adapting in today’s language aspects of poetic traditions that were those of premodern/classical China (a diachronic point that echoes Joseph R. Allen’s aforementioned description of the Shijing’s language as being already “a ‘foreign’ language” for the speakers of classical Chinese). In this purpose, Klein draws on, and delves deeper into, connections highlighted by his co-editor Maghiel van Crevel, between two landmarks of Chinese poetry whose importance makes them recurrent topics in the collection under scrutiny—the Shijing and modern migrant workers’ poetry. He also borrows from van Crevel the categories of translation that he then discusses in the course of his argument (“cultural translation,” i.e. “movements between cultures” that do “not necessarily involve more than one language,” and “culturally inflected interlingual translation”). One of the aims of the poetry-as-translation argument is to challenge the idea of an “authenticity” inherent to the source texts of Chinese poetry, and of a built-in loss of that authenticity in the process of translating those texts into another language. This notion of “authenticity” is at the core of many debates on how to interpret the Shijing, and/or to comment on or translate the migrant workers’ poems—debates which Klein then quotes from, painting a broad diachronic picture of the scholarly discussions this issue has inspired. The journey through the debate starts with He Xuan, who edited, in 2010, a collection of migrant workers’ poems and included in it his critical commentary that he claims to have modelled on Mao Heng and Mao Chang’s famous 3rd-century-BCE commentary on the Shijing—and whose interest in the ability of the poet’s mind to directly transcribe their bodily experience is indeed replicated in He Xuan’s focus on the worker poets’ specific experience as laborers and how it is expressed in the text of their poems. However, Klein points out that He Xuan’s reading of the worker poets’ writings does not retain the allegorical approach to the text that is also a major trait of the Mao Commentary. Actually, those issues, of whether either migrant workers’ poetry or the Shijing should be seen as allegory or as a direct transcription of lived experience, and of which among those achievements is to be considered as the most valuable, as a product of artistry or of authentic Chineseness, appear to be one of the crucial controversies among critics of both of those bodies of writing—including, as far as Klein’s overview of the matter is concerned, Haun Saussy, Zhang Longxi Longxi, Stephen Owen, Pauline Yu, etc. The essay gives the last word on those issues to Saussy, who argues that early commentators of the Shijing explicitly talked about the art of crafting what is, indeed, a work, rather than pure expression. Another of Saussy’s quotes is then the starting point for another debate, about oral or written text, and whether there is inherent authenticity in orality—that one involves, in particular, Edward Shaughnessy and Arthur Waley. Then Klein cites Anthony Madrid’s written account of a (possibly made-up) experience of faulty oral recollection and reconstruction (in front of a student audience) of a written translation of the Shijing’s transcription of a supposedly originally oral poem as an example of the categories of orality and written literature being possibly too porous for one to epitomise authenticity and the other to epitomise artificial distorsion. The last part of Klein’s chapter examines examples of translations, as well as reflections on translation, by his fellow Chinese Poetry and Translation chapter author, the afore-introduced Eleanor Goodman. Klein points out what he thinks might be perceived as contradictions in Goodman’s discourse on the translation of Chinese migrant worker poetry (as, for example, she calls the experience of labour “raw material” for the worker poets’ literary creation, but also concurs with famed translation theorist Antoine Berman that the resulting poems should not be seen as mere raw material for the translation, making it the translator’s achievement “at the expense of […] the original”). However, Klein also detects, in two translations, by Goodman, of Xu Lizhi’s poem “我咽下一枚铁做的月亮”—the second of which has taken into account Maghiel Van Crevel’s critique of the first—a creative tension and dialectic between the two ideas, that of translation as its own work of art, with the source text as raw material (albeit already derived from some other raw material, like perception of the world, or previous texts), and the instinct to be “faithful” to the “original.” Borrowing from Monica Zipki, Klein concludes that this dialectic informing Goodman’s approach to translating worker poets’ works allows her to “bring[…] together the poem’s ‘mutable material transmission and dynamic interpretive reception.’”
Then, University of Connecticut associate professor Liansu Meng devotes her chapter to the work of mid-twentieth century Chinese poetess Chen Jingrong, especially her translations of Charles Baudelaire’s works. Both her own poetry and her Baudelaire translations are, in Meng’s opinion, early examples of what would later be defined and theorised as ecofeminism, the “theoretical discourse whose theme is the link between the oppression of women and the domination of nature.” Meng’s overview of Chen’s relationship to Baudelaire’s poetry and of this relationship’s tie to ecofeminism starts with Chen’s mid-to-late-1940s essays on Baudelaire, then moves on to describe her own experience of writing poetry. Her 1946 essay “波德莱尔与猫” (“Baudelaire and the Cat”) and her 1947 essay “谈我的诗和译诗” (“On My Poetry and Poetry Translation”) are interpreted as defiant gestures towards the cultural authorities of the time, and their Communist Party-backed promotion of “revolutionary realism”-tinged “People’s Poetry.” For those adversaries of Chen’s, Baudelaire was no more than a decadent bourgeois icon, whereas Chen’s perception of the French proto-Symbolist is that his poetry expressed empathy for the suffering of all beings, for the condition of the poor, of women, of animals, etc. (a position Meng connects to Sam Mickey’s definition of ecofeminism as a multi-faceted, much-encompassing social cause and theoretical field). On top of that, Chen’s latter essay responds to critics who implied that her poetry “imitates” Baudelaire by affirming the interpretive part she plays, towards Baudelaire’s work, as a poet, a translator, and a woman, who builds a poetics of empathy out of the French poet’s writings, rather than blindly submit to the provocateur brand that he constructed for himself, and which has been such an essential part of his reception by his male Chinese exegetes and disciples. Meng highlights the ties, which are explicit in Chen’s essay, between the poetess’s feminist assertion of agency and her direct experience of patriarchal oppression (especially the abusive marriage from which she had emancipated herself). Then, the chapter shifts to a textual commentary mode. First, it shows how Chen’s Chinese translation of a poem by Baudelaire (“La musique” (1857), i.e. “Music”) willfully erases the French poet’s associations of nature and passions with the negative semantic fields of pain and despair, thus changing what is usually read and interpreted as a complaint full of doom and gloom into a celebration of nature and human affects. For Meng, embracing so deliberately the “traduttore, traditore” ethos is an instance of Chen embodying a translator’s agency, as well as her own ecofeminist poetics. (Meng does not point this out, but in a way this analysis of Chen’s “interventionist” approach to translation makes her a forerunner of many of the translators and/or feminists who are studied, celebrated or quoted from in, and/or have authored, some of the preceding chapters of Chinese Poetry and Translation—from Nunes to Goodman to Allen etc.) After this example of a Baudelaire translation, Meng examines the thematic content of a poem by Chen (“地狱的探戈舞,” i.e., according to Meng’s English translation, “The Inferno Tango”), and how it also exemplifies her proto-ecofeminist advocacy for empathy-based politics. Indeed, it combines images in such a way as to fiercely indict the callousness of the celebration, by Chinese people (and maybe particularly, in Meng’s opinion, by the insensitive promoters of “People’s Poetry”) of the Japanese defeat (but also the countless deaths) in the hecatombs of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. In the last part of the chapter, Meng focuses on a Baudelaire translation miraculously published, along with eight others, in 1957, during Mao Zedong’s reign, although pro-government revolutionary realism, in the fashion of “People’s Poetry,” had become the obligatory norm. The poem is “Le Crépuscule du matin” (1857), a title often translated literally, as “Morning Twilight,” but which Chen rendered as “朦胧的黎明” (i.e., according to Meng’s English translation, “Hazy Dawn”). This title change (erasing the dimension of “conflict” between night and day evoked by the noun “twilight”) is combined to several other lexical mistranslations and layout and punctuation changes to obtain an effect that Meng interprets as effacement of the images suggesting the soul and the body are at war with each other (with the daylight standing for the soul, while the dark of night stands for the body), attenuation of the word choices that disparage the body, or women, in favour of counter-images that help highlight Baudelaire’s dramatisation of the struggle, difficulties and exhaustion of the poor, especially poor women—in a way that Meng sees, once again, as an echo of Chen’s own battles with the patriarchy, and an illustration of the outcomes of patriarchal oppression in general. The chapter ends in a bittersweet but still affirming coda, by evoking one of the poems Chen resumed writing at seventy—two years before her death. Although she did have little left to live, and although she never had the opportunity to meet and get to know the scholars, artists and activists in the West who were advancing causes and developing ideas that she had arguably championed before them, at seventy she wrote a poem called “Sour Fruit” (“酸果”), which describes the titular sour fruit, but which Meng reads as a self-portrait in metaphorical mode, in which the depictions of the fruit as “harder than ever,” “molded from liquid iron” stand for Chen’s own toughness, as an unrelenting and uncompromising elderly lady, a hitherto silenced yet undefeated poet. Such professions of “persistence and resilience in the face of adversity” never fail to bring to my mind Albert Camus’s calls for those very attitudes in the face of life’s absurdity in The Myth of Sisyphus, and especially in his appendix on Kafka, but to be more faithful to the spirit of Meng’s celebration of Chen Jingrong’s work and resolve, it might be more apt to end this paragraph by likening Chen’s sour-fruit-like persistence and resilience to the proverbial quasi-unbeatability of cats, thus harking back to Chen’s first Baudelaire essay, and bringing things full circle.
Chris Song, translator and poet, managing editor of the international journal of translation Babel, and now assistant professor at University of Toronto Scarborough, is the author of the next chapter. Hong Kong has been a cultural battleground since before the 1997 handover of the former British colony to the People’s Republic of China, and Song begins by portraying a post-Umbrella Revolution debate over Hong Kong’s aesthetic and cultural identity, between young poets embracing a surrealistic mode of writing inspired by Taiwanese postmodernists and older and more canonical poets who condemn this conversion to surrealism and defend a conception of Hong Kong poetry as “true to life” (生活化). This twenty-first century debate is, for Song, a rerun of a longstanding movement of opposition to attempts to graft surrealism into Hong Kong’s body poetic. The remainder of the paper is devoted to a depiction and contextualisation of the root of the conflict—i.e., Ronald Mar and his 1950s magazine Literary Currents (文藝新潮), in which he published his translations of Western modernist poets like William Carlos William, Ezra Pound, E. E. Cummings, W. H. Auden, W. B. Yeats, D. H. Lawrence, Dylan Thomas, Paul Valéry, Paul Fort, Guillaume Apollinaire, Paul Éluard, Henri Michaux, Jacques Prévert, René Char, André Breton, Robert Desnos, etc. An interesting point Song makes is that the dispute he is illuminating has been between people essentially trying to do the same thing. Indeed, reflecting life, being true to it, was already a purpose of modernists and, therefore, of Mar and his followers. Yet, after a couple of decades of being very influential in Hong Kong poetics, this ambition of putting life on paper through poetry finally inspired a poet, Leung Ping-Kwan, to reject modernist surrealism and experimentation in the name of that same ambition, finding more “truth” to life in minimalistic, descriptive poetry about snapshots of everyday activities and experiences. Leung’s aesthetic became, in its turn, influential through the cultural outreach of his Poetry Page, published as part of Chinese Student Weekly, so much so that it is basically his followers who are now opposing the new surrealism of the aforementioned young poets. Song explains these opposing reactions to modernism/surrealism as differences in historical/contextual condition. Indeed, Mar and his likes were essentially people who had been displaced from mainland China to Hong Kong, fleeing the civil war and then the Communist regime, and they saw modernist experiments in the “destruction […] of culture and […] the universe […] through […] language” as the tool to express their fragmented, violent, disrupted experience of life, and their quest for survival in those dire conditions. For more settled Hong Kong poets like Leung and his followers, it became less a matter of fighting for survival and reflecting this violent experience on paper than a matter of creating a new, specific cultural identity for Hong Kong poets. That seemed for them to be better achieved through the description of slices of Hong Kong life than through committing to paper incomprehensible experiments in distorting language and obscuring meaning. Song’s pocket overview and explanation of Hong Kong poets’ historical relationship to surrealism concludes that there is indeed a flaw in the approach of young poets to re-introducing surrealism in the Hong Kong poetry scene. In his opinion, young poets should try to seek inspiration beyond Taiwan, beyond the Asian world, within the new experimentations of poets in the West, perhaps through the translation of their works into Chinese. To his mind, following the translational methodology of Ronald Mar might help them revitalise Hong Kong surrealism the way Mar originally gave it life.
Tara Coleman, an associate professor of English at LaGuardia Community College, in New York, follows Song’s chapter with her own study based on considerations of the historical, cultural and ideological context of the birth of a school of modernist Chinese-language poetry outside mainland China—in this case, Taiwan’s Epoch Poetry Society. Her 2016 PhD dissertation draws parallels between modernist Taiwanese poets’ techniques and notions borrowed from film theory, and her Chinese Poetry and Translation chapter reiterates and develops several of the points she makes in the first chapter of her dissertation, as those two chapters of two different works share a focus on what Coleman calls “lyrical montage,” a term she uses to describe some aspects of Taiwanese luminary Ya Xian’s poetic style. The term is a reference to the “montage method” of Chinese poet, translator and scholar Wai-lim Yip, which “juxtaposes […][,] without intervening explanation[,]” “descriptive images that work together to create a mood, despite not being syntactically linked.” The result is reminiscent of the way an overview of a movie’s setting is built through the fragments presented to the viewer in a succession of shots, hence the “montage” metaphor to name this poetic approach to description. Coleman points out that this reliance on parataxis can also be perceived as an echo of writing mannerisms that were already fairly typical in the times of classical Chinese poetry (as is highlighted in particular in Min Zhou’s previously examined chapter of Chinese Poetry and Translation) and quotes Yip’s contention that a “ ‘[…] convergence’ between classical Chinese and modern Western [and therefore modernist Taiwanese] poetics” lies in this process of juxtaposing fragments of images and letting them create the meaning, instead of elaborating logical sequences of ideas that impose ready-made meanings on the world depicted—an idea Coleman nuances, citing Michelle Yeh’s assurances that Yip exaggerates the centrality of the trend in classical poetry, or Andrew Plaks’s points about the classical use of parataxis to create parallel structures, mirror effects, counterbalancing pairs of images, rather than the impressionistic disjunction that modernist parataxis aims to achieve. Coleman also gives an example of how Yip’s imposition of his modernist vision on classical poetry influenced his work as a translator (his Chinese-to-English translation of one of Du Fu’s poems, in which Yip erases the structuring in parallel couplets of the original poem, to emphasise a sense of logical disconnection between the lines). The purpose of this long preliminary analysis of Yip’s poetry and translation is to contrast his use of juxtaposition with Ya Xian’s. Indeed, close readings of the latter’s poems, especially “Ordinary Song” (“一般之歌”) (1965), allow Coleman to show that he strikes a delicate balance between avoiding obvious thematic and logical links between the details he gives in his descriptive poems, and achieving an effect that is less about disorienting the reader (or if there is disorientation, it is low key, compared to Yip’s version of it) and more about engaging them in some work of creative imagination, to fill in the gaps, and thus getting them involved emotionally in the scene the poem conjures up—hence, the idea that his kind of “montage” achieves a “lyrical” effect. Along the same lines, Coleman also explains how this subtle, discreet, and emotion-centred approach to modernist juxtaposition enables Ya Xian, in earlier poems like “The Nun” (“修女”) (1960) or “The Colonel” (“上校”) (1960), to verbalise the way memories, daydreams and half-formed thoughts pop up through consciousness, fluidly disrupting the flow of experience (in a move that seems to me to be reminiscent of Western modernist novelists’ “stream of consciousness”), or the way war-induced PTSD makes the past and the present coexist even more than usual in the subject’s consciousness. In the process of this analysis Coleman reflects on the similarities she perceives between various conceptual pairs (between an original and its translation; between a concept and another one to which it is compared by a theorist; between two juxtaposed images, on a film screen or in the lines of a poem), relying on the insights of authorities like Walter Benjamin, Serguei Eisenstein or Susan Stanford Friedman. In doing so, she points to the very continuum I described at the beginning of this review, in which many methods of thinking and forms of discourse, including art and literature (poetry in this case), commentaries that scholars draw from them, and translation, appear to be complementary and interdependent parts of and contributions to ongoing cultural dialogues—an idea that runs more or less clearly, to some extent or other, through the whole collection, and is expressed particularly explicitly and cogently in this chapter.
Following such reflections around a poet whose work was tremendously influenced by the experience of war, Joanna Krenz, an assistant professor at Adam Mickiewicz University, who writes about Chinese and Polish poetry and has penned several translations of poetry from Chinese to Polish, offers readers an examination of a polemic surrounding another war-torn figure, Paul Celan, the Jewish, German-speaking, Romanian-born, French-naturalised poet whose parents died in a Nazi internment camp when he was in his twenties, who was himself imprisoned in a labour camp at the time, and who would himself later commit suicide at 49, in Paris. The dispute Krenz’s essay deals with is a feud over Chinese translations of Celan’s work, which has opposed at least two or three schools of poetry (with contradictors belonging to groups known as “Obscure Poetry (朦胧诗) and the Third Generation (第三代) in the 1980s,” and two sub-groups resulting from a split of the Third Generation in the late 1990s: “Popular (民间)” and “Intellectual (知识分子)” writers). Krenz begins by arguing that the passion surrounding this particular foreign poet among his Chinese readers has to do with the trauma of political oppression endured through events like the Cultural Revolution and the Tiananmen Square Massacre, which leads Chinese poets to find emotional resonances between their experience and Celan’s Holocaust survivor’s life. In particular, Krenz points out, the poetic themes of exile and suicide have been central aspects of the debate. To delineate more concretely how the polemic has unfolded, and what specific points of contention it has involved, Krenz moves on to a comparative analysis of three Chinese translations of Celan’s most famous poem, “Todesfuge” (“Deathfugue”) (1944): Third Generation Intellectual poet Wang Jiaxin’s translation (2002), Obscure poet Bei Dao’s (2004), and Third Generation Popular poet Yi Sha’s (2013), as well as their critiques of each other’s translations. From these comparisons, it appears that Wang Jiaxin is dead set on keeping in his Chinese renditions as much of the ambiguity and the strangeness of Celan’s lexical choices and turns of phrases as he can, allowing intricate networks of potential meanings, resolutely open-ended semantics to be taken in by the translation’s readers. Yi Sha, in contrast, tends to simplify and disambiguate Celan’s writing to make it easier for the public, to produce, in other words, a target-text-oriented translation, but also to make the poem more concrete, more down-to-earth—for example by adding redundant yet vivid precisions now and then. Finally, Bei Dao is more concerned with giving his translation of Celan’s poem a sense of lyricism, a classical Chinese poetry “vibe,”, through a systematic use of poetic techniques and devices, as opposed to a more stripped-down use of the Chinese language in the two Third Generation poets’ translations. Bei Dao also tends to remove some ambiguity or strangeness from Celan’s poem when he renders it in Chinese via English translations, in the name of replicating the elegant and concise simplicity of classical Chinese poetry. Krenz concludes that those controversies, and those differing approaches to translation that have clashed with one another in the Chinese poetry scene, actually reveal that there are several Celans, as the poet’s work is multifaceted, and different translators will highlight different aspects of their source text, using differents methods and depending on their own agenda (“two Celans—an “Intellectual” […] Celan who begs for better understanding, and a “Popular” […] Celan whose secrets the reader is asked to dig for […], and one Bei Dao, who […] tries to reconnect the two Celans through polished phrases without grammatical glue”). So, although this point is not made explicitly in this chapter, the comparative analysis of Wang’s, Bei Dao’s and Yi Sha’s translations eventually illustrates something that many of the authors in Chinese Poetry and Translation have been arguing. The three poets/translators in question do not embrace an interventionist role for a translator; they actually believe that there is a transparently faithful and “right” way to translate Celan’s “Todesfuge”—witness the scathing words with which Wang and Bei Dao put down and condemn each other’s efforts, as well as Bei Dao’s confidence in the Chinese language’s ability to perfectly render exactly what the original poem means, or Wang’s firm belief that his mission is to understand Celan’s poem and unravel the mystery of his genius, rather than produce his own text in his own language. Yet, despite this non-interventionist stance, Krenz’s analysis shows that all of them are actually just as interventionist, in practice, as Nunes, Admussen, Williams or any feminist “womanhandler” of source texts. Indeed, it seems that whether this is done consciously or unwittingly, a translator will always select some specific aspects of a rich source text and, therefore, superimpose their own creative choices on the original author’s in order to produce a target text that is, consequently, in Nunes’s term, a “collaboration” between the original author and the author of the translation. Krenz’s idea that the translations under study reveal (or create?) “two Celans” also enriches a famous point made by Walter Benjamin, and which is not quoted in this chapter (although Benjamin is cited as an influence on Wang Jiaxin’s work), but was quoted by Tara Coleman in the previous one: “all great texts contain their potential translation between the lines.” As the results of Krenz’s analysis suggest, it might be more accurate to paraphrase or amend the philosopher’s statement and posit that all texts, be they great or not, contain their potential translations, for there may be as many of them as there are translators. Finally, translation is shown, in this chapter, to be part of, and a tool for, an ongoing and multifarious cultural dialogue (a rather mordant one, admittedly, but no matter how civil or uncivil, a controversy is, by definition, a “discussion”). In this case, the dialogue confronts different approaches to a foreign cultural product (a poem in German by a Romanian poet) within one target cultural group (Chinese poets and their readers), and thanks to a third cultural actor in the conversation (the Polish scholar who comments on the original dialogue), it produces insights on both the source text and the target cultural group.
Rui Kunze is a research fellow at the University of Erlangen-Nuremberg, and wrote, among other things, a monograph about Hai Zi. Her chapter is, like the previous one, heavily concerned with the poetic expression of the experience of political oppression (specifically, through the lens of the notion of trauma and its relationship to history, as defined by authors like Cathy Caruth, Michael Rothberg and, in particular, Jeffrey Alexander) and the way translation but also transmedial adaptation, performance, and multiple publications expand and transform that expression and redefine its meaning, impact and reception. The “case study” she uses to deal with those issues is that of the poet Liao Yiwu and his protean poem “Slaughter” (“屠杀”), also known as “Massacre” (“大屠杀”), which he recited and taped on 4 June, 1989. Sections three and four of his poem form a testimony of the bloodshed inflicted by the People’s Liberation Army on Beijing protesters a few hours before the taping, and which has been known, since then, as the Tiananmen Square Massacre. The phenomenon Dr. Kunze describes in the chapter is that of a poem that morphed, as it was being translated, performed, etc., from an expression of “personal trauma” to an expression of what Jeffrey Alexander calls “cultural trauma,” that is to say, “members of a collectivity[’s] feel[ing that] they have been subjected to a horrendous event that leaves indelible marks on their group consciousness, marking their memories forever and changing their future identity.” To be more precise, it appears, from Kunze’s analysis, that this evolution has also involved, to some extent, an expansion of the poem’s cultural outreach beyond the “collectivity” of the Chinese people traumatised by a massacre that took place in their country, in their town, in their neighbourhood, that took away their sons and daughters, brothers and sisters, colleagues, friends, as well as their freedoms and hopes—to a wider, international “collectivity” for which the Tiananmen Square Massacre has grown into a symbol of universal barbarity and monstrous, inhuman tyranny in a way that is not unlike the current, symbolic value of the Holocaust. Part of this transformation comes from the choices of the poem’s various translators, whom Kunze lists and analyses—including, in particular, Hans Peter Hoffman’s German translation (2011) of the clause “作为一次次杀戮的见,” previously rendered in English (by Liao Yiwu’s friend, Canadian sinologist Michael Day, in 1992) as “give repeated testimony of the slaughter.” In Day’s translation, the adjective “repeated” stands for “次次” (“once and again”), which he saw as a qualifier for the testimony, meant to be spoken again and again, whereas the slaughter/massacre remained described as a singular event (“June Fourth, as it is also known”). In Hoffman’s translation, though, the line becomes “Zeuge aller Massaker” (which Kunze translates as “witness to all massacres”), which means that he considered “次次” as a qualifier for the slaughter or massacre (making it plural and universal) rather than the testimony. Another factor of the evolution of the poem’s message and reception has been the way the author himself has spoken and written about it, and about its purpose as regards the memory of the massacre. Indeed, Liao Yiwu is himself at the origin of the change of the poem’s title from “Slaughter” (“屠杀”) to “Massacre” (“大屠杀”), which bears connotations of a larger death rate and echoes the official names of many other famous historical instances of mass murder, so it gives the event a tragic aura of history that “Slaughter” (“屠杀”) doesn’t convey as aptly. Kunze also cites examples that may have to do either/both with the choice of a translator, or/and a choice of Liao’s, like the way the metaphor of starting a fire has been used in the original version (2011) of the poet’s memoir (about June Fourth, “Massacre” and Liao’s subsequent political imprisonment until 1994) and in Huang Wenguang’s heavily-Liao-influenced English translation (2013). (In the former, Liao described the tapes of his poem, after they have been made, as “火種,” which Kunze translates as “seeds of fire,” which is a very common metaphor for ideas likely to start a revolution, but according to Kunze, the text also says that writing, reciting, taping and distributing the poem was “a slow process of burning myself to death” for Liao, so there is a focus on his trauma and the personal, cathartic effect of effacing oneself in the mission of testifying to the horror of the massacre. In Huang’s translation, though, the personal, introspective part of the metaphor has disappeared, leaving only the political “sparks of fire” the tapes may prove to be, whether it be an initiative of Huang as the translator, or a direction of Liao that Huang followed.) Finally, Kunze points to how recitation also changes the poem’s meaning from one version to another. She studies several examples: the first taped performance (from 4 June 1989) is already very dramatic, with the poem’s text interspersed with howling and sexually-charged screams of violent indulgence meant to express the military perpetrators’ savagery, and an ironic background of melodic electronic music alternating with a sentimental charity pop song, and shouts of “You’re crying! I will kill you! I will not let you cry!” (Day’s translation) in which the use of the deictic “you” without a specific referent helps take the poem out of, and beyond, the poet’s experience, and speak to the listeners’ sense of a shared human scourge of political oppression, with reaching out clearly defined as a political duty or mission by Liao himself in his aforementioned memoir. Likewise, in a 2013 public performance in Stockholm, the poet adds to his written text a “repeated roar of ‘I protest’” and accusatory references to the muteness of a group referred to this time by the deictic “we,” in a symbolic call-out of the Nobel Prize committee for not standing out in protest (i.e. not boycotting the PRC) that year, even as 2010’s Nobel Peace Prize winner, poet Liu Xiaobo, was still a political prisoner. The same year, in New York, a public recitation that took place at NYC’s Public Library is recontextualised to refocus it on developing/perpetuating June Fourth’s memory and status as a universal symbol of trauma and oppression. Indeed, a screen projected a dedication Liao had put at the beginning of the printed versions of his poem in his three published memoirs, but without the 1919 “May Fourth” student protest movement (which was mentioned in the original dedication), thus making “those who have died in the politically motivated massacre of […] June ” even more prominent as the dedicatees of the poet’s written testimony and performance. The last performance evoked is a recitation of the German translation by actress Johanna Marx, among readings of other stories of political oppression in the PRC, also written, in prose, by Liao, and also translated in German, as well as a German writer’s testimony of his arbitrary detention in East Germany—with Liao sometimes sitting in the audience, sometimes on stage, accompanying on the flute the actress’s performance. The whole setup, especially the juxtaposition of texts, is viewed by Dr. Kunze as a demonstration of the borderless nature of a traumatic testimony of political oppression, and how different experiences of it can merge into a shared human feeling through translation, performance and the right staging. More generally, the whole chapter could be seen as another example of how translation plays a role comparable to other kinds of reflexive/transformational/enriching work on original texts (commentaries, adaptations, rewritings, oralisation and staging, etc.) to allow these texts to be conveyed from one subjectivity to another, from one culture to another, and to elicit responses that help build the endless cultural dialogue that culture is—in this case, build a shared human memory and experience of trauma and oppression. It could also be argued that Kunze’s juxtaposition (and sometimes mixture) of interlingual translations, spoken performances and author’s commentaries on the same poem also highlights the parallel and similar work those different kinds of transformation achieve to add to the poem’s meaning and resonance, just like Johanna Marx’s juxtaposition of written material, in her show, highlight their similarities and parallelisms. In a way, after Allen has pointed out to the reader the foreignness of a particular time period’s Chinese language to a Chinese speaker of another time, making intralingual translation necessary, and after Klein has argued that writing poetry in modern times is a form of intralingual or intra-cultural translation in itself, reading Kunze’s chapter can definitely start to make one feel that the different tools of cultural dialogue evoked in the present review as in the book under study can actually be seen as different forms of one and the same activity, that scholarly commentary, intertextual reference or rewriting/staging/oralisation can be seen as other kinds of translation. Indeed, all of these things take some source material and seek both to change and preserve it so as to convey it to a target audience in a new shape that is supposed to be more suitable to that target audience. Allen and Edmond might actually argue that translation is a form of commentary, and they could be seen as arguing just that, to some extent, in their respective chapters, while Nunes simply makes translation a form of commentary by incorporating her commentary on her source text into her translations of it. Hence the need to add commentators (and, in the case of Liao Yiwu, obviously, self-commentators) to the “translational collective” defined by Kunze as “interlingual translators, editors, award jurors, readers, co-performers, etc.,” and to observe that, not only does poetry’s traumatic testimony “not stop at China’s borders” thanks to the work of this translational collective, but, similarly, through the work of the poets/translators/commentators who have crafted Chinese Poetry and Translation, their various activities also fruitfully cross over one another’s disciplinary borders, and thus participate in expanding and enriching the very cultural dialogue they scrutinise/translate/explain/dramatise/etc.
The collection concludes with co-editor Maghiel van Crevel’s comparative examination of several multi-author anthologies of Chinese poetry translated into English—namely, Jade Ladder: Contemporary Chinese Poetry (collected and edited in 2012 by W.N. Herbert, Yang Lian, Brian Holton and Xiaoyu Qin); Zero Distance: New Poetry from China (2017; Liang Yujing), In Your Face: Contemporary Chinese Poetry in English Translation (2002; Ouyang Yu), Breaking New Sky: Contemporary Poetry from China (2013; Ouyang Yu), Women of the Red Plain: An Anthology of Contemporary Chinese Women’s Poetry (1992; Julia C. Lin), Twentieth-Century Chinese Women’s Poetry (2009; Julia C. Lin), New Generation: Poems from China Today (1999; Wang Ping), Another Kind of Nation: An Anthology of Contemporary Chinese Poetry (2007; Zhang Er and Chen Dongdong), Push Open the Window: Contemporary Poetry from China (2011; Wang Qingping) and New Cathay: Contemporary Chinese Poetry (2013; Ming Di). This survey and comparison, focusing on the paratexts of these anthologies (especially introductions, afterwords and the tables of contents), allows van Crevel to identify the stands and trends that unite some of the anthologists, or oppose them, and, thus, to highlight dividing lines that have structured and fractured the Chinese poetry scene over the past decades, as well as how anthologists’ choices have contributed to a spillover of those divisions across Chinese borders, spreading into the supply of translated Chinese poetry on display for English-speaking readers. Among those more or less polarizing issues that structure anthologists’ approaches, van Crevel ranks, in particular, what he calls the “three demons” that “haunt” modern Chinese poetry: 1°) classical Chinese poetry (whose influence (which was well noted already in previous chapters of Chinese Poetry and Translation) is particularly emphasised and celebrated in the paratext of Another Kind of Nation and New Cathay, and of Jade Ladder); 2°) modern foreign poetry (see Chris Song’s and Tara Coleman’s chapters for examples of proponents of Western modernist-inspired Chinese language poetry), which a partisan of Intellectual poets (see the previous paragraph on Joanna Krenz’s chapter) like New Cathay’s editor Ming Di will deem a worthy intertext and source of inspiration for a contemporary Chinese poet (as classical Chinese poetry was for Ezra Pound), while advocates of Popular poetry (like Ouyang Yu) will consider such cultural cross-pollination as “selling out to the West,” and others might denounce it as Chinese poets imitating Western role models); 3°) what van Crevel calls “China,” which refers to expectations of what truly Chinese poetry is supposed to reflect (so, roughly the same as the notion of “Chineseness” as expounded on, and questioned, by Jess Marie Nunes and by Lucas Klein (and cited by Ming Di as an asset of texts included in her anthology)). In van Crevel’s assessment of anthologies’ choices, the “demon” of “China” is embodied particularly often in a tendency of anthologists (as well as Western commentators) to reduce mainland China’s poetry to its political dimension of writing in a dictatorship, and, therefore, exercizing “dissent” and “resistance”—e.g. John Yau’s introduction to New Generation, or Herbert’s in Jade Ladder. Several other issues that arise as material for positioning rivalries between anthologists in their anthologies’ paratext are discussed in van Crevel’s essay, and if one had to cite the most prominent, it would be the issue of translation methods. Indeed, some anthologists (like Ouyang Yu) take a stand against letting oneself be “colonized by […] the English language,” which results in a method of “direct translation” that consists in keeping the Chinese phrasing in English rather than find a “correct” equivalent in the target language, while others (like the editors of Jade Ladder) staunchly defend a much more normative and target-language-centred approach. So van Crevel’s comparison brings to light, in this instance, a dispute between anthologists that bears resemblances with another dispute about translation that has run as a theme throughout the various chapters of Chinese Poetry and Translation. The former is reminiscent of the latter but it is also slightly different. The dispute I mean is that between what I have called interventionist translators—those who, like Nunes at the very beginning of the collection under study, show the readers their existence, and the work they have done to bring them a target-language version of the source text—and the various forces described by Admussen as instituting a vision of translation as self-effacing. In the case of those translators as well as in the case of Ouyang Yu’s “direct translation,” there is a reluctance to lull the reader into the illusion of reading a translation that is nothing more than an effortless replication of the source text in a compliant target language. In the case of Ouyang, though, there is a reliance on the source language that is greater, a sense of Chinese native pride (even as he is very critical of the canon of Chinese poetry), which is not really part of the approach of the translators discussed earlier—especially since it seems that at least most of them are native speakers of the target language, rather than Chinese. Finally, there is one issue that seems to unite all the anthologies examined in van Crevel’s study, but not for the best: gender imbalance. The author lists, for every one of the anthologies surveyed, the ratio of female poets featured in it to male poets, and this accounting reflects a persistent predominance of the latter over the former in those anthologies, even in the best-intended anthologists’ productions. While many of the cultural issues, the stylistic issues or the issues related to translation itself, that are recurringly explored in Chinese Poetry and Translation can be said to end up being found in anthologies too thanks to van Crevel’s study of them, the collection does not seem to reflect such an effacement of women. There are, on the contrary, several fascinating female poets that are given the pride of place they deserve in various parts of the book. However, I must admit that I have not counted them, nor have I counted the male poets referred to and analysed in the pages of the essays under study, so I can only hope that the collection does indeed better than those anthologies. (One cursory re-reading of the table of contents can at least confirm that there is just one more man than there are women among the authors of essays featured in the collection. That is indeed much better than even the best of the anthologies cited by van Crevel.)
Before even starting to read the essays in Chinese Poetry and Translation, I chose to include, in the title of this review, the phrase “what happens when worlds collide,” a reference to Where Worlds Collide, the album released in 2017 by South African experimental and classical pianist Kathleen Tagg and her fellow South African, the late jazz pianist Andre Petersen. As I have explained elsewhere, the compelling image used in this title is one of the numerous creative choices and turns of phrases that have meant, throughout Tagg’s career, to signal her intent to blend different cultures and subcultures as an end in itself, through the constant fusion of musical genres (in this case, her experimental/classical music and Petersen’s jazz) and of the immersive, already composite “audiotopias” they carry with them, to give birth to new audiotopias, new musical/aesthetic/cultural “worlds” meant to be dizzying melting pots, and, therefore, enthusiastic contributions to dialogue and connection (another Tagg collaboration album title) between cultures—a project that has taken a whole new dimension with her more recent collaborations with New York’s hip-hop-and-funk-friendly avant-garde free-jazz/klezmer clarinetist David Krakauer.
The reason why I felt, while perusing the table of contents of a long collection of essays on Chinese poetry and translation, that I would be reading about cultural dialogue and connection, and about what happens when worlds collide, is that I had this idealistic notion to which I referred in the introduction to this review, and to which I have come back here and there in the course of the exploration of the collection, that translation is an essential instrument for different parts of the world to get to know each other, and engage with each other, through the consumption of each other’s art, and the discovery of each other’s culture. As Edith Grossman puts it, much better than I ever could: “translation plays an inimitable, essential part in the expansion of literary horizons through multilingual fertilisation.” The fact that the book focuses specifically on Chinese poetry, rather than different areas of literature or art in different parts of the world, could lead the prospective reader to anticipate a sobering of their hopes for a hectic voyage through a dizzying melting pot, but the very nature of editing a multi-author book on translation calls for both a cosmopolitan overview of the translated cultural world(s), and in-depth scholarship encompassing its (or their) every facet, as well as an encounter between it (or them) and the cultural world(s) of the various commentators. The richness and diversity of approach and focus is actually apparent, in Chinese Poetry and Translation’s table of contents, and, as should be clear from the previous paragraphs, this first impression is borne out by the actual reading of the essays. Indeed, 1°) most of the authors are, simultaneously, practicing poets and/or practicing translators, and/or academics (whether they be theorists of translation, specialists of Chinese literature, or both), and each focuses more or less on one or the other of their different areas of expertise, while sometimes nimbly passing from one to the other in the course of their chapter; 2°) their perspectives are those of Chinese or Chinese-born scholars living and working in China, in the US, in Canada and in Germany, American scholars living and working in the US, an American scholar living and working in Hong Kong, a New Zealand scholar, two Dutch scholars, and a Polish scholar, while some of the essays deal with such cultural exchanges as the Chinese reception and translation of a 19th-century French poet, multiple Chinese translations of a 20th-century German-speaking Romanian-born poet, the influence of a Russian poet and Russian theorists on a Chinese poet’s poetics, Dutch translations of Chinese classical poetry, German translations and spoken performance of a Chinese poem, and, of course, translations from Chinese to English and from English to Chinese; 3°) they focus on various periods and various schools of poetry, various approaches to language in the source culture and in the translations studied, the connections between such diverse aspects of Chinese culture and language (see, in particular, Klein’s and Allen’s points about poetry and commentaries as diachronic processes of translation between different historical versions of the Chinese language and culture) and the ways they engage with, and are engaged with by, foreign cultures through interlingual translation. Those extremely numerous facets of the triad highlighted in the book’s title justify my characterisation of this collective work as “multi-angled,” and definitely provide a multiplicity of worlds to watch colliding in the pages of the book. If I had to express interrogations after reading this collection, I might report my mild surprise at finding no reflections on the interaction or tension between different Chinese languages from a synchronic point of view, between contemporary Mandarin and Cantonese, for example, but, as a reader who is not a specialist, and who does not actually understand a word of any Chinese language (except 茶, of course!), that might be mere dilettante musing and wondering about an issue that is not significant to the area of research selected for this book’s contributions. What is clear is that anybody who wishes and expects to learn a lot and/or be confronted with many diverse insights on the issues of Chinese poetry and translation runs no risk of disappointment, as this long and in-depth sequence of studies provides more than enough food for thought for specialists as well as curious explorers and reviewers like myself.
 One of my examples was Aimé Césaire’s A Tempest, in which a French-speaking and Black Antillean writer “wrote back” to Shakespeare—to use the words of Ashcroft, Griffiths and Tiffin (and Rushdie). More broadly (and less politically) speaking, you could also cite the way Sergio Leone’s A Fistful of Dollars (1964) rewrote Akira Kurosawa’s Yojimbo (1961) while Toho plainly imported King Kong into the film world of Ishirō Honda’s Godzilla (in 1962) and Toei brought Marvel’s Spider-Man onto Japanese TV screens (1978-1979)—all reshaping the characters and stories they were retelling in ways that might have had to do with creators’ personal sensibilities, but which were also related to the target cultures, or how the local retellers perceived them.
How to cite: Camus, Cyril. “Chinese Poetry and Translation: A Multi-Angled Overview of What Happens When Worlds Collide.” Cha: An Asian Literary Journal, 15 Sept. 2022, chajournal.blog/2022/09/15/chinese-poetry-translation.
Cyril Camus teaches English to post-secondary students at Ozenne High School in Toulouse and is an associate member of the Cultures Anglo-Saxonnes research group of Toulouse University. He wrote Mythe et fabulation dans la fiction fantastique et merveilleuse de Neil Gaiman (2018), a monograph on Neil Gaiman’s works, Sang de Boeuf (Bouchers et acteurs) (2019), a historical horror novel about the Grand Guignol Theatre, and academic papers on Neil Gaiman, Alan Moore, comics, music, rewritings of Shakespeare, and postmodern fantasy. He also co-edited a 2021 journal issue on the themes of societal and environmental collapse in fantasy and science fiction. Visit his website for more information.