13 June 12 | Will Evans | Comments

The latest review to our Reviews Section is a piece by Lucas Klein on Jonathan Stalling’s Yingelishi: Sinophonic English Poetry and Poetics, which is available from Counterpath Press.

Jonathan Stalling is an Assistant Professor of English Literature at the University of Oklahoma. He is the author of Poetics of Emptiness: Transformations of Asian Thought in American Poetry (Fordham University Press, 2010), and a co-editor of The Chinese Written Character as a Medium for Poetry, A Critical Edition (Fordham, 2008). He is also the author of a books of poetry GROTTO HEAVEN (Chax Press, 2010).

Here is part of his review:

If poets are, as P. B. Shelley wrote, “the unacknowledged legislators of the world,” then translation must be one of the unacknowledged legislators of poetry. Certainly translation of Chinese poetry has been essential to modern American writing: Ezra Pound’s Cathay didn’t just invent, as T. S. Eliot put it, “Chinese poetry for our time,” it invented the possibility within English for modes of writing recognizable as somehow Chinese. Poets as dissimilar as Charles Reznikoff and Stanley Kunitz, or Charles Wright and J. H. Prynne, have built careers inhabiting these modes; from Gary Snyder’s Mountains and Rivers Without End to John Ashbery’s Mountains and Rivers, we know Chinese whispers when we hear them in American poetry because we have read Chinese poetry in an English first invented by Pound.

Never mind the inaccuracies that have often come with translating poetry from Chinese to English; inaccuracies have been one of poetic translation’s more fruitful possibilities: Aramaic gamla may mean both “camel” and “rope,” but would we cite the Bible’s suspicion of the rich entering heaven if not for the striking surrealism of camels passing through needle-eyes? Or, in that case, mind the inaccuracies, because through them a kind of poetry is born. And this is the kind of poetry that Jonathan Stalling brings us with Yingelishi: Sinophonic English Poetry and Poetics.

Click here to read the entire review.

13 June 12 | Will Evans | Comments

If poets are, as P. B. Shelley wrote, “the unacknowledged legislators of the world,” then translation must be one of the unacknowledged legislators of poetry. Certainly translation of Chinese poetry has been essential to modern American writing: Ezra Pound’s Cathay didn’t just invent, as T. S. Eliot put it, “Chinese poetry for our time,” it invented the possibility within English for modes of writing recognizable as somehow Chinese. Poets as dissimilar as Charles Reznikoff and Stanley Kunitz, or Charles Wright and J. H. Prynne, have built careers inhabiting these modes; from Gary Snyder’s Mountains and Rivers Without End to John Ashbery’s Mountains and Rivers, we know Chinese whispers when we hear them in American poetry because we have read Chinese poetry in an English first invented by Pound.

Never mind the inaccuracies that have often come with translating poetry from Chinese to English; inaccuracies have been one of poetic translation’s more fruitful possibilities: Aramaic gamla may mean both “camel” and “rope,” but would we cite the Bible’s suspicion of the rich entering heaven if not for the striking surrealism of camels passing through needle-eyes? Or, in that case, mind the inaccuracies, because through them a kind of poetry is born. And this is the kind of poetry that Jonathan Stalling brings us with Yingelishi: Sinophonic English Poetry and Poetics.

Translational inaccuracies and the poetic possibilities they create are topics Stalling has been contemplating for some time now. He began studying Chinese in middle school, throwing himself into it with the zeal that only idealistic early teenagers seem to possess. His pursuit of Chinese took him from Arkansas first to Hawaii, then to Beijing, before he graduated with a BA in Chinese Studies from Berkeley. Along the way, however, he had read Edward Said and become convinced that, all modes of academic study serving to perpetuate the ideologically projected containment of that which they held as their object, the “Orient” he had been chasing had been of his own devising, in the aim of creating something he could master (though, it must be said: !?). Turning his back on the study of Asia, then, he looked for a way out of this intellectual cul de sac in the utterly unimaginable community of Scotland, reading an MA in English Literature and Cultural Theory at the University of Edinburgh. This led him back to the US for a PhD from Buffalo’s Poetics program, where something snapped again and he began reinvestigating the productive ways in which writers have imagined East Asia and brought elements of its literatures into English. This re-awakening has motivated Stalling’s career since, resulting in academic work—a critical edition of Ernest Fenollosa’s & Ezra Pound’s The Chinese Written Character as a Medium for Poetry (Fordham, 2008, which he and I edited with Haun Saussy) and the monograph Poetics of Emptiness: Transformations of Asian Thought in American Poetry (Fordham, 2010); editorship—of the journal Chinese Literature Today and the Chinese Literature Today Book Series from University of Oklahoma Press; translation—his recent volume of the seminal modern Chinese poet Shi Zhi, Winter Sun (Oklahoma, 2012; see my take in a forthcoming Chinese Literature: Essays Articles Reviews); and poetry—Grotto Heaven (Chax, 2010), based on an introductory Chinese language textbook, and now Yingelishi.

A story of inter-continental and trans-civilizational travel, the base text of Yingelishi—the word “English” as pronounced in Chinese that, depending on the tones of the syllables, can mean “Chanted Songs Beautiful Poetry” or “The Sounds of Songs Leaving the World”—was taken from an English phrasebook published in China. But like a Monty Python sketch acted out by either the Dharma Bums or the Seven Sages of the Bamboo Grove, this is a phrasebook that does not communicate, or that communicates too much, as Stalling has “totally rewritten the book by changing all of the original simple Chinese characters (chosen to mimic the pronunciation of common English phrases without initiating Chinese meanings) into complex Chinese poetic phrases and ‘poems’” (p. 4), which he then translates into English poetry. The result fuses the mundane, the ridiculous, and the sublime:

我的座位在哪?

  where is my seat

  wài ‘è yì si mái xī tè

     外堮

      意思

         霢窸忒?

           Outside the border

             of meaning buried

                the faint cricket’s whisper error

                 (p. 54)

Cracking open translation—the first two lines are straightforward equivalents of the same phrase in two different languages—Stalling’s method in these pieces is to bring attention to the sound inherent in meaning and the meaning inherent in sound. The result is an English poetic image—a “radiant node or cluster,” as Pound defined it, “from which, and through which, and into which, ideas are constantly rushing”—that often, as in the poem above, comments on its own poetic process as much as on the prisms and misprisions of cross-cultural communication.

Another piece, in which the themes of the book cluster even more radiantly:

原谅我

  forgive me

  fó gěi fú mí

      佛给浮迷

        Buddha offers floating enigmas (p. 87)

While the pieces’ ultimate lines present stunning poetry, they do raise a question about the politics or ethics of using Chinese texts in such a way (we want our legislators, after all, to be fair representatives). Because of his background in studying, walking away from, and then walking back to Chinese, Stalling is clearly aware of this; as he writes in the helpful introduction, “working against the anti-pidgin/Chinglish stereotype is a complicated and difficult task. The cultural frame through which these sounds are heard in the West has long been ideologically contaminated by a history of ‘yellowface minstrelsy’ and other ways of degrading pidgins, accents, and dialects that arise from the admixture of English and various Pacific Rim languages” (pp. 3 – 4). But only by engaging with the ideological contamination can he overturn it. Indeed, the English-reader should know that the Chinese characters that transcribe the sounds of Stalling’s sinophonic English are often very obscure; Chinese-readers will probably find themselves lost in the semantic meaning of Stalling’s transcriptions into Chinese. Nor are the translations from Chinese necessarily proper representations of how Chinese-speakers would understand these phrases. English-learners in China may joke about how “thank you” sounds like sān kè yóu, but they are less likely to write it as 三客游 (p. 41) than as 三克油, laughing that it means “three grams of oil.” Nor would they understand 三客游 as “Three wanderers floating,” but here Stalling is able not only to avail himself of the tradition of Chinese signification in English poetry from Pound onward, he is able to draw on other instances of poetry translation playing with sound and sense: when Louis Zukofsky turned Catullus’s Miser Catulle, desinas ineptire, / et quod vides perisse perditum ducas into “Miss her, Catullus? Don’t be so inept to rail / at what you see perish when perished is the case,” the point was not whether readers of Latin would have understood it that way, but to create poetry out of the misreadings inherent in translation that could displace Latin from its position of superiority over English and English from its position of superiority in the ears of a non-native speaker such as Zukofsky. Not only does Stalling’s Chinese also come from the rare position of a non-native speaker, by writing against “the ideological framework … of hearing what is not there (the phantom ‘other’ that serves ideological jingoism), rather than what is (the full range of human experience and aesthetic complexity within other ways of speaking)” (p. 4), he is able to push towards a further level of transcendence, his English departing from the ground of Chinese as his Chinese has departed from its grounding in English.

As it happened, I read Yingelishi on flight from Hong Kong to Beijing, airborne from the ground of one relationship between English and Chinese to another, from one relationship between Chinese written characters and their pronunciation to another. I found the reading experience especially apt, not only in the translingual resonances but in the phrasebook’s implied narrative of a tourist finding his passport stolen and struggling to communicate with the authorities. Miscommunication, like translation, is another of poetry’s legislators. But even if read elsewhere than on an airplane, the transcendent resonances with American poetry and its incorporations of Chinese allow Yingelishi to take off into, and from its, chanted songs and beautiful poetry.

26 April 11 | Chad W. Post | Comments

The latest addition to our Reviews Section is a piece by Tim Nassau on Yu Jian’s Flash Cards, translated from the Chinese by Wang Ping and Ron Padgett, and published by Zephyr Press last year.

Most notably, Flash Cards is a finalist for this year’s BTBA for poetry. I’ll try to handicap the poetry titles tomorrow, but based on Tim’s review, I’m not so sure this book is going to pull it off . . .

Speaking of Tim, he was an intern here some summers ago and thanks to our special brand of Open Letter guidance, he’s going to be launching a student-centric literary translation journal out of Brown University. Our quixotic nature strikes again! (And as soon as the first issue drops, we’ll have more information.)

In the meantime, here’s the opening to Tim’s review:

A few weeks ago I was visiting my grandparents in the tiny town of Kewanee, Illinois. Their house, because it is the same house where my mother grew up with her brothers and sisters, is crammed with the detritus of several childhoods and adolescences. While looking through a closet, I found a sheet of paper hand painted with beautiful calligraphic Chinese characters. It surely belonged to my uncle, but curiosity, and the feeling that it might otherwise remain in that closet forever, compelled me to take the sheet back to Providence against what some might consider the standards of being a good guest. None of my friends who speak Chinese could read the characters, so I took the mystery to Xue Di, Brown’s resident dissident poet. He of course sent me to Wikipedia, where I learned that what I had was a famous line from 7th century poet Wang Bo. It translates to: “When one has a close friend, the far ends of heaven are next door.”

Such a sentiment is the exact opposite of what you will encounter in Flash Cards, a collection of poems by Yu Jian. Born in 1954, Yu Jian has been writing since the early 1970s. For those who know what such things mean, he is considered one of “The Third Generation Poets” that followed the “Misty Poetry” movement of the early 1980s. Part of the Zephyr Press’s Jintian series dedicated to making available contemporary Chinese works, this is Yu Jian’s first collection to appear in English.

Click here to read the full piece.

And stay tuned to find out how Flash Cards fares in the BTBA . . .

26 April 11 | Chad W. Post | Comments

A few weeks ago I was visiting my grandparents in the tiny town of Kewanee, Illinois. Their house, because it is the same house where my mother grew up with her brothers and sisters, is crammed with the detritus of several childhoods and adolescences. While looking through a closet, I found a sheet of paper hand painted with beautiful calligraphic Chinese characters. It surely belonged to my uncle, but curiosity, and the feeling that it might otherwise remain in that closet forever, compelled me to take the sheet back to Providence against what some might consider the standards of being a good guest. None of my friends who speak Chinese could read the characters, so I took the mystery to Xue Di, Brown’s resident dissident poet. He of course sent me to Wikipedia, where I learned that what I had was a famous line from 7th century poet Wang Bo. It translates to: “When one has a close friend, the far ends of heaven are next door.”

Such a sentiment is the exact opposite of what you will encounter in Flash Cards, a collection of poems by Yu Jian. Born in 1954, Yu Jian has been writing since the early 1970s. For those who know what such things mean, he is considered one of “The Third Generation Poets” that followed the “Misty Poetry” movement of the early 1980s. Part of the Zephyr Press’s Jintian series dedicated to making available contemporary Chinese works, this is Yu Jian’s first collection to appear in English.

The world of the poet presented here is one of constant alienation, dissociation, and feeling out of place. But all this in a sea of people—everyone is forced together by necessity, but this does not create a feeling of connectedness. The far ends of heaven are not next door: everyone is crammed together and one does not have a close friend: one has 1.3 billion people. The poems are described as constituting “a primer of modern Chinese life,” and it is hard to escape the fact of the political and social reality from whence they emanate while reading these poems, especially when several seem to reference it directly:

Morning in the park
Thousands of retired women are exercising
They’ve given birth their children are grown
scattered across the wilderness of life
The Dishes have been washed
With leisure time they want to do something for themselves
In the winter sunlight
a thousand mothers are dancing
One of them gave birth to me
Mother I call out
They all turn their heads

This is surreal, and it is skillfully ambiguous whether it is meant to be funny or horrifying (as those seem to be the main things surrealism can do), but it is quite real as well. A commentary on a nation’s desire for children it cannot have, a single man’s obsession with his own mother, a meditation on the indistinguishability of the self in a communist regime . . . It’s as if Yu Jian grafted the stereotype of the Westerner who thinks all Chinese look alike onto himself.

Of course, the only possible outcome of this is clear: poems about being yourself and poems about how poems can let you do this. A general warning sign for me when reading a book of poetry is if the poet spends too long writing poems about writing poems. In this case, the stakes are higher so it is more forgivable: in America, the concept of dissident poetry is somewhat laughable (“You mean like America?”) because though you may be jailed for indecency, you will not disappear. I do not think Yu Jian is a dissident poet (because if he were I feel like it would have been mentioned somewhere prominent), but he recognizes that poetry as self-expression in China is not just about solipsism:

The poet is hosting a meeting
but she doesn’t know how to begin
Her poems are far away
planted at Black Leopard Farm
Time’s up everyone is looking at the clock
“Stand up, everyone” she says
“Let’s sing the national anthem”

The implication that nationalism is what fills in the gap left by poetry (or art in general) is powerful and important. This is what gives Yu Jian a feeling of belonging: not the forced comradery of communism, but that “A letter traveled a thousand miles / not to explain Ulysses / but to let me know / that somebody understood / my words.” Unfortunately, a large portion of this book passes by without making much of an impact. Many poems muse on daily life and present it enigmatically, but the exotically oblique meditativeness that seems to dominate our view of Chinese poetry rarely extends past the surface; each poem gives the strange impression of being both mysterious and making perfect sense, though the latter sensation often comes to dominate, and not in a good way; ambiguities are too tidily resolved. Perhaps this feeling is strictly my own, but I think it may come from a tension in how we view works from China: on the one hand we think of political oppression and work produced in exile, and on the other we imagine quatrains seeped in nature and Confucius. The reality of Chinese literature must be different and the oversimplification comes from my end, yet Yu Jian writes,

On the garden’s eyelashes
a butterfly is catching the twilight
The evening paper has arrived
Among reports of murder and the stock market
is a poem about the butterfly

What can we do with this? Can a poem about a butterfly also be about the economy (like this one)? The question is not even Chinese: can you be philosophical while writing about the actual world you live in? It has been done, but the tension between these two strains is not dealt with satisfactorily here: most “political” poems are abstract to the point of toothlessness while the “poetic” ones feel weighed down by inescapable ideological readings. For now, I’ll read the paper and then get to that poem about the butterfly.

29 March 11 | Chad W. Post | Comments [1]

Starting this week, we’ll be highlighting the five finalists in the poetry category for the BTBA. Similar to what we did for the fiction longlist, these will be framed by the question: “Why should this book win?”

Click here for all past and future posts in this series.

Today’s post is by poetry committee member Idra Novey. Idra is the director of the Literary Translation at Columbia University program, a poet, and a translator. It’s worth noting here that her translation of Manoel de Barros’s “Birds for a Demolition” was eligible for this year’s BTBA, but was excluded from consideration based on the fact that Idra was a judge. That said, over on the fiction side, her translation of “On Elegance While Sleeping” is a finalist.

Flash Cards by YU Jian, translated by Wang Ping and Ron Padgett

Language: Chinese
Country: China
Publisher: Zephyr Press & the Chinese University Press
Pages: 151

Why This Book Should Win: Because Yu Jian knows we should avoid comparing ourselves to fish: they’re doomed, the lake drying up. Because Yu Jian has many lines that are this tragic and funny and involve washing machines and the Chinese army.

So many American poets are currently struggling with how to write about our environment. It’s an important questions, and I’ve been reading new pastorals: poems of lament, elegies for the flora and fauna that we’re rapidly losing and won’t get back. But here comes Yu Jian, writing about nature—and more—in a new way that addresses loss with humor and with a lack of familiar binaries.

In Flash Cards, his first collection to appear in English translation, he writes of frogs that died in 1998 along with their pond, but also of the mosquitoes that remain there, “sometimes conversing in English.” It’s hard to translate humor well, especially in the streamlined language of a poem, but American poet Ron Padgett and Chinese poet Wang Ping do an extraordinary job of getting the tone right every time. “Conversing” is just the verb for a wry, quirky line like this in English.

In another poem, when Yu Jian drives to the edge of “the virgin forest,” the translators go with a car that “zooms.” That zoom seems spot on when an imaginary doe leaps into Yu Jian’s heart and he says, “I no longer have a stream or meadow/ to keep it there.”

Not all of the poems in Flash Cards are concerned with the natural world, however, or at least not explicitly. One stunning poem begins with “the washing machine on Saturday” and ends with the declaration:

Happiness belongs only to a cashmere sweater
that demands a different spin cycle
its only wish to match
the mistress’ red skirt.

I would argue that happiness also belongs to the reader of Flash Cards and to its translators, as the humor and music in these English versions suggests that Wang Ping and Ron Padgett took great pleasure, and care, in translating these poems. If you haven’t yet had the experience of having a woman in heavy makeup and a wolf face turn to you at dusk in the zoo and say in perfect Mandarin, “Good evening, comrade,” you’re in for a delightful surprise with the poetry of Yu Jian.

23 February 10 | Chad W. Post | Comments

Over the next nine days, we’ll be featuring each of the ten titles from this year’s Best Translated Book Award poetry shortlist. Click here for all past write-ups.



In Such Hard Times by Wei Ying-wu. Translated from the Chinese by Red Pine. (China, Copper Canyon)

Poetry judge Matthew Zapruder — poet, translator, academic, and co-editor of Wave Books — wrote the review below. I’m running another of his write-ups tomorrow, as we work our way through the poetry finalists.

The poems in In Such Hard Times: The Poetry of Wei Ying-wu feel strangely connected to our current historical situation. The struggle of this individual poet to find himself, personally and spiritually, through his poems, feels like a contemporary search. Like other T’ang Dynasty poets (Li Po and Tu Fu and many others) Wei Ying-wu writes to his friends, and wonders what he is going to do with his life, why he is living and working the way he is. He is caught between the needs of the world and his spiritual impulses. He wonders and despairs. Yet somehow, even more than Tu Fu and Li Po, whose poems are deservedly beloved in their various translations, Wei Ying-wu in particular feels like our T’ang poet: the one who most directly connects to the spirit of our time, today.

English translations of Chinese poets of the T’ang dynasty period (618-907 A.D.), by Ezra Pound, Kenneth Rexroth, Gary Snyder, David Hinton, David Young and many others have played a major role in the development of contemporary American poetry. The T’ang was perhaps the greatest era of poetry writing in human history. And the addition of another significant translation would be, in purely historical terms, a major event. The fact that these poems are translated with such clarity, unassuming erudition, good humor, precision and just plain old skill by Red Pine (aka Bill Porter) is unsurprising, given the translator’s previous output, including a translation of the canonical anthology of Chinese Poetry Poems of the Masters, as well as poems by Cold Mountain, several important Sutras, and an edition of the Tao Te Ching. And these new translations are nothing short of a poetic revelation.

8 May 09 | Chad W. Post | Comments

As announced on the NEA site yesterday, Copper Canyon will receive $117,000 to support the translation, publication, and promotion, of a bilingual anthology of Chinese poets born after 1945.

This publication is part of the International Literary Exchanges, which started in 2006 and are a joint partnership between the NEA and a foreign government. In addition to this volume (which is due out in spring 2011), the General Administration of Press and Publication in China will publish a companion volume featuring contemporary U.S. poets.

In terms of Copper Canyon’s anthology:

[It] will be edited by award-winning poet and editor Qingping Wang, who also will write the introduction to the volume. The anthology will be co-translated by noted Chinese literature scholars and translators Howard Goldblatt and his wife, Sylvia Li-chun Lin, who jointly received the American Translators Association Translation of the Year award in 1999 for their translation of Notes of a Desolate Man by Taiwanese novelist Chu T’ienwen.

Congrats to Copper Canyon, and this should be an interesting publication. It’s a nice chunk of change, which ensures that the contributors and translators will be properly compensated, and that there will be plenty of money for marketing and promoting the anthology. I dream of getting something like this someday so that we can do all that we want to do for one of our books, without having to cut corners because of costs and budgets and whatever.

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