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.

3 March 10 | Chad W. Post | Comments

Over the next three 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.



The Brittle Age and Returning Upland by Rene Char. Translated from the French by Gustaf Sobin. (France, Counterpath)

This guest post is by Brandon Holmquest—poet, translator, and editor of CALQUE. Brandon is devoted to the reception and promotion of international poetry, so I’m really glad he was able to serve on the panel this year. And write up a couple books!

On one particularly bad night we were all in the kitchen with this book, idly translating it into German, Spanish, Chinese. Then the war began. Another time, I handed it to a guy and, flipping through it and seeing how “The Brittle Age” is composed often of single sentences each on their own page, he called it a waste of paper. I made him take it home and when he returned it I asked him if he still felt the same and he shook his head very slowly. I think I’ve read it five times now. Maybe six.

All of which is to say that The Brittle Age and Returning Upland is an eloquent, disquieting book. One that makes an impact. That these two works by a poet who’s been dead for more than two decades is being published in this country for the first time is both great and puzzling. I am unfortunately ignorant of the history of how it came to be published. But neither am I terribly concerned about that, grateful as I am for the mere fact of its existence.

The book contains two poems written in the 60s. The first, “The Brittle Age,” stretches across some 87 pages, made up of single fragments, none of them longer than five lines, many a few words. The second, “Returning Upland,” is more properly a series of poems, if not a serial poem. The two works are discrete, having no relation other than having been written by one person, translated by another.

“Comfort is crime, the fountain told me from its rock.” And on the next page: “Be consoled. In dying you return everything that you were lent, your love, your friends. Even that living coldness, harvested over and over.” And the next: “Death’s great ally, where its midges are best concealed, is memory: the persecutor of our odyssey, lasting from an eve to the pink tomorrow.”

And so on. “The Brittle Age” is undoubtedly the star here, though I doubt very seriously is “Returning Upland” could get a fair hearing in any court containing the other poem. The inclusion of both of them makes the most sense in light of the fact that both were translated by Gustaf Sobin, an American poet for whom Char appears to have been something between mentor and father-figure.

Even the cursory sort of French I possess is enough to reveal the quality of Sobin’s work here. His ear is so good, and his sense of English poetry so sound that he can rewrite individual sentences as he needs to in order to maintain Char’s voice, changing the letter, capturing the spirit of the thing, as when Char’s French reads:

Il advient que notre coeur soit comme chassé de notre corps. Et notre corps est comme mort.

And Sobin’s English gives us:

Sometimes our heart seems as if chased from our body, and our body, as if dead.

Sobin makes two sentences into one. He uses commas to create pauses that work to excellent rhythmic effect and to enable a reproduction, with the double use of the word “body,” of an echo of the homophonic effect the French has with couer and corps, which is where most of Char’s art in this passage resides.

One example, pulled at random from a book which teems with them.

....
In Times of Fading Light
In Times of Fading Light by Eugen Ruge
Reviewed by Phillip Koyoumjian

The historian John Lukacs observed, “Fictitious characters may represent characteristic tendencies and potentialities that existed in the past” and thus “may serve the historian under certain circumstances—when, for example, these are prototypical representations of certain contemporary realities.” Eugen Ruge’s In. . .

Read More >

The Antiquarian
The Antiquarian by Gustavo Faverón Patriau
Reviewed by P.T. Smith

Gustavo Faverón Patriau’s The Antiquarian, translated by Joseph Mulligan, is a genre-blending novel, a complete immersion that delves into a lesser-used niche of genre: horror, gothic, the weird. There are visual horrors, psychological ones, and dark corners with threats lurking.. . .

Read More >

Elsewhere
Elsewhere by Eliot Weingerber (ed.)
Reviewed by Grant Barber

What a wonderful, idiosyncratic book Weinberger has written. I say book, but the closest comparison I could make to other works being published right now are from Sylph Edition’s “Cahiers Series“—short pamphlet-like meditations by notable writers such as Ann Carson,. . .

Read More >

The Hen Who Dreamed She Could Fly
The Hen Who Dreamed She Could Fly by Sun-mi Hwang
Reviewed by Chris Iacono

Early in Sun-mi Hwang’s novel The Hen Who Dreamed She Could Fly, the main character, a hen named Sprout, learns about sacrifice. After refusing to lay any more eggs for the farmer who owns her, she becomes “culled” and released. . .

Read More >

Sankya
Sankya by Zakhar Prilepin
Reviewed by Kseniya Melnik

When Sankya was published in Russia in 2006, it became a sensation. It won the Yasnaya Polyana Award (bestowed by direct descendants of Leo Tolstoy) and was shortlisted for the Russian Booker and the National Bestseller Award. Every member of. . .

Read More >

Stalin is Dead
Stalin is Dead by Rachel Shihor
Reviewed by Tiffany Nichols

Stalin is Dead by Rachel Shihor has been repeatedly described as kafkaesque, which strikes a chord in many individuals, causing them to run to the bookstore in the middle of the night to be consumed by surreal situations that no. . .

Read More >

Paradises
Paradises by Iosi Havilio
Reviewed by Andrea Reece

Paradises by cult Argentinian author Iosi Havilio is the continuation of his earlier novel, Open Door, and tells the story of our narrator, a young, unnamed Argentinian woman.

The very first sentence in Paradises echoes the opening of Camus’s The Outsider. . .

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