24 April 13 | Chad W. Post | Comments

Over the course of this week, we will be highlighting all 6 BTBA Poetry Finalists one by one, building up to next Friday’s announcement of the winners. All of these are written by the BTBA poetry judges under the rubric of “Why This Book Should Win.” You can find the whole series by clicking here. Stay tuned for more information about the May 3rd ceremony.

Notes on the Mosquito by Xi Chuan, translated from the Chinese by Lucas Klein, and published by New Directions.

Jennifer Kronovet is the author of the poetry collection Awayward, which was selected by Jean Valentine for the A. Poulin, Jr. Poetry Prize. She is the co-founder of Circumference: Poetry in Translation.

When I had the chance to meet the Chinese poet Xi Chuan at a conference on translation in Beijing, I asked him about the choice to write prose poems. Prose poems make up approximately half of Notes on the Mosquito, his selected work translated by Lucas Klein. He responded that years ago, an artist asked if he would write a poem in relation to a photograph of someone washing with a plastic wash basin. He told this artist that he did not know how to write about plastic basins, only wooden ones. Prose was a way for Xi Chuan’s poems to step outside of the imagery and language of traditional Chinese poetry and reenter with a different idiom and perspective. Xi Chuan’s prose poems are nodes of intense and felt thinking in relation to China’s present, expressed in a voice that is starkly contemporary and layered with history. Form and voice in Xi Chuan’s work feel like rooms where impossible thinking explains everything. In one poem he writes:

In a crowd of people some people are not people, just as in a flock of eagles some eagles are not eagles; some eagles are forced to wander through alleyways, some people are forced to fly in the sky.

As much as Xi Chuan’s prose poems step outside of classical poetry to look back in, his lineated verse voraciously considers beyond the borders of China to expand a framework tied to the history of Chinese poetry, reframing the frame and what is beyond it. In a poem that reflects on turning thirty, Xi Chuan writes:

in my first decade
the moon revealed its silent craters
while under the moon, in the town I lived in
a clatter of exorcismal gongs and shouts in the street
     my limping uncle swore in the courtyard
     careless I met with a white rooster’s kiss
     and a girl pulled down her pants in front of me…
hail bounced in exhaustion on the road to the commune
     I entered an immaculate school and studied revolution

Here, lyrical observations on symbols of the natural world intermix with the surreal, the political, and the daily. In another poem, Xi Chuan writes:

even the moonlight is polluted blurring our shadows
even the mountaintops grow like fissures brewing

even the Tang Dynasty fell in the end
even the dumpsters have people living in them . . .

This is a poem of nihilistic momentum. Past dynasties can illustrate a mindset and so can polluted skies and ancient mountains—all re-envisioned in Xi Chuan’s verse.

So many of us are curious about how China sees itself, and so is Xi Chuan. Throughout the book, he reflects on, interrogates, builds up, tears apart, repaints and enacts what modern China means. This is, of course, a huge topic, and one feels the kinetic struggle in language to figure China’s dichotomies; the reader participates in the erratic dance between country and self, between an interior dialogue and a public setting forth. The poems are neither distanced considerations nor fleeting impressions. Rather, we see a mind using everything at hand—from ancient history to the senses, from the philosophers to the annoyance of neighbors, and sometimes what comes through most is this sense of urgency. Here, urgency feels like action against a fixed and false sense of the present. Thinking is political and personal, predetermined and endlessly open. Xi Chuan writes:

Trees eavesdrop on trees, birds eavesdrop on birds; when a viper stiffens and attacks a passing human it becomes human . . . The truth cannot be public, echoless thoughts are hard to sing.

This is not nature poetry and yet it is. It is not political and is. It is impersonal and personal and cold and emotional. It is foreign and very near.

Lucas Klein, brings the poems into an English that feels lively and forceful, apparent in both the lineated and the prose poems, all of which sound intriguingly new and yet spoken by a familiar friend. He has not made these poems American, but rather allowed us to hear Xi Chuan’s poetics and ideas in an American idiom, in an English that is alive with personality. Klein’s knowledge of Chinese culture and history allows references to appear without explanation or odd framing. Rather, he translates the impulse of the poems so that we might eavesdrop on one of the more important conversations about national identity happening in poetry.

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.

18 November 11 | Chad W. Post | Comments [1]

Special thanks to Megan McDowell for sending me a whole new batch of translator photos so that I can continue this series.

For those who don’t know, this series grew out of an idea I had at the American Literary Translators Association (ALTA) conference that took place back in November. Megan McDowell (the official ALTA photographer) and I thought it would be fun to ask a bunch of translators a few questions and thus make them more “visible.”

A few short weeks after the conference, and just as this series was getting into high gear, ALTA sent out an e-newsletter that posed the question, “Do You Recognize Any of These Translators?” and included a link to a page on their site where a picture of me was identified as Lucas Klein. (It’s now fixed.) This was a source of great amusement to a few people, and thankfully Lucas and I were both able to appear at the same party at the same time to put to bed all those Clark Kent/Superman rumors. (No, I don’t know which is which either.)

I do feel like there is some sort of weird connection between the two of us though . . . I mean, that picture does sort of look like Lucas. And more to the point, my grandfather’s name was “Klien,” so maybe we’re inverted doppelgangers or something. The least we could do is have a shibboleth to identify other mislabeled translators that are part of our little clique . . .

Onto the questions:

Favorite Word in Any Language: Cipher

Tying this back into “shibboleth,” I think Mr. Klein has a bit of an obsession with secret societies and codes . . .

Best Translation You’ve Done to Date:
I’ll come is       empty talk      I’ll go and then no trace”

Lucas was the first (and I believe only) translator to take my question and reinterpret it in a much more precise, micro sort of way. I was really hoping someone would give us a single line instead of a full work—there’s something powerful about this sort of focus.

Book That Needs to Be Published in English Translation: Poems of Li Shangyin

Li Shangyin was a poet of the late Tang Dynasty, but the most interesting facts from his Wikipedia entry are:

  • In 1968, Roger Waters of the rock band Pink Floyd borrowed lines from his poetry to create the lyrics for the song “Set the Controls for the Heart of the Sun” from the band’s second album A Saucerful of Secrets; and
  • Part of a poem by Li Shangyin is recited by a minor character in the Mortuary in the computer role-playing game Planescape: Torment.
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