ANOTHER KIND OF NATION: An Anthology of Contemporary Chinese Poetry

edited by Zhang Er and Chen Dongdong
Talisman House ($25.95)

by Lucas Klein

In the series of poems “Translation,” “Revising,” and “Outcry”—three poems exhibited in Another Kind of Nation—Huang Canran narrates the development of a translator in a Hong Kong news agency as he wrestles with international affairs, editorial interference, and local political action, all from the viewpoint of translation. With their orthographic negotiations and culture-bound referents, the poems, as translated by Meredith Quartermain with Huang Canran (who is indeed an international news translator for a Hong Kong newspaper) are among the better translations of the volume, and demonstrate the centrality of translation to any consideration of contemporary Chinese poetry, especially when read in English.

What, after all, is the point of reading an anthology of foreign poetry in translation? If poetry is, as Ezra Pound put it, “news that stays news,” then poetry in translation is news from abroad, and an anthology of Chinese poetry should represent a place where readers can discover the poetic world of China. The best anthology will also be an irrefutable argument for its presentation of the news of that world. Given these tasks for their anthology, editors Zhang Er and Chen Dongdong have made a number of strange choices: what, for instance, do we learn about the Chinese poetic world when the twenty-four poets are arranged alphabetically (particularly considering that Chinese doesn’t have an alphabet)? Is the world of Chinese poetry a singular entity, or is it split into camps defined by geography, friendships, and aesthetic differences? Why these poets, instead of others likewise born in the ’60s and ’70s? The poets are not introduced individually, so the only context the reader can glean must be excavated from their contributor bios in the back pages: nearly half of the poets are academics, and several others are translators, but there is no discussion about whether these details are more than incidental.

The two introductions offer no help here, either: Zhang Er’s preface, stippled with grammatical errors and typos, gives a contradictory account of whether Chinese poetry can be appreciated via translation and if these contemporary poets are like their pre-modern counterparts. Chen Dongdong’s preface, meanwhile, titled “Robinson Crusoe on the Mainland,” is offered in Chinese only, thus making it inaccessible to a huge chunk of its potential readership. While the essay is a fascinating interrogation of the assumptions of Chineseness and modernity and the relationship between Chinese poetry today and the world economy, referring as it does to recent schools and developments in Chinese poetry (not to mention being printed only in Chinese), it is in no way introductory.

In Zhang Er’s introduction, her only answer to the question of whether the poets’ experience with translation and international travel matters to their poetry is to say that “the poets here should not be looked upon as exotic others living in remote corners or from isolated cults,” and that by “looking at them, we look at our own world and ourselves.” While this is undoubtedly true, many of the translations in the volume undermine both her assertions. With few exceptions, the poetry is exoticized and full of misrepresentations, and we end up looking at ourselves only, without looking at the translated poems.

Certainly every translation is an interpretation, and translators have to make decisions and sacrifices when trying to represent the imagery, diction, musicality, and history of their source texts. Every actor is an interpreter, too, and different styles of acting—foregrounding actor or character, method or presentation—abound, but this does not mean that all actors are good actors. If the translators of Another Kind of Nation are actors, then, their overall shortcomings are the equivalent of not knowing their lines.

Every poem in the anthology is produced by a poet working with a “native informant”—in this case, not always a native speaker—who provided rough drafts that would then be “poeticized” by the poet. Does this division of translation labor witness poets wrestling with the demands of translation, a service to the world of Anglophone poetry and a potential benefit to their original writing, or else is this the poet’s equivalent of slumming? Translation does not adhere to strict ideological forecasts, but rather fails or succeeds—in the case of dual translators—on the working relationship between the partners. If the English language poet is a manager who disrespects and undermines the expertise of the native informant, then the translation can hardly be successful; if the poet and informant trust each other and cooperate, however, then the product can be fruitful, compelling, and exact.

Unfortunately, too many of the translations in Another Kind of Nation were produced under the former work conditions. Errors abound; a few poems even contain editorial marks, suggesting that unfinished drafts were tossed into the final version. In the Cao Shuying poem translated by Zhang Er and Caroline Crumpacker as “The Magic Cube,” the first stanza reads, in English:

“I’m playing the magic cube!”
She separates its red feet
from its blue hands.
Its chilly black skeleton
rising into a square black face.

How differently would this poem’s gothic surrealism occur to the reader if Zhang and Crumpacker had made clear that the symbolist “magic cube” is what Americans know as the Rubik’s Cube? Would the poem end differently if their line in the final stanza, “The magic cube corporation dissolves,” reflected more accurately what the Chinese poem says: “The Rubik’s factory goes bankrupt”?

Poets not knowing—and worse, not caring about—the linguistic detail of the Chinese mars many of the translations, but poems are not built on words alone. Tone and its indicators (enjambment, diction, etc.) likewise need to be transferred from one language to another. But here again the gap between poet and informant often leaves the translation performing something its source does not. In Zhang Er’s and Donald Revell’s version of the Han Dong poem “About Da Yan Pagoda,” for instance, they give a stylized clip:

About Da Yan Pagoda
What more to know?
The people come far
To climb it, to be
Heroes for once, or even a second time
Some of them, or perhaps more.

While translation-ese can at times be a stimulant to English writing, here the translation sounds less like Han Dong than Han Shan (who since Gary Snyder is a larger part of the American mythos than Chinese poesis), and does nothing to convey the colloquial naturalism of the original poem. The editors’ decision not to contextualize the poems likewise means that “About Da Yan Pagoda” cannot be read against its intertextual forebear, Yang Lian’s “Wild Goose Pagoda” (da yan = “big wild goose”).

Stimulating English writing is often a worthy goal, and translation can offer many inroads to that end: Louis Zukofsky’s homophonic translation of Catullus, for instance, opened up new possibilities for engaging with foreign texts in English. Yet no one goes to Zukofsky’s translations to read Catullus; they go there to read Zukofsky. To include, in an anthology of Chinese poetry, versions such as Bob Holman’s re-writings with Xiangyang Chen of Zhang Zhen’s poems is a disservice to anyone who wants to read Zhang Zhen. Evidently Holman thinks he’s a better poet than Zhang Zhen—and he may be, but by making a stanza that could read, more literally, “On purpose I behave disappointingly / I’ll wither here for a long time and feel the weak earthquake / maybe negative wishes can produce miracles / when the sky is at its blackest it will crack open” read, instead,

I’m going to be a bad girl.
I’m – a sit here and earthquake orgasm.
Heave ho! Split the sky!

his cut-up method of translation doesn’t prove it.

While most often the translations in this anthology suffer from ignorance of Chinese, at other times heavy-handed literalism deadens the English. Hu Xudong is not served well by the unnecessary detail of his translators when Ying Qin and Maged Zaher write, “the temperature was as high as 41 degree C.” In another instance, the translators Christopher Mattison and Gao Xiaoqin with Jody Beenk and Zhang Er append an annotation that the Dugongbu is a “book about Tang poet Du Fu” to Qing Ping’s line “The Dugongbu cannot continue to be read”; this exemplifies the stiltedness of academic versions where translators fail to imagine poetic solutions to incorporate the contents of the note into the line itself. So too with the following poem, “Answering a Friend,” which in Chinese succeeds via wordplay and toying with tropes of classical poetry, but in English fails from over-obscurity: who can be moved by the English of “a thousand-year-old line is waiting for you / To come up with its antithetical couplet”?

The best translations in Another Kind of Nation have found solutions to problems such as these. Writing “She fell for a foul-mouthed employee-of-the-month,” Jason Pym and Mark Wallace avoid the stilted, Chinese-only “laborer model” in their translation of a Han Bo poem. Yang Xiaobin’s “Nude,” as translated by Karla Kelsey and John Gery with the author, reads, “‘Let me recite for you,’ / she purred, but in her disembodied voice her words // faded into nothing” Here the English elides a reference to theShijing, or Book of Odes, the first canonized anthology of Chinese poetry from nearly three thousand years ago, but in the force of the verb “recite” the cultural weight of the recited remains implicit. Lü De-an’s translators, Ying Qin and Bill Ransom, succeed in the breadth of their poetic vocabulary—more varied than the Chinese—which nonetheless maintains an equivalence to Lü’s discourse of speakable restraint. In “Mankato,” they reach an eloquence that even surpasses the Chinese: “The very flawlessness of the rain reminds us of the flaws of the rain / Now this rain falls into its own flaws.” So too do John High and Kokho in their version of Yang Jian’s “Only the lost ones, yes, choose to damage / only the confused choose to hate.” Likewise, Martin Corless-Smith and John Balcom achieve Zang Di’s plainspoken lyricism in lines such as “they slowly float together / In a politics of landscape.”

To translate well means to engage well with the voice—or voices, or voicelessness—of the original. Interesting, then, to compare the translations of Tang Danhong, by Eleni Sikelianos and Jennifer Feeley, with those of Zhou Zan, by Susan Schultz and Jennifer Feeley. In both cases Feeley is the “native informant,” and with Sikelianos she produced versions of Tang Danhong that speak with a defined and consistent voice of their own. But when they open “Suddenly the Drawbridge Raises” with “Suddenly the drawbridge raises a pedestrian stops catches sight / of river water slipping by as if after a musical ensemble / left leg lifts high, brushes a rainbow,” removing conjunctions and articles, they give their poem a hurriedness not reflected in the Chinese. On the other hand, Feeley’s collaboration with Schultz produced the best translations in the volume, bringing the diction, line-breaks, pauses, and turns of Zhou Zan into active, demanding, and loyal English. At the end of a volume such as this, to come across the Latinate linguistics and philosophy of “But always the body first summons wisdom, / prolegomenon of phenomena’s ultimate proposition, / inferior to imagination’s pleasures as it arrives at the other shore” is to reach an epiphany about the possibilities of translation. Hopefully Feeley and Schultz will be able to extend their collaboration into a larger collection of Zhou Zan’s poetry, to be published as its own full volume.

If the poems themselves never touched upon issues of language, Chinese tradition and westernized modernity, or the vulnerability of communication, this review would be little more than an extended gripe. But lines such as Leonard Schwartz’s and Gao Xin’s version of Shu Cai’s

Learning from larks, Shelley shouted when he flew…
Mallarmé flew to unprecedented heights

Ever more delicate, ever more hard…
Villon flew down the lane, to avoid policemen

or Ma Lan’s evocation, as translated by her husband Charles Laughlin with Martine Bellen,

Did Eve eat mango or an apple?
Fruit does not transfer, Fruit makes women’s lips ripen.

reveal in their referents the translation of Chinese poetry into English to be in many ways a tradition’s return to one of its sources following an extended trip abroad. This trip necessarily involves a focus on language and writing, from Lan Lan’s “But here I am, wordless, / Enmeshed in your clothes / And body” (translated by Judith Roche and Huang Canran) through “These words / Are for the wind to listen to” by Sang Ke (translated by XiaoRong Liu and Maged Zaher with Zhang Er) to Mo Fei’s

Let a poet wake up hurriedly
And write down passages left from the middle of morning’s thought, write down
The words and sentences of April, more radiant and enchanting than starlight,
Write down everything that can be written down when there’s still time.
(translated by Charles Borkhuis, Cheng Wei, Ying Qin, and Zhang Er)

and “Once I wrote a line of poetry on the counter / in a candy store, but / I was not writing about the candy store,” by Ye Hui, as translated by Joshua Beckman, Zhang Er, and Zhao Xia.

At times this focus on writing is theoretically significant, as in Zhang Zao’s assertion, in Sam Hamill and Lihua Ying’s translation, that “A dream of the person on the journey to death, / A dream of the person excluded from others, / Is, like pure poetry, not pure”; other times the written takes on a certain physicality, as in Jiang Tao’s “When sleepless at night, I always ponder privately / Where my works have gone, flying away like birds of printed script” (translated by Chris Dusterhoff and Li Chun with Zhang Er), or Zhang Er’s sexualized “older soils know nothing of this pinkish poetic” (translations by Bob Holman, Susan M. Schultz, and Leonard Schwartz with the author). Often this physicality manifests itself in the specialty of the Chinese written language; either positively—as in Zhao Xia’s, “that single line / presumably in Chinese character / would make me tremble with cold,” where translators Rachel Levitsky, Zhang Er, and the author decided to stray from the more literal “single line of presumed Chinese characters”—or negatively, as in Chen Dongdong’s proof of the force of translation within contemporary Chinese poetry: “The Europeanized grammar / wrecks the expression” (translated by Joseph Donahue, Chen Dongbiao, and Zhang Er).

In her fascinating “Postface: On the Translation,” Zhang Er makes a compelling argument for the necessity of poetic translations as opposed to “sinologists’ correctness.” “In an ideal world,” she writes, “American poets, equally accomplished as their counterparts in China, would be equipped with sufficient knowledge of the Chinese language to render the translation single-handedly.” But in ossifying—instead of dismantling, as good poetic translations would do—the dichotomy between “‘raw’ or ‘draft’ translation” and “poetry,” her volume fails to reach its potential. Are there really so few translators of Chinese poetry who can be trusted to work unsupervised? Has Chinese capitalism developed to the extent that even translators must be alienated from their labor? In trying to find a way around the Frosty dictum that “poetry is what gets lost in translation,” Zhang Er has edited a volume in which the Chinese poetry has been supplanted by an American poetry that does not demonstrate our culture’s best features.

Among her own poems in the volume, Zhang Er includes a poem called “Anglers and Writers, Hudson Street” that begins, in the Holman / Schultz / Schwartz / Zhang translation,

Always get the way wrong: exiting the subway to the west
end up in Chinatown to the east: to black coffee,
hot and sour soup, iced fish, ice-filled flower vase
on the table. Blurry liquid, fresh flowers, fish.

The stanza depicts, in many ways, a microcosm for the anthology as a whole: getting lost and ending up in Chinatown. A confusion of east and west, exotica mixing with the mundane, the collection’s gems are outnumbered by the trinkets, and in the end we have an overpopulated misconstruction of what is Chinese. Is this Another Kind of Nation, or is the poetry world of China still struggling to find a way to send its news abroad?

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Rain Taxi Online Edition, Spring 2008 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2008