Review

Wrestling with the Text8 min read

Eleanor Goodman reviews The Reciprocal Translation Project

 

The Reciprocal Translation Project is a messy, fraught endeavor. Here is the back blurb, which is also the first paragraph of the editors’ introduction:

In The Reciprocal Translation Project, six Chinese and six American poets have translated each other’s works. Since few of these poets speak both languages, bilingual specialists have fashioned literal translations including several options for words that have multiple meanings. These literal translations have been given to three poets in the other language to write poetic translations. In this volume, then, the reader will find an original poem, a literal translation, and three poetic translations of each poem as well as explanatory notes and biographies.

One hardly knows where to begin with this tangle. Here we have poets who have “translated” each other’s work, despite largely not knowing each other’s languages. This is done grâce à people mysteriously labeled “bilingual specialists,” who put together something called “literal translations, including several options for words that have multiple meanings.” That is to say: they translate the poems. So why are these “bilingual specialists” not the “translators”? The point, as I take it, is to save that particular appellation for “the poets” involved in the project, an issue which I will return to below.

Translation is a notoriously tricky business, and no one really agrees on what it is and what it is not. The most famous chestnut is the case of Chinese literature is Ezra Pound’s 1915 Cathay, poems that originated in notes made by Japanese-speaking scholar Ernest Fenollosa on a sampling of Chinese Tang dynasty poems and then later given to Pound by Fenollosa’s widow. This is a long chain of linguistic and human transmission that has been much theorized, criticized, lauded and batted back and forth as an example of what one must never do, or alternatively of what an artist should always have license to do. The question then becomes: what has been promised to the reader, and has that promise been kept?

As Jacques Derrida had it (translated by Peggy Kamuf): “Translation is writing; that is, it is not translation only in the sense of transcription. It is a productive writing called forth by the original text.” With that in mind – that all writing is in some sense a rewriting of what came before it – perhaps the best approach to The Reciprocal Translation Project is to ignore the deeply problematic framework and focus on some of the “originals” these originals inspired.

Unfortunately, appreciation of the book is hindered by its layout, in which the poems are not one to a page, but crammed together in an ongoing flow from one page to the next. The texts are labeled “Original Poem,” followed by “Literal Translation” and “Poetic Translations.” These “poetic translations,” particularly those in English, also involve what I would call “imitations” or “responses,” in which the text deviates significantly from the original. The editors acknowledge this in their introduction:

While some poets attempt to bridge the gaps and inconsistencies of intention, others are trying to disrupt the textual structures and syntactic coherences. Other things that these poets’ translations do is change the mode of address, change the timing, add or subtract a layer of reference, invoke a new place or priority.

Forgive me for being stodgy, but to my mind, a “translation” that changes the mode of address, the timing, the references, the places and the priorities of the original is not a translation at all. It is a new poem that stands on its own, or not.

The “literal translation” of Xi Chuan’s poem “Travel Diary” (出行日记) begins:

I drove the car onto the highway, which was precisely to begin a massacre of butterflies; or the butterflies seeing me speeding toward them, just decided to launch a suicide flight. The smashed to death on the windshield. They stubbornly mashed to death on my windshield.

This is an awkward but not inaccurate rendering of the Chinese. Nada Gordon’s “translation” is:

Wanted to massacre some fucking butterflies so drove my fucking car onto the fucking highway to massacre them. They were kamikaze butterflies, they were going to fucking kill themselves on my windshield. Splat. Fuck those fucking butterflies, stubborn assholes all up on my windshield.

Whatever one thinks of this, it certainly does not represent Xi Chuan’s tone or intention.

Elsewhere, the ironic distance from the original is foregrounded, as in Brandon Brown’s response to a Na Ye poem called “Group Photo” (合影). His “translation” begins with an added commentary:

Na Ye’s “Group Photo”
is a poem which despite
its title is mostly about
the lyric speaker and
a very carefully obscured
second person addressee
which may or may not
actually be the speaker
themself.

Whether or not there is something clever going on here with referentiality, or the signifier and the signified, it is deeply misleading to give this text the tagline “translated by Brandon Brown.” But if we decide not to judge these texts on their connection to, or distance from, the original, perhaps Derrida’s idea (translated by Lawrence Venuti) of a “relevant translation” becomes useful:

A relevant translation would therefore be, quite simply, a “good translation,” a translation that does what one expects of it, in short, a version that performs its mission, honors its debt and does its job or its duty while inscribing in the receiving language the most relevant equivalent for the original, the language that is the most right, appropriate, pertinent, adequate, opportune, pointed, univocal, idiomatic, and so on.

In my reading, rendering the “Literal Translation” of Wang Xiaoni’s “The Fish Who Killed Itself” (自杀的鱼) “The moonlight shines loosely / A fish forcibly flings itself out of the pond”  as “After I tried to become a fish / Steve said don’t do that” ( Brandon Brown) fulfills none of that.

Nevertheless, some of the poets that the editors have brought together are prominent names recognizable in both countries involved. Xi Chuan (who has been beautifully translated by Sinologist Lucas Klein) and Wang Xiaoni (translated by yours truly) are at least as well known in China as Rae Armantrout and Mei-mei Berssenbrugge are on this side of the ocean. Some of the resulting poems in this volume are in fact delightful, and it can be interesting to compare the different versions that these poets come up with. Take, for example, “translations” of the poem by the celebrated Chinese poet Lan Lan, “Lost”:

A person gets lost in a letter, a book
In dust the withdrawing hand will become
and the chair and behind the light
and in the yoke of spent emotion
In the shadow of a train speeding by –
(Mei-mei Berssenbrugge)

 

Someone gets lost in a letter, a book
gets lost in the dust the absent hand leaves
gets lost in his chair, the light behind it
the straightjacket of superseded feelings
plus the train’s shadow whooshing by
(Bob Perelman)

Both of these stanzas are strong, but even here we can see the strain of the poets to get away from the “literal translation,” which begins:

A person is lost in a letter, a book.
Lost in the dust the departed hand leaves/becomes

Searching in the “Poet Translator Matrix” of who worked on which poems, one learns that this “literal translation” was done by Margaret Ross and Feng Chen. Ross is herself a well-established young poet who speaks Chinese and recently held a Wallace Stegner Fellowship at Stanford. Why in the scope of this project she is considered a “bilingual specialist” and not a “translator” – and therefore not given a biography at the end of the book – is unclear. Feng Chen’s name is given only in pinyin and so proves elusive even to attempts to Baidu her/him. Feng is called “our illustrious literal translator” in the introduction, and yet is not afforded a biography either. More the pity.

The editors comment in their introduction: “Many modern translators present themselves as poets, not simply facilitators of communication. Revaluing translation in this way brings the translator out of the shadow of the author, leveling their identities.”

But this anthology has precisely the opposite effect. By involving “bilingual specialists” who actually do the grunt work of the translation, and then privileging the non-English-speaking or non-Chinese-speaking poet by labeling him or her the “translator,” the real translators are effectively hidden. There is also an underlying assumption that the act of translating involves grasping the literal meaning of a word (“including several options for words that have multiple meanings” – as though there are words that do not!) and that’s all that is needed. There is no acknowledgement of the structure, form, tone, emotional texture, repetition, surprise, rhythm, rhyme, sound effect, level of diction, intent, etc., etc., of the original. The difficult work of wrestling with the original text, what Sherry Simons calls “a mode of engagement with literature, as a kind of literary activism,” is done by a group of people who are here given short shrift. They are thanked in the introduction, and perfunctorily credited in groups at the end of the book in the Poet Translator Matrix, but the individual “literal translations” are not credited in the text itself. There is a strong implicit hierarchy being built here: poet first, translating poet second and “bilingual specialist” third.

I’m all for literary experimentation – and indeed, Alice Iris Red Horse: Selected Poems of Yoshimasu Gozo, edited by Forrest Gander (“a book in and on translation”) is a sophisticated and highly successful model of how to play with translation/creation without undervaluing any of the participants, and without promising anything that is not delivered – but in a time when translators are underpaid, overworked, frequently under-credited or entirely uncredited, and seen as secondary rather than integral to the final product in the target language, anything that further minimalizes their contribution and agency is a shame. ∎

James Sherry and Sun Dong, eds, The Reciprocal Translation Project (Roof Books, November 2017).

Eleanor Goodman

Eleanor Goodman is an American poet, writer, and translator. Her 2014 translation of the poems of Wang Xiaoni, Something Crosses My Mind, was an international finalist for the Griffin Poetry Prize and a winner of the Lucien Stryk American Literary Translators Association Prize for excellence in translation.