Chinese Poetry and Translation:
Rights and Wrongs

Edited by Maghiel van Crevel and Lucas Klein

Reviewed by Michel Hockx

MCLC Resource Center Publication (Copyright October, 2021)

Maghiel van Crevel and Lucas Klein, eds., Chinese Poetry and Translation: Rights and Wrongs. Amsterdam: Amsterdam University Press, 2019. 355 pp. OPEN SOURCE ISBN: 9789462989948 (Hardback).

This is a very rich collection of essays showcasing a range of approaches to the study and practice of Chinese poetry translation. The editors are both leading scholars of Chinese poetry, as well as highly experienced poetry translators in their own right. Their efforts bring together an intellectually diverse yet coherent set of papers by a group of individuals who clearly have engaged actively and productively with one another’s work, despite their sometimes considerable differences in background and approach. Published by Amsterdam University Press, the book is an open access publication, freely downloadable through the OAPEN platform.

Translation Studies is a vibrant, highly interdisciplinary field. It is also still a relatively young field, as evidenced by the fact that publications by translation scholars often tend to sound somewhat defensive of their own enterprise. The case still needs to be made, again and again, that translations are worth studying in their own right; that translators need to be recognized as creative writers; that studying translation is not about finding “mistakes”; and that, in the case of poetry especially, nothing gets “lost” in translation. In their brief introduction to Chinese Poetry and Translation, van Crevel and Klein state their case succinctly and elegantly by offering the metaphor of the triptych: a tripartite structure that invites intellectual movement beyond simple binaries and toward thinking in three terms: China + poetry + translation, or (referencing Walter Benjamin) source language + target language + third language. They add to this a healthy dose of irony, by openly censoring Robert Frost’s infamous quote about poetry translation, and by subtitling their collection Rights and Wrongs, which is only a binary if you believe that these terms are mutually exclusive.

The fifteen chapters in the book are divided into three parts (of course), with the first focusing on translation practice, the second on theory, and the third on what the editors have called “impact,” featuring documented case studies of translations in historical and cultural contexts. Below, I briefly summarize all chapters and attempt to point toward some of the ways in which they speak to each other.

Part One: The Translator’s Take starts with “Sitting with Discomfort: A Queer-Feminist Approach to Translating Yu Xiuhua,” an essay by Jenn Marie Nunes in which she showcases her “queer-feminist approach” to translation, focused specifically on the work of the popular female poet Yu Xiuhua 余秀华. Drawing on Lawrence Venuti’s critique of the “invisible” translator in Anglo-American translation practice, she pursues an “ethics of collaboration” (37) that leads to the visible incorporation of the translator’s thought processes, and her voice, into the translated text. Nunes’s approach may seem radical to some, but it is a great example of the range of concerns that inspire modern translation theory, and as such it is a perfect opening chapter for this collection.

In the second chapter, “Working with Words: Poetry, Translation, and Labor,” Eleanor Goodman discusses her translations of work by Zheng Xiaoqiong 郑小琼, Wang Xiaoni 王小妮, and Zang Di 臧棣. Re-reading her own renderings of Chinese poetry into English, Goodman considers the influence of her familiarity with certain English-language poets on the choices she made in her translations. This is the first of a number of essays in the book that give due consideration to the fact that translators are also readers, not just of the texts they are translating, but of literature in general. As such, the translation choices they make are inevitably shaped by what they have read in the target language.

In the third chapter, “Translating Great Distances: The Case of the Shijing,” Joseph R. Allen provides the rationale for his new translation of the Shijing 诗经, where two facing pages are devoted to each poem, containing not only the Chinese source text and the English translation, but also a set of annotations based on earlier commentaries and a set of comments based on Allen’s own thoughts. Reading Allen alongside Nunes is interesting, as both produce translations that are visually unusual and emphasize the presence of the translator, the difference being that the practice of translating (and indeed of reading) canonical texts like the Shijing has always relied on the presence of commentary.

Part One ends with “Purpose and Form: On the Translation of Classical Chinese Poetry,” Wilt L. Idema’s detailed discussion of his own practice as a translator of classical Chinese poetry, both into his native Dutch and into English. Like Goodman, he addresses the impact of his own readings (in his case of nineteenth-century Dutch rhymed verse) on the language and form of his translations. He also situates his own efforts in relation to translators such as Legge, Karlgren, and Waley, considering the audiences they wrote for and the poetic and scholarly conventions they followed. He ends with an insightful discussion of the choices available to translators to represent the formal aspects of classical Chinese poetry, making a strong case for paying greater attention to the significance of parallelism as a poetic device.

Part Two: Theoretics, focuses on theory, but has plenty of overlap with concerns and topics raised in Part One. Nick Admussen’s “Embodiment in the Translation of Chinese Poetry” delves into the concept of “embodiment” as an alternative to “equivalence” when thinking about translations. He raises examples where authors and translators of Chinese poetry jointly embody a shared alterity (Jennifer Feeley and Xi Xi 西西), a personal connection (Austin Woerner and Ouyang Jianghe), and/or a political project (Ming Di 明迪 and Jennifer Stern/Liu Xia). There are clear echoes of some of the concerns raised by Nunes and Goodman earlier in the book. In addition to his advocacy for “embodiment,” I especially liked Admussen’s spot-on description of the group habitus connected to “equivalence” as involving “dictionary work, the retention of word order, the preference for grammatical similarity between source and target, and the authority of demonstrable commensurability as part of a shared habit based on a feeling of plausibility” (117).

“Translating Theory: Bei Dao, Pasternak, and Russian Formalism,” Jacob Edmond’s call for attention to translated literary theory as part of the context of modern Chinese poetry production, specifically Bei Dao’s renderings of Russian formalism in the context of his reception of Pasternak, brings to mind the commentaries translated by Allen. In Edmond’s chapter, my own “equivalence” habitus did object to some of his translation choices, such as when he renders the poetic line 两个窗口悬挂一个月亮 as “two windows hang one moon.” (148) I feel it makes more sense to read 两个窗口 not as the subject, but as an indication of place: “a moon hangs in two windows.” (For the same reason, a sentence such as 门口站着一个人is more likely to mean “a person is standing in the doorway” rather than “the doorway stands one person.”) Of course it’s poetry, and anything is possible, but I’d have been interested in learning more about Edmond’s reason for translating this way. For the same reason, I was curious about his choice to translate 通 as “common” (143) and not as something like “intelligible” (or even “correct”) which I believe is what it usually means in the context of Chinese poetical discourse.

Zhou Min’s essay on narrativity in English translations of ci poetry, “Narrativity in Lyric Translation: English Translations of Chinese Ci Poetry,” emphasizes the role of the translator as reader, highlighted earlier by both Goodman and Idema. Zhou argues that translators are themselves first and foremost readers, or “immersive readers” as she calls them, and that this is significant when dealing with shifts in (poetry) translation. Translators, Zhou argues, do not just fill textual gaps that need to be filled for the translation to make sense in the target language; they fill gaps based on their own imagination of “what the world is like” (174). They participate inside the text, so to speak. The result in the case of translations of ci poetry, Zhou shows, is that they become less lyrical and more narrative.

The final two essays in this part contribute directly to the consideration of “rights and wrongs.” Nicholas Morrow Williams’s “Sublimating Sorrow: How to Embrace Contradiction in Translating the ‘Li Sao’” delves into the multiple meanings of a single Chinese character (li 離) as it occurs in one of the most canonical Chinese poems, the Li Sao 離騷. Is it “Encountering Sorrow” or “Departing from Sorrow,” or is it somehow both? Williams goes into great philological detail, leading to a staunch defense of translation as a creative act that is not intended to resolve but rather to represent tension and ambiguity. Concluding Part Two is Lucas Klein’s theoretical engagement with the notion of authenticity—“Mediation Is Our Authenticity: Dagong Poetry and the Shijing in Translation.” Klein brings together centuries of debate about the origin and meaning of the poems in the Shijing with recent debates about translations (by Goodman) of contemporary dagong (打工) poetry. Circling around the question of how translation can satisfy both those readers looking for linguistic accuracy and those hoping to enjoy an “authentic” experience of the poets’ “real” life, Klein leaves us with a rhetorical question: “Can a translation be right, even if it’s wrong?” (218)

The question of rights and wrongs permeates Liansu Meng’s study of Chen Jingrong’s translations of Baudelaire—“Ecofeminism avant la Lettre: Chen Jingrong and Baudelaire,” the first chapter in Part Three: Impact. Chen Jingrong 陈敬容 is well known (although woefully understudied, especially in Anglophone scholarship) as one of China’s finest modern poets. Her Baudelaire translations feature what Meng felicitously refers to as “witting or unwitting mistranslations,” which can be read as reflections of Chen’s own “ecofeminist” poetics. Meng’s study is grounded in thorough literary historical research and also discusses the biased criticism Chen received from male, left-wing critics. The precarious situation of women on modern China’s poetry scene is another theme that runs through a number of the chapters in this book.

In Chapter 11, “Ronald Mar and the Trope of Life: The Translation of Western Modernist Poetry in Hong Kong,” Chris Song presents an historical case study of translation of western modernist poetry in Hong Kong, focusing on the figure of Ronald Mar 馬朗. As Song shows, Mar’s attempts to introduce modernist techniques in the 1950s, partly through translation, were met negatively by broadly left-wing critics (not unlike the Mainland critics of Chen Jingrong in the 1940s), who insisted that poetry somehow has to connect to “life”—whatever that means. Song shows that this type of debate continues nowadays among a younger generation of Hong Kong modernists and their critics. Related to this is the subsequent chapter on modernist work by the Taiwanese poet Ya Xian 瘂弦and specifically his use of juxtaposition. Tara Coleman’s “Ya Xian’s Lyrical Montage: Modernist Poetry in Taiwan through the Lens of Translation” explicitly aims to find a way out of the binary in which Taiwanese modernist techniques are often characterized, i.e. either as totally westernized or as somehow secretly grounded in the classical Chinese tradition. Moreover, as Coleman convincingly argues, any attempt to say that it is a little bit of both, or something in between, does not help us get rid of the original binary opposition—therefore a new framework is needed. Through her thorough and inspiring analysis of Ya Xian’s work and its various translations, Coleman finds this framework in the concept of “lyrical montage” (a cultural translation of Eisenstein’s film theory),  which allows for a “fluid reading experience” (282) across only loosely connected lines of poetry.

Chapter 13, “Celan’s “Deathfugue” in Chinese: A Polemic about Translation and Everything Else,” by Joanna Krenz, offers an exemplary case study of different translations of Paul Celan’s “Death Fugue” into Chinese. The translation of Celan’s poem gave rise to a polemic between three prominent poets of different styles and generations: Bei Dao 北岛, Wang Jiaxin 王家新, and Yi Sha 伊沙. Krenz goes into great detail in her analysis of the poetic styles, dictions, and temperaments that underlie the three different translations, how they connect to the poets’ own work, and how they ultimately create two different Celans, confirming a split in the understanding of Celan’s work that Krenz shows to be operative in non-Chinese renderings of his work as well. The following chapter, “Trauma in Translation: Liao Yiwu’s ‘Massacre’ in English and German,” by Rui Kunze, presents an equally well-documented case study. Kunze details step-by-step the making of Liao Yiwu 廖亦武 as a dissident poet based on his continual re-writing of his autobiography and re-publishing and re-performing of his most famous poem (《屠杀》now commonly known as “Massacre”). Kunze links both Liao’s production and the translation and reception of his work to notions of trauma, showing how, after his move to Germany, his personal trauma came to connect with the collective traumas of the Holocaust and of East German communist rule. These two chapters, by Krenz and Kunze, were the highlight of the book for me.

In “A Noble Art, and a Tricky Business: Translation Anthologies of Chinese Poetry,” the final chapter of Part Three and of the book as a whole, Maghiel van Crevel examines the paratexts of twenty English-language translation anthologies of modern Chinese poetry. In addition to noting the underrepresentation of female poets in all anthologies, van Crevel shows how such collections can take positions that: emphasize their cultural difference from their Anglophone environment; connect back to ongoing polemics about poetry in China itself; and are often overtly political. In the latter context, van Crevel responds forcefully to one of the anthologizers (W. N. Herbert), who wrote that contemporary Chinese poetry was faced with “much oppression and official constraint,” by producing perhaps the most memorable sentence of this entire book: “Censorship remains forcefully operational in China, but oppression and constraint are certainly not the first things that the bustling poetry scene of the past forty years brings to mind” (344).

Clearly, the “scene” of scholarship of Chinese poetry and its translation is bustling as well. This collection provides ample evidence of that. In addition to the valuable research presented in most of the chapters, this book should also be highly useful for teaching about Chinese poetry, and for getting students to think about what it means to translate, or to read in translation. This is especially important for undergraduates at US universities, who are generally taught Chinese literature in English translation only, without the actual process of translation being part of the classroom experience. The fact that the book and its chapters are all, as mentioned, freely downloadable adds to their pedagogical value. All in all, this is a great contribution to an exciting area of intellectual inquiry.

Michel Hockx 賀麥曉
Professor of Chinese Literature
Director, Liu Institute for Asia and Asian Studies