Experimental Chinese Literature:
Translation, Technology, Poetics

By Tong King Lee

Reviewed by Jacob Edmond
MCLC Resource Center Publication (Copyright July, 2019)

Tong King Lee, Experimental Chinese Literature: Translation, Technology, Poetics Leiden and Boston: Brill, 2018. viii + 182 pp. ISBN: 978-90-04-29337-3.

“In translating a work, I mistake it for my own,” writes Taiwanese poet Chen Li 陳黎. More and more writers today are making their texts from other texts through translation, cultural borrowing, and, increasingly, through the affordances of new media technologies. Around the world, their readers are likewise searching for new ways of understanding and reading this literature of repetition, translation, and remediation.

Tong King Lee 李忠慶 takes up this challenge in his book Experimental Chinese Literature: Translation, Technology, Poetics. Lee cites Chen Li’s statement in making the case for the inextricable relationship between poetic creation and translation in contemporary Chinese experimental literature (80). Lee defines experimental literature as “works that tap into various technologies in foregrounding their materiality.” For Lee, “experimental literature is . . . characterized by the interplay between the corporeality of the sign . . . and the travel of the text across languages and media” (166). Lee’s concern is thus primarily with works of poetry and contemporary art that highlight their own material qualities—the texture of the page, the shape that writing makes on a flickering screen, or in the space of a park in an open-air exhibition—and that explore textual translations not just between languages but also, importantly, between media.

Lee’s book makes a cogent argument for considering interlingual translation alongside trans-mediation, versioning, and appropriation. Lee collectively calls these practices, which I have elsewhere termed “iterative,” “translational.”[1] Lee extends the concept of the “translational” to cover not just translations into other languages but also the intermedia, interlingual, and intercultural transactions that are involved in the composition of many experimental literary texts (130–31). Lee argues that such translational texts require new translational approaches to reading (97).

The strengths of this book lie in its calling attention to the multimedia perspectives required to read contemporary literature, in its synthesizing of several of the theories available to address this work, and in its demonstration of the utility of such theories in reading contemporary experimental literary practices in Chinese. The book offers a fascinating survey of contemporary Chinese experimental literature and develops new approaches to reading and to literary theory.

Lee discusses many important examples of contemporary Chinese literary texts that in various ways push the boundaries of the genre through strategies ranging from machine translation to installation. He writes cogently about the work of well-known experimentalists such as the poets Chen Li and Hsia Yü 夏宇, and the artist Xu Bing 徐冰, alongside the work of some perhaps lesser known figures, including, in the penultimate chapter, the work of poet Chan Lai-kuen 陳麗娟 as it appeared in the 2009–2010 Kowloon Park project Text Garden: An Experiment with Poets and Designers, and an installation work by Taiwanese artist Shen Bo-cheng 沈柏丞, entitled in English Read, Art, and in Chinese Du·sheng zi 讀·聲字.

Lee not only highlights the richness and diversity of contemporary Chinese experimental literature; he also argues that that such works require a different and much broader approach to reading. Lee maps out a possible theoretical framework for attending more closely to the various forms of literal and metaphorical translation at work in these texts. He draws in particular on the theories of Roman Jakobson, Jacques Derrida, Maria Tymoczko, and N. Katherine Hayles, whose concept of “media translation” is especially important to Lee’s approach (e.g., 13, 77, 89).

One of the challenges that contemporary poetry poses is its post-medium condition. No longer can poetry be treated as primarily a thing of the page, and many contemporary poems exist in many versions across many media. Lee’s use of the concept of the “translational” provides a usefully encompassing way of thinking about these many versions. In chapter 5, for example, he discusses how in Text Garden “installations can be said to translate” poems by Hong Kong poets that were presented alongside the installations in both Chinese and English translation (132). In this case, Lee highlights the way in which both the English translations and the installations operate as acts of versioning. This approach supports his illuminating discussion of the use of a circular pathway around an aviary as an installation space for the words of a poem by Chan Lai-kuen (133–37). Lee suggests how the installation not only translates the poem into a new kind of three-dimensional spatial art work but also how the poem translates the aviary into words (137).

At times, Lee takes up the challenge such experimental text pose by developing equally experimental approaches to reading. Lee devotes a full chapter to Hsia Yü’s Pink Noise / Fenhongse zaoyin 粉红色噪音, a poetic work comprising English (and a few French) texts culled from the web and strange Chinese machine translations of these texts. It is not at all obvious how to read Pink Noise’s strange and ungrammatical Chinese. In answer to this problem, Lee himself makes a novel use of machine translation as a mode of reading. Lee’s interpretative act here becomes an extension of Hsia Yü’s own play with machine translation (59).

Elsewhere, Lee’s translational approach to reading builds on Cosima Bruno’s Between the Lines: Yang Lian’s Poetry through Translation, which shows persuasively the value of using multiple translations to interpret contemporary Chinese poems. Lee deploys a similar approach in analyzing Chen Li’s famous poem “A War Symphony” (戰爭交響曲; 83, 85–88) through several of its multiple translations, including a translation by Bruno herself. In discussing this translation, however, Lee misses Bruno’s allusions to Marinetti’s war poem Zang Tumb Tumb. Although illuminating, Lee’s approach thus also shows the difficulty of such multilingual interpretative acts, which require substantial knowledge of both source and target cultures and languages.

Lee nevertheless presents generally strong readings of Chen Li’s work. He offers, for instance, an insightful account of Chen Li’s interlingual wordplay in his Taiwan Island-shaped poem “18 Touches” (十八摸; 71–74). His discussion of Chen Li’s work shows the potential payoff of his emphasis on attending to translations between both media and languages, an approach that Lee extends to his reading of such literary paratexts as Chen Li’s website (78).

On other occasions, Lee struggles to show the payoff of his theoretical emphasis on translations between languages and media. Much of the book is taken up with reiterating and reinforcing theoretical ideas, often through fairly lengthy quotations from key theorists. Lee displays at times a deference to well-known theorists that seems both unnecessary and unduly inhibiting given that he is quite capable of making these arguments himself through reference to his poetic examples. For instance, his insightful reading of Chen Li’s website as a multimedia work does not require a confirmatory quotation from Hayles; his own analysis makes the case well enough (79).

Lee’s theoretically driven reading also leads to a frequent and unnecessary privileging of form over content, materiality over interpretation. For example, Lee’s discussion of a haiku that Chen Li culls from a Carol Ann Duffy poem and translates into Chinese focuses on questions of ownership and circulation in Chen Li’s act of appropriation, but misses the specificity of the text, which references “quotation / marks” and “syllables” (a key formal feature of the haiku) and hence self-referentially comments on its process of composition (153–54).

To be fair to Lee, one could argue that what I have criticized as an interpretative failure is in fact a principled resistance to interpretation that is crucial to his argument. Echoing Susan Sontag’s polemic “Against Interpretation,” Lee at times seems to suggest that resistance to interpretation is key to this experimental literature’s emphasis on materiality. To put it another way, if one treats a poem or a work of word art as something from which meaning can be extracted through interpretation, then the medium through which this meaning is conveyed might ultimately be discarded. To stay with the materiality of the poem, on this account, is to refuse to move too easily to the plane of meaning.

If we emphasize only form and materiality, however, we ignore the equally important role of meaning making and interpretation in literary art. After all, Sontag’s “Against Interpretation” was arguably not directed against interpretation per se but against a too narrowly prescribed view of interpretation. As Lee himself notes, we need to open up new ways of reading experimental texts. This admirable goal would not be possible if we jettisoned interpretation entirely, as Lee seems to suggest when he claims that interpretation is futile because a text has many meanings (41). We can and must find new ways of reading and interpreting texts that attend to exactly the intermedia and interlingual dynamics that his study does so much to highlight.

Moreover, there is another theoretical problem that Lee’s work raises but does not fully address. While reiterations across media and languages are, as I have argued, intertwined in many contemporary poetic practices from the work of Caroline Bergvall to Brandon Som, a theoretical emphasis on the material artifact can seem to pull in the opposite direction to an emphasis on translation.[2] When we emphasize materiality, we tend to extend the concept of the singularity of a poetic text—the importance of these particular words in this particular order—to the particular medium or even object that embodies those words (this particular page, ink, font, and so on). By contrast, an emphasis on translation between media and languages undermines the notion of poetic singularity and instead gives rise to a notion of the text as multiple and many-versioned. In this case, materiality matters not for its singularity but for the differences that it produces between versions. Much of the interest in contemporary experimental literature lies not so much in the material object as in how we read the versions or translations that form part of an expanded ontology and interpretative field of the work. We need, to use a musical analogy, to learn to read not so much the notes as the changes.

Lee gestures toward the importance of these changes in his conclusion, when he writes of “an ethics of hybridity” in which writers and artists produce work that does not represent a culture, but instead “renders an experience” (165). For Lee, to focus on the materiality of a text rather than its interpretation is an ethical and political decision: it is a refusal to collapse the singularity of the material text into some larger representational category, such as “Chineseness.” Lee’s insistence on how textual singularity works against monolithic conceptions of Chineseness has obvious resonance today, especially in Hong Kong, from where Lee writes.

Lee, however, overemphasizes the difference between representation and singularity, between hermeneutics and textual materiality. Works such as Hsia Yü’s Pink Noise and Xu Bing’s A Book from the Sky (天書) are clearly about cultural representations as well as the thingness of the texts and the phenomenal experience of our encounter as a reader or viewer with them. He argues that attention only to content is “severely limiting our horizon of possibilities in reading” (167). I could not agree more. However, to refuse to interpret and instead to only describe the forms and materials of these texts is also limiting. Lee offers a theoretical framework that hints tantalizingly at new possibilities of reading, but he does not quite fulfill his promise to show those readings in practice. Instead, Lee’s book gives important impetus to future readings beyond the boundaries of language and medium.

Jacob Edmond
University of Otago


[1] Jacob Edmond, “Dmitrij Prigov’s Iterative Poetics,” Russian Literature 76, no. 3 (2014): 275–308; Jacob Edmond, “‘Let’s Do a Gertrude Stein on It’: Caroline Bergvall and Iterative Poetics,” Journal of British and Irish Innovative Poetry 3, no. 2 (2011): 37–50.

[2] Jacob Edmond, Make It the Same: Poetry in the Age of Global Media (New York: Columbia University Press, 2019).