Toward a Material Poetics in Chinese:
Text, Translation, and Technology in the Works of Chen Li

By Tong King Lee

Modern Chinese Literature and Culture, vol. 26, no.1 (Spring 2014), pp. 71-104

How do text, translation, and technology intersect and interact in contemporary Chinese poetics? This essay attempts an answer to this question through a case study of the Taiwanese poet Chen Li (b. 1954). It identifies a number of different ways in which translation is instantiated in Chen’s oeuvre: as translingual signs within a single text, as virtual shifts from one representational media to another, as the transference of poetic memes across languages and cultures, and as intersemiotic transposition. Each of these modes of translation is inflected with technology, itself a cline that stretches from inscriptional signs in print texts to sophisticated functionalities in cyberspace. Translation and technology constitute two moving vectors that combine to form the fluid, discursive entity we call ‘text’, which denotes both a material artefact of writing and a virtualized entity disseminated across a spectrum of concrete forms and media.

The essay examines how translation and technology collaborate to produce a visceral poetics that demands not just the capacity to interpret for meaning, but also sensory attention to the physical word and somatic participation in the generation of literary experience. In so doing, it highlights the dialectic between verbal and non-verbal modes as well as between digital and non-digital technologies in contemporary Chinese literature.