A Normal Interview with Xi Chuan (西川) and Lucas Klein
Editorial Intern Michael Gray asks Chinese poet Xi Chuan and his translator Lucas Klein tough questions concerning process, navigating translation, and the relationship between literature and reality. Xi Chuan is one of contemporary China’s most celebrated poets, having won the Lu Xun Prize for Literature (2001) and the Zhuang Zhongwen Prize (2003). Lucas Klein performed the English translation of Xi Chuan’s book Notes on the Mosquito: Selected Poems (2012).
For Xi Chuan: What elements of your original text do you find are most altered in the process of translation?
Lucas Klein’s translation: In my own writing, especially recently, I’m often very blunt, but bluntness can be very hard to translate. I’ve done a lot of translations myself, and in my experience imagery is relatively easy to translate; with musicality, or particularly rhythm, though it’s hard to match the translation perfectly with the original, it’s still possible to find comparable solutions. But with ideas expressed bluntly it’s easy to lose the poetry. Bluntness is a quality of late Borges, because in his early years he was playing with the Baroque. It’s also a notion of expression Milosz was fond of, coming from Eastern Europe. These two stepped outside the bounds of lyrical poetry.
Talking to a Canadian poet one time, I said that with my poetry, when it’s easy I try to have it be as easy as possible, but where it’s difficult I try as hard as I can to make it difficult. By difficulty I mean that I try to transmit as much information through vocabulary and expression in my Chinese as possible. My poetry opens up to reality and history; the uninhibited undulations and turbidity of reality and history will turn into modes of language. I like to mix up contemporary slang and antique elocution, the slack and the tense, the quotidian and the bizarre, the opaque and the clear, the direct and the ambiguous… the translator has to find ways to stay alert. English and Chinese are two very different languages, each bringing along its own cultural memories, facing two different poetic contexts, so any expression that might be significant in Chinese may end up being insignificant in English. But Lucas did a great job. His work is outstanding.
For LK: A line in the poem "Three Chapters on Dusk," reads "a ray of light, we become history" from Chinese: "作为一种光线，我们就是历史." I literally translate "就是" to mean "is" or "are," specifically emphasizing a certain state or existence, but in the context of the poem, "become" makes more sense. Why did you choose that word?
LK: I wrote in the introduction of Notes on the Mosquito, “I am motivated by a belief that the reader not only wants to know but can know both what Xi Chuan says and how he says it, both his images and his style, both his allusions and his elusiveness.” At the same time, too narrow a conception of how limits the work. There’s a long history of philosophizing about "being and becoming," but I’m not sure that such discussion is relevant to a judgment about whether, in this translation of this poem, I should have said “as a ray of light, we are history,” instead of “a ray of light, we become history.”
It’s easy to go too far along these lines, but sometimes, to be faithful to the source text you have to be unfaithful to the word. Words often have more than one meaning, so we have to pick the right one. For instance, I noticed in one of Xi Chuan’s recent translations of Gary Snyder that he took the word "shop" and translated it into shangdian 商店. Well, that’s a shop, certainly, but I think Snyder is referring to the shop you might have in your garage, where you’d keep your hatchet, if you had one. But not many Chinese people have a "shop" like that in their homes, so even if it’s a mistranslation, it’s a mistranslation that helps Chinese readers access the poem. I noticed a similar moment like that in one of my translations of Xi Chuan: I translated a line of "Rereding Borges’s Poetry" as "annotat[ing] the aporia of history." More accurately, it would be "the lacunae of history." "Aporia" and "lacuna" are not quite the same (though they’re related), but ultimately I not only felt that "aporia" alliterated better with "annotated," but also that it worked into how Borges has been read by critics in the west, who tend to see his writings more defined by the aporia—or paradox or puzzle—than by what they leave out, or their lacunae. Technically, it’s a mistranslation. But I think it resonates with readers in English this way. Of course, at other times the opposite is true, and you want to insist on difference, to keep all notions of the poetic or literary from being subsumed into a common cultural ignorance.
For XC: You comment on a writer's engagement with a broader landscape, that "one's sense of reality is shaped by one's tradition." How does this statement relate to the poem "Notes on the Mosquito"?
LK’s Translation: My essay is about problems concerning the relationship between literature and poetry on the one hand and history, culture, and reality on the other, making plain some of my basic attitudes. It’s me looking to coordinate the sources of creativity against the work of creation. “Notes on the Mosquito,” meanwhile, is an individual poem (which happened to become the title for the whole book). In writing any particular poem I don’t tend to think about theoretical problems. Looking at the “mosquito,” I’m looking at a whole logic in back of the world. That logic contains its own absurdity, and discovering this absurdity makes me happy. When I look back, I find that this absurdity is intertwined with my own life. Mosquitoes, as far as I can recall, were never written about in poetry in ancient times. They’ve been waiting for me so they could appear in my poems! I love ancient Chinese culture, but I can’t stand the hackneyed way ancient culture gets used as an embellishment to discourse. I don’t need to demonstrate my Chinese cultural identity to anyone; I just need for there to be sincerity between my experience and the things around me. Ancient Chinese culture, history, and politics have transformed into those things around me. I have no way of expressing judgments of praise or blame from afar. In this poem, the mosquito isn’t just a mosquito; it’s a protagonist in an allegory, but the meaning of its role is unclear.
For LK: What English do you have in mind when you translate from Mandarin? How does this choice affect the translation of poems and audiences' possible interpretations?
LK:This is the kind of question I wish people considered more often when thinking about translation. This really defines the difference between translations, the version of the target language the translator has in mind for her or his translations.
The English I have in mind is the American English used in poetry of a certain kind for the past century or so. This is an English recognizable as in the tradition of avant-garde poetry, but it’s got a wide range—the kind of range that allowed, for instance, Ezra Pound to write “The gew-gaws of false amber and false turquoise attract them. / ‘Like to like nature.’ These agglutinous yellows!” one year and “But you, Sir, had better take wine ere your departure” the next. This is how, I think, I was able to translate in a way that Jennifer Kronovet described, in her piece on why Notes on the Mosquito should win the Best Translated Book Award in poetry, as not having “made these poems American, but rather allowed us to hear Xi Chuan’s poetics and ideas in an American idiom, in an English that is alive with personality.” (We’ve been very fortunate in the published reviews our book has received—they’ve been very enthusiastic about both the poetry and the translation—but this was one of my favorite moments).
I mention Pound on purpose, not only because one of these lines is from his invention “of Chinese poetry for our time,” as T. S. Eliot put it, but also because he’s the father figure of American avant-garde poetry (what a complicated man to have as your father!) and the father figure of the press New Directions—which of course is our publisher for Notes on the Mosquito. Some other press might have published Xi Chuan into a different English (on my www.xichuanpoetry.com I have links to other translators’ work), but I want to emphasize that I have in mind an English that descends from the Pound line not only because of my tastes or the heritage of our publisher, but also because I find Xi Chuan’s Chinese to occupy a similar space in the layout of contemporary Chinese literature. Pound and the poetic movement he was part of were important in the formation of modern Chinese poetry, too, and more specifically for Xi Chuan, as well.
For XC: What is your reaction to seeing your work in another language?
LK’s translation: I’m very happy to see my work translated. Translation gives my poetry a much wider flight radius, and with the help of Lucas’s translations, these poems were able to find a greater number of active brains. And if they found them, well, that’s the greatest reward a writer can have. On top of that, reading these translations has given me new eyes with which to observe myself. Notes on the Mosquito is not just my book, but is our book, mine and Lucas’s together.
For LK: How do you start your translation process? What responsibilities and difficulties do you encounter when trying to maintain the authenticity of the original language's meaning?
LK:I start the translation process by reading the poem in Chinese, mentally converting certain words and phrases into English as I go. Then I put it into English line by line, after which I go over it and correct any mistakes I can find. Then I read it again in just English and try to smooth it out, make sure it sounds right in English with the Chinese still fresh in my mind. Then I put it aside for as long as possible, and after forgetting it go back and read it in English to make sure it sounds right with the Chinese not in my mind at all. Then I’ll go back and check it against the Chinese to see if I’ve made any mistakes. Then I’ll share it with as many different kinds of readers as I can—readers of Chinese, readers of poetry in English, readers of translation (whether they know Chinese or not)—and take in their comments. At some point, I decide that there’s nothing else I can do, and that the poem in English is the right translation for the poem in Chinese. As I said, I believe translating to be not only about the what of a poem but the how, as well.
One thing that comes to mind is Xi Chuan’s phrase 穷尽一个人, in “Exercises in Thought,” where he talks about Nietzsche’s philosophical aims. It’s straightforward enough in Chinese, but the most available translation into English would be “the exhaustion of a person”—but “exhaustion” more colloquially has to do with being tired out. I had to come up with something else, and eventually settled on “The depletion of a person, that was Nietzsche’s work.”
I adamantly do not see translation as defined by “difficulties” or “problems.” Sometimes it’s hard, but the words I use to describe translation—and particularly this translation—have more to do with joy, excitement, discovery, interest, and necessity.