Chinese poetry

Translating difficulty

On Ouyang Jianghe

Ouyang Jianghe’s poetry presents to any translator the difficult decision of whether or not to pursue his work as a language artifact to be translated as close to literally as possible, or whether to amplify its implicit beliefs, and its abstractions — through a historical lens, or otherwise. But since he is said by translator Austin Woerner to be known as the “most hermetic of the Chinese hermetic poets,” we can expect a pronounced “cryptic language” that doesn’t easily yield access to, as Woerner describes it, “the poem’s mystery.”[2] In such a case, translating in a straightforward manner may be an unproductive task. So, in Woerner’s case, he decides to “show only enough [of the original] to tempt the imagination, inviting the reader to see in it what she wishes,” using the poem as “a tool for contemplation, a mandala or maze among whose many turnings the reader can pick her own path” (23).

[I]f there are strong ambiguities in the original poem, there’s no need to select only one possible sense and then translate that: instead, translate one ambiguity into another! Don’t try to solve the problem: translate it! — J. H. Prynne[1] 

Multicultural sleep

A review of 'Fainting with Freedom' by Ouyang Yu

Insouciance may be an undervalued poetic quality. In this latest collection by the Chinese Australian poet, novelist, editor, and translator Ouyang Yu, the attitude of insouciance is also a cultural strategy. It reflects Yu’s own movements as a writer and citizen, that is, situated “in Oz or China / Or both.”[1]

Bright arrogance #1

Image from Jonathan Stalling's "Please I apologize" from Yíngēlìshī (on Vimeo)

“Please forgive me.” These words appear in the beginning of Jonathan Stalling’s Yíngēlìshī—an experimental “transgraphic” work written in what he calls “Sinophonic English,” which strains the parameters of what we call “translation.” Stalling’s work evinces a deep knowledge of and sensitivity towards Chinese language, philosophy, and culture; yet, he plays with misrecognitions and mishearings that emerge in the heterocultural space of mistranslation.

From sea to screen

Yang Lian and John Cayley's iterations

Where the Sea Stands Still
Yang Lian's Where the Sea Stands Still (London: Wellsweep, 1995), translated by Brian Holton and published by John Cayley

The long poem “Dahai tingzhi zhi chu” 大海停止之处 by Yang Lian 杨炼 and its transformation into the collaborative digital and performance piece Where the Sea Stands Still illustrate an iterative response to digital technologies and globalization. The iterative structure of Yang Lian’s long poem produces an expanding sense of space and geography that, like the title, combines perpetual repetition with continuous change.

The long poem comprises four poems, each entitled “Dahai tingzhi zhi chu” (“Where the Sea Stands Still”). There is no numbering: each poem’s title is identical to all the others. Each has three sections and ends with “zhi chu” 之处 (where/the place where). These final characters combine stillness, spatial and temporal arrest with the sea’s ceaseless repetitive movements.

English and Yíngēlìshī

Jonathan Stalling's homophonic translations

The cover of Jonathan Stalling's Yíngēlìshī, as published by Counterpath Press in 2011

Like Place’s iterations of Gone with the Wind, Jonathan Stalling’s Yíngēlìshī 吟歌丽诗 also takes as its impetus the copying of another text and also addresses racial stereotyping and the negative attitude toward accents and dialects of English that differ from enforced norms. In Yíngēlìshī , Stalling appropriates an English phrasebook for Chinese speakers. The phrasebook uses standard characters for representing English speech. These characters are not meaningless but their use is conventionalized and in this context they are meant simply to stand for the English sounds––their meaning in Chinese is considered irrelevant. Stalling reproduces the Chinese and English from the phrasebook.

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