Translating difficulty

[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] 

While reading both Zephyr Press volumes by Ouyang Jianghe — Doubled Shadows, a collection of poems spanning a presumably significant, if undated, period of time, and Phoenix, a new, long poem — I repeatedly thought of J. H. Prynne’s lecture on translation given to university students in Hebei Province, China. What an adventurous thing to say, considering the difficulties of second-language acquisition: to tempt students with irresolution, with leaving things as they are, instead of the conceits of understanding and control. Of course, I also thought, difficulties for one aren’t always difficulties for another, and one translation that leaves perceived ambiguities in place may just be a reflection of the translator’s lack of understanding of the source text, not to say the source language. On the other hand, such translations probably reflect more apparently a translator’s beliefs about what poetry is, and what it can and should say.

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).

This third approach to a translation, and moreover to poetry in general, where the focus moves away from language and towards reception, is reflected in Woerner’s translation of the poem “Handgun,” which he himself notes for what he calls its “wordplay” and opacity.[3] It appears in two different versions, as well as an appendixed, “literal” version. Even the beginnings of each version illustrate the choices, or preferences, of the translator: each version allows the reader to forge a new interpretation. 

you can take a-
part a handgun, break it
in two, into
a hand              a gun

paint the hand black, you’ve got
a faction —[4]

a handgun can be disassembled
into unrelated things:
a hand, a gun
a hand plus its opposite equals a weapon
a gun plus its opposite equals itself (91)

a handgun can be taken apart
into two unrelated things
a hand and a gun
a gun lengthened becomes a Party (107)

Noting that each version shows a different aspect of the poem, Woerner is upfront about his decisions. As he discusses the poem “Glass Factory” in his introduction to Doubled Shadows, he says that poetry does not “state the obvious,” but “gives the mind pause, opens room for imagination” (xvi). Thus in the first two versions of “Handgun,” we are given different poems which, as readers, we shape according to our predilections, or, in such a manner as Woerner describes, we at least “pause.” In which case, for those who don’t read Chinese, “faction” should presumably cast a wider imaginative net than “Party.” The actual Chinese term used, 党, instead of functioning as a social or political determinant, accommodates ideas outside the historical context of the source language. This is reasonable if one believes that poetry should appeal to a broadly defined imagination, and is primarily oriented around the reader.

So the initial dichotomy between a translation of linguistic raw material and a translation of ideas is thereby shown to be false, unsuitable to Ouyang Jianghe’s poetry, and unsuitable to poetry as a genre: poetry is that through which “the reader can pick her own path.” What becomes of abstractions, like “faction,” that have as their source a specific or historical reality, is that they are “lengthened” to maximize their appeal beyond those specific historical implications. And this is so even when Woerner notes certain facts of Ouyang Jianghe’s life: even though he loves Western classical music, is from Sichuan province, and writes in the shadow of the Tiananmen Square massacre, this is tangential to the reading. Although statements of fact inform how Woerner himself thinks of Ouyang Jianghe’s poetry (which he describes as “fugues” [20]), in his translations he prefers to focus on the suasions of speech over the actual said. As he notes: 

The translator’s job is to create a new lens through which readers in his language can see the same thing. But Ouyang’s poetry — like the best “abstract” or “difficult” modern Western poetry (from Crane and Stevens to Palmer and Armantrout), and like some of the most powerful traditional Chinese poetry — functions like a prism or kaleidoscope. It bends, refracts, and sometimes scatters the light of meaning; through it the reader perceives not one thing but numerous shifting images cast by their own imagination. What the reader sees is less important than the manner in which the prism bends the light. My role is to replicate the shape of the prism. In other words, it’s to just translate the words. (xv) 

Woerner is again clear about his poetics. He intends for the reader to have a mental or retinal version of the original poem, although that version may not immediately cohere. In which case we can compare Ouyang Jianghe’s poetry to certain Western poets whose works we are presumably more comfortable with, possibly for their lack of Chinese context. Knowing that, we should feel free to more or less run with what we think or see, since these are emanations of our individuality as prompted by reading the translated poem. The poem then functions primarily as an index, but to ourselves; or, the words condition our imaginative reading, but do not necessarily draw us into the world of the poem, and do not determine what we think or imagine. This, then, would be an acceptable mode of reading because Ouyang Jianghe’s poetry “relies upon chance associations between words particular to the language in which it was written.”[5] In other words, if the poetry is in any way aleatory, a reading can so also be, especially one in which a foreign language ceases to confront the reader through grammar, history, or any kind of Verfremdungseffekt.

This is problematic because Woerner states that he wishes he could “be a fly on the inside of another’s skull,”[6] and has consulted “knowledgeable ‘informants’”[7] regarding his translations. He personally desires a high degree of impersonal, and informed, consistency in his translations, but doesn’t expect the same attitude from a reader. This is problematic because, if he decouples the reader from the text, a new dichotomy between poem and reader appears. In which case there will be little reason to be exacting in translation, and any reading of anything, especially in a case where process itself is ostensibly the poem’s subject, would yield results that are only in turns self-driven and self-focused.

So my quarrel with Woerner here is not over his translations per se — his Chinese is fantastic, Ouyang Jianghe is a difficult poet, and Woerner’s translation methods are up-front and consistent. My quarrel is with Woerner’s poetics, which relies upon clichés about the mysterious quality of poetry and the imagination in order to, as he ironically says, “reduce poetry to its purest essence” — an essence that apparently resides in readers’ faculties. In the poem “The Burning Kite,” for example, we get only a howler of an opener: “What a thing it would be, if we all could fly.”[8] Such renditions say more about the translator’s ideas of how poetry sounds than they do Ouyang Jianghe’s, and, more importantly, deflate any ambitious poetic work that may be happening in the Chinese. Should the reader, unaware of the details of the Chinese language or its material context, be expected to do any better? Or is the supposed “mystery” of this line the beginning of a rewarding imaginative journey?

In Ouyang Jianghe’s long poem sequence “Phoenix,” after a sculpture by the artist Xu Bing, we do get to see a more sustained effort on the part of the translator to engage with the kind of philosophical thinking that is at the heart of so much of Ouyang Jianghe’s poetry. In the deep consideration that is characteristic of the sequence, the world that precedes the poem is allowed to emerge more fully intact, and the historical facets that are obscured in Doubled Shadows are brought to light. Woerner more often translates terms that are less easy to negotiate than “faction,” and also includes notes following the poem, for a number of important details. For example, from section 16 of the poem we learn in the notes that Wangjing is “[t]he neighborhood in northeast Beijing where Ouyang lives.”[9] We do not learn, however, that it is also Beijing’s Koreatown, that it’s a neighborhood known for its nouveau riche, or that in the late ’90s many of the city’s professoriate were assigned housing in one of the high-rise complexes there. Of course, those facts are not crucial to a basic understanding of the poem, so one can’t fault Woerner for not including those details. But for anyone who does want to learn about those additional aspects of Wangjing, the poem will certainly offer up a more nuanced, and even more imaginative, reading — and one that is grounded more firmly in the original language of the text: 

Flying toward the living means remaining singular.
So the phoenix flies from the avant-garde
into extinction, from limitless reality to the limited;
its flight shrinks Beijing smaller than Wangjing,
nations to the size of leaves.[10]

Of course how much to say in excess of a source text is a question, and in my own translations I tend to err on the side of slavishness, rarely including notes, in the hopes that the reader will take it upon themself to go to a library (or at least check Wikipedia). So I only mean to point out that translation may work best when at least pointing to the richness of a textual context, instead of substituting vagaries. In the end, however, no one knows to what degree the inclusion of notes will move a reading of “Phoenix” away from the poem’s “insularity,”[11] as Woerner calls it, and towards either a supposedly more inclusive general reading, as with many of the poems in Doubled Shadows, or to close readings inspired by detail. 

Whatever the case, Ouyang Jianghe’s poetry is served best by sticking to the language of particulars precisely because it renders the text more vivid, and leaves a lingering curiosity. The reason for this is because the text’s complexities, like Prynne’s “ambiguity,” show the poem better than, again, any conflation of ideas into generalities made for a lackluster general reader. Finally, none of this is an indication of a bad translation — indeed, the translation differs greatly between Doubled Shadows and Phoenix — but instead indicates a philosophy of translation and a poetics that I find to often be couched in platitudes, that displays a lack of adventurousness about poetry in general, and in particular does a disservice to the abundance of poetry’s material and imaginative histories.

For another example of the kind of negotiation a poem can do between history and thought, Woerner has rendered section 12 of “Phoenix” more or less as ambiguous, or particular, as its original — much closer to the “literal” version of “Handgun” previously supplied only in an appendix. In it we see a number of terms that readers may be unfamiliar with, and ideas they may be uncomfortable with, since the author appears to be critical of political affiliations. It presents the range of Ouyang Jianghe’s thought in a more complicated manner than anything in Doubled Shadows. And it is this mental image of poetry that emerges out of Phoenix that ties our imaginations to the source text while at the same time letting them move away from it, as if the imagination, for all intents and purposes, is rendered ineffable, and not sculpted into a figure of the reading subject. This is, in my opinion, letting the writing perform its method through its translation, as opposed to superimposing an already designated idea of poetry that is bound up with unexamined notions of subjecthood:

A coin throws the Politburo into the sky:
how long till its members
drop back down out of the clouds?
Did Lenin see the phoenix? Did the Trotskyites?
Revolution or Capital — which yearns more for its roots?
To measure a revolution in the East
on a scale to which Time genuflects
one has to leap free of time. Behold the lone runner:
a wheelchair-bound amputee
feeling an abyssal, phantom pain
racing like a panther in his severed legs.
The squandering of spacetime ends at its beginning.
In the twenty-first century, some read pre-Qin letters.
In Beijing, some read the Paris manuscripts.
Many more sit in the night sky
reading Das Kapital.
“To read is to disappear with writing.” (43)

By translating the same kind of logic that appears in section 16 of “Phoenix” (where “limitless” and “limited” are portrayed as unstable signifieds), Ouyang Jianghe can fully explore what appear to be contradictory notions of measurement, physical ability, and even contemporaneity — as if only by displacing the particular need can the abstraction be realized in the concrete. Likewise, the relational status of the poem, as a composition as well as an object in the physical world, is allowed to take its place as the driver of the writing. This becomes a triumph, then, of the poem over the individual, inasmuch as the poem is composed of ideas that exploit things. The reading subject here is less important than the subject as another referent or node of the physical world that performs the act of reading.

Another example of this triumph appears in “Notes toward a Fiction of the Market Economy,” in Doubled Shadows. Although Doubled Shadows is dominated both by a lyric sensibility as well as by a theory of translation which privileges both translator and reader over the work as an artifact, “Notes toward a Fiction of the Market Economy” is nevertheless a serial poem which demonstrates the tenuousness of those positions. In it, what appears to be the wisdom of value-added transactions becomes a synecdoche for displaced personal action. The bankers appealed to in the beginning, with their presumed litany of “common sense” objections to a planned economy, are nevertheless bankers driven by another impersonal system of relations, whether or not they realize it. Section 2 reads in its entirety: 

Will the bankers raise their voices in dissent
against the penny-saved penny-earned political ideals
of planned economics? Spend what you’ve made, then spend
what you owe. Spend it again and you’ll find you have even more
than if you’d deposited it in the bank. But no matter how much
money you make, count it up and you’ll find it’s all fake.
It’s all growth and change: except for a plastic revolver,
it’s bullets spent; a nickel pulled from a magic hat.
Masked autobiography has seeped to the root of the public interest,
subtracting time from personal savings, subtracting foresight
and cold common sense. Don’t wait for nothing and you’ll find happiness
steadily shrinking. Give thanks for your meal. Desire no bounty. (49) 

It’s interesting to note that, even when all we have to read is “the poem itself,” whether or not one can read the original text, the reading subject is interpellated by the same ideological actors which informed the artifact. For example, in the case of Americans reading the poem, not many will know the details of China’s financial sector — whether the housing market will go bust, whether multiple investments in State enterprises will yield a personal “bounty.” Yet it’s possible that the event of the reading of the poem, in which all of those factors are simultaneously latent and present, is when our expectations are most decisive in rendering the poem’s meaning. This is different, however, from an interpretation driven by the individual. 

For example, the poem “Phoenix” refers explicitly to Xu Bing’s artwork of the same name. In fact, the artist and artwork were present at a celebratory reading in New York with Ouyang Jianghe and other Chinese and American poets. In that case, the poem should be rendered fairly legible, at least inasmuch as we have an image of the poem’s dialogue: the author reading to us about the artwork in the room. Yet the address, however direct, paradoxically requires that the reader remove oneself from his or her expectation of understanding in order to understand it. In other words, we may think we are “getting” the poem, but what we are getting is the event in which we expect ourselves to get the poem. To really get it, expectations need be cast away so that obstacles to understanding it become clear. When one sees those obstacles, then one is on a level playing field with the poem.

To illustrate this, in section 14 of the poem is what can only be described as a study of Xu Bing’s process, however embellished: 

Now we turn to Xu Bing. See how from bird entrails
he pulls crustacean components,
strings of microchips, annotations, ammunition
(because, even after the dismantling of war,
one must assemble a phoenix like an army); watch
as from inner realities he pulls far-flung provinces,
foreign nations, outer space.
Ransacks the void till no emptiness remains,
while prestidigitating truths from thin air;
conjures the water and electricity of Life
then walks over to Aesthetics and pulls the plug. (47)

Ouyang Jianghe again gives us synecdoche (the generality of “Aesthetics” standing in for the physical action of artistic creation), as well as contradictory logic[12] (“Ransacks the void until no emptiness remains”). He also gives us comparisons of kind (“from bird entrails … microchips”), in which compatibility is flouted. As with the reader whose obstacles appear before the poem, it is only by accepting, and not disregarding, those obstacles that the poem can be what it is, namely, another collection of obstacles — just like the actual reading subject, in fact. Perhaps more to the point, to pretend those obstacles are not there would be to disregard the actual materials of the artwork,[13] as well as its status as assemblage.

But it is the over-translation of “prestidigitating”[14] that may point to both the difficulties of Woerner’s translations as well as one of the central qualities of Ouyang Jianghe’s works — in both Doubled Shadows and Phoenix. The invention of a term in one of Ouyang Jianghe’s poems may not be appropriate, but possibly nothing is appropriate: another obstacle not to be overcome, but simply to be recognized. The ironies of translating poetry may, in the end, be little different from the ironies of reading or writing it. 


1. J. H. Prynne, “Difficulties in the Translation of ‘Difficult’ Poems,” Cambridge Literary Review 1, no. 3 (2010): 151–66.

2. Austin Woerner, “Translator’s Preface,” in Ouyang Jianghe, Phoenix, trans. Austin Woerner (Brookline, MA: Zephyr Press, 2014), 19.

3. Austin Woerner, “Translator’s Forward,” in Ouyang Jianghe, Doubled Shadows, trans. Austin Woerner (Brookline, MA: Zephyr Press, 2012), 107.

4. Ouyang Jianghe, Doubled Shadows, 11.

5. Woerner, “Translator’s Preface,” 21.

6. Woerner,“Translator’s Forward,” xiii.

7. Woerner, “Translator’s Preface,” 24.

8. Jianghe, Doubled Shadows, 63. For comparison, here’s my “literal” translation: “Flying: it would be nice to be able to fly.”

9. Woerner, Phoenix, 61n16.

10. Jianghe, Phoenix, 49.

11. Woerner, “Translator’s Preface,” 23.

12. Discussed by Woerner on page 20 of Phoenix as beilun 悖论, the kind of argumentation first employed by the philosopher Zhuangzi.

13. Which Woerner also discusses on page 20 of Phoenix.

14. Despite Ouyang Jianghe’s reputation for difficulty, his vocabulary is fairly restricted.