Dual Translation, World Literature, Chinese Poetry

A review of Foreign Echoes and Discerning the Soil: Dual Translation, Historiography, and World Literature in Chinese Poetry, by Lucas Klein.

Lucas Klein’s dissertation, Foreign Echoes and Discerning the Soil: Dual Translation, Historiography, and World Literature in Chinese Poetry, is notable both for its ambition and its erudition. In seeking to answer how the “Chineseness” of Chinese poetry, its quality of being or seeming natively Chinese, is produced in and through acts of translation, Klein not only tackles Modernist-inspired poetry from the twentieth century, where “Chineseness” is a salient issue, but also the monolith of the Chinese literary tradition itself, including such ultra-canonical figures as Wang Wei 王維 (692-761) and Du Fu 杜甫 (712-770). In practical terms, this impressive breadth of scope results in a dissertation in two parts: the first featuring studies of modern poet Bian Zhilin 卞之琳 (1910-2000) and contemporary poet Yang Lian 楊煉 (b. 1955), and the second reaching back to Tang Dynasty masters Wang Wei, Du Fu, and Li Shangyin 李商隱 (813-858). By avoiding the urge to arrange his chapters chronologically ― or, at least, by putting the modern before the pre-modern ― Klein refuses to allow “traditional China” or its poetic stand-in, Tang regulated verse, their place as the seat of pure Chineseness, untarnished by contact with the modern West; in fact, one of his goals is to situate the Tang Dynasty back into a global network of cultural interaction and exchange. The arrangement of chapters further serves to illustrate Klein’s methodology, which is to allow the insights of deconstruction, Marxist thought, translation studies, and contemporary avant-garde poetics to illuminate the distant past ― and vice-versa. Klein’s dissertation serves the larger goal of deconstructing the binaries tradition/modernity, native/foreign, textual analysis/high theory, and, most centrally, original/translation.

Klein’s introductory first chapter, entitled “Qu’est-ce qu’un Sinologue?” (in reference to Michel Foucault’s “What is an Author?”) and subtitled “The Landscapes of World Literature & Chinese Poetry at Degree Zero,” places the study of Chinese literature, both modern and pre-modern, within the field of World Literature, through a discussion of Stephen Owen’s “What is World Poetry?” Owen’s scholarly presence ― as authority, as inspiration, as foil ― pervades the dissertation, in particular this provocative 1990 article in response to Bonnie McDougall’s translations of Bei Dao 北島 (b. 1949). Partly, Klein wishes to take issue with the habitual deprecation of translation that Owen’s article may exemplify, as it suggests that “translation is damned with the original sin of not being original poetry” (p. 17); partly, he wishes to take an opportunity to accept that many of Owen’s criticisms of modern Chinese poetry are valid, and that any discussion of Chinese poetry in the present moment must contend with arguments against globalization as well as in favor of cosmopolitanism. Klein compares world literature, as a phenomenon of globalization, to the economic globalization enacted by capitalism, and he wonders if bourgeois Romanticism has had the same assimilating effect on national literatures as bourgeois capitalism has had on markets. However, Klein is not willing to write off Bei Dao as merely the symptom of globalized bourgeois culture, suggesting rather that we see Bei Dao and his “Obscure” (menglong 朦朧, elsewhere translated “Misty”) contemporaries in the line of Roland Barthes’s “neutral,” as a disengagement from the overly-politicized discourse of the Cultural Revolution period. By exploring the many-layered problem of Bei Dao’s poetry (and the “translation style” [fanyi wenti 翻譯文體] he advocated), McDougall’s translations of Bei Dao into English, Owen’s review of those translations, and the cavalcade of responses to Owen, Klein sets the stage for his discussions of Chinese poetry as World Literature, and Chineseness as constructed through acts of translation.

Klein’s first body chapter, entitled “Discerning the Soil: Bian Zhilin, Dual Translation, and the Politics of Writing and Reading World Literature,” addresses “dual translation” in Bian Zhilin’s poetry (along both the vertical axis, pre-modern to modern, and the horizontal axis, foreign to native). Bian’s poetics, for Klein, allow “Chineseness to be included in, without being essentialized by, World Literature” (p. 53). This characterization stands in contradistinction to two less favorable models of world literature, embodied by poets associated with Bian: Xu Zhimo 徐志摩 (1897-1931), whose poetry subsumes its Chineseness beneath various exotic foreignizations (for instance, allusions that only fluent speakers of English could understand), and Wen Yiduo 聞一多 (1899-1946), whose formalist poetics required a strict division of the native past from the international, but Western-led, future. Bian’s poetics employ multiple acts of displacement exemplified by his translation of T. S. Eliot’s “Tradition and the Individual Talent,” where the terms past, present, native, and foreign become seriously jumbled through transposition into Chinese. Bian’s configuration of world literature “demand[s] and creat[es] a space for China’s pre-modern literary heritage within that configuration. Particularly, Bian achieves this through translation, and through linking translation of the foreign with translation of the native past” (p. 104).

In Chapter 2, “Believing in the Brush: Yang Lian and the Translated Poetics of Ethnography,” Klein turns to contemporary poet Yang Lian in order to discuss ethnography, or the written representation of cultures, in terms of translation. When Yang, a poet very concerned with China’s mythological past, makes essentializing claims about the Chinese language, such as that characters cannot fit into Western notions of “grammar,” Klein asks “is he noting an essential difference (or différance?) between languages, or is he essentializing one upon the expectations established by the other?” (p. 125). What happens when a Chinese poet’s view of his own language is shaped by notorious mis-representers like Ezra Pound and Jacques Derrida? Can Yang escape the criticism leveled at him by another poet, that his “isn’t the China of Chinese people, it’s the China of Westerners” (p. 125)? Like many of the other figures Klein discusses in this dissertation, Yang negotiates between two seemingly opposite forces, one nativizing (the literary movement known as “Roots Seeking” xungen 尋根) and one foreignizing (“Obscure” poetry, frequently criticized for its foreign influences). In digging for the distant origins of Chinese culture, Yang’s archaeological poetry often turns up China’s others, such as the culture of ancient Chu 楚, which challenge and undermine that originary Chineseness even as they are incorporated back into it. “By standing between the familiar and the strange,” Klein concludes, “Yang Lian writes poetry that is equally nativizing and foreignizing, resulting in a poetry that enacts a World Literature by thwarting it, by calling forth the questions about writing and speaking, and by writing about cultures familiar and strange to audiences always in translation” (p. 191).

The second part of Klein’s dissertation is even more ambitious, as it is where he repositions that most “Chinese” of literary forms ― Tang regulated verse ― as itself a translation. In Chapter 3, entitled “Echoes of Sanskrit: Reading Regulated Verse as Translation, & the Śunyatā of Form,” he asks how “the forms and content matter of one national literature [have] been affected by other literatures, and [how] that national literature has represented its foreign others” (p. 196). Klein admits that the ideas of globalization and world literature are more comfortably discussed with respect to the modern period, but that introducing them into a discussion of Tang China may help us discuss “the construction of Chineseness and the relationship between poetic form and content” (p. 197). Klein’s discussion of the Regulated Verse form (lüshi 律詩 or jintishi 近體詩) as a translated form ― “not translation in the narrow sense of the word,” but a form whose “matrix of associations with foreignness and translingual practice [was] manifested in prosody, in its response to commercialism, and in its underlying Buddhism” (p. 243) ― leads him to examine the prosodic form itself as an expression of Buddhist content in the context of its period of origin and flourishing, from the Six Dynasties through the High Tang. In order to argue for regulated verse poetry as a translated, foreign, and specifically Indian-Buddhist form within the context of Middle Period China, Klein discusses the origins of the poetic form, starting from the prosodic prescriptions of poet and Buddhist devotee Shen Yue 沈約 (441-513), which led to the categorization of Chinese syllables into the four tones of Middle Chinese. More intriguing, Klein explores the Palace Style poetry of the Liang Dynasty, in particular the “Odes on Objects” (yongwu 永物) subgenre, which “demonstrates the power that an object holds over its user, who in turn believes that his object is ultimately nonexistent, that form is emptiness” (p. 228). Klein’s ingenuity is to treat the “form” of the poem as a “form” in the Buddhist sense of something illusory and impermanent, whose contemplation will result in the viewer’s realization that all forms are nonexistent. Thus the form of the poem is able to extend the Buddhist content.

The fourth chapter, “Composing Foreign Words: Canons of Nativization in the Poetry of Du Fu,” extends Klein’s argument about translation to the subject of canon formation, by asking how the “closed” system of a National Literature is constructed out of, or in the context of, a global circulation of forms and events. Klein’s case study in this discussion is the most canonical of Chinese poets, Du Fu, whose commentators have thoroughly incorporated his poems into the National Literary tradition. Klein discusses how canonization deprives a work of the originality and surprise that it must have once contained ― drawing on Hans-Georg Gadamer and Wolfgang Iser, he argues that “canonical reading” removes the limitations of historical context placed on a work by, paradoxically, constantly re-interpreting and re-translating it for each new age in the form of commentaries. In the case of Du Fu, his canonization as the “Poet Historian” creates a tension between the “lofty,” morally upright tone his poems are thereby presumed to have and the morally dubious Regulated Verse form he employed. Again, the issue for Klein comes down to translation: “Du Fu translates between the aesthetic of Regulated Verse and the ethic of Archaicism” (p. 273) by nativizing the Regulated Verse form and bringing it in line with the moral ideology of Archaicism and its call for a “return to antiquity.” This contradiction is embodied in Du Fu’s treatment of the historical figures and poets that he alludes to ― canonizes ― in his own work. For instance, Du Fu redeems Yu Xin 庾信 (513-581) for Archaicism as a Chinese among the barbarians at the Western Wei (535-556) court, despite the fact that Yu’s own poetry carried on the work of the Regulated Verse innovators. By writing about native Chinese historical topics in the “foreignizing” style of Regulated Verse, Du Fu helped broaden and expand the possibilities of Chineseness even as the canonization of his poetry ― and his own poetry’s canonization of Yu Xin ― helped define that Chineseness in a restrictive way. Klein admits that “nativizing continues the translation process, moving [the original, foreign form] from there to here. That may be the nature of translation, ultimately: to be neglected, forgotten” (p. 300). At the same time, “rather than say it is subsumed into the canon, we could say that translation builds the canon” (p. 301), so that the various nativizing gestures and processes undertaken by Du Fu and his readers end up constructing a National Literature out of a world of source materials.

In the final body chapter, Klein addresses the notoriously difficult late-Tang poet Li Shangyin, choosing once again to consider Li’s poetry as a form of translation. An ambiguity in the title of the chapter, “An Awakening Dream: Borders and Communication in the Translation of Li Shangyin,” hints at the problems involved: does “the Translation of Li Shangyin” imply that Li himself performed translation? Or does it instead refer to the process whereby Li’s original poetry is rendered into a foreign language, such as English? In fact, Klein means both: on the one hand, Li’s formal eccentricities “re-foreigniz[e] the by then already nativized formality of Regulated Verse” (p. 325), at the same time as his writing thematizes barriers to communication and the insufficiency or unreliability of language; and on the other hand, the ambiguities that populate Li’s poetry ― for instance, where the Chinese character jiao 角 can mean “corner” or “horn” ― can only be fully expressed by putting them into other words, that is, in translation or interpretation. On an even larger, historical level, Klein sees Li’s poetry as engaged in a struggle to translate between a native religious tradition (Daoism) and a foreign one (Buddhism), during an era when the Tang emperor was carrying out xenophobic anti-Buddhist policies. Klein describes Li’s poetry as “hermetic,” in reference to Hermes’s role as the god of boundaries, of crossing boundaries, and all transactions. As one who erects boundaries in order that they may be traversed, who seals off in order to connect, Hermes is the perfect figure for the one poet of the Chinese tradition whose poems have been interpreted so much that their meaning is ever less certain. We suspect that Klein has this paradox in mind when he introduces the chapter by asking, “Is Li Shangyin the most Chinese of pre-modern poets?” (p. 313). The answer is yes, if Chinese simultaneously implies foreign, and if originals are simultaneously translations.

Klein’s dissertation is impressive both in terms of breadth and depth, and it represents a welcome, successful attempt to bring discussions of Modern China closer to discussions of China’s past. This work will be of interest not only to Chinese literature specialists, but perhaps equally to comparatists and cultural historians. Readers interested in high Modernist and avant-garde poetry from the English-speaking world should also take note, as this dissertation consistently places its subject matter, both modern and pre-modern, in dialogue with an Anglo-American poetic tradition that owes so much to the translation of Chinese texts.

Brian Skerratt
Department of East Asian Languages and Civilizations
Harvard University

Primary Sources

Bian Zhilin 卞之琳. Bian Zhilin wenji 卞之琳文集 [The Collected Writings of Bian Zhilin]. Hefei: Anhui jiaoyu chubanshe, 2002, 3 vols.

Yang Lian 楊煉. Dahai tingzhi zhi chu: Yang Lian zuopin, 1982-1997, shige juan 大海停止之處: 楊煉作品 1982-1997, 詩歌卷 [Where the Sea Stands Still: The Collected Writings of Yang Lian, 1982-1997, Poems]. Shanghai: Shanghai wenyi chubanshe, 1998.

Wang Wei 王維. Wang Youcheng ji jianzhu 王右丞集箋注 [Vice-Minister Wang [Wang Wei]’s Writings, Annotated]. Zhao Diancheng 趙殿成, ed. Shanghai: Shanghai guji chubanshe, 2003.

Du Fu 杜甫. Dushi xiangzhu 杜詩詳注 [The Poems of Du Fu, Meticulously Annotated], Qiu Zhao’ao 仇兆鰲, ed. Beijing: Zhonghua shuju, 2004 reprint. 5 vols.

Li Shangyin 李商隱. Li Shangyin shige jijie 李商隱詩歌集解 [The Collected and Explicated Poems of Li Shangyin]. Liu Xuekai 劉學鍇 and Yu Shucheng 余恕誠, eds. Beijing: Zhonghua shuju, 1998. 5 vols.

Dissertation Information

Yale University. 2010. 432 pp. Primary Advisors: Kang-i Sun Chang and Haun Saussy.


Image: Xu Bing, “Humpty Dumpty”. Used with permission of the artist.


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