Twitter Bynner Poetry Translation Residency Personal Statement

As we wait for the arrival of Hurricane Sandy in NYC (which I won’t write about again), I’m taking advantage of the luxury of having electricity and internet access to catch up with some old business. Here’s a somewhat belated post on the ALTA conference that was written by my friend and colleague Bill Martin, translator from both German and Polish, who publishes under the name W. Martin and teaches at Colgate University. Bill writes: 

W. Martin

It’s hardly news that the relationship between what translators do and what critics and scholars say about it (or not) is fraught. But while it has gained increasing attention recently in discussions of book reviews, how this particular drama of mistranslation plays out in academia is seldom a topic of public discourse. It was useful then to eavesdrop on two of the final panels at ALTA a few weeks back, where the conversations engaged exactly this problem.

A personal aside before I start: when I walked into the first panel, I was reeling from just having run into the Dutch translator Wanda Boeke near the book exhibit. Boeke had been the Translation Coordinator for the International Writing Program in Iowa City in the early nineties, when I was an office assistant there. She had completed her MFA in Translation under Danny Weissbort and was an especially encouraging voice to me then, as I was trying my hand at my first translations. I heard a familiar voice say my name and looked up and immediately had to laugh: the surprise incongruity of seeing someone so familiar after such a long time. There are denizens of ALTA who I suspect have met each other exactly once a year for the past two decades or more; as in many disciplines, there’s something timeless about the culture of the annual conference, the way the same constellation of friends, colleagues, and familiar strangers gets reproduced year after year in Philadelphia, Chicago, Pasadena, Boston, Philadelphia… But this was only the third ALTA conference I’ve attended, and this encounter was an unexpected sign of a continuity.

Taking Back “Translation Studies”

It was standing room only in the Lynne Lovejoy Parlor, with at least 60 people in the audience. At the front, the two moderators, Esther Allen and Susan Bernofsky, first spoke about their co-edited book project, In Translation: Translators on Their Work And What It Means, a collection of essays by translators about translation that is forthcoming with Columbia UP, then introduced the panelists: Peter Bush, who recently translated from Catalan Quim Monzo’s A Thousand Morons and formerly directed the British Center for Literary Translation at the University of East Anglia; Sean Cotter, who teaches at UT Dallas and has published translations of Romanian poets Liliana Ursu and Nichita Stănescu; and Polish translator and Indiana University professor Bill Johnston, the winner of this year’s BTBA Award for Wiesław Myśliwski’s Stone Upon Stone.
Esther Allen opened the discussion with an anecdote about the limits of Translation Studies methodologies. One scholar in particular, who would remain unnamed, had subjected Harriet de Onis’s translation of Fernando Ortiz’s Tobacco and Sugar to a machine lexical analysis and denounced it as an example of imperialist translation because at one point de Onis rendered the comparative modifier “mas potente” — used to refer to white slave traders by contrast with the Africans they were trafficking — as “more advanced” rather than “more powerful.” Allen argued that the scholar’s method, which focused on discrete lexical choices, discounting de Onis’s overall approach to the text, led to an egregious misinterpretation of her work, and was symptomatic of the gap between Translation Studies and the practice of translation.
Recounting some of his own experience in finding a home for translation in British academia, Peter Bush took the critique of the theory/practice divide to the macro-level by describing attempts to establish Translation Studies as a discipline despite the absence of recognition, in government-sponsored Research Assessment Exercises, for published translations as evidence of faculty output. Like Allen, he was especially critical of prevailing, primitive approaches to translation criticism, giving examples of several established Oxbridge literature professors whose “scholarship” involves little more than attacking word choices. He ended with a reminder that translation theory is only one theory out of many, and that a translation, like any text, can and ought to be engaged from a variety of perspectives.
If both Allen and Bush addressed the problems that translators face, focusing on the fraught relationship between Translation Studies and translation practice, Sean Cotter and Bill Johnston proposed two somewhat different solutions. Cotter suggested that the divide between theory and praxis was largely a cultural one and that it might be abrogated by approaches associated with descriptive translation studies. Taking seriously the question implicit in the panel’s title, Cotter suggested ways for translators to “take back” theory for themselves. He made three points: 1) theory is diverse (here he mapped out rather efficiently a range of existing traditions in translation studies); 2) theory is creative (here he pointed out that theorizing involves building not only objects of study, but arguments about them and new concepts as well); and 3) theory is useful (here he asked how one might bring the practice of translation closer to theory, and provided an example of how his own translation of Mircea Cartarescu had been informed by an awareness of specific theoretical concerns).
Drawing on his secret life as a professor of applied linguistics and foreign language acquisition education, Bill Johnston began his talk by suggesting that the respect teachers had gained in the past twenty years or so had resulted from their own attempts to reclaim the description and recognition of their work away from its theorization by education scholars. He pulled out a well-worn copy of Donald Schön’s 1983 book The Reflective Practitioner: How Professionals Think in Action, pointing to its influence in shaping this transformation, and briefly encapsulated Schön’s critique of the technical rationality model of education theory and the divide between the kinds of knowledge rewarded in universities and actual practice, and his proposal of a “reflection-in-action” model that would help teachers and other professionals develop their practice. Like Allen and Bush, Johnston affirmed a resistance to the concept of “application,” arguing that theory is most useful when it emerges out of praxis; and he cited as a strong example of a praxis-driven theory Seamus Heaney’s introduction to his own translation of Beowulf.
What became clear during this panel was that “taking back” Translation Studies, however understood, depends squarely on translators themselves being heard, and this means translators need to write: whether it’s translator’s prefaces, book reviews of translations, criticism, or scholarship. One thing I wish had been addressed in greater depth, at least in the North American context (Peter Bush talked about it in his discussion of the limits of educational assessment in the UK), is the role of Translation Studies at universities, particularly in the fragile eco-systems of language departments. Translation Studies is for obvious reasons especially well placed to strengthen ties between English and other modern and classical languages on campuses, particularly in institutions that don’t sustain a separate Comparative Literature program. But it can also facilitate communication between languages and the social sciences, and even the natural sciences. More important, however, is what translation and Translation Studies can offer students in the classroom. This was the topic of the panel that followed — and also of another one at this year’s ALTA, “To MFA or Not to MFA: The Translation Question,” which took place before I arrived, unfortunately, and featured educators, not the students themselves.

The Translation Workshop: A Student Perspective

Maddison Hamil, Micah McCrary, Matthew Cwiklinski, and Dauren Velez are four young graduate students in Columbia College’s Nonfiction Writing MFA Program who spoke about their experience in a translation workshop they took last spring and the ongoing importance of translation for their work. Columbia College does not have a translation workshop on its books, so their professor, Aviya Kushner (who was talking about translators’ prefaces in a room across the hall during the same time slot), designed it under the rubric of a “Form and Theory of Nonfiction” course; and it brought together students with a degree of either fluency or interest in a variety of languages, including French, Japanese, Greek, Latin, Sanskrit, Spanish, and Gaelic, among others. The first part of the course involved extensive reading in the history and theory of translation, with special consideration given to the genre of translators’ prefaces. The second part was a writing workshop in which each student provided a “trot” from an original text in a language he or she had access to, and the others each produced a (typically very free) translation based on it, which they all then workshopped as a group. For the third part, the students each prepared a translation manuscript and a preface to it; these prefaces were then workshopped at least once by the group.
The level of insight, intelligence, and sophistication each of these beginning translators brought to the discussion was especially impressive. Maddison Hamil talked about the simultaneous commitment to English and the original language, in her case Italian, and the desire to really know it, to “get the translation right” and to “reproduce the heartbeat, or pulse, of the original text” — translating degree zero, the position every translator necessarily inhabits. Dauren Velez discussed the experience of producing something creative out of the encounter with a language “you don’t have such a complex relationship with” and about the value of translation in developing her own awareness of the capacity of English — this point in particular speaks volumes for the utility of translation workshops for students across disciplines. Micah McCrary anchored his discussion of the translator’s preface in the enjoyment of theory and the question of process, and offered insights into the malleability over time of one’s own theory of translation — an idea that seems quite new and original. And Matt Cwiklinski framed his experience of translation in terms of personal transformation and an increasing awareness of the dialogic nature of the process, with his discussion of translating two papyri of the Book of the Dead culminating in an implicit metaphor of the hermeneutic circle as a return trip to the underworld.
The presentation was exceptionally well constructed and anchored in robust reflective work by the participants (as if they had long before anticipated the suggestions about reflection in action and combining theory and practice from the previous panel). The fact that these were students of creative nonfiction and relative newcomers to the field points to the value of translation and translation workshops for other writing practices (particularly if one considers Dauren Velez’s insight about the capacity of English). And their presentation was especially fresh in a conference populated largely by old hands. One of the best things about the panel, however, was that some truly exceptional old hands were in the audience, including Esther Allen, Susan Bernofsky, Sean Cotter, Elizabeth Harris, and Russell Valentino, who engaged the students in conversation during the Q&A. Moments like these show the real value of ALTA, that the conference provides a place for the exchange of thinking not only among translators who’ve known each other for years, but between established and emerging translators.

The students’ experiences in Aviya Kushner’s workshop, and Kushner’s introduction of her course into a creative nonfiction program, show not only the value of translation for other genres of writing but that another means of bridging the translation-criticism divide, at least in the academy, lies in curriculum. This is hardly news, of course: it goes almost without saying that the culture of translation is closely tied to education: to exposing readers to translated literature even at a very young age and to training future generations, and that perhaps the best way of taking back Translation Studies is by making sure it arrives in the first place.

by Keith Kumasen Abbott

“[Cold Mountain’s] appearance resembles that of an emaciated beggar, but every word he uttered was pithy, meaningful and inspiring. He wore a cap made of birch bark, a simple fur garment, torn and threadbare, and wooden sandals for shoes.”
Liqiu Yin

In the mid 1950s, Gary Snyder came to translate the poems of the Tang poet Han Shan (Cold Mountain) during his preparation to travel to Japan.  After dropping out of graduate school in Indiana, he enrolled at UC Berkeley to study Oriental Languages.

I went back to work in a graduate seminar with Ch’en Shih-hsiang at a time when there were only two students in a graduate seminar with him-myself and a Chinese man. He asked me what I would like to do. I said I would like to do some Buddhist poems that possibly were in a vernacular, and he said, “Of course, Han Shan is the poet you should work with.”

Snyder worked on his translations with the help of his professor who, Snyder once noted, had the basic canon of Chinese poetry memorized.   There were at that time few translations of Han Shan with the best being the versions by Arthur Waley, the dean of Chinese literature in English translation by the 1950s.  Snyder knew of these versions and used them.  But before this account goes any farther the figure of Cold Mountain needs explanation.

The Myth of Han Shan
Han Shan was always a myth.  Unlike most Chinese poets, his name is the name of a place, but this was generic, no explicit site.  The religious figures in China always had the privilege of taking a place name in lieu of a family name.  So his name alone puts Han Shan as an outsider. The word Han is an adjective for cold; the noun Shan means mountains(s), hill or a mountain range.  So Han Shan in English was Cold Mountain.  His translators accepted that his name was a religious title, and that his family name was lost along with any reliable account of his life and times.

Buddhist masters of that period substituted their family name with the name of their monastery or hermitage.  The poems demonstrate that Han Shan was a hermit for a part of his life, and perhaps a wandering monk. Most of the theology found in his poems is a mixture of Taoism and Buddhism, but not clear about what form of Buddhism.  And as in most Chinese poems, references to Confucian classics are common.

Tradition places Cold Mountain, the man and the place, in the Tiantai Mountains. This is the Tiantai range on current maps, located to the south of Shanghai.   During the Tang and Song periods, many of the Buddhist sects in the mountain monasteries flourished and in Japan and the United States those lineages provide masters for Western Buddhism.

The public imagery for Cold Mountain was set early.  Han Shan was a hermit who lived near one of these monasteries.  Inside the orphan Shi De worked in the kitchen and around the grounds he carried a broom.  He put leftovers in a bamboo lunch pail for Han Shan and then the two retired to mess around, writing poems on trees, cliff or temple walls and reading blank scrolls and at night silently pointing to the moon. These icons proliferated in rubbings and paintings after the Tang dynasty and illustrations of the mad pair’s episodes became common monastery lore.  But in China no official notice of Han Shan as a poet existed for five hundred years.  His work was not included in Tang poetry anthologies.

The Tradition of Han Shan
In his introduction to Chinese Poems, Arthur Waley sums up the qualities that made Han Shan so valuable as a visual icon.

In his poems Cold Mountain is often the name of a state of mind rather than a locality. It is on this conception, as well as on that of the “hidden treasure”, the Buddha who is to be sought not somewhere outside us, but “at home” in the heart, that the mysticism of the poems is based.

So the Cold Mountain name suggests Buddhist images of spiritual ascension and the image of a ragged but determined monk evokes the run-down hermitages of Taoist immortals.  Han Shan presents this combination of person, place and state-of-mind.

From within these hagiographic and iconic conventions, however, the poems themselves perform a different task.  While talking about a Han Shan poem, Paul Kahn marks the change in this fashion.

The presentation of ideas . . . is different from the poetic conventions of its period. Han Shan is not describing a vision he has had of an immortal while traveling in the mountains, nor is he describing his own personal enlightenment while journeying to a remote holy place, both common themes in Tang poetry. The poet here is stepping right into the landscape, climbing a path that is at once his own physical and metaphysical path or way. He tells us this is the “way” to his home as well as his enlightenment. He directs his voice to the reader, challenging (or inviting) him to follow.

The Legend of Han Shan
The first collection of Cold Mountain poems had a preface attributed to Luqiu Yin: “Nobody knows where Han Shan came from.” He describes how the elders of the community related to him stories of Han Shan’s life, primarily anecdotes of him appearing and disappearing in the halls of the Chan monasteries.

His appearance resembles that of an emaciated beggar, but every word he uttered was pithy, meaningful and inspiring. He wore a cap made of birch bark, a simple fur garment, torn and threadbare, and wooden sandals for shoes.

When the officially garbed Luqiu visits Guoqing Monastery he discovers both Han Shan and Shi De by the kitchen stove.   Luqiu bows the two.  In reply they yell, laugh, snigger and clap their hands before running up into the hills.  The provincial governor tries to bribe them with gifts but they refuse.  Han Shan is seen as an incarnation of the bodhisattva Manjusri—but that idea does not show up in any poems.   What does appear in the poems is the notion of satori and how one gets it and what it looks like when one has it. 

The governor sends out a search party and when they find the two they duck into caves and the caves close behind them.  Then the area is searched for any poems left behind and those are collected.   Other accounts seem to have been written well after the date given for the poems and even this version is apocryphal.  So ends the contemporary version of Han Shan.  

The American Han Shan
The figure of Han Shan remains a fictional character. With no reliable history of Han Shan or his sidekick Shi De (Kanzan and Jittoku in Japanese) the images of these crazy but sainted recluses survives as such good copy.

Buddhist poetry as a genre in Chinese does not have a huge influential history or following, as Burton Watson has noted for his own translations of Han Shan.  At the time Han Shan was not in the canon of Chinese poets: most major poets used images from Taoist or Confucian texts for their metaphors but Han Shan clearly used Buddhist imagery and allusions, too.

The poetry and the figures of Han Shan and Shi De were, however, immensely important to Japanese Buddhism.  Japanese paintings of the two crazy hermits giggling or pointing at the moon are common; important Buddhist priests painted many.  The two hermits’ symbols were Han Shan’s bamboo lunch bucket and Shi De’s broom and their shared blank scroll.  Often paintings only showed one or more of the three objects together without any humans and that was enough to suggest total enlightenment.

Translating Chinese poetry is difficult.  The single characters themselves are rich with multiple meanings, multiple references and alternate allusions.  Classically trained calligraphers only need to hear a line and they can provide the rest of the text.

As a modern language Chinese has the least number of sounds; for a language with a 5,000-year past, this is striking.  Each character has one syllable, normally.  One of four tones is used for modern Chinese monosyllables to assign a relative meaning.   So for the listener or reader to get a rapid apprehension of a particular character’s meaning a phrase is required.  Context is all; relationships between words reveal more than a fixed substantive meaning.   To complicate matters further there are no tenses for verbs and nouns are both singular and plural.

When most read Chinese poetry in translation there are you and I and she and he in the poems.  But those pronouns are hardly ever indicated by any single character in Chinese poems.   The psychological self has no time or particular perspective in the poems although that is how most Western translators enter these poems.  That extrapolation from no personal center to a narrator or I may derive from the poetic line of characters and their cumulative mood or spirit.

Often the translator has to sense what has occurred to set off this particular poem, to create or better yet select these images to encapsulate a change.  The change may come internally as the external details become harmonized in the poem’s flow.  And certain common radiant characters, such as moon, allude to any number of poetic and spiritual contexts.

Snyder’s Han Shan
So what is extraordinary about Snyder’s translations is that the character of Han Shan becomes so vivid.  There are implied first person nouns used so we get a visceral sense of the hermit and his situation.  This is Snyder’s gift: he comes alive inside this persona of Han Shan.

So Han Shan’s vivacity arises from the translator’s own circumstances and experiences plus his intellectual training that imbue his versions with a voice for the poet.

Not all of the 300 or so extant poems of Han Shan read like Snyder’s selections.  Many are the poems of a husband and urban soul classically trained bureaucrat who has passed his civil service exam of poetry and ritual and secured a position.  Snyder chose only those poems to translate through which he could express several ideals.

Such creatures as the ragged skeptical wise hobo who evinces a spiritual simplicity are American legends, too.   The townsfolk scorn such strangers, and the authorities attempt to run them out of town.  Our Westerns and folk songs celebrate such outsiders.    Often their role is one of correction; their effect is to rebalance or harmonize some aspects of the town life and then leave.

To get some idea of what Snyder saw and felt in the figure of Han Shan versus what a Sinologist such as Arthur Waley intuited we may contrast translations of the same Han Shan poem.

Waley version:

I make my way up the Cold Mountain path;
The way up seems never to end.
The valley so long and the ground so stony;
The stream so broad and the brush so tangled and thick.
The moss is slippery, rain or no rain;
The pine-trees sing even when no wind blows.
Who can bring himself to transcend the bonds of the world
And sit with me among the white clouds?

Waley’s notion is that the poet picks his way through some rocky terrain at the side of a valley.  Probably the sage holds a walking stick in hand as travelers are commonly portrayed in Chinese painting, navigating a slightly tricky but winding horizontal path alongside a stream.  The difficulty comes with shifting from side to side on the stream or while getting around thickets.  Waley’s picture excludes danger, beyond a slip on the moss and a fall; there’s no steep drops or chances for landslides, cave-ins or avalanches.   Nature has traps but negotiable pitfalls.  This portrayal’s particulars are entirely congruent with the visual etiquette for centuries of landscape scrolls and could stand as a description of hundreds of them.   The sage sits in a pavilion on a ledge with its roof obscured by white space or clouds.

In Snyder’s short introductory note to his Cold Mountain Poems he described Han Shan and Shi De thusly: They became Immortals and you sometimes run onto them today in the skid rows, orchards, hobo jungles, and logging camps of America.

In Snyder’s universe these two are real but unique people, and one may run across them reincarnated in certain places.  So he has no qualms placing them in the mountains of that present reality: the West.

Snyder’s Version:

Clambering up the Cold Mountain path,
The Cold Mountain trail goes on and on:
The long gorge choked with scree and boulders,
The wide creek, the mist-blurred grass.
The moss is slippery, though there’s been no rain
The pine sings, but there’s no wind.
Who can leap the world’s ties
And sit with me among the white clouds?

Snyder’s sage faces a trail up a gorge blocked by boulders: we’re free to imagine their size and jumble.  Underfoot are slippery loose rock, debris and pebbles: scree.  The site is not a valley, but a ravine cut through rock, so balance, angles and gravity work against the traveling sage.  He is, as Paul Kahn notes, probably down on his hands and knees in order to “clamber” over, under and through these obstacles.  No matter what route this hermit picks, there’s only more chaos ahead.

Chinese verse, much like 18th century English poetry and prose, often proceeds with parallel syntactical constructions to gain momentum, drama and/or cohesion between the lines.   “No rain, no wind” are literal translations of the negative phrases in the Chinese.

The speed of Snyder’s poem is quick, and its choice of words, like “world ties” much more incisive and dramatic.  Jump cuts inside lines and jump cuts between lines from perception to perception mimic the experience of climbing up into a canyon wall and getting new views with every switchback, turnout and dip in the trail.

Waley tuned his translation to any number of painted images of the sage in a mountain valley.  Snyder gives us a translation that is based on a rock climber’s experience if that mountaineer were also a Buddhist monk.

So in this poem Han Shan is enlightened; he has removed himself from the world of dust, as the Zen metaphor would say, both physically and spiritually  (shusseken is the Japanese phrase for “leaving the dust of the secular world behind”).   But Cold Mountain itself is enlightenment: to get there one must work hard.  (This notion is rhymed in actual practice.  Most Zen temples have a mountain in their titles and the metaphor for becoming the abbot of a temple is “climbing the mountain seat.”)

More than a translation Snyder creates a new poem in English by enlivening the original’s elements with a simplicity and vocabulary gained from real mountain climbing while under those elements flashes the depths of Buddhist thought and iconography.
In his Lannan Archive video, Snyder remarks that at this point in his career he wanted “a poetry that was simple yet deep.”  And on that tape as an example he reads from his Han Shan poems, discuss the monosyllabic effect of their lines, and how he tried to adapt that sound and its effect to his own poems in English, reading poems from his first book Riprap. His Han Shan poem feels lived, not transmuted from artistic scholarship like Waley’s—as impressive and useful as that act might be.

The Legend of Gary Snyder
Jack Kerouac dedicated his novel The Dharma Bums

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