- Addressed and Redressed:World Literature and Reading Contemporary Poetry in Translation
Civilizationally and politically otherized from the point of view of the West, yet never colonized except incompletely and piecemeal, China occupies a privileged position in current discussions of world literature, standing as a test case for many of our notions of the category. Meanwhile, translation—upon which, of course, world literature, however defined, builds itself—has been undervalued and under-attended to in our current discussion of the Weltliteratur predicament. These are, in fact, related problematics: in Between the Lines, Cosima Bruno quotes a scholar devaluing translation to the effect that “poetry has traditionally been built of words with a particular history of usage in a single language—of words that cannot be exchanged for other words” (2), which scholar at the same time posits Chinese literature, as Jacob Edmond discusses in A Common Strangeness, as a case of national literature par excellence failing to withstand the onslaught of globalization and the “end of history” after the Cold War (95–124). The brilliance of the books under review here is how they address and redress both issues, showing how translation can not only ease the tension between Chinese and world literature, but also build a world literature with room for Chinese literature.
Bruno’s study is a quick yet detailed comparison of many different English translations of poetry written in Chinese by Swiss-born, dual UK/NZ citizen, Chinese-language poet Yang Lian (1955–). Judgmental prescriptivism “in clear contrast with the interests of this study” (27), she [End Page 611] explains, she aims to reconcile “tools that traditionally have been considered in opposition to each other: linguistics, cultural studies, communication theories, post-structuralism, pragmatics and semiotics” (28). To that end, after a brief introduction and a layout of the “Theoretical Framework and Propositions” (9–28), the heart of her study is a two-chapter suite first on the stylistic differences between various translations of Yang’s representative poems (29–74) followed by “Reading Yang Lian’s Poetry through Translation” (75–107). The latter chapter marks Bruno’s difference from the translation comparison as typically imagined, reading her conclusions on various translational interpretations of Yang’s poetry back into the poems themselves, to show how “the manners in which systems of signification have been selected and arranged in translation gives a glimpse into the system of signification of the original” (73) and reveal startling insights in defense of the notion that all poetry is at some level translational to begin with.
Bruno’s introduction explains that she is after the “chiasmus” relationship established between, and modifying, both source and target texts, defining translation as a way of “coming to terms with the mechanisms of meaning production and aesthetic effects in the source text” to become “the depository of a comprehensive critical understanding of the original text” (3). Her triangular model of translational study looks at translation shifts, finding there moments in which “the reader can engage with the singularity of the original poem” (5). In practice, this enables her to look at a line twice; for instance:
|Poem 1, line 4:||送葬的月亮一只断手 |
sòngzàng de yuèliàng yìzhī duànshǒu
|Translation A:||funereal moon is a broken hand|
|Translation B:||funeral-following moon a broken hand|
(Translation A is by Mabel Lee, and Translation B by Brian Holton; the poem in question is 流亡之书, which both translators have as “The Book of Exile.”) In Chapter 3, Bruno uses this example to demonstrate how different translators handle juxtaposition and the compound metaphor (55); later, she develops this argument to reframe Yang’s own poetic technique (79), reaching the striking—and, I believe, accurate—conclusion that “Yang’s poetic strategy is devoted to minimizing time, and materializing it into space” (87).
What Bruno calls Yang Lian’s poetics of minimizing...