By Eric Olsen
Stagnant Water & Other Poems by Wen Yiduo
Mao loved him. The nationalists shot him.
translated by Robert Dorsett
It’s the conceit of our nation’s literary elite that we are a myopic and insular culture. In fact, that’s exactly what one fellow told a gathering in Santa Fe of writers, editors, publishers, and other literary types a while back. “We are,” he intoned, “a myopic and insular culture.” His beef was specifically the lack of translations published in this country. Those of us in attendance shifted in our seats and nodded in resigned agreement. Indeed. Yes. Too bad. A pity.
Then more recently, at the Jaipur Literature Festival in Jaipur, India, in January, at a panel on “the global novel,” the Pulitzer-winning Indian/American writer Jhumpa Lahiri offered more of the same, decrying as “shameful… the lack of translation, the lack of energy put into translation in the American market.”
Lahiri and the guy in Santa Fe do have the numbers on their side. According to a study by the National Endowment for the Arts, for example, fewer than three percent of books published in the US are translations, compared with upwards of 40 or 50 percent of works in translation published in some western European markets.
But is the problem that we don’t want to read works in translation, or is the lack of translations here the result of other factors?
I find it interesting that a great many of the largest and most prestigious of the so-called “American” publishers that aren’t publishing more than a handful of translations here are owned by huge Western European conglomerates that do publish so many on their home turf — HarperCollins is owned by Rupert Murdoch’s London-based, cell-phone-hacking, cop-bribing NewsCorp, for example, and Random House, Doubleday, Viking, Alfred A. Knopf, and Penguin are owned by Bertelsmann in Germany (this would be the same Bertelsmann, by the way, that made huge profits during the Nazi regime using slave labor to print anti-Semitic screeds). So why not here?
It’s about the money, of course. These companies and their bean-counters determined long, long ago that the cost of doing a translation in this country can bite into their profits more than the bean-counters feel is acceptable, and who cares about our myopia, insularity, and moral failings when the bottom line’s at risk?
So why can these same huge conglomerates with all their emphasis on the bottom line publish so many more translations in Western Europe? It’s not as if they have much choice. Western Europe is a single economic entity with a variety of “official” languages, and translation is a fact of everyday life.
Lahiri was born in India, grew up in the U.S., writes in English, and now lives in Italy and is proud to announce that she hasn’t read anything in English for the last two years. Which is perhaps why she seems unaware of all the energy that is being put into translation for the American market by smaller and very American publishers, mostly without benefit of routine government subsidies like they have in much of Europe, such as Dalkey Archive, New Directions, Archipelago Books, Other Press, Open Letter Press at the University of Rochester, and Yale University, or online publishers such as Words Without Borders and Three Percent.
Wen Yiduo (1899-1946) is considered one of China’s great poets and arguably the pre-eminent Chinese poet of the 20th century. A leading literary scholar and university professor, Wen transformed Chinese poetry from its erudite style understood mostly by the privileged and well-educated, and instead used common speech and direct observation in his work. For many years, Wen’s artistic accomplishments were obscured by the circumstances of his death: Wen was assassinated in 1946, most likely by the Nationalists, after he gave an impassioned speech denouncing the Guomindang government. His work was banned in Taiwan until 1987, while Mao and the People’s Republic of China regarded Wen as a patriot.
With this new translation, we are given an opportunity to appreciate the internal conflicts that existed within Wen the man: the elitist and the proletarian, the scholar and the activist, the traditionalist and the innovator.
“What makes Wen such a powerful poet,” says Dorsett, the translator, “is that he did not resolve his conflicts; he kept those conflicts, and those conflicts gave him the driving lyric power of his poetry. It’s hard to label Wen as anything. You have to look at the conflicts within him. He was a classical poet who turned to the avant garde, but without giving up the classics, and a person who brought the past into the present, and in bringing the past into the present, you make the future. That’s what he did. He became the peoples’ poet, but he also was the well-respected classical scholar.”
Robert Dorsett studied Chinese at the Yale-in-China Program at the Chinese University in Hong Kong. He received an M.D. degree from the State University of New York and completed his training in pediatrics at Cornell. He also has an MFA degree from New York University, where he subsequently taught creative writing. Robert has translated many individual poems and essays from the Chinese. With David Pollard, he translated the memoirs of Gao Ertai, In Search of My Homeland: A Memoir of a Chinese Labor Camp (HarperCollins, 2009 — Yes! That HarperCollins, part of the Bertelsmann empire. Quelle surprise!). Stagnant Water is his second book of translations. His own poetry has been published in The Literary Review, The Kenyon Review, Poetry, and elsewhere. Formerly a senior physician at Kaiser Hospital Oakland, he now writes full time.
Recently, Robert was interviewed by Anthony Tao of Beijing Cream, an arts and culture website from Beijing, for a post titled “Wen Yiduo: A Masterful Poet Is Revived In New Translation.”
And mark your calendars for Poetry Night, April 30, 2014, 7pm at Book Passage in Corte Madera, CA. Robert will be reading from Stagnant Water. Also reading, Raphael Block and Neal Grace.
Do you have a favorite translation? What makes it special? What traits do you consider essential in a translation?