mirror loop

I’m cheating on this blog here at the moment (though the posts aren’t up yet). I was attending UWS’s Literary Translation Symposium anyway, and they asked for someone to blog about it, so I volunteered. Today though one presentation left me in such all-consuming rage and bewilderment, that I felt writing about in a ‘correspondence role’ might be inappropriate. The presentation was by an American translator of Chinese literature.
(For a more balanced discussion, check the comments)
Basically the presentation went like this: Chinese literature (read prose) over the last 30 or 40 years has been appalling. There has been lots of control and censorship there for ages, so it is only recently that foreign literatures (read superior, mature literatures) have come in. This has resulted in twenty years or so of overdone imitations of these authors (like Calvino, Faulkner, and a few others) in which the only difference is the wildly divergent subject matter. Only now, are a few Chinese writers (novelists) starting to approach a mature style of literature.

My alarm bells started to ring right at the beginning, when he put up a few grabs from some ‘appalling’ Chinese writing. I quite enjoyed them. They were brutal, graphic and bodily in a way that English writers rarely write. The natural and abstract world was a kind of writhing, grotesque body, teabagging the reader. Chinese writers, he said, write as if they have never actually read literature, like they’ve had it explained to them. They stuff in as many adjectives and metaphors as possible. Only now are we beginning to see examples of ‘pared back language’ (read: the only way to write). The presentation also gave mystified and mystifying extemporaneous explanations of what literature should be (basically to ingest and then regurgitate the world of perception, but cleanly, no shit or balls please).

It was the most tragic example I have seen yet of a translator going into another literature, looking for a reflection of himself. He is holding a magnifying glass up to Chinese literature, but when he doesn’t understand what he sees, he puts down the loupe and picks up a mirror.

Directly after him Simon West ended his presentation with the extremely important observation, that ‘our conception of the literary is extremely monocultural’. Indeed.

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9 Responses to mirror loop

  1. jdmartinsen says:

    As someone who gets pretty annoyed at the slagging off of contemporary Chinese lit (in the domestic mainstream media, which tends to paint everything since Cao Xueqin as worse than the previous generation, among foreign critics (Kubin etc), and among translators themselves) I sympathize with your visceral reaction, but I think your conclusion is a little unfair to the presenter, whose conceptual outline of the last four decades (as you’ve summarized it, glosses and all) is basically the way in which one school of criticism within China itself looks at Chinese literature. Perhaps the presenter’s personal literary background led him to gravitate toward that framework, but it’s not simply a case of a monocultural outlook being forced upon a literature it is not suited to.

    I’d be curious to know what authors and works were brought up as examples in the presentation. I know that recently, Ge Fei, the former avant-garde luminary, has been vocal about the reasons why he won’t return to the experimental forms of the 80s, and younger writers like Xu Zechen and Jiang Yitan (in particular) are pursuing “pared-back language” in their own fiction and promoting it in their critical writing.

    • joelistix says:

      Okay, I’m really not used to this blog being read by people outside my circle of friends, though obviously I was aware that it might be read by a wider audience. But I’m going to answer to each question separately.

      jd: I wish I had the knowledge of Chinese literature to respond to this question adequately, but I do not. As it so happens, if you follow this thread of comments, you will see that you can follow it up with Eric. The only name which I can give you, is actually given to you by Eric, Lu Yang. That was the good, the rest were the bad. Perhaps Eric can give you the other names.

      It doesn’t surprise me at all that this diagnosis of contemporary Chinese literature is already existing within the literary system. We always tend to be happy to condemn our own cultural context. I tend to happily condemn the majority of Australian literature, but then when somebody says ‘there is no good contemporary Australian writing’ I fly off the handle and list a number of innovative contemporaries. I think though, there is more to this, which I will continue addressing in my response to Eric (I know this artificial structure of division is a little clumsy, but I’m sticking to it).

  2. This is pretty weird, but I guess I won’t get too far into it. I’ll cop to the “extemporaneous explanations of what literature should be”, from which I should have refrained. As for the rest, it appears that what’s being objected to is my making a value judgment at all. Remove the parenthetical “explanations” of my meaning from the above (most of which are spurious), and you’ve got a fair outline of what I said, albeit with no mention of Lu Yang, the fourth writer I spoke about, who is: a) not pared-back or minimalist in any sense, b) not slavishly imitating western writers in any sense, and most importantly c) writing in an idiom that belongs to him alone, which I have a very difficult time translating because it’s quite beyond my own aesthetic ken. I like it precisely because it drags me out of my own self, and my own preconceptions. Anyhow, this is what you get for having opinions…

    • joelistix says:

      Eric: I think you’re right and you’re wrong. I’ve been somewhat unfair, but your interpretation of my objections are a little off. I’ve not explained it all that well (I was venting more than critiquing). In fairness to you also, having just read your post on paper republic, I see that you also didn’t really explain yourself well. Your response to Mridula on paper republic goes a very long way to addressing the issues, which I felt you didn’t do at the symposium (thus provoking my ire), but hey, responding to difficult questions on your feet sucks, on Mridula’s question was probing.

      Okay, I’ll try to respond properly now. Firstly, I don’t have the capacity here to genuinely respond to your critique of cont. chin. lit., so I can only respond intuitively to what worried me about the narrative you constructed, looking at it entirely as an outsider to the lit culture. Since you’ve already copped to my objection to your ‘what is literature’ section, I won’t dwell on it, but suffice to say that got to me because in my experience people who tell you what literature is are not trying to open up possibilities but close them down. This always seems to be conservative, except perhaps for David Antin’s definition of what is an artist (someone who does the best that they can), which applies equally to brilliant writers and devoted mechanics.

      My alarm bells rang though at your descriptions of writers ‘packing in as many adjectives and adverbs as they can’ (later leading to your valorisation of ‘pared back language’), because that sounded so obviously culturally informed. I think of the example of the German conception of a sentence as a complete idea, meaning that sophisticated writing tends to have sentences that can go for what we would usually break up into several paragraphs. In German, that’s a mark of the literary, in cont. English style conventions, that’s a sign of sloppy usage, rambling incoherence. This is a very basic example, but I really questioned those judgements (again, having little actual knowledge of the texts you are talking about).

      The thing that really got to me though was the convenience of your narrative. To me it read as: Chinese literature stagnated under isolation (I wouldn’t dispute that), a smattering of foreign literature made it into the system, writers ‘slavishly imitated’ these for a few decades, only now are we seeing some ‘original’ work.

      To me that relies too heavily on the hierarchy of original/copy, inspiration/imitation etc. We know that many of the ‘masterpieces’ of classical literature are in fact slavish imitations of past works. There is a capacity for the imitation to supplant the original, both in terms of its cultural significance or familiarity, but also its rhetorical structure, its innovation, etc. And it seems to suggest that there is a linear narrative of development which to me is too reminiscent of narratives of colonialism. Please note, I am not accusing you of having a colonialist attitude, but rather that this narrative doesn’t do enough to deconstruct this way of thinking. It relies on a narrative structure which renders Chinese literature easily understandable as a simple system, rather than investigating the elements which resist understanding, some of the noise in the system (and in my experience, in a culture as big as China’s, there is always noise). The reason that your analysis of Lu Yang didn’t achieve this for me, is that it confirmed the narrative rather than compromised it. The invention of the genius writer at the end of this system plays into that structure, rather than suggesting that there have been many different things happening concurrent with your narrative, and many other ways of understanding them. One of the things I particularly wanted to know, was where do the poets fit in here?

      Finally, the reason I feel like I can judge your argument, is that I feel as if I know it, as if I have done it myself. Searching for contemporary Spanish-language poetry for a translation project a few years ago, I was constantly frustrated by what I saw as an overly emotional confessional mode of writing, which had no real conception of the language that it employed . Eventually I ended up finding a collection of poems by a (surprise surprise) professor of English literature, who was well acquainted with the poetics of Gertrude Stein, John Ashbery and the LANGUAGE poets. Finally I had found a poetry in Spanish that seemed aware of itself, to which I could relate, and which I could translate (despite the fact that these linguistic elements made it more difficult to translate, in a technical sense). The point is, only very recently, I have been made aware of a certain inability that we (I, many of my friends and colleagues) have in cont. poetry to treat some emotional themes, and some emotional language. For example, a friend of mine objected to another poet’s use of ‘the heart’ in his poem. He objected that he didn’t know what ‘the heart’ meant in that sense. And he was onto something. We don’t know how to read or write certain terms, certain modes. And this is not an indicator so much of literary development, as a symptom of our particular literary developments. Which is why your identification of melodrama and scat in Chinese/English literature I think really starts to hit the mark.

      We need to be thinking about how to write scat/melodrama/the heart, etc. in English, in a contemporary poetics/literature. It’s easy for us to say, as you do, ‘we can’t talk about this with a straight face’. But as translators and writers, it’s important for us not to cop out here, and say: we can’t do that. And I’m not talking about a return to classicism, let’s all write horrible melodramas, etc. But how do we renew the language in such a way that we can write these things, here and now?

  3. “There is no such thing as a moral or an immoral book. Books are well written or badly written.” -OW

    It would be outside the presenter’s jurisdiction to condemn the “grotesque” nature of the literature he works in, but I think he’s certainly within his right to argue that most Chinese literature today is badly written.

    For the most part (with notable exceptions), it is.

    • joelistix says:

      to be clear, Eric did not condemn the grotesque nature of the works he cited. That was more my reading of why he decided to use two examples which shared a common vulgarity, as examples of bad writing. Perhaps I read into it the condemnation of the vulgar, and he was intending to concentrate more on the (in his opinion) poor, sledge-hammer use of metaphor and imagery. My point being that I think it refers at least as much to our failure as readers, as to the writers’ failures as writers.

      Re: most Chinese literature today, I guess refer to my comments to Eric, but also, what percentage of English-language lit is ‘bad’? I think we have a different problem, in the wake of creative writing schools. There is so much literature that is ‘well-written’, because it has been workshopped with professional writers. But how much of it does something new, or makes something new possible, in the culture?

  4. Don Mee Choi says:

    Hello Joel,
    I am greatly enjoying your wonderful notes on the translation symposium via Three Percent blog site. I’m a poet and a translator of contemporary Korean women’s poetry. (see Action Books http://www.actionbooks.org/catalog.html#hyesoon) I would like to send you a couple of my books as a way of introducing myself to you. I would appreciate it very much if you could give me your contact information.
    Thank you! Look forward to hearing from you. Don Mee

    • joelistix says:

      Hello Don Mee,
      I’m glad you enjoyed them. I would love to see some of your work. I know nothing about Korean literature, and would love to be introduced to it via contemporary women’s poetry. If only that were the gateway to all literary systems.

      I had a look at Action Books, and it looks like they do some great stuff. I wasn’t aware of them before, but I’ll definitely be checking them out.

      I’ll email you my details.

  5. michaelf says:

    it’s always a pleasure to read an oscar wilde quote. however it was read once it now reads as lament: there are no moral or immoral books -we want both. there are only well written and badly written books – we want neither.

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