Marija Todorova reviews Mang Ke’s poetry collection and considers the significant role played by translators in such projects.
Mang Ke, October Dedications, trans. Lucas Klein, Huang Yibing and Jonathan Stalling (Zephyr Press, 2018), 131pp.
Published under the title October Dedications, this selection of Mang Ke’s poems is arguably one of the most important titles published so far in the Zephyr Press Jintian series of Chinese poetry. The mission of Zephyr Press is to publish “outstanding literature from around the world, and it seeks to foster understanding of other languages and literary traditions through the twin arts of poetry and literary translation.” The Jintian series, which is published bilingually on facing pages, includes some of the most well known poets in their respective countries, with the majority of translated titles being the first books to appear in English by these authors. The whole series carries the name of the underground literary journal Jintian (Today) – the first unofficial literary journal published in the People’s Republic of China, a journal established by Mang Ke together with Bei Dao.
The Chinese poet and painter Mang Ke has published several collections of poetry in Chinese, as well as a novel and a volume of essays. In the 1970s he belonged to a group of poets whose works were denounced as “misty poetry” because of their reactions against the politics of the Cultural Revolution. Forced to go “underground” in the 1980s, Mang Ke is currently a successful abstract painter living in Songzhuang, an artists’ colony on the outskirts of Beijing.
October Dedications contains a chronological selection of his poems focusing on previously untranslated work from the early 1970s to the late 1980s. The main translator and editor of this volume is Lucas Klein, a translator as well as a translation scholar at the University of Hong Kong, whose translation Notes on the Mosquito: Selected Poems of Xi Chuan brought him the 2013 Lucien Stryk Asian Translation Prize. The volume includes collaborative translations by Huang Yibing, a Chinese poet and Associate Professor of Chinese at Connecticut College, and Jonathan Stalling, Professor of English at the University of Oklahoma.
The first aspect of the text that I found striking as a fellow translator and translation scholar was the fact that the names of the translators are featured prominently on the book cover together with the title and the name of the author, although in a slightly smaller type. When publishers decide to bring attention to the translator they acknowledge the significance of the translation process as well as of the individual translator. Recently there has been a social media movement among translators to have their work acknowledged in more visible terms, and the #namethetranslator hashtag is the latest example of such advocacy. Klein too has expressed support for the campaign in an article written for Words Without Borders, where he urged reviewers to recognize the translation process, stressing that “[t]here is no excuse for not taking the translator’s work into account when reviewing a work of literature in translation” (2014).
Similarly, the book’s “Translator’s Foreword” is another visible sign of the translators’ contribution to the translated work, as this is the only paratext in the volume framing the reading experience of the audience. In the Foreword, Klein writes extensively about the poet Mang Ke, his style and importance, helping the reader situate his poetry historically and culturally. His impressionistic poems were among some of the first in China to break free of the imposed didacticism of the Cultural Revolution. The presence of natural imagery as a main poetic device reflects his years spent in the countryside as part of the re-education activities of the Cultural Revolution. Even in his explicitly political poems, such as “Sunflower in the Sun” or “The Sky”, there is still an abundance of images from nature:
the sun rises
the sky is blood-soaked
like a shield (“Sky”, 25)
Klein dedicates two full pages of the Foreword to explaining his translation decisions and methods. Setting a goal to “respect and recreate [Ke’s] economy”, and preserve his simple vocabulary and repetitive imagery, Klein skilfully manages to achieve this:
pallbearers drift by like a cloud
the river slowly carries the sun
dying the water’s long surface golden yellow
a meadow of wilted flowers (“Frozen Land”, 11)
The translation is a masterful recreation of Chinese punctuation and line length in English translation, omitting the use of any punctuation and capital letters, except in the titles. This “foreignisation” strategy adds to the experience of Mang Ke’s poetry by an English language reader without “compromising” the understanding of the poetic imagery by a reader otherwise unfamiliar with the Chinese language and poetry.
Another important issue related to literary translation which is often less represented in academic articles and literary reviews is the fact that literary translation, and poetry translation in particular, depend very much on collaborative work. Although October Dedications is in most part selected and translated by Lucas Klein, he also includes two poems translated by the translation duo of Yibing Huang and Jonathan Stalling, whose work appeared in the anthology Push Open the Window (Copper Canyon, 2011).
From the classical period through to the Middle Ages, the translation process has often relied on teamwork, where translators benefited from working in pairs (or groups) not only to supplement their knowledge of a language but also to provide cultural and local understanding. In the field of world literature, influential scholars such as David Damrosch have been advising in favour of such collaborative work between experts in national cultures and scholars of world literature. But still poetry translation as a collaborative process has yet to receive significant attention in academic research. For this reason alone, October Dedications is an important text – it is just such a collaborative translation project, a “translaboration” activity which Alexa Alfer has defined as “the practical and conceptual confluence of translation […] and collaboration as an allied and equally applied notion, raising questions of power, equality of participation, and mutuality of influence as intrinsic aspects of practice”.
In summary, this volume of poetry is important not only for being the first to make available the experimental poetry of Mang Ke to wider international audiences by rendering it in English, but also because it raises highly important issues in the art of poetry translation.
Marija Todorova is a translator and translation scholar. In 2007, she received the National Translation Award. Her academic interests include literary translation, children’s literature, and emergency interpreting. She is currently a Postdoctoral Fellow at the Hong Kong Polytechnic University. Her recent translation projects include an anthology of contemporary Macedonian poetry for Voice and Verse Poetry Magazine.