Translating Bei Dao

Translations shape how a poem is read in ways that reveal a great deal about the translators and the audiences they imagine for their work. One of the most effective methods I’ve found for getting my students to appreciate this is to ask them to read several contrasting translations of the same poem. When it comes to contemporary poetry, finding multiple translations is not always easy. But a couple of striking exceptions to this rule are Bei Dao 北岛 and Yang Lian 杨炼, who have both been very successful in attracting translators. In the case of Bei Dao, we also have Lucas Klein and Clayton Eshleman’s record of their translation process for Endure, which provides insights into the kinds of decisions that a translator must make (see also Klein’s excellent blog on Chinese poetry in English translation).

It’s notable that Eshleman at one point rejects a draft for being “old-fashioned ‘poetic,’” a problem with translating Bei Dao into English that I discuss at length in A Common Strangeness. An excess of poeticalness was strongly implicit in the charge of “sentimentality” that Stephen Owen famously or infamously leveled at Bei Dao in his review of The August Sleepwalker in the New Republic in 1990. In trying to understand how Owen came at the same time to describe Bei Dao’s work as a new “world poetry” written to be translated I entered into a discussion with the translator of The August Sleepwalker, Bonnie McDougall. Her generous correspondence with me turned into a translators’ dialogue as we went back and forth over her decisions and how they had shaped Bei Dao’s reception in English.

I am thinking about this now because I am in the middle of reviewing yet another translators’ dialogue. I am working with Cilla McQueen to write about the process we undertook in translating two poems by Dmitry Golynko-Vol’fson for a special Russian issue of the New Zealand arts and literary journal Landfall published in 2007. We’re doing this for a forthcoming issue of Ka Mate Ka Ora on translation.

About Jacob Edmond

Jacob Edmond is associate professor in English at the University of Otago, New Zealand. He is the author of Make It the Same: Poetry in the Age of Global Media (Columbia University Press, 2019), A Common Strangeness: Contemporary Poetry, Cross-Cultural Encounter, Comparative Literature (Fordham University Press, 2012), and of numerous essays, which have appeared in journals such as Comparative Literature, Contemporary Literature, Poetics Today, Slavic Review, and The China Quarterly.
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2 Responses to Translating Bei Dao

  1. Paul Hoover says:

    I had never thought of Bei Dao’s work as sentimental in the least. We published some of Eshleman & Klein’s translations in New American Writing a couple of issues ago, and they are substantially different than the ones published by New Directions. Which is often the case with translation, the translator so identifies with the work that he/she/they become Bei Dao and what they imagine the poems wants from him. I had that experience as a co-translator of Hoelderlin, or should I say the various Hoelderlins his production offers.

    • jedmond says:

      Paul, I absolutely agree that Bei Dao’s work is not sentimental, or at least––to pick up on your observation––that is not what you or I want from his work. I discuss some of the translations decisions that I think led to his poetry being seen in this way and what that in turn might tell us about notions such as “world literature” in A Common Strangeness.

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