Jan 13, 2022

Western Poets Kidnap Your Poems and Call Them Translations

Mona Kareem on the colonial phenomenon of rendition as translation 


Earlier this year, an English translation of Yi Lei, a prominent poet of the ’80s generation in China, was released by Graywolf Press. Tweets and headlines in the American press rejoiced, stressing how this Chinese Emily Dickinson has been brought into English by none other than the Pulitzer prizewinner Tracy K. Smith. They marvelled at such feminist collaboration, our best woman poet and their best woman poet, meeting in verse. ‘An encounter with Tracy K. Smith eased the late Chinese poet’s emergence into the Anglophone world,’ declared the New Yorker. The verb ‘eased’ struck me; like an unwanted pregnancy, her poems arrive in English—a ‘second life’ to use the article’s Benjaminian wording. Tracy K. Smith has no knowledge of Chinese, and as such, I doubt that she knows enough about Chinese poetry and where Yi Lei stands among her generation, or the place of her poetics within their literary domain. In the introduction, written without the co-translator, Smith makes no mention of any other Chinese poets, nor does she contextualize Lei’s work. She describes her as a revolutionary voice, tells us about her brief friendship with Lei, comparing her to one American master: ‘she was huge-hearted and philosophical, on intimate terms with the world in the way of Walt Whitman, one of her literary heroes.’

Smith does not hide her anxiety at the nature of this work yet she does not frame it as a non-translation, or perhaps an anti-translation: ‘I accepted the fact that the music of the original, which I wasn’t capable of recognizing in the Chinese, or gleaning from David’s intermediary translation, could not be a component of my concerns as a translator.’ After all, it is no strange phenomenon for Western poets, from Ezra Pound to Ted Hughes, to hire a linguist or a literary scholar to compose a ‘rough translation’ to then make an adaptation of the text. I hold no objections against adaptation as a form of translation, nor am I interested in guarding definitions of translation but am rather interested in examining how such co-opting of literary translation speaks of a larger attitude toward non-western literatures. Sometimes it is the author of the original text who partners in this process and, where not versed in the target language or its literature, this yields a collaboration distinct for its uneven power relations. Last July, Graywolf announced a new translation, or an adaptation, of Dante by Mary Jo Bang, another beloved woman poet of America. It announced in a tweet, ‘Congratulations to Jo Bang on her release,’ to which I couldn’t help but respond, ‘Congratulations to Dante!’ 

This phenomenon of Western poets calling their renditions translations has always baffled me. Everywhere else in the world, poets might commit the sin of translating a text via an intermediary language which they speak (a translation of a translation) but never would they hire someone to give them a rough draft of the original to then workshop the hell out of it! One can’t help but wonder, if the resources are available for a rough draft, if the enthusiasm is present to ‘ease’ a text into a new language, then what is it that stops western poets and publishers from leaving the task of translating someone of the caliber of Yi Lei to a qualified translator? After all, Chinese is not some obscure language of the Norwegian outskirts, it’s literally the largest language in the world when we count native speakers! In his review of Smith’s adaptation, Andrew Chan writes about the state of confusion he found himself in, wary of the ‘false conclusions’ that Smith’s ‘unfaithful renditions’ would leave the English-speaker with. Chan, who has read the poetry of both Smith and Lei (in the original), is able to tell how Smith’s renditions were decorated by an aesthetic contrary to Lei’s work, a musicality specific to Smith, a drastic difference in style and tone. What poets who are not translators fail to understand is that it is exactly ‘style, tone, and content’ that makes or breaks a translator. Chan too is aware of this phenomenon, offering examples beyond poetry, where the translator takes liberty in not only domesticating a text, but making of it a ‘loose’ adaptation. It is indeed a form of textual violence.

As an Arab poet, I can tell you that stories of what western translators do to our work make a favourite subject in literary festivals, late-night gatherings, and zoom events. One cannot miss the sense of ‘guardianship’ western translators practice over us—how they filter us, make us lyrical, oblique, politically-correct, or appealing. A sense of paternity is at practice by which the western translator takes your hand and guides you into the darkness of the abyss, especially if you do not speak their language. Often, you naively believe in them, after all this is not a matter of ill intentions, the two of you work on the belief that it is a ‘collaboration,’ and as so, whatever it yields, might be worth the while!