I’ve long been fascinated by Bei Dao’s poetry (in David Hinton’s translation) and when I saw that he would be reading from his most recent book in a small bookshop just around the corner from my apartment, with his German translator, the pre-eminent Sinologist Wolfgang Kubin in attendance, I was delighted. The shop, which is one of my favorite bookshops in the greater area anyway, they carry large amounts of translations from all kinds of countries, they also have a large section of philosophy, poetry, they don’t sell any Dan Brown though.
Herta Müller has ties to the bookshop and its owners, as do writers like Juli Zeh and Bei Dao. The shop was crammed with interested listeners and, on Bei Dao’s insistence, several bottles of red wine (and glasses) were handed around. Apparently, he used to hand out hard liquor but these days he can’t stomach it any more so we were down to red wine (and a large bowl of white bread) which was fine with me.
Here is an image from the back row. The man to the right is one of the two owners.
The reading itself was less about Bei Dao than it was about Wolfgang Kubin. Kubin is a university professor with an ego to match his profession. He translates from the Chinese, has been known to disparage current Chinese literature as bland (Wei Wei), fascist (Jiang Rong) or just uninspired, drawn-out sell-out writing (Yu Hua). He himself also writes both poetry and prose, and has lanced barbs at the lack of success he has with that work of his. He can rely on an immense reputation, however, as a translator and a general promotor of Chinese culture and literature.
Here is a (grainy) picture of him speaking
As marvelous essays like this one show, he’s very concerned about what translators can and can’t do, and about how the commercial side of publishing affects translators and translations. He is a very earnest man, but last Tuesday, with the poet beside him, he seemed dour more than anything else. He held a speech and translated every sentence into Chinese for Bei Dao’s benefit. After introducing the poet, and talking about some of his convictions he proceeded to read a few poems of Bei Dao’s in German, with the poet reading them in Chinese afterwards.
Apparently, he’s used to explicate each poem beforehand, but he was, he told us. Reprimanded by Bei Dao, not to do that again. Bei Dao maintains that the audience can figure out the poems on their own, they are not children, in need of lecturing. As a poet, Bei Dao’s work is dark and obscure enough to warrant Kubin’s wish to explain everything, but Bei Dao’s insistence has much to do with how he sees language and poetry and his role as a poet. Like many writers from so-called Communist countries, he doesn’t reject the basic ideals of his countries so much as the horrific political manifestations that they have turned into.
Here is a picture of Bei Dao reading
Bei Dao writes for the people, and his poetry, in Hinton’s translation, is a curious mixture of hermetic poetry, on the one hand with cliffs of images and metaphors that lead you onto the ice and leave you there to find your way home again, and very intense and deeply felt phrases. Bei Dao offers himself, or an image of himself in these poems, like a sketched burst of emotion, flanked by broader concerns. There is, interestingly, both spareness and abundance in his work, and it’s usually spare where the speaker talks about himself, and abundant, rich, and enigmatic, where he voices his worries, vents his urgencies.
This complicated way of reaching out, which is hard to see as reaching out, seeing as hermetic poetry is usually read as inward, is channeled through Bei Dao’s enormous literary appetite. He’s influenced by poets such as Vallejo, Mandelstam and Celan, and his work is littered with references to their works or the works of others, such as Tomas Tranströmer and, lately, Gennadiy Aygi. As he pointed out in his talk, Gennadiy Aygi is very important because of the influence he had on Russian poetry and, indirectly, on Chinese poetry.
See, one of Bei Dao’s concerns is his own language, which, as he points out, is rather young. Modern Chinese has not existed so very long, and it’s a language that’s still developing and still vulnerable. At the same time, like Aygi, Bei Dao grapples with tradition,with the formally strict poems of his own tradition, where imagery, rhythms and other structures are fixed. Aygi and other poets of his generation broke these shackles and created room for a new kind of Russian poetry, and it is this tradition that has made a lot of impact of Bei Dao.
For all his intertextual and international urge, Bei Dao writes for the people and that also and mainly means the Chinese people. He won a prize this year, and glowed with pride when he reminded Kubin to mention that that was a prize not given out by the Chinese government or a jury, but by the Chinese people themselves. As a reader of his poetry, he is sure, strong, but whenever he let his eyes stray off the page, he seemed to falter. As a poet in exile, who cannot go home again without putting himself in danger, his used to be a poetry of strength.
Here’s a picture of him listening to Kubin’s translation
Most recently, however, the sparse, emotional part of his work has seemed to gain prominence. He himself calls his work warmer today than it used to be, and his most recent book is called Book of Failure. It has not been translated into English yet, but the German translation by Kubin (Buch der Niederlage) is selling awfully well. In Kubin’s language, Bei Dao seems more directly a descendant of Celan. The darkness, the fear and the curious beauty that simmers in Celan’s poetry seems to be part of these new poems.
However, when I looked at older poems, translated by Kubin, poems I know in Hinton’s translation, and when I finally looked at Kubin’s own work, I noticed a strange thing. Kubin translates much warmer, much more emotionally wrought than Hinton. The two poles of his work I mentioned, they don’t exist in Kubin’s version, where flowery abundance always reigns. Now, there’s Kubin’s version and Hinton’s but I trust Kubin’s version less and here is why:
he admitted that he didn’t understand quite a few of the poems from the volume and that a series of images that he had read and translated as an associative cascade of words was actually a very well structured take on Chinese clichés and the workings of the language, the culture and assumptions inherent in both. In another place, he was corrected mid-speech when Bei Dao pointed out that what Kubin assumed to be a wife, was in fact a mistress, the word having changed connotations and meanings during the past 40 years. And there were a few more of those small but significant details, like the fact that Kubin’s translations read a lot like Kubin proper.
Now, I don’t know whether Hinton’s more trustworthy, but with translations there is always a big leap of faith involved, but I know that I don’t trust Kubin, so I’ll go with the English translations. I have no other indications than the ones I outlined and I realize it’s a bit like eating the salami so as to be able to pretend it’s not meat, but I can’t help myself. I don’t like what Kubin says he does, and though I don’t doubt his commitment or his conviction
All in all, the reading was a full success, a huge delight and I took home a lot. Here are some pictures I posted a few days ago.