The Responsibility of the Reader: A Review of The Reciprocal Translation Project

/ /

The Reciprocal Translation Project
Edited by James Sherry and Sun Dong.
(ROOF Books, 2017, $22.95, 201 pages.)

In his famous essay, Walter Benjamin discusses and details “The Task of the Translator.” Focusing on the relationship between translator, text, and language, he examines the intrinsic properties of a text – translatability among them – whose transmission and potential for transmission are essential to the translator’s task. Curiously, though, Benjamin begins with a negation. “In the appreciation of a work of art or an art form, consideration of the receiver never proves fruitful,” he writes. “Even the concept of an ‘ideal’ receiver is detrimental in the theoretical consideration of art […]. No poem is intended for the reader.” In other words, no audience should, or can, serve as the final arbiter of a creative work’s effectiveness, or of the creative principles that shape it (Benjamin 253).

Why begin a consideration of the translator’s task by explicitly mentioning what not to consider? Negation can serve as a simple tool for separation. In saying “this is not that,” one creates or reminds oneself of a distinction, conceptual or empirical, between two things. In this case, Benjamin divides what he believes the translator can uniquely and autonomously control from what he believes the translator cannot. He divorces the act of writing or translating from the reader.

But in actuality, reading is not so divorced from translation. The translator must read a work in order to translate it; she must do so either before or in the very act of translating. Truth be told, the creator of any written piece is Reader Zero, and so there can be no study of translation without explicit or implicit study of the reader.

The Reciprocal Translation Project (中美诗人互译计划), edited by James Sherry and Sun Dong, presents us with and confronts this reality in a comprehensive and innovative way. The Reciprocal Translation Project takes six Chinese and six American poets, and presents their original works, each accompanied by four unique translations. The first of the four translations is always a “literal” one, developed in collaboration between bilingual specialists and often with explanatory notes. The next three are “poetic” translations, written by fellow poets in the collection, who have differing degrees of familiarity with the poem’s original language. Following the collection are biographies of the poets and editors.

To consider the broader value of the book, it is useful first to review the work on its own terms, according to its aims. In the Introduction, editors Sherry and Sun state, “We value spontaneity and difference as much as accuracy and faithfulness. We don’t consider deviations from the original meanings as mistakes. Rather we are keen to see how unconventional meanings and language constructions relate to the translator/poet’s own culture.” They add, “We mean to show that differences are interwoven with similarities” (Sherry and Sun, 7, 13).

The collection validates the editors’ intentions, demonstrating the Yin and Yang of similarity and difference between translations, language constructions, and more. Rae Armantrout’s “Soft Money” – whose title and content concern the relationship between money, politics, sex, gender, and culture – provides an early example. In English, the poem begins,

They’re sexy
because they’re needy,
which degrades them.

Throughout the poem, the speaker repeatedly uses “they” without specifying gender. Only near the poem’s end is “they” associated with the gendered “Miss Thing–”. Meanwhile, the poem’s beginning translates into literal Chinese as,




The first two slashes in each line separate the same three words for genderless, female, and male “they,” all pronounced “tāmen.” Consequently, the Chinese translator-poets must explicitly navigate the poem’s gender ambiguity – perhaps tension – based on their reading of or response to the original. Their choices for the translation’s first character provide insight into the other choices they make, and ultimately into the meanings embedded in the original (26-33).

The three translator-poets each translate “they” in different ways. Poet Huang Fan keeps all three “they” words and adds “都,” a character that can mean “all.” The effect is to invoke a “they all,” which suggests a reading of the original poem’s “they” as general and philosophical, almost like a stump speech or a sermon (26-33).

Na Ye instead chooses the female “they” (她们) and writes a translation that focuses on the cultural predicament of women in male-dominated society. By clarifying “they” as female, the “you” of her translation also takes on a distinct, reactive specificity, seeming to refer to the archetypal male gazer. Her translation combines the first three lines into one, saying, “她们性感….. 她们被需要,….. 这使她们卑贱”. It translates back literally as “They are sexy they are needed, this makes them lowly.” Last, Wang Xiaoni chooses the male “they” (他们), and emphasizes the craven way men with political power debase themselves, presumably for “Soft Money.” Wang translates the gendered “Miss Thing–” as simply “小姐” – meaning dually “Miss” or “lady” and also “prostitute” (26-33).

Each of these translations serves as a synthesized reading, interpretation, and transmission of Armantrout’s original poem. They all work together to inform, perhaps circumscribe, the original’s meaning. Moreover, they all respond to the same challenges posed in translating the poem, – “they” / “tāmen” as just one example – and make choices that are equally justified therein (26-33).

Of course, while all these choices are justified, no Chinese translation quite contains what the English “they” does in Armantrout’s original text – at least not in the same way that “they” contains it. None is capable of total, unadulterated transmission of the original – if one acknowledges that even clarification can function as a form of adulteration. Given this fact, to translate with the knowledge that translation itself may not be possible at all – to refuse to do or claim to have done the impossible – is also a justified creative choice.

Poet Brandon Brown does something like this with his translations, using them to deliver a sort of commentary on the futility of translation. Wang Xiaoni’s “月光白得很,” literally translated “The Moon is White Indeed,” is about the moon and the existential concern it invites in the speaker. She writes, “月光使我忘记我是一个人,” or “The moon makes me forget I am a person/human.” Brown titles his translation of the poem “Really Great Moon” and seems to defeatedly acknowledge his existential insignificance, crying out to the original poet. He says he soon will grow old, and then adds,

[T]he moon is fine, the moon
is good. Wang Xiaoni knows
and the chives and the dill.
The moon is fine and good
but gives no fucks for me[…].

Shortly thereafter, Brown mentions Patrick McCaw, an NBA player for the Golden State Warriors. His translation plainly breaks convention, farcically deviating from the original text. Yet it does so in an effort to process, digest, and come to terms with the original’s meaning. Is this not, in a practical sense, what translations allow readers to do, and what must be done in order to develop one? In writing a refusal-to-translate as his translation, Brown reveals the place within the translator from which a text might be translated (162-165).

Brown’s revelation may undoubtedly alienate (dare I say threaten?) some readers. Yet in context, it can at least provide humorous relief, printed between the original’s two other poetic translations. In these works, penned by Rae Armantrout and Bob Perelman, readers will find elegant turns of phrase and skilled infusions of dramatic tension. For example, Armantrout translates what is, in its literal English form, “The moon illuminates/exposes/shows the bones of everything at night” as “At night the moon x-rays everything.” Perelman, meanwhile, translates to “Tonight the moon shines through to the bones” (162-165).

Both of these works mark more traditional attempts to recreate – rather than embody as Brown’s translation may – the existential concern generated in Wang Xiaoni’s original text. But neither of those translations, nor the literal English preceding them, – arguably because of their faithfulness to the original – offer as clearly and directly what Brown says in his conclusion. “This poem,” he ends, referring to Wang Xiaoni’s Chinese original, “is about the moon” (162-165).

All in all, the poems and their translations are strong and successful. That is, they make good on the editors’ aims, and do so without conclusively declaring any single work as ideal, final, better, or best. The poets generate translations that expose and negotiate the similarities and differences between Chinese and American language, poetic interests, and cultures. In doing so, they expand the criteria available for writing and considering translations.

Put another way, the poets and editors show that poems, translations, and their writers can create and function together in a poetic ecosystem. Normally placed in an evaluative hierarchy, with different works competing for critical praise and attention, these poems and their translations function in an inclusive hierarchy. This means that the poems and translations develop meaning in one another, symbiotically, with none being superior in status to the other. Moreover, no poem or translation is the title work of the collection, and no work is inferior to the collection as a whole (Sherry, “Against One Model Alone”).

In this poetic ecosystem, writers do not, as generally understood, hand down their original works to translators; instead, they hand them off – in this case to contemporaries and peers. Critics and publishers often claim that translations have “captured” an original work or its voice. The environmental model for poetics, embodied in The Reciprocal Translation Project, introduces nonlinear goals for translations, and adds a useful complexity to their relationships with original works (Sherry, “Against One Model Alone”).

What does it matter that The Reciprocal Translation Project accomplishes all this? What are we, the readers, to do with such accomplishment? In asking, I do not reject the notion that The Reciprocal Translation Project has intrinsic value. On the contrary, I ask in order to clarify what its value can tell us about how to read.

My initial attempts to read The Reciprocal Translation Project overwhelmed and even paralyzed me. Readers of the collection face an astounding number of choices. These choices range from how to read its texts to how to understand, interpret, and experientially process those readings. Do I read the original in between reading each translation as a sort of palate cleanser? What is the nature of the faith I place in the “literal” translation? How does this influence my appreciation and understanding of other translations throughout? Should I pick a “best” translation, a “winner,” for each original?

But in observing the ways in which these questions overwhelmed me, I came to see that my questions manifested a personal resistance. With so many choices, I was refusing to settle into and engage any particular way of reading. After all, each way of reading would preclude, prevent, or worse predetermine certain understandings of the texts. How could I see past my particular way of reading to identify the aims and maneuvers of the various writers?

Moreover, in settling into a way of reading separate from a more total, ideal reading, I would be fulfilling Benjamin’s negation and warning to the translator: I would not function as an ideal receiver of the work. How self-centered and humorless would it be to read Brandon Brown’s direct reference to Wang Xiaoni without even the slightest laugh? To instead be disappointed that the translation failed to cohere or fulfill the aims I had unconsciously saddled it with?

Ultimately, though, this concern points to the opportunity that The Reciprocal Translation Project uniquely presents to its readers. In showing multiple translations side by side and without commentary, the book invites readers to take stock of and maintain awareness of their own assumptions, preconditions, and demands for texts. At the same time, it asks readers to observe the variety of writers’ considerations, expectations, and intentions as expressed through their works. In essence, readers must reflect, look inward, and ultimately accept and take responsibility for their ways of reading. Only then can they negotiate, and translate between, those ways of reading and the translators’ ways of translating. To receive The Reciprocal Translation Project therefore requires, despite what Walter Benjamin might tell you, its own act of translation.

Works Cited:

– Benjamin, Walter. Selected Writings, Volume 1: 1913-1926. Edited by Marcus Bullock and Michael W. Jennings, Harvard University Press, 1996. Pgs 253-263.

– Sherry, James. “Against One Model Alone.” Aufgabe Number 13, edited by E. Tracy Grinnell et al., Litmus Press, 2014, pp. 360-372.

– Sherry, James, and Dong, Sun, editors. The Reciprocal Translation Project: 6 Chinese & 6 American Poets Translate Each Other. Roof Books, 2017.