"noodling around" or "how many Western cultural imperialists does it take to plunder Wang Wei"


i am happy that stacey lynn brown has found a publisher. hopefully they will allow her to put her author photo on the back of the book as she wanted. and altho i liked her poems that i listened to over at The Fishouse, i’m more interested in buying her new book just to see her infamous author photo that caused all the drama!

i am also happy to see the po-blog-world flex its e-muscle. check out the cider press contest website: it seems that the judge for their next contest, Lucille Clifton, “was forced to cancel her participation due to work load and scheduling conflicts.” right. tho i do somewhat feel sorry for the press as i don’t think what happened was entirely their fault. and let’s face it, they’re finished.

speaking of DRAMA, have you read the letters to the editors in Poetry Magazine:

here’s the original two letters that caused all the drama (in the June archives):

Dear Editor,

One of my favorite books is Eliot Weinberger’s slender classic on translation, Nineteen Ways of Looking at Wang Wei, which makes a strong and illuminating case for reading multiple translations of a single poem. That said, I encourage everyone to read Marilyn Chin’s translations of the Vietnamese poet Ho Xuan Huong [April 2008] against John Balaban’s in Spring Essence: The Poetry of Ho Xuan Huong. When I read Chin’s translations, I couldn’t help but wonder: which Nym character means “boo hoo“? (Emphasis Chin’s.) Biased as my opinion may appear (I work at Copper Canyon, Balaban’s publisher), I don’t see how Chin’s versions add depth or nuance to the work. Frankly, they read like someone noodling around in the margins of someone else’s book.

Joseph Bednarik
Port Townsend, Washington


Marilyn Chin responds:

The first two characters in the quatrain are onomatopoeic, mimicking the sound of a woman’s crying. Therefore, “boo-hoo” is an accurate translation, both semantically and tonally. I was aiming to capture the edgy, satirical attitude so ample in Ho’s work.

Perhaps Joseph Bednarik is not conscious that “noodling around in the margins” is an appalling and problematic expression, fraught with demeaning sexist, racist, imperialist overtones, and born out of the very hateful stuff that Ho Xuan Huong so pointedly and whole-heartedly fought against in her poetry and in her life. All ugliness revealed, perhaps we could finally cut through his pernicious smugness and have that real discussion regarding how many Western cultural imperialists does it take to plunder Wang Wei and who, if anyone, should have the rightful claim to an Asian woman’s poetry. “Noodling” could have been an unfortunate slip and not unconscious hatred; but he might as well have said “flied-licing.” Perhaps Bednarik and his press believe that the white male patriarchy must forever colonize the translation of Asian poetry and that I, a dark-skinned Asian woman poet, should not be “noodling” where I don’t belong.

Marilyn Chin


The letters get more heated in the July/Aug issue here. and the september here.

i do want to highlight here the letters by Kimiko Hahn, Mitsuhe Yamada, and Joy Harjo:

Dear Editor,

The numerous letters regarding Marilyn Chin’s translations are extremely upsetting, not least because I admire several of the authors. I am not sure how the series turned so harsh so quickly, but I do feel the real issue is who has the right to translate. All other aspects (who is most learned, who has the right background, who possesses particular kinds of access, etc.) are fascinating and not to be dismissed; however, to question whether a translator knows enough of the language is not the point (did Pound? did Waley?). The point is the right to add to the treasury. If there are criticisms to be made, let’s hear them as criticisms. To suggest someone is “noodling around” (with its inadvertent connotation) or “uninteresting” or “vague” is not real criticism. These comments seem to contain an odd lack of respect from writers who are sensitive to textual nuances.

For the record: yes, I find Chin’s translations refreshing and a delightful comparison with John Balaban’s own gorgeous collection. And no, I do not read Vietnamese or Nôm or Chinese. I do read poetry.

The whole “fracas,” as Balaban puts it, places this series of exchanges in a larger context, as Chin suggests. I studied Japanese with men trained during WWII. Translating from the Japanese was once their domain. Has that legacy of entitlement somehow continued? And can we have this discussion in a way that does not perpetuate discrimination or disrespect (personal or institutional), or a dated “political correctness” or intolerance? And if not, why not?

Translation is such a peculiar synthesis of skills and sensitivities—who is to say what is ultimately the most important one?

Kimiko Hahn
New York, New York


Dear Editor,

It is amazing to me how quickly two white males—Michael Wiegers, editor of Copper Canyon Press, and John Balaban, translator of Ho Xuan Huong’s Spring Essence [Copper Canyon Press, 2000]—have scurried to the defense of a third white male, Joseph Bednarik, who is the marketing and sales director of the same press. They apparently felt that their hapless colleague was being unfairly maligned by just one Asian American woman poet, Marilyn Chin, who was simply responding to an insult hurled at her person.

None of these men is an expert in Nôm scholarship or in Classical Chinese. They have had to refer to outside sources and base their arguments on comparison translations. They acknowledge that spoken Vietnamese is written in Classical Chinese ideographs but are unschooled in either language. They seem not to be aware that the Chinese ideographs are not only the phonetic transcriptions of the spoken Vietnamese but also hints at the meanings. How then are they qualified to question Chin’s qualifications as a translator?

Their motives are suspect and reek of marketing aggression. I bet they’re afraid Chin just might come out with a book that is better than theirs.

Mitsuye Yamada
Irvine, California

Dear Editor,

I was impressed by Marilyn Chin’s translations of Ho Xuan Huong in the April issue. I reveled in the sassy, brilliant wit of this Vietnamese poet. Then I was disturbed to discover a ring of male translators circled around Chin in the July issue, punching, taunting, and kicking her and her translations. Shame. This is plain old ganging-up in any language. It’s nothing new. I’ve seen the same thing in insecure non-native translators and literary critics who claim ownership of any place where they have planted their assertive flags. The commotion isn’t really about quality of translations. Chin has just as much right to translate, perhaps more than anyone involved in this discussion. Essentially, the slam is based on racism and sexism. But Chin has successfully cracked the key and given an ancestral female voice fresh breath.

Joy Harjo
Honolulu, Hawaii





3 thoughts on “"noodling around" or "how many Western cultural imperialists does it take to plunder Wang Wei"

  1. . . . i’ve noticed over the years that publishers who do books of poetry translations (for which i commend and thank them)

    sometimes have a bad habit of claiming that their new book is an “improvement” over earlier translations . . .

    to take just one of many examples, the new Guillevic book by Black Widow Press includes this sentence on its backcover copy:

    “Despite his continuing popularity and major influence on European poetry good English language editions of his works have been sparse——much of this due to the difficulty in capturing his subtle nuances and concise and exacting use of the French Language.”

    . . . hunh? Are they saying that BAD English language editions have been plentiful? And are they implying that earlier Guillevic translators such as Denise Levertov, James Kirkup and John Montague were incompetent?

    . . . I could quote other smarmy examples: but it seems to me like that Copper Canyon guy, Bednarik, is engaging in this kind of thing . . .

    from my perspective as a monolingual reader, the more translations the better, Balaban, Chin, and anybody else . . .

    Copper Canyon wants to claim priority for Balaban’s book so they can sell more copies of it, no?

  2. I’d like to highlight this letter:

    “Dear Editor,

    Marilyn Chin had reason enough to be offended at Joseph Bednarik’s self-serving criticism of her translations without wheeling up the big siege engines of anti-racism, anti-sexism, and anti-imperialism. “Noodling” has nothing to do with pasta, either of the Asian or European variety, but is, rather, jazz slang, dating back to the late thirties, meaning “to improvise. . .in an informal or desultory manner.” Bednarik, as I read his criticism, seemed to be expressing the sentiment not that Chin’s translations were excessively “Oriental,” but that they were insufficiently literary—at least compared to those published by his employer. Racism, sexism, and imperialism are, sadly, very much still with us; but disposing of Bednarik’s criticisms—as Chin so ably did in her first paragraph—was, it seemed to me, a job better suited for a flyswatter than a battering ram.

    Philadelphia, Pennsylvania”

    I think this is a very good letter.

  3. oops, i made a mistake in my list of prior Guillevic translators:

    it should be Teo Savory, not James Kirkup . . .

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