Classical Chinese Poetry Re-Created as English Poetry

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Lost in Translation or Gained in Creation:
Classical Chinese Poetry Re-Created as English Poetry1
Roslyn Joy Ricci
Centre for Asian Studies
University of Adelaide
The well-known Robert Frost2 witticism that ‘poetry is what disappears in translation' is only valid if poetic translation aims to produce a ‘perfect re-creation of the original,'3 however, I suggest that successful translators re-create poetry in another language as opposed to translating it into a second language.4 The aim of re-creating poetry is to attempt to produce the same reader-response as the original poem did. This generic formula holds true in the specific case of Chinese poetry re-created as English poetry. I use the term ‘re-created' for poetic translation because literal translation of poetry struggles to produce the same reader response as the original poem does.

1 ‘This paper was presented at the 15th Biennial Conference of the Asian Studies Association of Australia in Canberra 29th June-2 July 2004. It has been peer-reviewed and appears on the Conference Proceedings website by permission of the author who retains copyright. The paper will be downloaded for fair use under the Copyright Act (1954), its later amendments and other relevant legislation.'

2 American poet Robert Frost (1874-1963).
3 James JY Liu, The Poetry of Li Shang-yin, 1969, p. 34.
4 Yan Fu (1853-1921) set the standard for translation from a modern Chinese perspective: primarily ‘xìn' (faithfulness), then d• (fluency) and finally y• elegant). Elegance must give way to fluency and fluency to faithfulness.

This paper explores the challenges to, and strengths of, classical Chinese poetry recreated as English poetry as a transcultural poetry integral to a world poetic critique as proposed by Stephen Owen. It examines issues of contextualisation, critical theories, notions of ‘Otherness' and the possibility of ‘world poetry' along with Owen's reply to my reading of his thesis.

During the latter half of the twentieth-century, the trend of presenting poems in the light of critical theory and within their historical context continued to dominate the genre of classical Chinese poetry re-created as English poetry. Both Chinese and Western critical theories were used, sometimes jointly and at other times in isolation. However, the application of Western critical theories to re-created Chinese poetry is problematic because it imposes the values of Western discourse on an artistic product of the East. So, what are the consequences of using a Western theoretical paradigm to critique classical Chinese poetry? Theoretical Paradigms

Edward Said's 1978 seminal text, Orientalism,5 warns scholars about a ‘structure of cultural domination'6 that interprets Eastern cultures7 through a Western paradigm. One might well argue, however, that Said's use of a Western critical framework to express this concern still favours hegemonic Western interests. Moreover, Said fails to acknowledge the extent to which Asian intellectuals contribute to conceptual and practical Orientalism.8 Nevertheless, omissions by Said9 do not rule out the existence of a structural imbalance. Accepting the imposts of orientalism, how can the dilemma be addressed?

Said suggests that the work of the ‘critical scholar' is to find the connections between Eastern and Western ‘struggles over historical and social meaning,' despite differences.10 This idea is developed by postcolonial theorist Arif Dirlik. He suggests producing discourse that escapes ‘the burden' of Orientalism by recasting historical, cultural and political relationships in the context of contemporary thought – providing ‘new theoretical departures in literary and 5 Edward Said, Orientalism, 1978.

6 Ibid, p. 25.
7 Ibid, pp. 202/203: ‘The Orient that appears in Orientalism, then, is a system of representations framed by a set of forces that brought the orient into Western learning, Western consciousness, and later, Western Empire …...
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