Art Works Blog

Art Talk with David Hinton

David Hinton. Photo courtesy of Mr. Hinton

"I treat a translation as a poem of my own, with the complication that it needs to correspond to an original."


David Hinton is one of 16 literary translators newly selected to receive fellowship support from the NEA to translate works of literature from foreign languages into English. A 2003 Guggenheim Fellow, Hinton has also received grant support from the National Endowment for the Humanities and two previous literature translation fellowships from the NEA. He also won the PEN American Translation Prize in 2007. Hinton's 2012 NEA fellowship will support the translation from Chinese of the selected poems of Mei Yao-ch’en, one of the most important poets in the Chinese tradition. This book is the 12th volume in Hinton’s pursuit to translate China’s major classical poets. Hinton---who is also a published poet in his own right---earned his MFA from Cornell University in 1981, and has published collections of ancient Chinese poetry with a number of literary presses, including Copper Canyon Press and Farrar, Straus, and Giroux. We spoke with Hinton via e-mail to get his take on poetry and poetry-in-translation.

NEA: What do you remember as your earliest engagement/experience with the arts?

DAVID HINTON: The perfectly empty clarity of a high snow-corniced ridgeline etched against sky.

NEA: Why do we---the general public---need poetry? Why do you need poetry?

HINTON: What poetry I need is poetry (which can be any kind of text) that is a deep way into the opening of consciousness. Do you think that would be useful to the general public?

NEA: Can you say something about your poetry project Fossil Sky? It seems that it is a work of visual art as much as it is a work of poetry.

HINTON: A map is our way of rendering space in two dimensions, so Fossil Sky is a poem written on a large sheet that folds down like a map. The text swirls around in the space of the sheet, and readers can create their own poems by following the text wherever it leads them. It’s a way of rendering landscape and consciousness and how they interact.

NEA: How did you become interested in translating Chinese poetry?

HINTON: I had found almost no English poetry that is a way into consciousness, while Chinese poetry is a profound way in. And it’s beautiful. Then I discovered I could do it well.

NEA: How is the work of the translator and the writer similar; how is it different?

HINTON: When I translate I speak in another voice, and when I write I speak in my voice. The question is: who speaks in one or another of those voices?

NEA: How does your own work in poetry influence your work in translation and vice versa?

HINTON: I treat a translation as a poem of my own, with the complication that it needs to correspond to an original.

NEA: You have previously received NEA translation fellowships. What did those fellowships mean to you and to your work?

HINTON: Time to complete a number of projects, each of which opened the door for what came next and next and next.

NEA: When we interviewed Kronos Quartet founder David Harrington he said, “I try to know as many of the things that are missing from our world of music as I possibly can…I try to put the thrust of my time into realizing those things that aren’t yet part of our work but should be.” When it comes to the field of poetry---or even the arts as a whole---what things do you see as missing? What should be part of the work that poets are making that isn’t yet there?

HINTON: I think landscape and consciousness is missing and should be part of what contemporary poets are making. And philosophical authenticity.

NEA What does “Art Works” mean to you?

HINTON: Anything.

Visit the NEA Writer's Corner to read work by David Hinton and other literary translators supported by the NEA.



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