Writers' Corner

George O'Connell

2014 Translation Projects

Translator's Statement

As mentioned in the “Art Talk” comments I offered to NEA's blog, classical Chinese and Japanese poetry had everything to do with my beginnings. Researching for an undergraduate East Asian literature class at University of Wisconsin, I first encountered translations by western poets such as Pound, Waley, and Rexroth. They conveyed so much—powerful resonance in few words, strict economy joined with an offhand, even casual grace, the spare Zen elegance of the pure stroke. I saw how the arrows of the shorter poems, time after time, struck dead center. At first I imagined art which looked so simple might be easy to create, until my own naïve attempts proved otherwise. But I had nonetheless stepped onto the path. The intensity and concentration of these poems shaped what followed, and among the western poets I read most, many had been likewise attracted. Though the literature I taught over the years was largely American and British, as were the models for my creative writing classes, I kept faith with my ties to Li Bai and Wang Wei, Basho and Issa. Then I taught a seminar on the influence of Japanese and Chinese work on 20th-century poetry in English, leading a few years after to a Fulbright professorship at Peking University. There I began my real work with Chinese poetry, in some sense repayment to the contemporary for the classical. 

Six years and many translations later, my collaborator Diana Shi and I founded Pangolin House, a new international journal of Chinese and English-language poetry. Our inaugural issue featured poetry by Lan Lan, whose From Here to Here: New & Collected Poems we had begun assembling and translating, confident that readers everywhere would love her richly compelling poems. In recognizing our previous work, and buying time for this current project, the NEA Translation Fellowship is a tremendous gift, advancing as well our efforts with Pangolin House as an intersection for these distinct poetries, East and West, presented bilingually. As anyone who’s received an NEA Translation Fellowship knows, the real and enduring value of the honor is both personal and inestimable. It’s a gesture from the world, and from one’s own nation, that what we labor at in silence is sometimes heard.

SIESTA by Hu Lan Lan

[translated from the Chinese]

Noon. The village sinks
into bright midnight.

In the room, a draft coasts the spine of a dozing man,
the woman lying on a kang-mat, her child at her breast,
their fragrant bodies aligned with earth.

Cicadas drone. At the head of the trough a donkey
flicks its tail at mosquitoes and flies.

Under a squash trellis, a covey of chicks loll in the shadows,
their gold eyes now and then revolving.

The faint sounds of such motions—
the deepest silence in the world.

 

Kang: A brick platform, heated in winter, on which people in country houses sleep, first laying down a quilted cushion. In summer, the cushion is replaced with a cool, soft mat of woven grass or bamboo.

SOME THOUGHTS

[translated from the Chinese]

The idea of opposing art, a stick of lumber
confronting a tree.  Here entertainment and soirees
refuse the sounds of misery.
A fence hedging out a whole forest.

Art roaming the garden does not mean
the garden is art.  How similar,
all faces under tyranny are one.
Everything comes down to power and gold,
the market's rate of exchange.

For this let’s have more urinals.
The printed van Gogh’s truer than the wheatfield.
No need for shame at missing the small difference.
They, they.
Baudelaire wanted to beat up the poor
and maybe you, for what? 

Trade demands a smooth assembly line of concepts
from the ignorant, or a devious plot. No one
hears the nameless wanderer's cry,
his finger caught in the jaws of the vise.

Excerpt in Chinese

About Lan Lan

Lan Lan (Hu Lan Lan), born in 1967 in Shandong Province, north China, is one of China's most eminent and prolific contemporary women poets. Winner of most major Chinese literary awards, she has published nine books of poetry, five essay collections, several volumes of fairytales, and edited four anthologies. Her poetry, a powerful mix of supple and sometimes oblique lyricism, is prized for its rich sensuality, steeled irony, and compelling metaphor, all rooted in a profound vision of the natural world and its resonant mysteries. While her work vibrates with life, it is highly crafted, and brooks no superfluities. Whether set in the countryside of her home province, in Beijing’s crowded neighborhoods, or on a Swedish shoreline, her poems carry both balm and testament.

George O'Connell

George O'Connell has taught creative writing and literature at numerous U.S. colleges and universities, as well as in China.  His honors include the Pablo Neruda Award in Poetry, Atlanta Review’s International Grand Prize for Poetry, Bellingham Review’s 49th Parallel Prize, Marlboro Review's 2003 Award in Poetry, and the 2007 China Journey Award. During a Fulbright professorship at Peking University, he and collaborator Diana Shi conducted a graduate creative writing poetry translation workshop, followed by their co-editing/co-translating the 2008 Atlanta Review China Edition, featuring work by two ancient and fifteen contemporary Chinese poets. Their translations from Mandarin have appeared in North America, Europe, China, and Hong Kong. In 2011, they contributed to Push Open the Window: Contemporary Poetry from China (Copper Canyon Press), sponsored by the National Endowment for the Arts. They recently completed Darkening Mirror: New & Selected Poems by Wang Jiaxin for U.S. publication. Honorary Fellow in the Centre for Humanities Research at Hong Kong's Lingnan University, O'Connell co-edits with Diana Shi Pangolin House (pangolinhouse.com), an international journal of Chinese and English-language poetry. Shi, with whom O'Connell will collaborate on the Lan Lan translation, is the recipient of the Chinese University of Hong Kong's Dawson Lee Memorial Prize in Translation, and also translates contemporary American poets for Chinese publication.

Photo by Shi Chunbo