I just got back from my temporary cubicle space at the operations headquarters of the Rotterdam – ArtsBeijing.com International PoetrySync Festival, an online event held concurrently here in Beijing and at the International Poetry Festival Rotterdam, which is going on as I type.
The event was the brainchild of Yang Lian, ArtsBeijing.com founder Yang Ermin, and the Rotterdam Festival directors. To give background to a good idea: Last year, ArtsBeijing.com opened a page called the “International Chinese-Language Poetry Prize,” a poetry competition with a twist. Submissions were (and still are, as the contest isn’t finished) posted directly to the page’s discussion forum, where they were subject to open appraisal by any and all who had something to say about them.
This beginning had nothing to do with Rotterdam – later, Yang Lian suggested that ArtsBeijing step into the Rotterdam Festival scene as an event host, using the latest in streaming video and text to create an international discussion space that connected Rotterdam-featured poets with Chinese poets and readers. Twenty Chinese poets, selected as representatives of the ArtsBeijing Poetry Prize, had one poem each translated into English and distributed to several poets at the Festival. Those poems were all translated by me, and I say that not (believe me) to force myself into this, but rather to acknowledge my intrusive subjectivity as I relate what happened. All of it just got done happening.
Anyway, the international poets sat down one by one with Yang Lian, or Liao Weitang, or Qin Xiaoyu in front of a Skype-connected computer to read their poetry and the Chinese poets’ poetry, and to interact with a faceless, presumably multitudinous online audience. Interpreters and questioners were everywhere; back in a half-lit meeting room in the top floor of a building on the Third Ring Road, a team of ants, armed with laptops, scrambled to turn Chinese into English, English into Chinese, send all of it over QQ to everybody else, then post it to a Tencent microblog stream on which audience members could pose questions to the poets.
Who came? Kwame Dawes, from the Caribbean; James Byrne, British poet and editor of The Wolf; Canadian poet Ken Babstock; Ukrainian-American poet Ilya Kaminsky; Syrian poet Adonis; and several others whom I would name in full, but the site’s server has stopped responding. They were all well-known, well-published poets and editors, and if the medium of their correspondence, which required stop-and-start maintenance along with as many as three translators (in the case of Adonis, who spoke in French, and therefore had to be translated from French to Dutch, to English, to Chinese), hadn’t been such an obstacle, they might have been able to engage in some truly meaningful discussion. Tang Xiaodu moderated the event on the Beijing side, while Yang Lian moderated most of the event on theirs -- and “moderate” may itself be too moderate a description, as a lack of audience questions early on prompted YL to take on the interpreter’s and moderator’s mantles himself, which resulted both in interesting leads and a lot of distracting hand-waving.
Translation was not discussed at any length; the only time it was brought up Yang Lian waved it away, professing it too complicated a topic to discuss in their limited time. As translator of the Chinese poems, I finally experienced firsthand the treatment of translation that has prompted frustration from so many of my older and more competent colleagues; when the English versions of the Chinese poems were read, parts that the international poets liked were “good images,” “strong language,” et cetera, yet whenever a troublesome ambiguity or weakness was found, it was a priori a problem with the translation. One very experienced editor, who evened opened with, “I’m guessing the translator is a Chinese student learning English,” suggested that “verbs tend to be weakened by translation.” Now, that’s an interesting posit, which I take to mean that verbs in poetry are often translated too generally, too colloquially, as the translator cannot find a verb that illuminates the context of the target language the way the verb in the original does. But how did he derive that observation, and against what does he measure weakness? He didn’t continue, because I made the mistake of introducing myself, and the conversation changed tack. I should have allowed him to expand.
Interestingly, and in contrast toward their attitudes to translated text, the poets seemed to ordain each other with a sort of supportive immunity to essential criticism. This affirmative recognition seemed almost ritualistic, a discourse-determining etiquette that allowed them to open their conversation. Kwame Dawes referred to their society as a “Republic of Poetry”; to this viewer, it sounded more like a Senate.
Ilya Kamensky didn’t get enough time. I don’t know his poetry yet, but I’ll be sure to go catch up on it.
But the event itself is more original, and easier to explore, than my own griping. The problems of managing interactive events online are very many. The flow of chat-room conversation is irreversible – there is no way to go back and ask questions of a speaker who has already left or a topic that’s already past – so time is lengthened and thinned, and those involved are hard-pressed to create the kind of domed, three-dimensional temporal atmosphere that makes discussions feel like spaces, like communities. The Chinese audience members, especially the poets, asked unbelievably abstract questions, one more inscrutable than the next, and their intricacy was actually lost on many of the Rotterdam poets, even those whose work could be described as very hermetic. The contrast between the questioner’s driven, sometimes contrived intellectuality and the responders’ stubborn realism was stark, and created more than a few I-look-at-you-you-look-at-me moments. But what an interesting problem! How do you make multiple media move either in the same direction or in mutually supportive directions, and create back-channels for response that keep discussion literally alive in the cold space of the Internet?
No links to these names because it's 1:30 in the morning.