Entering Another Literature: Christopher Mattison on Russian, Chinese, and Hong Kong Literature in Translation

Christopher Mattison
© Jody Beenk

CHRISTOPHER MATTISON graduated with an MFA in Literary Translation from the University of Iowa and has been working in publishing since the mid-nineties. He is currently the Assistant Director of the Hong Kong Advanced Institute for Cross-Disciplinary Studies, City University of Hong Kong, and continues to work with a number of independent publishing houses, including Zephyr Press, Adventures in Poetry, and Zoland Poetry.

Mattison is the author of two chapbooks of poetry, No Bridge to Kentucky (Slack Buddha Press, 2008) and Staticticians (Portable Press at Yo-Yo Labs, 2003). His Russian translations include Dmitri Prigov’s 50 Drops of Blood in an Absorbent Medium (Ugly Duckling Press, 2004), Gleb Shulpyakov’s A Fireproof Box (Canarium Books, 2012), and the forthcoming Eccentric Circles: Selected Prose of Venedikt Erofeev (Twisted Spoon). Mattison was also the editor for Bei Dao’s first two books of essays, Blue House (Zephyr Press, 2000) and Midnight’s Gate (New Directions, 2005).

In your introductory essay on translating Russian poet Gleb Shulpyakov, you’ve brought forth a philosophically stimulating idea: “Understanding familiarity and distance.” Would you like to elaborate?

In terms of “understanding familiarity and distance,” I’m referring, on a basic level, to the perennial issue of poets who, when translating, are unable to create anything but slightly imperfect copies of themselves. Holding a text up to a mirror is not literary translation. It is a form of global colonialism where either the ego or an ear deafened from proximity to the messenger stifles the work from making any real transition. The stanzas all become English, but it’s the same English regardless of the source poet. A pan-Asian lilt of “local color,” where seven authors in English translation might as well be one extremely prodigious mainland Chinese author.

When does it become valid to compare translation and original? What attracts translators to a particular field of author? What is generated out of imperfections in the symmetry?

In a slightly more expansive (and evolving) direction, this involves theorizing translation beyond the usual clichés of Walter Benjamin’s “Task of the Translator” (much more a statement on language and politics than translation) and banal issues of transparency and fidelity. One might expect that several decades of post-modern and related theories would have helped translators progress beyond these arguments, but the vast majority of introductions I’ve seen over the past twenty years continue to fall into the same familiar ground. A shift is required in the direction of modeling what can be said about literature through translation, which is often restricted to modes of reflection that go no further than a discussion of loss, augmentation, and revision. Ultimately, translators need to step beyond justifications for the addition of a near rhyme in line 2/stanza 4 as compensation for a similar move in line 1/stanza 3 of a source text; to conversations of “symmetry” rather than “similarity”; reaching into the realm of probability and transformation; considering phonemes as Bucky Balls.

By engaging with symmetry, I’m not referring to a search for mystical patterns or a justification of beauty. These are dead utopic pathways. What’s of interest is research into different meanings of equivalent terms at different points in time. When does it become valid to compare translation and original? What attracts translators to a particular field of author? What is generated out of imperfections in the symmetry?

Other than Russian translations, what are some of your creative projects?

Over the past decade, through Zephyr Press, I’ve been involved in editing and publishing a series of contemporary Polish and Chinese poetry. The Chinese line includes books by Duo Duo, Hsia Yü, Zhai Yongming, Shang Qin, Han Dong, Bai Hua and Yu Jian. Several of these titles appear in the Jintian Series of Contemporary Writing, which I edit with Bei Dao and Lydia Liu. The idea for the series is something that Bei Dao and I actually discussed at my wedding dinner back in 2000, but it took a number of years for us to get all of the pieces into place.


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