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.

A Fireproof Box

A Fireproof Box
BY Gleb Shulpyakov
BY Christopher Mattison
(Canarium Books, 2011)

50 Drops of Blood

50 Drops of Blood
BY Dmitri Alexandrovich Prigov
BY Christopher Mattison
(Ugly Duckling Presse, 2004)

BY Chris Mattison
(Portable Press at Yo-Yo Labs, 2003)

Since moving to Hong Kong in 2010, I’ve shifted a considerable amount of focus to the local scene. The practical outcome of this will be a series of ten Hong Kong writers in English translation over the next three years. This is a major initiative funded by the Hong Kong Arts Development Council (HKADC), and generously supported by the Research Office here at City University of Hong Kong. The project is particularly significant in that it extends beyond my host institution to include scholars from a range of Hong Kong universities — including HKU, Baptist, Lingnan and ChineseU — as well as a series of independent and university presses. I could do without the related paperwork, but given that we now have the opportunity to publish as many Hong Kong writers in a three-year period as found their way into English over the previous fifteen, I’ll struggle through a few more documents in triplicate.

The best editors act as curators, considering both the gallery space of their pre-existing book lines and the shifting interests of readers.

Authors in the series are a mix of established names and emerging voices, ranging from classic works such as Ng Hui-bin’s The Bisons and Leung Ping-kwan’s Paper Cut-outs to a new generation of prose writers — Hon Lai Chu, Dung Kai-cheung and Dorothy Tse. The poets in the series are Yip Tak Fai, Liu Waitong, Natalia Chan and Xi Xi. The tenth book is a collection of graphic adaptations of selections from the translations by the artists chi hoi and kongkee. This project offers a broad sweep of Hong Kong writing, and is an important next step in expanding the English-language canon with a set of voices long established in Hong Kong and Taiwan, but not yet heard around the world.

How does life in Hong Kong play a role in your literary life?

A couple of the authors in our Hong Kong series asked me a related question just after we received word that we’d gotten the HKADC grant: “Why do you care about Hong Kong literature?” Part of the answer is that, regardless of my shifting addresses, one constant has been working on sustainable forms of publishing for literature in translation. As margins in the book world continue to be cinched ever tighter, such “sustainability” becomes a difficult venture for both independent and university presses. The amount of funding offered by the HKADC for our translation grant is innovative both in that it is a significant enough amount to assist not just with the publication of individual titles, but also with the overall publicity of Hong Kong literature. Another positive aspect of the grant is that it calls for partners with experience in literature in translation, and is not simply a call for publishing houses on the search for subvention.

The best editors act as curators, considering both the gallery space of their pre-existing book lines and the shifting interests of readers. Unfortunately, it is the case that a certain percentage of editors are led by finances rather than aesthetics, and in the case of Sinophone literature, since at least the late 1980s, the error has been in focusing on “dissidence” rather than “dissonance.” Instead of judging a work based on literary merit, focus groups are run to ascertain which work will sell best based on the political climate. This is not something specific to Chinese-language literature, though with China at the forefront of world news, it will more than likely continue to be a reality for years to come.

The number that often gets thrown around is 3% — with that three being the amount of all work that is translated into English on an annual basis. The amount of actual literature in translation is even slimmer, falling well below the 3% mark. As a practical example, in looking at new titles published in the last fall season by 100 independent presses based in the US and UK, with twenty-five of those being presses that regularly (or at least occasionally) include translation in their lines, there are only seventeen books in translation out of well over 500 total titles. In terms of Chinese literature, only one book is by a contemporary author and the other three Chinese titles are retranslations of Tang classics and a “Definitive” Confucius. And, no, there were no works by Hong Kong writers in the mix.

How does your passion for Russian literature intersect (or not) with your experience publishing Asian literature?

It’s always been much less about the specific language and more the act of translation; of utilizing translation as a critical way of entering another literature. This process began with Latin and some Spanish in high school, a hazy year of Welsh, which then gave way to a couple-decade relationship with Russian after a pre-Glasnost trip to Moscow and Leningrad, and finally Putonghua. The Chinese angle was a direct result of my time in the MFA Translation program at Iowa in the mid-nineties, as a couple of my classmates were actively working with the literary journal Jintian (Today), which became my introduction to authors like Duo Duo, Bei Dao and Zhai Yongming.

Depending on the source language, my role within the translation/editing process shifts considerably. I have little patience for editors who list themselves as (co-)translators because they’ve assisted with the final clean-up of a book. It’s important to know your limitations and there’s no discernable reason to bolster one’s resumé with faux translations. Very few academic departments count translation as part of the tenure process, and riches don’t generally follow. Insert George Bernard Shaw quote here.

As for my actual involvement in the process, I do have enough Chinese under my belt that I have occasionally co-translated contemporary poets, though I primarily work in a team with the authors and translators, either from literal cribs or versions that are at least a couple of revisions away from being ready for prime time.

Do you have a different work approach when writing and translating, and when translating poetry versus prose?

I’m much easier to live with when I’m translating poetry. Generally, I’ll rough out three to four poems, then set them aside for a few days; read them again, making notes and queries, run through a few more versions, and then fire them over to the author. After I get responses, it could be anywhere from another week to several months before I’m ready to consider the work finished. This is basically how I’ve worked with Gleb Shulpyakov’s poetry over the last ten years. He’ll finish a bolus of new translations and I’ll gradually work my way through them, considering which of them might best coalesce into a strong collection in translation. I prefer this over receiving a finished manuscript in Russian, as I get to be part of the discussion as the work is being created.

As for prose, most of the work I did with the International Writing Program at Iowa was with prose writers and my graduate thesis was a critical essay and translations by the author Venichka Erofeev, but that work has been doing little but collecting dust since I finished graduate school. I have the tendency to morph into the prototypical absent-minded professor when translating prose — losing entire weeks at a time. It’s a state of euphoria akin to about mile 11 in a long run, which is intriguing, but not so conducive to remembering to get my son to the school bus.

What are you reading at the moment? Any book(s) that you’d revisit from time to time?

A limited number of books came to Hong Kong, and I’ve been doing my best not to acquire too many. Titles that did make their way East, or were acquired shortly upon arrival, and should be on everyone’s shelf:

Jack Spicer: My Vocabulary Did This to Me
Hsia Yü: That Zebra
Charles North: What It Is Like
Selected Poetry and Prose of Amelia Rosselli (edited and translated by Jennifer Scappettone)
Gerrit Lansing: Heavenly Tree/Soluble Forest
J. H. Prynne: Furtherance
Jacqueline Waters: One Sleeps the Other Doesn’t
John Ashbery: Flow Chart
Collected Niedecker
W. S. DiPiero: When Can I See You Again: New Art Writings

And I should have brought more Cormac McCarthy. Hong Kong only carries The Road.

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