Letter from Poetry Magazine

Letter to the Editor

by Kimiko Hahn
Dear Editor,

The numerous letters regarding Marilyn Chin’s translations are extremely upsetting, not least because I admire several of the authors. I am not sure how the series turned so harsh so quickly, but I do feel the real issue is who has the right to translate. All other aspects (who is most learned, who has the right background, who possesses particular kinds of access, etc.) are fascinating and not to be dismissed; however, to question whether a translator knows enough of the language is not the point (did Pound? did Waley?). The point is the right to add to the treasury. If there are criticisms to be made, let’s hear them as criticisms. To suggest someone is "noodling around" (with its inadvertent connotation) or “uninteresting” or “vague” is not real criticism. These comments seem to contain an odd lack of respect from writers who are sensitive to textual nuances.

For the record: yes, I find Chin’s translations refreshing and a delightful comparison with John Balaban’s own gorgeous collection. And no, I do not read Vietnamese or Nôm or Chinese. I do read poetry.

The whole “fracas,” as Balaban puts it, places this series of exchanges in a larger context, as Chin suggests. I studied Japanese with men trained during WWII. Translating from the Japanese was once their domain. Has that legacy of entitlement somehow continued? And can we have this discussion in a way that does not perpetuate discrimination or disrespect (personal or institutional), or a dated “political correctness” or intolerance? And if not, why not?

Translation is such a peculiar synthesis of skills and sensitivities—who is to say what is ultimately the most important one?

New York, New York

Originally Published: October 23, 2008

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This prose originally appeared in the September 2008 issue of Poetry magazine

September 2008




Kimiko Hahn is the author of Toxic Flora (2010) and The Narrow Road to the Interior (2006), both published by W.W. Norton. She teaches at Queens College, CUNY.

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Originally appeared in Poetry magazine.

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