In the letter column of this month’s Poetry (June 08 ) Marilyn Chin, in response to a question of translation, savages the questioner for the use of the expression “noodling around”:
“Perhaps Joseph Bednarik is not conscious that “noodling around in the margins” is an appalling and problematic expression, fraught with demeaning sexist, racist, imperialist overtones, and born out of the very hateful stuff that Ho Xuan Huong so pointedly and whole-heartedly fought against in her poetry and in her life.”
I’m fairly certain that the writer did not intend a sexist et cetera expression, much less a “demeaning” one. Personally, when I use sexist/racist expressions with imperialistic overtones I always avoid the demeaning ones, but my point here is that if this is the sort of thing that we can make big to-dos over then racism and sexism is done. It used to be that racism was stringing someone up from a tree, sexism used to be treating a woman like a possession, but now we’re digging up archaic denotations of common expressions -one that I’m not even sure I buy, but we’ll grant for argument. Some scholar once said that as the races grow closer together, as their differences shrink, then those differences will become all the more important, and though the flash go up, the bang goes down. So either the end of racism is in sight or Marilyn Chin demeans the problem with such a silly and grasping display of victimhood.
The both letters are presented below in full:
One of my favorite books is Eliot Weinberger’s slender classic on translation, Nineteen Ways of Looking at Wang Wei, which makes a strong and illuminating case for reading multiple translations of a single poem. That said, I encourage everyone to read Marilyn Chin’s translations of the Vietnamese poet Ho Xuan Huong [April 2008] against John Balaban’s in Spring Essence: The Poetry of Ho Xuan Huong. When I read Chin’s translations, I couldn’t help but wonder: which Nym character means “boo hoo“? (Emphasis Chin’s.) Biased as my opinion may appear (I work at Copper Canyon, Balaban’s publisher), I don’t see how Chin’s versions add depth or nuance to the work. Frankly, they read like someone noodling around in the margins of someone else’s book.
Port Townsend, Washington
Marilyn Chin responds:
The first two characters in the quatrain are onomatopoeic, mimicking the sound of a woman’s crying. Therefore, “boo-hoo” is an accurate translation, both semantically and tonally. I was aiming to capture the edgy, satirical attitude so ample in Ho’s work.
Perhaps Joseph Bednarik is not conscious that “noodling around in the margins” is an appalling and problematic expression, fraught with demeaning sexist, racist, imperialist overtones, and born out of the very hateful stuff that Ho Xuan Huong so pointedly and whole-heartedly fought against in her poetry and in her life. All ugliness revealed, perhaps we could finally cut through his pernicious smugness and have that real discussion regarding how many Western cultural imperialists does it take to plunder Wang Wei and who, if anyone, should have the rightful claim to an Asian woman’s poetry. “Noodling” could have been an unfortunate slip and not unconscious hatred; but he might as well have said “flied-licing.” Perhaps Bednarik and his press believe that the white male patriarchy must forever colonize the translation of Asian poetry and that I, a dark-skinned Asian woman poet, should not be “noodling” where I don’t belong.