Magazine article Chinese Literature Today

The Art of Collaboration and the Work of Translation: An Interview with Mark Bender

Magazine article Chinese Literature Today

The Art of Collaboration and the Work of Translation: An Interview with Mark Bender

Article excerpt

From the crossroads of American and Chinese poetry to the back roads of Chinese minority and folk literatures, Mark Bender, Professor of Chinese literature at The Ohio State University, has traveled a long way and has many more miles ahead. In conversation with Timothy Thurston, Bender brings CLT readers along for the ride as they explore the geography of Chinese literature as few have before.

TIMOTHY THURSTON: Thank you for taking time to talk with me, and, by proxy, the readers of CLT magazine. I'd like to start by asking how you came to study literature and folklore in China in general, and China's ethnic minorities in particular.

MARK BENDER: Well, that's kind of a long story. When I was in college here at Ohio State, back in the '70s, I was very interested in Ezra Pound at the time. I was reading a lot of his translations, and then I started taking a Chinese class in the second year I was here at Ohio State, and ended up majoring in it. Somewhere along the line I read an interview with Robert Payne, who had translated The White Pony, and just sort of got interested in it. Later I heard about ethnopoetics, Jerome Rothenberg and so forth. As for poets, I think Lucien Stryk came to campus one time and gave a reading. Possibly the greatest influence in terms of translation studies was Royall Tyler, who was here for a year or so. I took classes in Noh theater and Japanese religion with him. It was a very eye-opening experience. Those were some of the things that were, I think, in my head when I was an undergraduate.

And then I took a trip to Taiwan in between my junior and senior years. It sort of just blew my mind, going there. I saw a lot of temple fairs, folk festivals, and shamans, and after the study abroad program I traveled up into some of the minority areas in the mountains. All of that left a deep impression on me.

Then, by 1980, I was in China teaching American literature on a little program started by some of the professors here at OSU. I was in Wuhan for a year. There was a professor from the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences who came down from Beijing and found out that I was translating a short narrative poem from the Yi people. I had not been too aware that there were so many ethnic groups in China. I had a girl in my class who was from the Zhuang group down in Guangxi, who wrote a paper about antiphonal folksong singing. I was excited about that, so we went to the People's Bookstore one afternoon and found a few dusty volumes on a shelf. I couldn't read much in the way of the simplified characters, so I just bought a few of the books and took the shortest one and started translating. It was called Seventh Sister and the Serpent (Sai bo mo ... or Qi mei shelang ... It's from the Yi people in northern Yunnan Province, and, of course, I didn't really even know who they were, but the story was interesting.

The professor from Beijing, Zha Ruqiang S^?S, took note of this, thought it was a good thing in terms of cultural interaction, and later hooked me up with New World Press in Beijing to get the text published. He also introduced me to Professor Zhong Jingwen ... at Beijing Normal University; he is the most famous folklorist in China of probably the last hundred years. He said to me, "Oh, you know, if you want to study the ethnic minority literature, you have to go to southern China."

The next fall, I moved down to Nanning and stayed there six years. In my spare time, I started doing some work (to the extent that I knew how) on ethnic minority literature, and also founded and edited the comparative literature journal Cowrie: Chinese Journal of Comparative Literature with Sun Jingyao ... who had also just arrived at Guangxi University. He had graduated from Fudan and been sent down to Guizhou during the Cultural Revolution. He was making his way back to Shanghai and eventually wound up at Shanghai Normal. We founded that journal, and we devoted one issue to ethnic minority literature. …

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