Translating Bei Dao: Translatability as reading and critique

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


There is a bold suggestion that Bei Dao’s translatability is symptomatic of the fact that his poetry is a "World Poetry" and thus lacks grounding in China’s history. Now that Bei Dao’s reputation in the West has been on the rise and his works continue to be translated in many Western languages, it is time to treat the lingering questions regarding Bei Dao’s translatability seriously and to conceptualize it in the context of modern Chinese poetry, which is, in a large sense, a history of rejuvenation through the translation of Western poetry. The immediate origin of the poet’s translatability resides, the paper suggests, in a literary language called the "translation style" in the late 1960s, which served as a protest against the language of authority in Mao’s China. Against this historical background, the paper problematizes the use of translatability as a way of reading and critiquing Bei Dao’s poetry. The translation of poetry, after all, is a form of idealized interpretation, much limited by information available to the translator. When one says Bei Dao’s poetry translates well into English, it is precisely because it has been translated with all its gaps, errors, and ambiguities, all of which are abundant in Bei Dao’s English texts.

Original languageGerman
Pages (from-to)289-303
Number of pages15
Issue number4
StatePublished - 1998
Externally publishedYes

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Language and Linguistics
  • Communication
  • Linguistics and Language

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