The Organization of Distance

Poetry, Translation, Chineseness


What makes a Chinese poem “Chinese”? Some call modern Chinese poetry insufficiently Chinese, saying it is so influenced by foreign texts that it has lost the essence of Chinese culture as known in premodern poetry. Yet that argument overlooks how premodern regulated verse was itself created in imitation of foreign poetics. Looking at Bian Zhilin and Yang Lian in the twentieth century alongside medieval Chinese poets such as Wang Wei, Du Fu, and Li Shangyin, The Organization of Distance applies the notions of foreignization and nativization to Chinese poetry to argue that the impression of poetic Chineseness has long been a product of translation, from forces both abroad and in the past.

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Lucas Klein (PhD Yale) is Assistant Professor at the University of Hong Kong. In addition to translations of Xi Chuan, Mang Ke, and Li Shangyin, he has published critical and scholarly work in LARB, CLEAR, Comparative Literature Studies, and PMLA.
"The introduction’s theoretical framework will surely be a contribution to translation studies, the modern chapters are as astute as they are powerful, and the conclusion on the role of transformation in the construction of Chineseness carefully articulates the political implications of the book. […] More scholars would do well to work as ambitiously as Klein in this book, to write across the gaps of China and the West, modern and premodern, sinology and comparative literature – gaps that can only be bridged by translation."
– Thomas J. Mazanec, in Journal of Translation Studies, New Series, 3.2 (December 2019).

"Klein’s readings of poems throughout The Organization of Distance are at once learned, elegant, theoretically informed, and philologically convincing both in the mix of Chinese and world literary traditions elaborated. Canons are shown to be not closed into national intertextuality but opened out into the languages and modes of the world that helped inform them. [...] Capaciously and learnedly, Lucas Klein has given us a Chinese poetic tradition deeply embedded in the languages and forms of the world, always transacting and translating them from the foreign into the native and the native into the foreign."
– Rob Wilson, University of California at Santa Cruz, USA, in Journal of Oriental Studies (forthcoming)

"the challenge of Klein’s insights will be of interest and important to a range of audiences. His book, quite amazingly, speaks to scholars and readers of both modern and classical Chinese poetry, engaging the scholarship from both of these fields while challenging its members to think outside their disciplinary boxes. The book is suitable for in-depth graduate seminars, especially on the topics of translation and translingual practice. Although it may be a rather steep climb for undergraduate readers, given that Klein assumes his readers possess a considerable familiarity with the scholarly literature on both classical and modern Chinese poetry, I think that chapters 4 and 5 both stand well on their own and could be assigned as additional reading on Du Fu and Li Shangyin for ambitious students. Last but not least, Klein’s book is important because his arguments are in dialogue with a larger movement to reconsider the global dimensions of the medieval world, both the way in which poetry during the Tang-Song period borrowed objects and translated ideas from broader global exchanges of the past and the way that this poetry continues to be recast and reinvented by poets of China’s present."
– Benjamin Ridgway, Swarthmore College, in MCLC Resource Center Publication (November, 2020).

"Lucas Klein's The Organization of Distance is a carefully-researched and well-argued response to the central question, “is translation something done to the Chinese poem,or is it rather done through the Chinese poem?” (p. 232). Klein's positive answer to this question not only shifts our thinking about Chinese poetry and translation to the processes of foreignization and nativization that are already activated in poetic creativity and interpretation themselves, but also demonstrates that the “Chineseness” and “translatedness” of Chinese poetry are co-emergent and interdependent, in modern and contemporary Chinese poetry as well as far back in premodern eras such as the Six Dynasties and especially the Tang. I emphasize “as well as” because the book's most important aim – in my view also one of its most intellectually engaging and exciting aspects – is to close the perceived schism between premodern and modern China, also posited as various binaries of classical Chinese poetry versus modern vernacular poetry, “authentic” Chinese tradition versus Western-derived and translational modernity, Chinese literature-in-itself versus Chinese literature-intranslation [...] Klein’s beautifully presented and eloquently written book offers much to all readers interested in poetry, translation, Chinese studies, and Comparative Literature."
– Xiaofan Amy Li, Lucy Cavendish College, Cambridge/University of Kent, in Chinese Literature: Essays, Articles, Reviews 41 (2019).

List of Figures

Introduction: The Great Wall and the Tower of Babel: On Chinese Poetry as Translation
Part 1
1 Discerning the Soil: Dual Translation and the World Poetics of Bian Zhilin
2 By the Brush: Yang Lian and the Translated Poetics of Ethnography
Part 2
3 Indic Echoes: Form, Content, and Contested Chineseness in Six Dynasties and Tang Regulated Verse
4 Composing Foreign Words: Canons of Nativization in the Poetry of Du Fu
5 An Awakening Dream: Borders and Communication in the Translation of Li Shangyin
Conclusion: Realms of Transformation: Chinese Dreams and Translational Realities

Character Glossary of Names, Titles, and Terms
Works Cited
All interested in modern and/or medieval Chinese poetry, as well as translation, translation studies, and comparative literature.
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