An exchange in the letter archive of this month’s Poetry commemorates the contribution of self-described “hyphenated American poet” Marilyn Chin to the rectification of names in response to publisher Joseph Bednarik’s criticism of her translations of Vietnamese poetess Ho Xuan Huong. Bednarik wonders as to which Nym character means “boo hoo” in Chin’s rendering of Ho Xuan Huong. In reference to another translation, he states: “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.” 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.
I agree with Marilyn. It’s high time we ethnic minorities put an end to taking it on the chin from the imperialist hegemon. Tolerance for slurs is a slippery slope tilted towards disenfranchisement. Let us relentlessly chip away at each chink in the armor of white male patriarchy.