According to Rey Chow, the “inscrutable Chinese” is “the cross-ethnic stereotype par excellence.” How does this stereotype play out in modern and contemporary American poetry’s tradition of representing China and Chinese literature? For poet and Asian American studies professor Timothy Yu, whose One Hundred Chinese Silences (2016) comprises parodic rewritings of poems that try to engage with the Chinese aesthetic, the representation of China in American poetry amounts to an “orientalist tradition” that “sees China as a source of unchanging aesthetic traits fixed in a remote past,” offering stereotypes of Asians as “silent, reticent, passive, yet also exotic, mysterious, objects of aesthetic contemplation.” But is Yu’s project not at the same time reinscribing a kind of Chinese inscrutability, presenting China as perennially unknowable in its critique of so many efforts to make Chinese culture known? Understanding translation through Judith Butler’s “performativity,” the article looks critically both at Yu’s poems and the texts he parodies, in particular those by Gary Snyder and Ezra Pound, in the context of works by John Ashbery, the Language poets, Jonathan Stalling, and Eliot Weinberger, to argue that Yu’s work represents a translation anxiety and pleads for more translations into English, including into American poetry.
Lucas Klein; Silences, Whispers, and the Figure of China: Translation Anxiety in Contemporary American Poetry. Genre 1 December 2018; 51 (3): 267–293. doi: https://doi.org/10.1215/00166928-7190519
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