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   Jacket 34  — October 2007        link Jacket 34 Contents page        link Jacket Homepage

Lucas Klein reviews
Stèles / 古今碑錄, Volume 1, by Victor Segalen
Translated, edited, and annotated by Timothy Billings & Christopher Bush
With a foreword by Haun Saussy
Wesleyan University Press
ISBN: 0-8195-6832-5

Stèles / 古今碑錄, Volume 2: Chinese Sources and Contexts
Translated, edited, and annotated by Timothy Billings & Christopher Bush
Link to
Link to Wesleyan

This review is about 8 printed pages long. It is copyright © Lucas Klein and Jacket magazine 2007.

Double fidelity

Note: If the Chinese characters in the title of this book do not show properly in your browser, try switching the browser’s View/ Encoding settings (on the Menu bar) to ‘Unicode-UTF8’. If this doesn't work, read this page, which kindly offers guidance for 13 different operating systems. If you use Windows XP SP2, this may require installing a 230 Mb East Asian language pack from the installation CD-ROM.

With Cathay, his handful of Chinese poetry translations, Ezra Pound earned famous praise from T. S. Eliot as “the inventor of Chinese poetry for our time.”[1] Often quoted but rarely discussed, Eliot’s appraisal is couched in a much more nebulous context, concerning the illusoriness of translations: “I suspect that every age has had, and will have, the same illusion concerning translations, an illusion which is not altogether an illusion either.” This illusion is translucency, the sense that in reading a translation we have direct access to the original, which for Eliot was as necessary as it was transitory. Eliot predicted that a later age would require another translator to furnish another translucency, but I wonder whether his recognition and prediction weren’t hallmarks of his Modernism. As Postmoderns, haven’t we gone from needing Eliot to point out that translucency is ultimately an illusion — while at the same time is not altogether an illusion — to seeing all translations as illusory, and not translucent at all?

Cathay was published in 1915, based on the notebooks of Ernest Fenollosa that Pound had been given in 1913. In Beijing in 1912, however, in French — then revised in 1914 — a book of poems appeared that, in its invention of a new poetic genre, also offered an illusory invention of China: Victor Segalen’s Stèles / 古今碑錄. Now newly translated by Timothy Billings and Christopher Bush, the volume poses the question: If Pound’s translations were an invention of China for his time, for what era does the poetry of Segalen invent China again? And what constitutes Segalen’s invention of China, anyway?

If consideration of the invention of China is to be found in history, Segalen’s biography withstands such history. A military doctor who spent years living in China, his invention of China is based on deep engagement and familiarity with Chinese realities, including — as distinct from Pound — the Chinese language. But while the stèles engage with and at times present themselves as translation, they are not versions of any pre-existing Chinese texts. Rather, they are prose-poems in the form of Chinese steles, stone tablets etched with canonical or hagiographic writings; and while each stèle includes an inscription in Chinese, the relationship between the Chinese epigraph and Segalen’s French text has never — until this English edition — been discussed, let alone made clear. Translucency, in fact, never emerges as a demand or expectation of Stèles / 古今碑錄.

«Stèles» Volume 2: Chinese Sources and Contexts, Translated, edited, and annotated by Timothy Billings and Christopher Bush, image of cover

Stèles Volume 2: Chinese Sources and Contexts Translated, edited, and annotated by Timothy Billings and Christopher Bush, image of cover

History, however, does get addressed in Segalen’s work. The first poem is titled “With No Reign Mark,” in conscious departure from the Chinese requirement that steles and artifacts be inscribed with the imperial reign under which they were produced. And yet, Segalen’s buffering of history is not the typical Modernist ideal of universality. Whereas one stanza states,

I consecrate my joy & my life & my piety to declaring reigns without years, dynasties without accessions, names without people, people without names,[2]

another follows with,

Let this, therefore, be marked with no reign; — neither that of the founders Xia, nor the legislators Zhou, nor the Han, nor the Tang, nor the Song, nor the Yuan, nor the Great Ming, nor the Qing, the Pure, whom I serve with passion,

Nor the last of the Qing whose glory named the Guangxu period — [3]

so that the phenomenon of a poem transcendent of history nonetheless refers to the fact of dynastic change and political material. For Segalen, freedom from history can only be conceived negatively, meaning that any freedom is ultimately called back to service of political power.

History’s definition in this stèle under political power represents the method of Segalen’s cosmology in Stèles / 古今碑錄: the first section, Stèles Facing South, comprises poems that “bear decrees: the homage of a Sovereign to a Sage; the praise of a doctrine, a dynastic hymn; a confession by the Emperor to his people; all that the Son of Heaven seated facing South has the power to promulgate.”[4]

The remaining cardinal directions fill out the Chinese cosmology, so that, in contrast, “Out of deference, the Stèles of friendship will be planted facing directly North, the pole of virtuous darkness,” and “Those of love will be oriented [as in, facing East] so that the dawn will adorn their gentler features & soften the baser ones. And raised toward the blood-smeared West, a palace of red, will be those of war and heroism.”[5]

Segalen’s tone tends toward the stylized, or what one would expect of a post-Baudelairean prose-poet recreating Chinese inscriptions for an imperial court. This allows him a pose his contemporaries would soon dismiss, as in “From Distances,” one of his Stèles Facing North, on friendship:

Something separates us. Our old friendship hangs between us like a corpse we have strangled. We bear it as a common burden, heavy & cold.[6]

I cannot imagine Apollinaire or Pound — nor even Eliot — writing like that.

And yet, the tone of certain stèles reaches a plainspoken colloquialism that might forecast another inventor of China, Kenneth Rexroth. This voice is most pronounced in the Oriented Stèles, such as “My Lover has the Virtues of Water,”

My lover has the virtues of water: a clear smile, flowing gestures, a voice that is pure & singing drop by drop.

And when sometimes — in spite of myself — there is fire in my gaze, she knows, simmering, how to stir it up: water cast on red coals.[7]

or “Stèle to Desire,”

The pure girl attracts your love. Even if you have never seen her naked, voiceless, defenseless — contemplate her with your desire.[8]

In Occidented Stèles — the odd English matches the odd French — the tone is perhaps most tense, form fitting the substance of poems about, and enacting, battle. In “Savage Oath” —

You will not leave here until the dispute between us is over. See these lances, these sculpted bones; hear these cries, these clashing blades;

You owe me this slope of the mountain, twenty & twenty yellow slaves with the long queues & twelve females of that Chinese breed.

Don’t count on anyone from your clan to settle this matter: you or me or both of us dead, I swear it:

By those two huge tawny-pelted dogs over there crucified back to back![9]

 — the tone reflects the tension surrounding the terms of savagery. The Chinese inscription reads xīyí bēi 西夷 碑, which means “Stele of the Western Barbarians,”[10] a reiteration of the poem’s argument with itself over violence, in which savagery as a concept is confused over and over again: would French Segalen be one of the Western Barbarians, and therefore savage, demanding Chinese slaves in similarly derogatory language? Or is the speaker of the poem not French, but one of the non-Chinese Asiatic tribes, as the term xīyí 西夷 originally implied? The reference to the aboriginal Lolo tradition — centered in Southwestern China — of double canine crucifixion, further folds layers into the question.[11]

These sorts of layers only thicken in the final sections of Stèles / 古今碑錄, Stèles by the Wayside and Stèles of the Middle, which Segalen describes in his preface, respectively, as following

the indifferent gesture of the road. One & all, they offer themselves without reserve to passers-by, to mule drivers, to chariot drivers, to eunuchs, to footpads, to mendicant monks, to people of the dust, to merchants. Toward all of these they turn their faces radiant with signs; & these, bent beneath their burden or hungry for rice & chili peppers, pass by, counting them among the milestones. Thus, accessible to all, they reserve their best for a few[12]

and as

Certain stèles, which face neither the South nor the North, nor the East nor the West, nor toward any of the intermediate points, designate the place par excellence, the middle. Like overturned slabs or vaults engraved on the unseen side, they offer their signs to the earth, which they press like a seal. These are the decrees of another empire, & a singular one at that. One submits to them or pushes them away without commentaries or useless glosses — moreover, without ever confronting the actual text: only the imprints one purloins from it.[13]

In Stèles by the Wayside the either/or dynamic in the first stèle, which rejected the historical for the ahistorical, here develops into a both/and, as the section’s first stanza offers an a priori rebuttal to the Robert Frosts of the world:

A town at the end of the road & a road extending a town: do not choose one or the other, but one & the other by turns.[14]

Only with such inclusiveness and constant change, Segalen suggests, can some kind of fulfillment be found; or, as the stèle concludes,

Thus, without stopping or stumbling, without halter & without stable, without rewards or punishments, you will attain, friend, not the marsh of immortal joys,

But the intoxicating eddies of the great river Diversity.[15]

But if Stèles by the Wayside shows Segalen and Stèles / 古今碑錄 at their most didactic, the final section, Stèles of the Middle, is the most abstract, the words carved into these steles the most unfettered by their stony medium. After the conflicts of earlier sections, we reach resolution, and through these stèles we see how it can be possible

To fuse everything, from the east of love to the heroic west, from the south facing the Prince to the too-friendly north — to reach the other, the fifth, center & Middle

Which is me.[16]

upon which

Beings will then act contrary to their natures: water burning, fire drowning every thing & every spirit.[17]

The transcendent unity of opposites, however, is undercut by a detail of irony. The final stèle in the collection, “Hidden Name,” begins by jettisoning the linguistic nomenclature that distinguishes things from each other, while keeping them separate from us —

The true Name is not the one that gilds porticos, illustrates acts; nor that the people chew in spite;

 — seeming to culminate in ultimate enlightenment, over reductive rationality:

When emptiness is at the heart of the underground & in the underground of the heart — where even the blood no longer flows — under the vault then accessible, is it possible to gather up the Name.

But may the hard waters melt, may life overflow its banks, may the devastating torrent come rather than Knowledge!

And yet the title of this ultimate stèle “Hidden Name,” along with the Chinese inscription huì míng 諱名, connotes a name withheld not because of its phenomenology, but rather out of courtesy. The hidden name is a taboo, unuttered for social reasons, not because it fails at encompassing the universal. Transcendence is deferred due to human habit; as Haun Saussy points out in the foreword: “one cannot face the center as such ... The stèles of the center then are the most perfect representatives of the writing Segalen seeks to emulate.”[18] Perfect, in that they can never be perfect.

Saussy’s foreword, and the translators’ introduction and appended annotations — in three parts, extending through Volume 2, online — constitute a fundamental difference between this volume and earlier translations of Segalen. While translucency is not a fiction requested of Stèles / 古今碑錄, in their annotations Billings and Bush have enabled readers to focus on the opacity of the glass through which Segalen’s stèles read China. In fact, theirs is the first edition — including French reprints — to take the Chinese inscriptions as more than an illustrative hors-texte (exactly the kind Derrida declared there could be none of).

And while certain cliques of Anglophone left-wing literati may still feign allergy to academic scholarship, such stubbornness — especially given the labor economics of the poetry world today — only alienates readers from their poets, and poems from their poetics. Such anti-intellectualism is better left to the right. [19] Saussy in his foreword and Billings and Bush in their introduction present Segalen’s background, context, and methods with as much poetry as scholarship, defining academic inquiry as ultimately parallel to the act of translation: how does the foreign object get represented, after all?

For a translation of Stèles / 古今碑錄, the representation of the foreign is double-edged: Segalen’s representation of the Chinese becomes part of the English translator’s representation of his French. In representing the Chinese, Billings and Bush are by far the most thorough and responsible of available versions in English and French (more thorough and, likely, more responsible than Segalen himself). The most recent translation, Andrew Harvey and Iain Watson’s Steles, leaves the Chinese inscriptions off the page; Michael Taylor’s Steles includes the Chinese, but rewritten by a hand that obviously did not know how to hold an ink brush; Nathaniel Tarn’s translation Stelae reproduces a reproduction of the original calligraphy, but, like Segalen’s first editions, offers no access to any link between French poem and Chinese inscription.

In representing the French, Tarn’s is the liveliest. His volume begins:

To honor establishes Sages; number the Righteous; broadcast once more that such and such a one has lived, and was noble, and his countenance virtuous,

All this is well. Though it is not my concern: so many mouths are busy with it! So many elegant brushes strive to copy formulae and forms,

That the memorial tables pair off like watchtowers along the length of the Imperial causeway every five thousand paces.[20]

With Tarn, a personality — erudite and refined, but enthusiastic — emerges immediately, and engages attention. I expect this is why Ron Silliman recently noted Tarn’s version for its principle position in the history of the prose-poem in America.[21] His poetry is appealing, but Tarn’s version is marred for being selections, rather than a complete edition. The first complete edition in English, Michael Taylor’s — which begins,

To honor the recognized Sages; to count the Righteous; to repeat to each and all that this man or that once lived, and was noble, and his countenance virtuous,

All that is well. But it is no concern of mine: so many mouths are filled with those words! So many refined brushes toil over set phrases and forms,

That the memorial tables pair off like watchtowers along the Imperial highway, five thousand paces on five thousand paces.[22]

 — speaks in a voice much less urbane, but in his colloquialism Taylor leaves Segalen’s French behind, with all its class- and history-bound diction. The Harvey / Watson version, published in England, tries to recapture the eloquence that Taylor let slip, but in doing so —

Honour known Sages; enumerate the Just; retell in every direction that that man lived, was noble and had a virtuous mien,

All that is good. It is not my concern: so many mouths prose about it! So many elegant brushes busy themselves tracing formulas and forms,

And thus memorial tablets become twins like the watch towers along the imperial highway every five thousand paces and five thousand paces.[23]

 — they misread French grammar, treating infinitives as imperatives, and give themselves a speaker more blasé than engagé, let alone engaging. Meanwhile, Billings and Bush benefit from being able to shuttle their translation through the weave of the earlier versions. The result is a voice at once sophisticated and stylized, foregrounding its foreignness:

To honor renowned Sages; to enumerate the Just; to repeat on all sides that such a man lived, & was noble, & his countenance virtuous,

All that is good. All that is not my concern: so many mouths discourse of that! So many elegant brushes apply themselves to replicate formulas & forms

That the memorial tablets pair off like watchtowers along the Imperial Way, five thousand paces upon five thousand paces.[24]

And while simple proximity to the original language is not the only, nor necessarily the best, way to judge translation, Billings and Bush have kept closest to the French:

Honorer les Sages reconnus ; dénombrer les Justes ; redire à toutes les faces que celui-là vécut, & fut noble & sa contenance vertueuse,

Cela est bien. Cela n’est pas de mon souci : tant de bouches en dissertent! Tant de pinceaux élégants s’appliquent à calquer formules & formes,

Que les tables mémoriales se jumellent comme les tours de veille au long de la voie d’Empire, de cinq mille en cinq mille pas.[25]

How the work is translated also incorporates decisions of what or whether to translate: consider how the translators distinguish between “stèles” — French and monosyllabic, for the prose-poems — and “steles” — English and disyllabic, for the stone structures that inspired them. The book’s title, too, is an obvious foreignization: while Tarn leans Latinate (Stelae) and Taylor and Harvey / Watson give us a calque (Steles), Billings and Bush insist on Segalen’s double French and Chinese title, ensuring that the book’s contents are doubly foreign.

Translation, of course, runs through Segalen’s Stèles / 古今碑錄 more for being a French imagination of Chinese sources than if it had been an actual translation of Chinese literature. If the stèles of the South, North, East, West, the Wayside, and the Middle represent power, friendship, love, war, travel, and selfhood, respectively, they are all meditations on manifestations of cross-cultural relations. And translation both mediates and defines them all. The English rendering continues this process. As we read in “Imprint” — which is enacted in a volume where English right-hand pages accompany French on the left, always referring to the Chinese — “Let us bring face to face the double fidelity.”[26]

The double fidelity of translation and poetics is an essential question for poetry to address today, and one way of addressing the question would be to address Segalen’s notion — embodied in Stèles / 古今碑錄 — of the “aesthetic of diversity.” At a time when the shop stewards of left-wing American poetry are budging from their myopic monolingualism and nationalism,[27] Segalen may have found his most appropriate era. If Ezra Pound was the inventor of Chinese poetry for his time, Victor Segalen’s invention of China may be right for our time.


[1] T. S. Eliot, “Introduction” to Ezra Pound: Selected Poems (London: Faber & Gwyer, 1935), xvi.
[2] Victor Segalen, Stèles / 古今碑錄, Timothy Billings and Christopher Bush, trans. & eds. (Middletown, CT: Wesleyan University Press, 2007), “With No Reign Mark,” S01, 77. All translations and quotations, unless otherwise noted, are from this volume.
[3] Ibid.
[4] Segalen, 63.
[5] Ibid.
[6] Segalen, “From Distances,” S19, 133.
[7] Segalen, “My Lover has the Virtues of Water,” S28, 157.
[8] Segalen, “Stèle to Desire,” S34, 173.
[9] Segalen, “Savage Oath,” S40, 191.
[10] “Barbarian” has come to be the English translation of 夷, but it did not necessarily originate with such shadows of racial superiority. Cf. Lydia Liu, “The Birth of a Super-Sign” and “Figuring Sovereignty,” in The Clash of the Empires: The Invention of China in Modern World Making (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2004), pp. 31 – 107.
[11] Billings and Bush trace the Lolo allusion to D’Ollone’s ethnography Les Derniers Barbares (1911). Cf. Stèles / 古今碑錄, vol. 1, pp. 274 and 359, and vol. 2, p. 102.
[12] Segalen, 63 – 65.
[13] Segalen, 65.
[14] Segalen, “Advice to the Good Traveler,” S43, 199.
[15] Ibid.
[16] Segalen, “To Lose Everyday South,” S52, 223.
[17] Segalen, “To the Contrary,” S53, 225.
[18] Haun Saussy, “Foreword: Impressions de Chine, Or How to Translate from a Nonexistent Original,” xxiii.
[19] Benjamin Ivry, “A Man of Characters,” New York Sun, 25 Jul., 2007
[20] Nathaniel Tarn, trans., Stelae (Santa Barbara, CA: Unicorn Press, 1969), “With No Dynastic Mark,” 13.
[21] Ron Silliman, “Think about John Ashbery’s Three Poems.” [Weblog entry] Ron Silliman’s Blog. Blogspot. Tuesday, July 31, 2007.
[22] Michael Taylor, trans., Steles (Santa Monica, CA: The Lapis Press, 1987), “The Sealless Reign,” pages not numbered.
[23] Andrew Harvey and Iain Watson, trans., Steles (London: Jonathan Cape, 1990), “Without a Sign of the Reign,” 13.
[24] Billings and Bush, trans., “With No Reign Mark,” S01, 75.
[25] Segalen, “Sans Marque de Règne,” S01, 74.
[26] Segalen, “Imprint,” S16, 125.
[27] In the American Tree editor Ron Silliman has recently been posting news of non-American poetry on his blog, while Charles Bernstein has gone from considering the untranslatability of poetry a proof of its non-commoditization — “where the value is not dollar value (and hence transferable and instrumental) but rather, what is from the point of view of the market, no value,” (Charles Bernstein, “The Dollar Value of Poetry,” in The L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E Book, Bruce Andrews and Charles Bernstein, eds. [Carbondale and Edwardsville, IL: Southern Illinois University Press, 1984], 139) — to being one of the editors of the International Exchange for Poetic Invention blog.

Lucas Klein, 2007

Lucas Klein, 2007

Lucas Klein is a union organizer and editor of the online journal of creative translation, «». After living in Beijing and Paris, his current home is in Connecticut, where he slouches towards a PhD in Chinese Literature at Yale. His translations, essays, and poems have appeared or are forthcoming at CipherJournal, Frank, Manoa, Composite Translations, Palimpsest, and Big Bridge, and he regularly reviews books for Rain Taxi and other venues.

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