Philip White wins 2013 Willis Barnstone Translation Award
May 16, 2013 By Elizabeth Trollinger
Award for translating a poem from ancient Chinese. Above,
White with fellow Centre professors (from left) Chris
Paskewitch, Jen Goetz, Judith Jia and Kyle Anderson at the
Yangtze in Southern China.
Philip White, associate professor of English, recently received the 2013 Willis Barnstone Translation Award for his translation of a poem from ancient Chinese. Judged by Barnstone himself, the award is given annually for exceptional translation of a poem in any language into English.
“The Barnstone prize is the only prize I know of in the English-speaking world for translations of individual lyric poems, so it carries some weight,” White says. “I won the prize with the first translations I’d ever sent to anyone, so that was also very encouraging.”
White has only been working with ancient Chinese poetry for about a year.
“I didn’t set out from the start to be a translator and then decide to translate Chinese poetry,” he says. “At first, I mostly used translation as a way to help me learn to read a little bit of ancient Chinese, something I’d wanted to do for a long time.”
White was not a complete stranger to Chinese language or culture when he began translating ancient Chinese poetry.
“I lived in Hong Kong for a couple of years when I was about twenty and I learned to speak Cantonese, the kind of Chinese spoken there and almost nowhere else, at that time,” he says. “But I didn’t learn many of the characters then, so I couldn’t read Chinese and keep it up that way when I returned. In the end, there were so few opportunities to actually speak Cantonese here in the States that I basically forgot almost all of it pretty quickly.
“Still, the ways words are formed and sentences get made and strung together in ancient Chinese have probably been easier for me to learn because of my knowing some Cantonese way back when,” White continues. “Getting in touch with the Chinese poets, even the ancient ones, has helped me bring those few years immersed in Chinese culture back into a kind of lived relevance to my current life.”
White began teaching himself ancient Chinese in part because he was designing a class on influences from ancient Chinese poetry on 20th-century American poetry. Working with primers of the ancient language, he translated numerous passages—but quickly became dissatisfied with only roughly translating the ancient Chinese poetry.
“Even if I got some of the surface or basic meanings of the poem into English, it always seemed to leave too much of the subtlety and power of the original behind,” says White. “So almost immediately, I started trying not just to bring basic meanings and even deeper meanings across, but also to find English phrasings and rhythms that have something like the compression and dynamic human presence, voice, tone and rhythms of line that I was hearing in the original.”
The translation process transformed from a necessity into an art form for White, as evidenced by the Barnstone Award.
“Translation went pretty quickly from being something like homework to something more like creative activity,” he says. “Of course, it’s a kind of creativity that’s ultimately collaborative, aimed always at responding to and, as much as possible, re-embodying in one language an art made by someone else in another. I found myself working hard on the translations and really enjoying it.
“I came to love and appreciate some of the poets—especially Du Fu—a lot more than before, too,” White adds. “Pretty soon, I wanted to learn more ancient Chinese so I could do more translation, rather than the other way around.”
With the Barnstone Award under his belt, White is now assured that his translation work is meaningful not just to him, but to a much wider audience.
“Winning the prize made me a little more confident that what I’ve been doing for the last year wasn’t just a personal obsession, but might actually have some value for other people as well,” he says.
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