Andrew Wessels: As I attempt to begin this conversation, I am looking at, reading 85 in front of me. I am touching, holding 85 in front of me. I am doing both, and at the same time I fear that I am doing neither. This thing in front of me that simultaneously exerts itself fully as both a thing of language and a thing of paper. So I want to begin with what I fear might seem a dumb question: What is this thing before me?
Claire Huot/Robert Majzels: In your hand is a machine for the permutation of letters. A book. By definition, a book must contain a minimum of 85 letters, and these letters must be perpetually in motion. Meaning in a book is continually in motion. The writer/reader works the machine like a chariot passing through the the two hundred and thirty-one gates to paradise. Don’t forget to breathe.
AW: The machine: a creation. The machine: a creator. I think of Craig Dworkin’s No Medium, the impossible attempt to isolate medium, the thing-that-is-book or the thing-that-is-painting. (To cut to the chase: “No single medium can be apprehended in isolation.”) What have you (or is it I, the reader?) fed in to the machine? What do I (or is it you, the far-off and perhaps not even existent creator?) produce by activating the machine?
CH/RM: Unlike Dworkin’s examples, which are empty of content, this medium contains perhaps too much: Chinese characters, letters of the Roman alphabet, bracketed by two backward Hebrew nunim indicating as they do in the meticulously copied Torah scrolls a book out of its place. The shape of the book, the accordion fold, these are reminiscent of the Buddhist sutras. But like the case of the blank book Nudisme, 85 must be read in context, and interrogates the medium. It seems to promise translation, the transfer of one culture into another. At a time when China is surpassing and bypassing the American empire, 85 explores the role of translators and translations. We know that translation never quite succeeds in domesticating the other; rather, it is the target language and culture in the larger sense that is affected, changed, contaminated.
An 85 is a small engine, it probably does not matter who made it; it works when set in motion. A child who knows English letters or a poet who plays with English words and phrases can activate it. Every reading of these books by English readers is punctuated differently. Familiar letters are breathed actively. Sounds, syllables, one or two letters, are produced by the reader, who enacts another writing of the text. She starts over again, jerks, utters words, adding orthography and producing clauses. Some readers, befuddled and unwilling to lose face, quickly abandon the exercise; others persist, go back, attempt other group formations until they become the writers of the text. The 85 reader enacts the difficulty of translation, the pitfalls and loss of illusions.
The eyes of Chinese readers, on the other hand, go directly to the small seal-like rectangles containing Chinese characters. In one breath, they fluently read the Chinese text, ignoring the English letters and the Hebrew nunim. Fair enough.
We might think of the 85s as small machines interrupting the flow of Anglo-American imperialism. The English language is theirs/ours, the puzzle is only 85 letters, and yet it refuses to operate smoothly. The user guide seems to have failed, produced a bad translation. Our points of reference, alas! fail to unlock the machine. The 85s do not offer the familiar Orientalist/Wordsworthian poetic images of past translations. Where we expect “alas!” we find “a last.”
AW: The activation and operation of the machine—the string of moments that are reading—is, then, the centerpiece. I feel it is time to point to the machine’s production, some readings that have been memorialized in a series of videos. Here we see poets and we see a youth encounter the 85. We see the act of letters being forcibly reformed into words and words into recognizable, grammatical phrasings. We see what would normally be called mistakes, mis-speakings, and finally successes in the form of “correct” readings of the text. How does recording these readings both define the performative aspects of reading and also redefine what reading is—the operation of a machine?
CH/RM: One of a number of despicable things about poetry is the way it’s performed, that soulful lilting intonation pointing to its own importance and beauty, the authority of the speaking subject. The most pleasing thing about the 85 readings, to us anyway, is the way the speaker struggles, stutters, stammers, turns back, tries again. The resulting performance is an enactment of the process of translation. Or reading, or writing, because these are all just forms of translation. The permutation of letters. The hypergraphic nature of the 85 machine translates into a recorded sounding. We’ve discovered that children are less embarrassed and more willing to struggle with the 85s, perhaps because they presume less, because their memory of learning to read is less distant.
AW: This struggle that the reading of the text-object causes, and thus the struggle of translation, is a part of your investigation of the ethics of translation. An ethics that you seem to locate at the threshold between translation and ‘original’ creation, between one language and the next, between written text and spoken or read word. How does this boundary relate to both the ethics of translation and, ultimately, the creation of an ethical translation?
CH/AW: There are several aspects to this question. First, we know that what constitutes a translation, let alone an ethical translation, is historically and contextually determined. We have to take into account the idea of China, and the place of that idea in the English speaking world, the demonization, racism, imperialist nostalgia, anti-communism, rising power and challenge to US world domination, along with a number of other complex factors that make the East-West relationship such a fragile and critical terrain for intervention. It means the recognition of the difficulty and uncertainty of reading China and Chinese in English has to be part of the work of translation. But perhaps we can return to the politics of the West-China relationship later.
There is also the issue of translation itself, what is translation and what is ‘original’ creation, what is a ‘good’ or ‘faithful’ translation. And this too is historically and contextually determined. What we are attempting in 85 would not have been recognized as translation in Fenollosa /Pound’s day. The larger issue here is classification in general. For some time now, at least since Foucault, the destabilization of classification in itself has become an ethical imperative. The blurring of boundaries between categories termed translation and creation, between author and reader, between spoken and written word is the terrain on which 85 works.
But these are generalities and what might be more interesting is a closer reading of the problem that confronts the translator in this case. The Chinese language is drastically different from English, and in so many ways. For one thing, Chinese writing is syllabic, most of its syllables are morphemes, that is, they are potential words, and each syllable is written with a single graph. English uses an alphabet that transcribes sounds, letter by letter (more or less); the grouping of letters together creates a word.
Chinese and English represent two poles in linguistic systems. English is the phonographic pole; Chinese, the logographic. But there is no such thing as a script that is nothing but sounds or nothing but meanings. In the 85 project, we chose to ambiguate rather than contrast the two languages’ properties. The equidistance of the English letters, thereby eliminating the demarcation between words, creates a space (pun intended) around the letter itself, which (in a gesture reminiscent of lettrism) renders each letter expressive, as if it might operate like a Chinese character. But, of course, a single alphabetic letter is not necessarily a morpheme, a word; and it does not have the visual richness of a Chinese character.
In the case of the Xue Tao and Mao series, which we made later, the alphabet’s readable potential, or fluency, is further downplayed by the use of sans serif type (Quadraat Sans). At the same time, the visual simplicity of the sans serif contrasts sharply with the intricate plasticity inherent in the Chinese character. And yet an 85 text is a visual text.
In this sense, our project is at the opposite pole of cross-cultural experiments such as Xu Bing’s Square Word Calligraphy, which are English words made to look like Chinese characters, letters written as clusters of strokes in a Chinese calligraphic style. In other words, Xu Bing has Sinicized the appearance of English words, and thus made them unfamiliar. The initial reaction of anyone encountering Xu’s “square words” is to renounce all hope of reading them. For a Chinese reader, the characters are familiar yet unrecognizable. For English readers who have no Chinese, there is no familiarity, no question of even attempting a decoding. Even once they are told the images are English words, English readers are reluctant to tackle signification. Once we solve the puzzle, of course, we can only be impressed by Xu Bing’s artistic tour de force. Reading an 85 seems initially less forbidding than that, because of the recognizable letters; in fact, the English reader expects to be able to read the poem. This is “my” language and I ought to be able to master the text. But the challenge in “making sense” of the work is far greater than deciphering a word that has undergone a “cross-cultural make over;” and for those who complete the reading of an 85, there is no triumphant feeling, nor any applause for the persons (authors-translators) who made that text. (It is perhaps worth noting here, as an aside, that the kind of hermeneutics being solicited in an 85 is not unlike that required of scholars reading the ancient Torah scrolls wherein the Hebrew words are not separated by larger spaces. The result is an encounter between the reading and writing practices at the origin of Western culture and Chinese linguistic tradition.) The resulting reception of our work, the defamiliarization of the English reader’s own language, is in line with our choices made as translators, which turn readers into investigative creators, and where artfulness, and hard labor, are shared.
In our effort to extend the life of the original poems, to provide an afterlife, we adopted several strategies. We sometimes sought to reflect the semantic richness of a Chinese word by providing more than one of the possible meanings, and to do this without resorting to appended explanations or explications, which would be the task of the sinologist. We tried to choose a referent that suited our anti-metaphoric bias. This was made more difficult by the limitation on the number of letters at our disposal. For example, in the text by Mao Zedong, Quotation 3:19, “Clean White Sheets,” we chose to translate the word 白 [bai] as both “clean” and “white.” The word白 [bai] has innumerable meanings, stretching from “white”, “bright”, “clear,” “pure,” “void of,” “empty” and so on. In the 3:19 quotation, Mao uses the term twice in his short paragraph: once in regard to the Chinese people, translated in China’s official, anonymous translation as “blank,” the second time referring to a sheet of paper, translated in the official version as “white.” “White” for the word 白 [bai] opens up possibilities in the English language and also deflects the pejorative “blank”, as though Mao Zedong was declaring the Chinese people to be stupid, a rather common and erroneous interpretation of that quotation in the West. As a matter of fact, Mao Zedong was an astute juggler of the Chinese language, and our retranslation of his little red book is not without admiration.
We confess we did not always resist the frenzy that takes hold of you when faced with the whirlwind of connotations contained within a Chinese word. Although it is true that Chinese is not, as some imagine, pictographic, and that many radicals have long ago lost their semantic value; nevertheless, sometimes a “radical” translation is too compelling to resist. For example, this month, four 85 scrolls are on exhibition in the +15 window of The New Gallery here, in Calgary. One astute viewer, who checked our translation against the “original,” emailed us to ask why, in the Tang poem by Chen Zi’ang titled “ Mouth-song,” the translation ends as follows: “”tearsofadogalone,” when there is no “dog” in the original Chinese poem. Chen Zi’ang’s poem is about a feeling of utter solitude in both time and place and, although its implicit subject is the author’s voice, we chose to deploy a concrete reading of the radical within the word “alone”, “獨,” which is “dog” “犭.” This decision cannot be entirely attributed to a desire to make room for our own dog’s long-suffering participation in the 85 project. The etymology of the word for “alone,” 獨 in Chinese, links the notion of “being alone” with the idea of “by yourself” or “solitary,” and the presence of the radical for dog represents solitude by a guard or herding dog out of its pack and in opposition to a flock of sheep, which would connote community. If you add to the Chinese signifier, English connotations of the word “dog,” you get a starker image of an individual’s alienation. Hence between the earth and infinite sky, the poem sheds the tears of a dog alone.
These are just some specific examples of the process of translation as it operates in the 85 project, even before the reader begins to rewrite and resound the poem through his or her own work.
AW: You mentioned briefly in that last answer the layout of the individual volumes, and I’d like to take a closer look at that. Each volume has its own internal design: color and font as well as the orientation and direction of the letters/words. How were these layouts conceived, and what is the relationship between the design and how that physically affects a reading of them?
CH/RM: The design of 85 was a long process, over a period of ten years. The first 85s were composed by Robert based on the Song of Songs. He also did a series (unpublished) based on Pierre Joris’s translations of poems by Paul Celan. Claire suggested the formal constraint was ideally suited to the Chinese Jueju, perfected during the Tang dynasty period (20 characters/words is roughly equivalent to 85 letters). So the Tang 85s were really the first we designed. The look of the Tang series alludes to the stone steles commonly found in temples and historical sites throughout China, and on which are engraved examples of the great calligraphies. A particularly striking site is the forest of steles in Xi’an. In a way our Tang 85 design is maybe closer to the ink rubbings students of calligraphy make from the stone. Hence the black rectangular background.On the Tang we also arranged the 85 letters from right to left and descending order as in traditional Chinese texts. The original Chinese poem is beneath the 85 in a design resembling a seal. The result is a monumental design which is also extremely difficult to read in English. We hope, with this lineation, to undermine the glib appropriation by English language poets of non-Western forms (Haiku, ghazal, etc.). The jueju’s strict formal requirements, some of which (the tonal constraints, visual repetitions of elements within the characters, for example) are at least as difficult to translate as the Western poets’ darling haiku. The severity of the Tang 85s probably gives the reader pause and a sense of the classic importance of the works. The difficult process of deciphering the poems defeats any attempt to inject sentimentality or polished fluidity. The poem remains a stone. The backward nunim bracketing the poem refer of course to the Talmudic definition of a book and the 85 letter constraint which we’ve explained elsewhere, but they also serve as handles, like the acacia poles that carry the ark of the covenant and its contained meaning in movement. The baroque typeface is a bit of an in-joke, having been misattributed to the Dutch foundry owner Anton Janson but in fact created by the Hungarian émigré Miklós Tótfalusi Kis sometime around 1690. It took 250 years to recognize the error, and the typeface, in its contemporary version, continues to be called Janson.
The Janson typeface is carried over to the series of 85s based on the works of the Bada Shanren, created, like the Kis typeface, in the latter half of the 17th century, during Bada Shanren’s own lifetime. The design of these poems attempts to reflect the minimalist, loose, asymmetrical style of Bada Shanren’s brush, including the washed out grey ink and especially the emphatic use of empty space on the page. The block of 85 letters has evolved from a closed square 17×5 to an open ended shape. The poems, the original colophons, and the numim drift from one page to the next. In fact, the placement of these elements is in each case based on the placement of Bada Shanren’s images and text in the original works. Thus, for example, in “old cat dead again, the nunim become the cat’s ears, atop the block of text, in “goldfish at xunyang,” they are a pair of goldfish swimming up near the surface.
The “Song of Songs” 85s retain a touch of the biblical gold color, or is it desert sand? Here, because the text runs left to right and across, the reader may feel more confident. The design echoes the Tang series but cleaner and lighter without the black stone. Only the nunim wander, barely containing the poems.
The Xue Tao series of 85s is designed in the same 5 x 17 format as the Tang dynasty; after all, she was a poet of that period. But being a woman, she has yet to gain the kind of place accorded her male counterparts, although her poems are unquestionably of that calibre. So, rather than etched in stone, the Xue Tao 85s are scratched on bamboo. In fact, the cover and background of the Xue Tao poems were inspired by our visit to the site of Xue Tao’s grave and the well from which she drew water to make her own paper in the 8th century, now Wang Jianglou park on the outskirts of Chengdu. As is so often the case, it was a very small detail that sparked the idea for the design. In the bamboo forest of the park, we discovered people had scribbled graffiti on the bamboo stems (pic attached). Of course this reminded us of the bamboo slats that served as media for writing in ancient China. Xue Tao’s paper is reported to have been red, hence the color of the Chinese poem and title of the 85s. The single narrow line of text also echoes the form of Nushu script invented by the unschooled women of southern Hunan province to record their lives. The typeface for these poems is Quadraat sans serif, a contemporary plain but idiosyncratic type, which we also used for the Mao series.
The Mao series reads from left to right and across as does writing in modern China. These poems are drawn, or redrawn out of Mao’s “little red book” though ours is pink. Mao Zedong, who was also a poet and calligrapher, wrote on a similar pink colored paper. These 85s are certainly easier to read, laid out like a child’s Chinese exercise book, complete with squares to help keep the characters, and ideas, in proper proportion.
AW: As you answer each of these questions, I find us accumulating references and predecessors by the handfuls, both for the project as a whole and now for each individual volume. Rather than burdensome or overbearing as allusions can sometimes be, each addition here seems instead to advance toward an act of dispersion in which no single element can claim dominance. What I mean, I think, is that a blurring occurs between original and translation, writer and translator, poem and design, translator and designer, writer and reader, book and reader, Chinese and English, Hebrew and English around the locus point of this machine in action. I can neither point to, exactly, what it is nor do I find myself caring whether I can draw these lines of delineation. As much as this work is an object, what I find myself considering is less the object I am holding and more the experiencing—the action, the verb—of holding and considering the object, of watching myself stumble through the accordion-style pages of ink and paper.
CH/RM: Andrew, your statement that does not contain a question, indicates to us that we have gone through the archeology of the project and that this interview should come to a close. We have presented the concepts, the texts used, the motivation behind our selection, the physical and visual aspects of the 85s, as well as our theoretical position. So now you’re left with the book: you can read it, or not.
The 85 Project is fundamentally an experiment in reading. If the book is not read, then it is simply a beautiful object, ready (pun intended) for the enactment of reading. The act of reading an 85 is just like reading music as you execute a piece; or like reading Chinese calligraphy as you hold the brush to write your own calligraphy. It sets off a complex process of decoding which makes the reader undergo a trial in the act itself of reading, in the comprehension of your own language and in the apprehension of another language and culture. The book lives on through you.
Claire Huot is a scholar specializing in Chinese studies. She has written two books on contemporary Chinese culture, La Petite révolution culturelle (Éditions Philippe Picquier), and China’s New Cultural Scene: A Handbook of Changes (Duke University Press), as well as one mystery novel, The Prison Tangram, featuring a bilingual Mandarin and English female detective. She holds a doctorate in comparative literature from the Université de Montréal and is presently an associate professor in the Department of Germanic, Slavic and East Asian Studies at the University of Calgary. With Robert Majzels, she is also a non-member of The Provisional Avant-garde (PROVAG).
Robert Majzels’s books include Hellman’s Scrapbook, City of Forgetting, Apikoros Sleuth, and The Humbugs Diet. In 2007, he was awarded the Alcuin Society Prize for Excellence in Book Design for the limited edition of Apikoros Sleuth. His full-length play This Night the Kapo was produced at the Berkley Street Theatre in Toronto, in March 2004. He was attributed the Governor General’s Award of Canada for his translation of France Daigle’s Just Fine in 2000. With Erín Moure, Robert has translated several books of poetry by Nicole Brossard, including, most recently, The White Piano. Their translation of Notebook of Roses & Civilization was nominated for the Governor General’s Award and the Griffin Poetry Prize in 2008. He is presently an associate professor in the English Department of the University of Calgary. With Claire Huot, he is also a non-member of The Provisional Avant-garde (PROVAG).
Andrew Wessels has lived in Houston, Cambridge, and Las Vegas. Currently, he splits his time between Los Angeles and Istanbul. He has held fellowships from Poets & Writers and the Black Mountain Institute. His poems, translations, and collaborations can be found in VOLT, Witness, Fence, Eleven Eleven, and Colorado Review, among others. He is the managing editor of Les Figues Press and edits the poetry and poetics journal The Offending Adam.