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In Session: Translated Poetics: The Transcultural Encounters of East Asian Poetry
1: The Manly Love of Comrades: Translation and Transcultural Reproductions of Walt Whitman’s “Calamus” in May Fourth and Socialist China
Friday, March 26, 2021
12:00pm – 1:30pm EDT
University of Connecticut, United States
As an important means of transcultural reproductions of foreign texts and ideas, translation has been a galvanizing force in the Chinese literary imagination of a new cultural and national identity since the turn of the twentieth century. Walt Whitman (1819-1892)’s “Calamus,” a cluster of poems in Leaves of Grass (1860), plays an unusual role in this process because of its iconoclastic rebellions against existing cultural and institutional restraints in the form of a utopia built on the ideal of uninhibited sensual love and comradeship between men. This paper examines two intriguing cases of the translation and appropriation of Whitman’s “Calamus” at the outset of the May Fourth movement and the Socialist period respectively. I first analyze Guo Moruo (1892-1978)’s encounter with Whitman while studying medicine in Japan, and his translation of Whitmanian ideals into his own poetry in 1919, which culminated in his poetry collection Nüshen (TheGoddesses, 1921). I then study Xu Chi’s (1914-1996) translations of fifteen “Calamus” poems published in a 1955 issue of Yiwen (Translations), China’s foremost forum for translated literature in the first decade of socialist China. Combining archival research with close readings of poetry, this paper studies how Guo and Xu transplanted Whitman’s homosocial/homoerotic poetic ideals into the male-dominated heterosexual mainstream culture in China during two different yet inherently connected historical periods. I unravel how the continued existence of traditional Chinese homosocial culture contributed to the transcultural reproductions of Whitman’s unconventional ideals in China despite radical social, cultural, and political differences.