Humanities Center Director: Thomas Wilson

Panel Discussion on Translating Victor Segalen’s Stèles

Chaired by Steve Yao, Professor of English, Hamilton College

Thursday, April 12, 2012 • 4:10pm • Taylor Science Center G027

Timothy Billings, Professor of English and American Literatures, Middlebury College

Calculated Calques: Translation and Bilingual Play in Victor Segalen’s Stèles / 古今碑錄

This presentation discusses the practical challenges of translating Victor Segalen’s French and Chinese poetry into English with special attention to the figure of the stone monument and the trick of the calque. It uses a number of concrete examples to explore how translation and its failure are embedded in the text as an essential aspect of its sinophilic poetics.

Christopher Bush, Associate Professor of French and Director of the Program in Comparative Literature Studies, Northwestern University                                                                            

Segalen’s Stèles as Modernist Text

It might seem to go without saying that a formally experimental French prose poet whose masterwork was published in 1914 would be considered “modernist,” and yet Victor Segalen has rarely been part of the broader conversation on literary modernism. On the one hand, his more obvious influences are fin-de-siècle: Huysmans, Gauguin, Debussy. On the other hand, his subject matter (Tahiti, China, Tibet) has caused his work to be read in the tradition of literary exoticism, of which Pierre Loti is perhaps the best-known representative. This talk considers Segalen’s Stèles as a modernist text, comparing his use of Chinese as a source of formal inspiration with that of better-known contemporaneous works by Ezra Pound (Cathay, 1915) and Guillaume Apollinaire (Calligrammes, 1918). Bush specifically discusses the ways in which all these works turn to Chinese (or, more accurately, “Chinese”) for alternative forms of sound and vision that would respond to the aesthetic challenges that modernist painting and technological media posed to poetry in the early twentieth century.

Haun Saussy, University Professor of Comparative Literature, University of Chicago

Not Illustration: The Book as Object from Baudelaire to Pound, Via the East

Just as avant-garde writing turned its back on storytelling and personal expression, somewhere between Baudelaire and Mallarmé, so too the nineteenth-century aesthete’s book, when it included visuals, did so in a way that could not be called illustration. The pioneering translations of Chinese poetry by Judith Gautier include Chinese text as part of the page. But since this text would have been unreadable for most of her readers, it becomes a second stream or track, with an uncertain relation to the French-language text it allegedly produces. Victor Segalen’s two-track page layout borrows from Gautier’s and heightens its ambiguities. The practice of translation from Chinese and Japanese, based on a constant proximity (it would be overstating it to call it a “relation”) between poetry and visual art, was of paramount importance in the transition from aestheticism to modernism, or, as we might put it, from Gautier to Segalen to Pound.


Timothy Billings is a specialist in English literature and European cultural exchange with China during the early modern period.  In addition to his articles on Shakespeare, he is also the co-translator and annotator with Christopher Bush of Victor Segalen’s 1914 collection of French and Chinese poetry, Stèles / 古今碑錄 (Wesleyan UP, 2007), as well as the translator and annotator of the first work written in Chinese by a European, Matteo Ricci’s 1595 Jiaoyou lun 交 友論,  or On Friendship: One Hundred Maxims for a Chinese Prince (Columbia UP, 2009).

Christopher Bush previously taught at Harvard, Indiana, and Princeton Universities.  His research and teaching focus on transnational, comparative, and interdisciplinary approaches to French, German, and American modernisms, with an emphasis on their relationships to East Asia (real and imagined). His first book, Ideographic Modernism (Oxford, 2010), explores the figure of the “ideograph” in relation to such modern forms of writing as photography, phonography, and cinematography. He is currently at work on The Floating World: Japoniste Aesthetics and Global Modernity, which traces the aesthetic impact of Japanese modernity on Euro-American modernisms from the age of Impressionism to postmodern film.

Haun Saussy has taught previously at Yale, Stanford and UCLA, and was the president of the American Comparative Literature Association in 2009-2011. His steady interests include Chinese lyric poetry and its interpretation, the difficulty of finding a comparative framework for aesthetics, and historical transitions among media.

Sponsored by the Dean of Faculty and the Yordán Lecture Fund