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An Interview with WWB Poetry Contest Winners Yau Ching and Chenxin Jiang

By Words Without Borders

"Trial Run" by Yau Ching, translated from Chinese by Chenxin Jiang, was one of four winners of WWB’s 2020 Poems in Translation contest, presented in partnership with the Academy of American Poets. The winning selections will be published in's Poem-a-Day series and in Words Without Borders every Saturday this September, which is National Translation Month, and into the first week of October. Yau Ching and Chenxin Jiang will be participating in WWB and AAP's virtual event celebrating the contest winners, “World in Verse: A Multilingual Poetry Reading,” on October 7.

WWB: Yau, in your work, do you find that you return to particular ideas or themes? What was the catalyst/inspiration for your poem “Trial Run”?

Yau Ching: I was diagnosed with breast cancer in 2009. A collection of my poems, Da Mao Dan (this title could be literally translated as “Big Hairy Egg”), which “Trial Run” is from, came out in 2011. Many poems from this collection were processes to think through the issue of death, to find ways to cope with it, obsess over it, disentangle from it and/or embrace it. “Trial Run” was an attempt to understand how the Chinese literary tradition uses death as a metaphor while simultaneously evading it and fetishizing it.

WWB: Chenxin, what drew you to Yau’s work? What were the challenges and pleasures of translating “Trial Run”?

Chenxin Jiang: Yau Ching's writing is characterized by a precision of language inspired, perhaps, by the precision required to navigate a city as densely populated and culturally layered as Hong Kong. Each unexpected twist the poem takes is fatal. Yau Ching’s deft use of Cantonese idioms challenged me to hunt down all kinds of playful English phrases on this grim subject, ranging from rhyming slang to ordinary clichés.

WWB: Were you in conversation about the translation? If so, what was the process of working together like, and were there particular issues you ended up discussing?

Yau Ching: The first time I heard from Chenxin was when she was editing a feature on Hong Kong poetry for Asymptote, an online journal of international literature. Later, when we met for the first time in Hong Kong, she offered to translate more of my poems. I was surprised when she picked “Trial Run” to work on because, first, it was a poem that had never been discussed or even mentioned by critics, and second, I thought it was a poem that would only work in Chinese! I was even more surprised when she showed me the translation draft. She managed to translate not only the intersectionality of proverbism and absence/taboo but also the humor that underlines the whole poem. I guess fear of death is more cross-cultural than I thought.

Chenxin Jiang: Yau Ching and I exchanged several drafts of the translations. While her comments are invariably astute, she also conveys a deep confidence in the translation process, which I very much appreciate. We're working together on many other poems of hers too.

WWB: Yau, do you feel that you’re writing within (or against) a specific cultural or linguistic tradition? What authors or works have influenced you?

Yau Ching: I grew up reading the poetry of Leung Ping-kwan/Yesi (梁秉鈞/也斯) and the fiction of Xi Xi (西西), and studying how Hong Kong writers of that generation had learned from modern Chinese writers and poets Shen Chongwen (沈從文), Mu Dan (穆旦), and Xin Di (辛笛), among others, as well as from European and Latin American cinema and fiction. My work has benefited from the relatively uncensored cultural landscape of Hong Kong in the second half of the twentieth century, which offered access to literature from all over the world, including mainland China and Taiwan, while always being at the margins of the Chinese literary tradition.

WWB: Are there contemporary Hong Kong poets (or Chinese-language poets more generally) you wish more people were reading?

Yau Ching: I wish Yam Gong’s (飲江) poetry could reach a larger audience. Most of his recent work is written in Cantonese, full of local slang and colloquialisms, rewriting a Hong Kong streetwise playfulness into Chinese philosophical thoughts and self-reflection, all of this further complicating the border-crossing required to understand his work. While Cantonese is much closer to the classical Chinese literary tradition (as in Tang and Song poetry) than Mandarin, it is now, ironically enough, perceived as a provincial dialect and not literary enough. I am also a big fan of the now-Shenzhen-based poet cum translator cum literary critic Huang Canran’s (黃燦然) work; its misleading subtlety and textual simplicity––stripping down the Chinese language to its bare essentials––is spectacular.  

Chenxin Jiang: I'd add that Chung Kwok-keung (鍾國強) is an immensely talented Hong Kong poet. And as to Chinese-language poets, I can't resist cheating to mention Hainan-based Jiang Hao (蒋浩), another poet whose work I'm translating, whose poems are startlingly energetic.

Born in Hong Kong, Yau Ching has authored more than ten books, including award-winning poetry collections and, recently, a series of collections of writings on film, art and politics, including You dong di ying (Hong Kong: Culture Plus, 2017); You yu yi (Hong Kong: Culture Plus, 2015), Wo cong wei ying xu ni yi ge mei gui yuan (Hong Kong: Culture Plus, 2014). She teaches in Hong Kong. 

Chenxin Jiang translates from Italian, German, and Chinese. Recent translations include Tears of Salt: A Doctor’s Story by Pietro Bartolo and Lidia Tilotta (Norton), shortlisted for the 2019 Italian Prose in Translation Award; Volatile Texts: Us Two by Zsuzsanna Gahse (Dalkey Archive); and the PEN/Heim-winning The Cowshed: Memories of the Chinese Cultural Revolution by Ji Xianlin (NYRB). Last year, she was a judge for the Lucien Stryk Asian Translation Prize. Until recently, she was Senior Editor (Chinese) at Asymptote Journal.

Read Yau Ching's "Trial Run," translated from Chinese by Chenxin Jiang.

Published Sep 29, 2020   Copyright 2020 Words Without Borders

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