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The Translator Relay: Jeffrey Yang

By Jessie Chaffee

WWB’s Translator Relay features an interview with a different translator each month. This month’s translator will choose the next interviewee, adding a different, sixth question. 

For October’s installment, Kareem James Abu-Zeid passed the baton to award-winning poet, translator, and editor Jeffrey Yang.

What is your connection to the language(s) you translate from and/or the place(s) where the books you translate are written?

My parents were born in China, moved to Taiwan in the late 1940s, and then to the US in the sixties—that’s the root of my connection.

Can you give us an example of an “untranslatable” word or phrase, and tell us how you brought it into English?

There’s a children’s song in Bei Dao’s autobiography City Gate, Open Up that was a fun challenge to bring into English, trying to carry over the playful rhythm of the song, as well as its meanings and rhymes. In Chinese it’s called “九九歌,” which I translated as “Nine Nines Song.” Here’s the relevant passage in Bei Dao’s book with the song included:

At Fuwai Elementary School, I recited the Winter Solstice “Nine Nines Song,” counting down the nine nine-day weeks until spring: “First nine second nine keep your hands inside / Third nine fourth nine walk the ice outside . . .”; after we moved, I transferred to Hong Shan Si (“Temple of Great Benevolence”) Elementary School, and continued to recite in perfect sync with the times: “Fifth nine sixth nine see willows riverside / Seventh nine river runs, eighth nine swallows come . . .”; then settling into our new home, spring arrived: “Ninth nine add a nine, oxen roaming far and wide.”

The translation will be published by New Directions next spring, in 2017.

Do you have any translating rituals? 

Just coffee, and more coffee.

Do you have a metaphor you use to explain the translation process and the role of the translator in bringing a piece from one language into another?

Purushottama Lal called his translations “transcreations” and Basil Bunting called his “overdrafts.” Both of those words speak insightfully to the process. 

Tell us about a current, or future, translation project that you’re excited about.

Besides Bei Dao’s autobiography City Gate, Open Up, my recent translation of Uyghurland, the Farthest Exile, translated with the poet Ahmatjan Osman and published by Phoneme Media, a great small press in Los Angeles, felt particularly gratifying to bring into the world. As Osman says in the author’s preface to his book, the Uyghur poetic tradition is rooted in shamanism, where “poetic inspiration is understood as an actual presence, what is unseen, which speaks through the poet.” This idea of poetry, so anthropologically distant to me (though not so distant when thinking about the origins of Chinese poetry and, say, the Book of Changes), allowed a certain approach to translation conceptually akin to a shamanistic experience without labeling it that.           

(Kareem’s question for you) You are a translator, but also an award-winning poet. Can you speak about how your work as a poet informs your translations? And in turn, do you find that your work as a translator informs your poetry? 

Thanks, Kareem! I try not to dissect this back and forth too much as the two so naturally fit together, like Adam and Eve. Both require careful attention to the musical qualities of language. The two can also overtly overlap, in that translating a poem is akin to writing a poem in a new language, or when writing a poem includes translated lines from another language. Both practices thrive in obscurity and with patient tinkering at the minutest level of word and line. As the recent Nobel Laureate said fifty years ago, “People have one great blessing—obscurity.” Each revels in an economy of language while persisting outside of the day-to-day economy, where profit never ventures upon its threshold. The one feeds the other in body and spirit, as with the other arts.

Read Jeffrey Yang’s translations of nine classical Chinese poems in WWB’s March 2004 issue: “Chinese Characters.”

Jeffrey Yang is the author of the poetry collections Vanishing-Line and An Aquarium. He is the translator of Ahmatjan Osman’s Uyghurland, the Farthest Exile (with the author), Liu Xiaobo’s June Fourth Elegies, Su Shi’s East Slope, and Bei Dao’s autobiography City Gate, Open Up (forthcoming from New Directions). He is the editor of the poetry anthologies Birds, Beasts, and Seas: Nature Poems from New Directions and Time of Grief: Mourning Poems, as well as the collection The Sea Is a Continual Miracle: Sea Poems and Other Writings by Walt Whitman (forthcoming from UPNE). Yang works as an editor at New Directions Publishing and New York Review Books.

Published Oct 19, 2016   Copyright 2016 Jessie Chaffee

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