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The Translator Relay: Ming Di

By Jessie Chaffee

Image: Poet and translator Ming Di. 

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 August’s installment, Mihaela Moscaliuc passed the baton to Chinese poet and translator Ming Di, whose translation (with Jennifer Stern) of Liu Xia’Empty Chairs (Graywolf Press, 2015) was a finalist for the 2016 Best Translated Book Award.

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

My connection to Chinese is through birth (it is my mother tongue) and to English is through second-language acquisition at age five. I still remember the first few sentences I learned to say in English while in China:

“Long Live Chairman Mao.”
“Down with the American imperialism.”
“Serve the people.”
“Liberate the whole world.”

It was very complicated syntax for the first graders. Some children were sent to boarding schools to specialize in English. I went to a normal school but English was part of the curriculum. I wasn’t interested in learning languages until much later when I had to study five foreign languages in graduate school. Now I translate two ways: from English to Chinese and from Chinese to English. I’ve done simultaneous translations at literary conferences but to translate poetry takes more patience and a different kind of skill which I’m still learning.

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

Unlike French, Spanish, or Italian, Chinese is different from English at the syntactic level. One can find equivalent words and even equivalent metaphors. For instance, in Zang Di’s title poem “The Book of Cranes” the “cranes” refer to birds, but in his other poems “cranes” are machines to lift memory from childhood. What’s more difficult to translate is the sensibility and the sense of humor expressed in unusual syntactic structures. The term “Flower-Loving Butterflies” refers to a poetic form, like sonnets and sestinas. Mao Zedong had a well-known butterfly poem in memory of his second wife. In a contemporary love poem with the same title, Zang Di made a free verse with six lines in each stanza and turned upside down all the clichés in a very weird way, which I try to represent by the English preposition “in”:

You’re not frail in my blindness.
You resemble a flower, but when I look closer
you’re actually more like jade;
except that your true color is not good for shining.
You’re the dregs of existence
that I wasted most of my life searching for.
. . .
When you bite me hard, I know
I’ve matured, but not just as a piece of meat.

(from The Book of Cranes, Vagabond Press, 2015, translated with Neil Aitken)

I think the key is to listen, not necessarily to the poet’s reading aloud, but to the internal voice in the poem.

Many Americans like to read grammatically correct but boring translations. Some have zero tolerance to the imitation of a foreign tone in poetry. So I collaborate with native speakers to make the translation sound like American English. I select the poems, make the first version in English, and then we work together in polishing and revising them. As a native Chinese poet I see and hear the linguistic subtleties in Chinese. I try to find something that’s similar to the source poem in shape and in sound. For instance, Duo Duo has a poem of forty-two lines that he usually reads in one breath. The poem title is the key phrase that runs through the entire poem. It has three Chinese characters—依旧是—but all in one beat. “Still” was and still is my first choice:


Waking at night with snow on my forehead is still
like walking on a piece of paper and still
like walking into a field invisible and still
like walking between words, and wheat patches . . .

I think the key is to listen, not necessarily to the poet’s reading aloud, but to the internal voice in the poem.

Do you have any translating rituals? 

If you take research as a kind of ritual, yes, I usually read about the authors and the historical events they make reference to in their poems. Otherwise I don’t really have any rituals. I don’t pray or drink tea or do Tai Chi. Sometimes I read too much and I end up spending a whole week or even a whole month reading, which leads to another project . . . Duo Duo uses “bowl” a lot in his recent poems. A “rice bowl” refers to the Great Famine in China when thousands of people died of hunger. An “iron bowl” refers to a secured job in the socialist system or the system itself. (As a Dutch citizen living in China he will have no retirement pension anywhere.) In one of his early poems from 1972 he wrote that “People rise from cheese,” which was a very unusual image in Chinese poetry then. “Cheese” was something completely foreign—bizarre but fresh.

A hundred years ago Ezra Pound translated classical Chinese poetry into free verse and became “the inventor of Chinese poetry for our time” (T.S. Eliot). Contemporary Chinese poetry is free verse with frequent Western imagery and therefore makes it much more difficult for translators to “reinvent.” But there are still some excellent sinologists who are first of all poets—Lucas Klein, Nick Admussen, Jonathan Stalling, etc. etc. I usually like to go back to poet Ezra Pound and read a page from the Cathay once a while—an unconscious ritual perhaps? I should read Ocean Vuong to break the ritual.

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?

I have an incomplete image in my mind of a translator conducting an orchestra of words, trying to present the music from the original poem with a unique and insightful interpretation. I remember hearing Brahms for the first time in my hometown, Wuhan, China. It was Hungarian Dance 5 conducted by Li Delun. The instruments were all Western. I wondered why he didn’t use Chinese instruments to “localize” it. The Chinese folk song “Jasmine Flowers” has many Western versions ever since Puccini adapted it in “Turandot.” Once I heard an orchestra from Spain playing it and it blew me away—I didn’t even recognize it in the beginning because it had a different rhythm, like turning a waltz into a tango. There were certain elements and a somewhat familiar melody that told me it was the Chinese Jasmine song, but it belonged to that Spanish conductor who made all the instruments, Spanish or Chinese, soar into the air that night. I know poetry is not music. Poetry is language specific. Translators are probably instrument players but many times I see myself being played by words. You see I don’t have a fixed metaphor. It constantly changes: from conductor to composer, from musician to instrument.

I have an incomplete image in my mind of a translator conducting an orchestra of words, trying to present the music from the original poem with a unique and insightful interpretation.

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

“I was of three minds . . .” I’m translating Terrance Hayes and Marianne Moore into Chinese and Duo Duo into English. I know it’s a very strange mix but it works for me. I absorb the energy from each one and give it to the others. The three projects complement each other.

(Mihaela Moscaliuc’s question for you) As a translator and editor, how do you select poets to be translated or to be included in an anthology? What are your criteria for selection? 

I try to find under-translated poets who deserve more readers. I’ve translated some poems by Anne Carson, Jean Valentine, Sharon Olds, Mark Doty, Afaa Weaver, Gary Snyder, Yusef Komunyakaa, etc., but when they become well known in China, I start looking for other less-translated poets. I’ve translated Zhang Shuguang, Liao Yiwu, Yu Xiuhua, Qin Sanshu, Zheng Min, Chang Yao, etc., but more of Duo Duo at present because he is becoming eclipsed again. I also try to find untranslated poems that deserve more attention. “Reply to Old Mai—A Poem of Plain Speech” by Hu Shi, written in 1916, was never considered as a poem, while his other nursery-song like poems published in 1917 were hailed as the first free verse in modern China, which is why he’s been regarded as a third-class poet even though he was a pioneer of New Poetry in China. I was surprised when I found this long poem of free verse in his diaries, dated before the other poems. It sounds very contemporary, a collage of conversations, debates, remarks, jokes, puns, and anecdotes:

Texts of three thousand years, up and down, living or dead,
who knows how many have been hijacked.
Look at the Shangshu.
It becomes fiction.
Look at Songs of Qingyun.
It becomes drama.
. . .
Old Mei jumps up: This is absurd!
If what you say is true,
all peasants are poets.
. . .

The word “hijacked” reminds me of a poem by Duo Duo that I worked on last year in a dual residency with the poet at Vermont Studio Center: 


I’m dreaming of my father as a cloud, left-handed,
drawing clouds, as if in the glass window of a drugstore.
He wears a blue raincoat, crossing a street
along the spinning needle of an old gramophone.
He passes through a laundry-mat and a coffin shop
not far from where I grew up.
He walks, and with his blue skeleton
he calls for a streetcar.

I’m dreaming that on every corner stands a father
fighting with fathers. I’m dreaming of him and see
his back among the fathers.
Every street resists his fighting, every corner
is the witness: in the center of the street
a tongue is pulled out like a bicycle tire . . .

Time stops after my father’s death, then rushes out
in full swing to the street.
Can someone stop me and wake me up?
No one. 
I dream on, as if in a dream of all the dead 
dreaming of their entire lives.

Black soil is shoveled into the open chests
of the dead, shovel after shovel, and from their bodies
the land takes its new frontiers.
Flies fly away. They don’t eat human flesh any more.         
The dead sit up and cry when they see the hooks
in the fish market . . .

I take this as my dream.
I’ve dreamed what I should’ve dreamed 
and I’ve dreamed what the dream tells me to dream of

as if my dream is hijacked—

Read Ming Di’s translations of Liu Xia’s work in WWB

Ming Di is a Chinese poet and translator, and the author of six collections of poetry published in China. She went to Boston for graduate studies and currently lives in California. She has translated four books of poetry from English to Chinese, including Dancing in Odessa—Poems and Essays by Ilya Kaminsky (Shanghai Arts and Literature Publishing House, 2013). She has also edited and cotranslated four books of poetry from Chinese to English, including New Cathay—Contemporary Chinese Poetry (Tupelo Press, 2013) and Empty Chairs (Graywolf Press, 2015). Empty Chairs was a finalist for the Best Translated Book Award in 2016. She has received translation fellowships from the Henry Luce Foundation and a translation award (with Jennifer Stern) from the Poetry Foundation. Her own poetry has been translated into several languages: River Merchant’s Wife (Marick Press, 2012), Luna fracturada (Valparaíso/Spain, 2014), Histoire de famille (Transignum/France, 2015), Livre de sept vies (Recours au Poème éditeurs/France, 2015), and Distracción (forthcoming in Costa Rica.)

Published Aug 24, 2016   Copyright 2016 Jessie Chaffee

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