Ouyang Yu (translator), Poems of Shu Cai, Yi Sha & Yang Xie (Vagabond Press 2013)
This is the third title in Vagabond Press’s Asia Pacific Writing Series, but it’s the first I’ve read. The series, according to the Press’s website,
aims to create an open space for the sharing of cultural knowledge, understanding and enjoyment across national, political and language boundaries.
Working ‘in close collaboration with a growing community of writers, translators, editors and artists’, Michael Brennan, Elizabeth Allen and the rest of the small Vagabond crew have produced a dozen or so elegant volumes in the series, including work from China, Japan, the Philippines and Burma. At the Vagabond event at the recent Sydney Writers’ Festival, the ‘open space’ that the series aims to create was tangible in the diversity of writers and translators who were there in the flesh.
Ouyang Yu, who wasn’t at the Festival (I believe he’s a Melburnian), is a tireless writer, translator, scholar, editor and activist for Chinese literature in Australia and vice versa. His first translations of Yi Sha appeared in the second issue of Heat in 1996, twelve years before Bloodaxe Books published Yi Sha’s Starve the Poets!, describing it as his first English publication outside China. If you want a background to this book, and an overview of Chinese poetry in recent decades, you could do a lot worse than listen to ‘Neither Red Flags Nor Peach Blossom’, Parts One and Two, Poetica programs from 2013 in which Ouyang Yu speaks at greater length than his short introduction to this book allows.
The three poets in this book represent three historical stages in Chinese poetry. After the revolutionary zeal of the 1950s and 60s and the deeply coded elusiveness of the ‘misty poets’ in the next two decades, Yi Sha aimed to have poetry ‘enter into an era in which it speaks like a human being’. The poetry scene was split between the intellectual camp and the camp to which Yi Sha belonged, which emphasised oral poetry, story telling and (to judge from these poems) a degree of scurrilousness. At the end of the 1990s, Shu Cai introduced the ‘Third Road’, that belonged to neither camp, and was open to influence from the rest of the world. Yang Xie, born in 1972, belongs to a younger generation, and writes, as Ouyang Yu says, ‘a poetry that taps into the violence of daily life in small cities, with an inquisitive eye for detail’.
There’s a lot to enjoy here: the gutsy vulgarity of Yi Cha, the contemplative lyricism of Shu Cai, and the Yang Xie’s graphic narratives.
I found it a hard book to read, though, probably because of Ouyang Yu’s response to the translator’s inescapable dilemma: faced with the choice of making his translation read naturally or beautifully in the new language, or keeping readers aware that they are venturing out of the confines of their own language and culture, he has gone the latter path. Very little here reads as smooth English. In fact, it’s sometimes as if the poems have been translated from Chinese into English-as-a-second-language: prepositions feel slightly off, commas and definite articles appear in strange places, and the vocabulary is occasionally stilted. For example, the opening lines from Yi Sha’s ‘The File’:
at grade 3 junior high
when i first came into contact with chemistry
i was passionate about the experiment
and devoted myself to the research
i wanted to develop an air
that stank worse than carbon monoxide
i wanted them to be taken back
that day I was successful
the whole class withdrew from the lab
I think I chose this because I relate to the story, having once emptied a chemistry lab in ten seconds flat by exposing some potassium to air. Here, leaving aside the fact that carbon monoxide is odourless, maybe the original is just as flat as the translation, but it feels as if what we’re getting is a kind of report on the poem, which we then have to reconstruct as well as we can, each reader for him or herself. I’m no poet, but I can’t see that anything is lost if it is taken all the way into easy, spoken English, something like this:
in grade 3 at junior high
when i first did chemistry
i loved the experiments
and threw myself into research
i wanted to make a gas
that stank worse than carbon monoxide
i wanted to make them all sit up and notice
the day i succeeded
the whole class stampeded from the lab
I have an uneasy feeling that I’m out of my depth in commenting in this way on the work of such an eminent translator, but my experience in reading these three poets was all too often that the translation was simultaneously giving and taking away: showing me these interesting and exciting poems, then making it hard work to grasp them. Maybe, of course, that’s exactly how it ought to be.