Fiona Sze-Lorrain: I try to write as a witness to something concrete

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Singaporean poet Desmond Kon Zhicheng-Mingdé interviews Fiona Sze-Lorrain on Bai Hua’s Wind Says

Fiona Sze-Lorrain PortraitThere’s something alluring about reading poetry in translation. Some words, and the particular meanings they are bound to, simply don’t exist in other languages. With translation comes the complex act of rendering such meaning, the translator’s work a kind of precious vocation that helps bridge stories and cultures and people. That a rare poet like Bai Hua has an accomplished poet like Fiona Sze-Lorrain to bring his work to an English-speaking audience is wonderful. The result is a beautiful collection that helps the reader understand a poet of such quiet restraint and largeness of heart. Of his new work, Sze-Lorrain writes: “With its mosaic of references and quotes in synchronic and diachronic modes, the materiality of the language fabric in Bai Hua’s recent work can only thicken. More than bearing mere emotional weight, it is as much a palimpsest as a collage of competing and superimposed textual intensities.”

It is with great anticipation that a reader approaches any new work by Bai Hua. Bai Hua, after all, penned a modest ninety poems over the last thirty years. Born in 1956, he is well-known as one of the more prominent of post-Misty poets in 1980s China, eventually receiving the Rougang Poetry Award and Anne Kao Poetry Prize.

Translator Sze-Lorrain herself has critically acclaimed poetry collections to her name, Water the Moon and My Funeral Gondola. An editor at Cerise Press and Vif éditions, she has translated several poetry volumes by contemporary Chinese, French and American poets. Towards the end of her preface, Sze-Lorrain talks of how Baudelaire left a great impression on a young Bai Hua. Baudelaire had declared that “Nature is a temple, and that any perceived world is a metaphor for the self”. For Bai Hua, poetry remains “a sacred duty”. It is the revelation of such a noble calling and commitment that one witnesses in this breathtaking collection, Wind Says.

In this interview, Desmond Kon Zhicheng-Mingdé talks to Fiona Sze-Lorrain about the fine challenge of translating such a great writer of our times.

In “The Old Poet”, the speaker ends the poem with a call to action: “Literature is simple because it is plain / This is why our homeland must export it.”  What is your sense of purpose as the translator of this collection?

To locate and listen to Bai Hua’s voice in another cultural reality — to tap it, tame it, and let it sing in English. I wanted to use “groundtruth,” though a poet told me that this word doesn’t quite exist.

Is there a sense of duty by way of helping transport the sheer mass of Chinese poetry that remains unknown to the West?

Yes, there is a moral impulse.

What responsibilities, and also, why in particular, Bai Hua?

Bai Hua Wind Says PixAt that time, I was interested in translating a contemporary Chinese poet who isn’t primarily engaged in hermetic poetics. Bai Hua is the first poet I read whose work teaches me to put faith in the speaker of the poems. I started to think about lyricism as something other than just music. It is something communicative and cumulative. Bai Hua’s verses are about intensity. The drive is clear when you read them aloud. This seems especially the case for his early poems, the ones written during his “high lyricism” — according to some Chinese critics — of the early eighties and late nineties. On the other hand, his later work of a genre we call “hybrid writing” responds to a pertinent question that many Chinese poets face today: how does a language intersect with aesthetics in contemporary China?  How far can a poet go in the present-day Chinese language and climate?   

“Cloud Diviner” is the first poem I read of Bai Hua, and the first I translated:

         The cloud diviner scurries by
scanning from heights
In his eyes, the dense dusky mist
grows gold, geometry and palaces

In a poor quarter, the west wind turns abruptly
A hero embarks on a thousand-mile journey
The cloud diviner can see
his agitated grass sandals and toga

Farther valleys merge into one
the chimes of bells, faint and few
Two children are sweeping the pavilions
The cloud diviner faces an empty twilight

Auspicious clouds unfold
A quiet shriveled master
spits fire, brews elixir on his own
The cloud diviner sees patterns in the stones

Wind and rain agree in village days
A vegetable field, a flowing stream
the crispy green stays unchanged here
The cloud diviner has left for the next summit

                                                          Late Spring, 1986

Time, for me, offers daylight and night for the poem, a kind of rotation that revolves the language around a tangential axis of meaning. In your preface, you mention Bai Hua emailing you, with a request to date his poems. Along with your astute statement that “summer is Bai Hua’s weather for poetry” and Bai Hua himself affirming that “without summer, [he] wouldn’t have begun writing poetry,” how do you see time and season as a transformative device in how Bai Hua’s poems maybe received, interpreted, appreciated?

I don’t think summer is just a metaphor in Bai Hua’s work. It has its life, and it is real. Bai Hua considers summer as a stage, and also as one of the performers of the speaker(s) in a poem. In this theatrical context, there are different ways of interpreting “summer.” There are at least seven poems on summer in this book, for example. I think he is encouraging us to transcend beyond the temporal nature of summer. What else can summer be apart from being a season? Perhaps the poet thinks of it as a kind of energy or synergy. Perhaps it is also more porous — as an agent for changes. In the last stanza of “Reality,” he wrote:

Winter could also be summer
Lu Xun could also be Lin Yutang

Your opening line is a question — an inviting — a posture that guides the reader in walking with each of these poems. You ask: “What is lyricism but a walk – an authenticating act of memory — for contemporary Chinese poet Bai Hua?” Bai Hua speaks of this as a “kind of foresight” in how upon visiting a place, he immediately gets “a sense if it would one day become an unforgettable poem of memory.” You’re a poet yourself, your book, Water the Moon, a beautiful and powerful collection in and of itself. Your second book, My Funeral Gondola, has just been released. How does memory function for you, as you mine it for your writing?

This is an intelligent question. I don’t know if I can offer an intelligent response. Alas, unlike Bai Hua, I don’t have the “kind of foresight” when visiting a place or meeting someone. Perhaps this is the mystical quality I like in his work.

While I honor memory in poems, I don’t think it is healthy to conceptualize “memory” as a frame for writing. When writing about a memory, I try not to look back but to look ahead. It helps me to avoid solipsism. Is it possible not to confuse memory with the past? Can one be in flux, the other absolute? Time becomes elastic, non-mathematical and without limits. It is very human, but more than what I can manage.

And how do you translate that subtlety, that shift, if that is even possible?

I practice restraint.

Your interview with Bai Hua at the end of the book is such an important one. How does having that bit of foreknowledge change your approach towards translating his writing?

It provides more choices for me, and elucidates more contextual clues.

Do you feel it is necessary for a translator to have that intimacy of knowledge to be a better carrier or guardian of an author’s work?

I am unsure about “better” — this depends if the (living) author endorses it. It also depends on the translator — whether he/she wishes to internalize the knowledge in the work itself, or if he/she wishes to use it for journalistic purposes. I prefer the former to the latter, but it is just my subjective likes.

As a translator, do you ever feel there are moments where a sense of reauthoring or rewriting seems to gain purchase?

No, I don’t believe in translation as re-authoring or rewriting.

It isn’t a question of dissonance or distance. In spirits, it is not right if one claims to be a translator of Chinese or Italian without a sufficient proficiency of the “home” language, without being able to use the proficiency to think in a poetic (not linguistic) space. There is a lie to the phenomenon of “co-translation” in contemporary poetry when “co-translators” without knowledge or communication with the “source” language claim to partake in the work as a “poet.” Where is the meat?

It becomes complex or ambiguous for “co-translators” as well as for the (living) author to grasp the value of editing during their “collaborative” process. I can’t say if the ambiguity is always constructive. Such politics are more delicate in poetry; to honor the image, the music, the architecture… in short, the poeticism, one might have to resist editing even if in the target language it does not make “rational” sense. When and where for such give and take is the place where poetry enters. And that happens in a space where the sensibility for two kinds of music — of source and target languages — exists.

I speak in relative terms and certainly do not wish to undermine the importance of any pedagogical value implicit in collaborative work. However, it is a pity when it does little justice to editors who quietly assume their responsibility in making a difference to each book. Christopher Mattison, a Russian translator and my editor at Zephyr Press (“Jintian” series) offers an opinion of strong import.  In an interview published recently in Cerise Press, he says:

I have little patience for editors who list themselves as (co-)translators because they’ve assisted with the final clean-up of a book. It’s important to know your limitations and there’s no discernible reason to bolster one’s resumé with faux translations.

The experience/act of translation is such a complex, delicate, sometimes agonizing affair. A real joy and challenge, even for a reader like myself who reads the poems in both languages in operation, intensely interested in the decisions you’ve afforded each phrase and line, sometimes allowing greater extravagance in rendering the poem, sometimes more literal, as if almost careful or reverent. You ask how much “democracy” needs to be exercised “between translating words and translating their distance”? You prop a litany of questions that express the difficulties of translation, questions about the uniformity of metaphor, the demands of different cultural modes, retaining the poems’ sensuality, honoring the silence. You ask Bai Hua whether he views the poem “as an experience or as an act” — how then do you view translation?

As a disciplined response, a way of reading — though reading may not necessarily be a form of translation.  Reading is more expansive, I think.

Is translation an experience or an act?

In silence or in words?

Either case, it depends on the poem. For some, translation is an experience; others, an act. When luck visits on rare occasions, one may be entitled to both. But Lady Luck does not come if I can’t offer her a cup of tea.

In your interview, you ask Bai Hua whether he has an ideal reader. Having completed a translation of his work, how do you appraise yourself, what sort of reader — after having been such a close reader of his work — are you of Bai Hua’s poems?

I don’t think being a translator of Bai Hua’s poems makes me a more privileged reader of his work. It makes me feel alive in a different way when reading his poetry.

Bai Hua ends his interview philosophically, about how age changes a person. He cites Confucius, then Borges, about aging gracefully, with a sort of gathered wisdom, to follow the dictate of one’s own heart. And to attain real happiness. Tell us, what does “happiness” mean for you now?

We don’t live in a courageous era. Happiness is about seeing clearly — and it makes itself known to people who want to live with courage. A process perhaps — but it isn’t a result. I am most happy when I am able to be both open and gentle with others. I think of Shakespeare: Love thyself last. But I don’t exercise “gentleness” as a form of complicity or ambiguity when principles or ethics are at stake.

How would you expect that understanding of yourself to translate itself, as you grow into your own skin and purposefulness as a writer, as a master of letters?

Wish I could expect. My work in writing and translation is modest. I was taught to live in harmony and as one with the sky and earth. To walk a straight path on two feet and with a head in verticality. To feel alive everyday when I wake up. A healer I know can see someone’s honesty through the way he/she walks or how he/she uses her body as a resource. American theater artist Robert Wilson speaks of body as a living resource visible in staged time and space. I have always been drawn to a creative endeavor that is the mirror of such physical evidence of self-understanding. In a poem, I try to write as a witness to something concrete. When I can’t explore such possibilities through artistic expression, I’d do something else. I don’t miss writing when I can’t write; I only miss it when I don’t write.

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Author: Zafar Anjum

I am a writer based in Singapore.

11 thoughts on “Fiona Sze-Lorrain: I try to write as a witness to something concrete

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