Q & A with the Translators of Pee Poems
1. Why did you decide to translate Pee Poems?
Lynn and I met Yang when we were all living at a residency in Germany, the Akademie Schloss Solitude. He quickly became a dear friend. Some years later, Yang visited the States and stayed at our home in Marfa for a couple of months, and while there he wrote part of Pee Poems. Until then we’d only known his sound and visual works, so when he shared some poems with us we were both blown away and not surprised by how amazing they are. We wanted to translate the collection partly as a way to stay connected with Yang, but mostly because the writing is fantastic and unique. Also, on a personal level, Lynn and I thought it would be nice to have a project that we could work on together when time allowed.
2. Can you talk about what it's like to translate a friend. I know that you couldn’t reach out to Lao Yang as you translated, but did knowing him guide your choices? Put a different kind of pressure on your approach?
We found the experience of translating a friend to be strange and often moving, and working on passages he’d written while living in our house at times felt uncanny. Yang is a very inspiring friend, so for me at least there was pressure to convey qualities of his person (equanimity, bravery, sincerity, modesty, brilliance) which show up in the writing but which are of course fuller than language, which have much deeper meaning in camaraderie.
3. What is one line or word or stanza that was particularly difficult to translate? How did you find the words we have here in the book?
There were a lot! Here’s an example, from the poem “Civil War of the Chinese Language,” in which Yang sometimes uses simplified and traditional characters to stage political conflicts in the written language: the first line is “优雅羞辱優雅”which sounds like “Yōuyǎ xiūrù yōuyǎ” and means something like “elegance humiliates elegance,” but the reader of Chinese will immediately see that the first appearance of yōuyǎ includes a simplified character for “yōu” (优), while the second uses the traditional character for “yōu” (優). There is of course no directly analogous drama in the English language, but there are certainly plenty of historical struggles which appear in English vocabulary, pronunciation, etc. Throughout the poem we used different methods to gesture at this. Our first line is “Elegance humiliates élégance.” This might transliterate some of the humor in some of Yang’s lines, and thinking on it now, it might also be traced back to a dinner I had with a bunch of friends at a restaurant in Paris, when a waiter scolded me for eating something the wrong way, and forced a fork into my hand. It was actually quite delightful and hilarious, but I guess I’ve been biding my time and this line is my revenge.
4. And what is one line where you feel like you found the perfect solution to a tricky moment?
I don’t know if there are any perfect solutions, but there were definitely moments where we felt like we’d stuck the landing. One example is the versified poem on page 108, which begins with a line in which the poet proclaims that the remaining lines should be “vigorously sung.” It’s got really nice prosody, which throws its subject into relief, so we did our best to reimagine the music in English. The last two lines in Mandarin are “Yīnwèi qiánbian yǒu pào shǐ / Qù wǎnle chī bùzháo,” which we translated as “Because a pile of shit’s up ahead / And if you get there late you get none.”
5. Every collaboration between translators looks different, and I wonder if you can talk about your process of collaboration and what that brought to the translations.
Lynn reads Chinese and speaks perfect Mandarin and Shanghainese. She also has an incredible ear for languages and poetry, so she did the heavy lifting when it comes to the first stage of translation. However, because of her closeness to Chinese and the fact that she only uses it with family, she sometimes had difficulty seeing the forest for the trees, so although I can’t read Chinese at all, I manage most of the second stage, once we have a literal translation—I work on crafting a consistent voice and try to ask the questions I feel exist between words. For Yang’s work, this was occasionally a matter of rooting out references to Buddhism, classical Chinese poetry, art, or ideas from radical politics, but more often it was a question of poetic resonance, like I’d know there was something going on, but I’d be unsure about what it might be, so we’d look into the subtle elements of the language: tuning our ears for homonyms, investigating references and sayings, looking closely at characters. The third stage of translation was the conversation we’d have about our questions and about Yang’s sensibility and thinking.
6. I know that you reached out to others in the process of translating this book. Can you talk about that, the different folks whose insights aided your work?
Lynn’s dad was the biggest help, because if we sensed a reference to a classical Chinese poem or some kind of colloquialism or aphorism, he’d usually know what was going on or be able to point us in the right direction for further research. The other folks who read the translation in manuscript were Yang’s friends we were in touch with regarding other matters, and although they didn’t offer notes on the translation (besides kind words, which were valuable), it was very helpful to discuss Yang, his work and life, and to think about his milieu.
7. Would you say you have a theory of translation, or a theory of translating Lao Yang?
Like Achilles in pursuit of the tortoise in one of Zeno’s paradoxes, the translator will never manage to arrive at the original text. I like to conceive of translation as an act which begins with curiosity and ends with conveyance, something akin to telling someone what someone else said, in a way that gets at how they said it—devoted to the author and to the art itself, but not so dutifully that the sparks of creativity and freedom disappear.
8. What is his other work like?
Yang makes things and does things that run the gamut from sound poetry to sculpture (for lack of a better word) to meditative erasure to performance. For example, he's got a project where he'll take a newspaper and meticulously cut out every appearance of the character for “person” (人). For another series I've seen, he photographs things, such as branches, which happen to look like “人”. He's done performances where he'll repeat a word loudly for very long period of time. He makes things out of clay. Yang has also been involved in the promotion of independent and experimental music, and for years he ran an artist space/store that was devoted to this. He's worked as an art teacher for kids and he's done some gardening. In all things, I think he's devoted to the flowering of life.
9. When readers open up Pee Poems, they’ll see the original Chinese poems facing the English, although many readers won’t know any of the characters. What can a non-Chinese reader get from paying attention to the Chinese pages? Or what do you hope their experience with the Chinese might be?
We’re so happy that Yang’s Chinese text is included in the book. The reader can decipher some formal qualities of the originals, which look really nice on the page, and even without knowing anything about characters, there are clues about word play in appearances and juxtapositions, such as in the aphoristic poem “人 从 众 / 众 从 人.” (This is one of the simplest poems to translate simply, but one of the most difficult in the context of the book. Literally it’s “Person from society / society from person.” In the end we went with “One of many / many of one,” partly because it weirdly echoes E pluribus unum—evoking some of the political and philosophical questions in the collection.) Maybe a reader has a friend who reads Chinese, and they can show them the facing texts and talk about languages and translation.