The Poetry Project


Chia-Lun Chang

I don’t teach translation at the moment but I have been teaching Taiwanese poetry workshops at Brooklyn Public Library for a few years. In my curriculum, I’ve translated a few poems from Taiwanese Mandarin to English. One core idea I discuss with my students is “untranslatable”, language that is unable to convert during the translation process. I choose to avoid “lost in translation,” since that is a pre-existing name as the title of a movie.

Once I read an article indicating people in the early 19th century predicted that in the near future, humans would invent synchronized translation tools as well as land on the moon. In 1969, American astronauts landed on the moon. Today, with the James Webb Space Telescope, earthlings are able to observe the first galaxies that formed in the early universe. Yet daily communication can still be lost, even with synchronized translation tools.

Language contains complicated compounds dwelling in transient interactions. It happens often when I try to figure out “What does that mean?”, especially when it’s not related to vocabulary. On the contrary, there are moments when I don’t know the meaning of one or two words in the conversation, but I know exactly what the speaker means. Interaction that relies on languages goes beyond this vehicle, we often can’t grasp the full experience.

I was introduced to Into English: Poems, Translations, Commentaries from a Cave Canem workshop led by Jenny Xie. All of the poems have three different translations displayed next to each other with the original text. I then passed on this textbook when I was teaching a translation workshop, and one participant chirped, “I wish all translations had three versions.” A friend of mine shared 19 ways of looking at Wang Wei with me; in the book Eliot Weinberger comments on each version of a single 4-line poem. Every version is both accurate and inaccurate in its own way. If one can never be as accurate as the original text, how close can we try to be through translation?

In Sappho’s fragments 98a and 98b, with three versions exhibited together, I keep coming back to the line,

but we were dark: 
..................................................... a girl 
whose hair is yellower than 
torchlight should wear no 
headdress but fresh flowers

This poem, ‘Don’t ask me what to wear,’ translated by Mary Barnard, not only has a distinct title but is also half as short as the original. Do I think about the poem in the way it was intended or am I oblivious to the fact that I’m embedded in another universe?

The first time when I read “This Is Just To Say,” by William Carlos Williams in English, I was stunned because the Mandarin title is “Notes,”(便條)or “Notes on Refrigerator,”(冰箱便條). The translator of this wildly spread poem is anonymous. I believe they must understand the meaning of “This Is Just To Say,” but decided to alter the title as if the better way to pass the poem is to leave a casual note, almost as an echo to the poem itself.

I write in English as an activity to practice and improve my language abilities so the writing process doesn’t include translation. There are times I still need support from the dictionary but I don’t write in my first languages (Mandarin and Taiwanese) when I write English poems. To me, it goes against the purpose of practice. I’ve also opted not to translate my own poems because I’m afraid I’d neglect the unfamiliarity and the mystery of “untranslatable.” How can I not translate my thoughts when it’s deeply rooted and stems from my mind? Once I asked a publisher who has published translated Mandarin books in the States if it’s possible to find a translator to work with. His advice was, “You should translate yourself because you’ll never find anyone to translate your work.”

I was born in Taiwan and because we are immersed in multiple languages, including Taiwanese Hokkien, Hakka, Mandarin, English and many indigenous languages, translation exists in interchange naturally. But not until I started translating did I realize how much meaning can be lost and gained in conveying information between languages. This inevitability has taught me to be more humble and skeptical when working with languages. Humble that I’ll do my best to reveal the original work, skeptical that I’m capable of doing so. I’ve come to believe that 1≠1, that sometimes not all texts can be adopted through interpretation. It also opens many doors when I deal with uncertainty and eternality. I rely on language heavily in daily life. If the language is untranslatable and lost, then uncertainty is unavoidable. But based on what I have in hand, I own this moment of eternality and carry its meanings with me as a foundation to encounter the next unknown. I’m admitting to living with ambiguity, staying confused, playing with puzzles and appreciating new outcomes. Within the idea of creating text in another form, I try to enjoy the ride and make the most relevant decisions while access is limited.

Since this is a niche course, I’m thankful that Brooklyn Public Library encourages me to explore this possibility. From the texts that I’ve translated, I’ve gained much insight from participants and their comments. The more discussions, the merrier! I’d love to keep on my journey of exchanging ideas of translation and translating other’s work, just hopefully not my own.

#270 – Fall 2022