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Translator's Note: To Be Elsewhere

Unlike Hsia Yü, I did not grow up in Taipei, though I have visited. At first, I thought her name was a homophone of “it rains” or “raining.” But Hsia is summer, a common Chinese last name, not rain at all, which is hsia yü. When I see the two syllables, a rain of ink falls across transparent summer.

As a translator, I confess these English lines are not purely transparent. English syntax rarely matches the Chinese, and as a speaker of both, I find the rich vowels of tonal Chinese a rigorous exercise to render in English.

Double-syllable repetitions in “Mozart in E-flat Major” posed a special task. “Qing qing” at the end of the second line translates literally as “lightly lightly,” the caress of a loved one’s well-shaven face. The last two lines of the poem, parallel in syllable number and syntax, are transliterated, “zhui zhui qing ai de ju bu/zhui zhui zhong yao de xian zai.” These musical lines in Chinese, rendered into English, lose the tender succinctness of “zhui zhui,” literally “most most” or “dearest dearest,” merely repetitious in this language.  

As a poet-translator, I wish to illuminate the beauty of one language in another, two languages I love: English and Chinese. As an experiment, I began with the last lines. I tinkered with “most cherished portion/most crucial present,” initially sacrificing the double-repetition of “zhui zhui” but preserving the parallel syntax and syllable number. However, “present” also introduced valences not in the original: present as time, but not present as gift. “Xian zai” is, more or less, “now and here.” I settled on “most cherished part/most crucial here and now.” I omitted the second “lightly” (qing) in the first stanza.

A literal translation would read, “feel Monday new shave finished face lightly lightly.” Writing the lines, “I feel Monday’s well-shaven face lightly/caress my left shoulder,” I hoped for a miracle, spirit infusing letter with the mystique of transparency. Seamless pronouns in “To Be Elsewhere,” for instance, lose rhythm—and atmosphere, one of lyric anonymity—in English. I resisted a temptation to insert quotation marks or italics for dialogue after “three years spun a novel/we abandoned,” laying bare, instead, the third-person shift: “They fail to recognize themselves/as though meeting in another story/for an encounter.”

Recently, I heard that Hsia Yü designed a transparent book of poems, Pink Noise (2007), using a machine-translator named Sherlock. The physical book-object is transparent. You see right through it, except for the words laser-printed on zylonite. The poems are bilingual machine-translations of her originals, in turn assembled from various digital sources. I admired, even envied, her daring aesthetic and fiduciary risks: Hsia Yü published Pink Noise with her own funds, creating a book that literally passes light.

With these translations, I hope we hear an echo of Hsia Yü’s music, aglow with hues in their English versions. —kal


This poem originally appeared in the June 2011 issue of Poetry magazine

June 2011

Originally appeared in Poetry magazine.

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