Living in Translation

       Growing up mixed in a very racially homogenous country was interesting, to say the least.

       To put into perspective just how racially homogenous China is, as of 2010, only 1,448 out of over 1.33 billion people of Chinese nationality were not part of China’s recognized 56 indigenous ethnic groups. Even when you look at a breakdown of the population of those 56 ethnic groups, an astounding 91.6% are Han Chinese. This means being anything but 100% Han Chinese puts you in a fairly extreme minority.

        When I was born, I was issued a Beijing 户口 – or residence card, if you will – and raised by my Chinese family. My first language was Chinese, everyone I knew apart from my father was Chinese, and everything I knew culturally was Chinese. My great-aunt used to watch over me and I would smile at the poster of a Mao-era young girl in communist party garb plastered on the ceiling above my crib. To my young mind, I was Chinese, simple as that. It was, after all, all I knew. However, every time I went outside, it was very evident that I was different from the sea of Han Chinese faces before me. My grandmother would take me to a park to play and would get comments from complete strangers about what a cute foreign child she was babysitting. When she stated that I was her granddaughter, strangers seemed immensely confused as to how I came to be. When I spoke, strangers would remark at how good my Chinese was, and other kids on the playground I befriended would call me their “foreign friend.” It was confusing for me at the time, but I let it slide because I had no real concept of race, nationality, or identity, and so I thought, like many in China still do, that anyone who looked different was “foreign” and in my mind, the term referred purely to my physical appearance.

       Things only got more confusing as I got older. By the time I was ready for kindergarten, I was sent off to a Chinese school. I didn’t have many friends; the other kids thought I looked strange and didn’t want to play with me. They laughed at me in English class because I, like many others in the class, did not speak the language and would struggle trying to pronounce certain words. However, because I was part-white, the other kids felt that I should be able to speak the language and laughed at me when I couldn’t because I was “stupid.” Teachers would also often undermine what I said, thinking that I didn’t know what I was talking about because I wasn’t quite “Chinese enough” and so my Chinese language abilities must be poor. They thought this even though my language skills were quite developed from a young age and I was reading Chinese books far above my age level. 

        There was also this sense of mistrust I got from teachers because I was “other” and not like most kids at my school. I remember quite clearly that when nap time rolled around, the teachers would make their rounds to check that all the kids were asleep and when they got to me, instead of simply peering at the bunkbeds to check whether or not I was sleeping they’d lean in and physically pry my eyes open to check if I was actually asleep or just fake sleeping. Granted, I remember this because I actually was fake sleeping, but so were some other kids in the class and they never faced the same treatment. Besides, why does it matter if a kid is fake sleeping during nap time? If they’re laying silently in bed and not disrupting others anyway, what exactly is the point of trying to find out whether or not a kindergarten-age child was actually asleep? To this day, this whole situation doesn’t make a whole lot of sense to me.

       After only a year of Chinese kindergarten, my parents put me in an international school for the first grade. When I was being interviewed for the school, I spoke essentially no English. My parents like to tell this story because it’s funny; the teacher interviewing me asked me a series of questions to assess my English abilities. It went a little something like this:

Teacher: “Hi there! Your name is Casey, right?”

Me: “Yes.”

Teacher: “And you’re six years old?”

Me: “Yes.”

Teacher: “You’re here with your mom and dad?”

Me: “Yes.”

Teacher: “And I see you’ve got a younger brother?”

Me: “Yes.”

Teacher: “He’s three and a half years younger?”

 Me: “Yes.”

 Teacher: “What’s his name?”

Me: “Yes.”

        Needless to say, I was placed in English as a Second Language classes. Luckily for me, I loved reading so my English improved at a fairly rapid rate and by the third grade, I was attending spelling bees.

        International school, in some ways, helped me ignore my struggles with race. Everyone at school was, in one way or another, “other” in China, whether it was because they were from another country, they were also mixed, or they were racially Chinese but held nationalities from other countries. Because of this, it became easier for me to ignore the “But you’re not really Chinese” and “Wow, your Chinese is so good for a foreigner!” comments I often got when I was out and about, as basically all my friends were in the same boat in some sort of way. It became something to joke about and brush off, and, in some ways, going to international school even put some distance between me and my Chinese identity. I started to feel like, since Chinese people wouldn’t accept me as one of their own anyway, I’d focus more on speaking English and adapting to western culture. I went through a period of distance and denial; Chinese as a language for me became more of a necessary tool for communication between family and strangers than something I held dear, and there was a sense of separateness between me and Chinese culture.

         My life took a turn, again, when I moved to America to come to college at Bennington. Suddenly, race became a much bigger part of my life. What I brushed off while I was at international school started to come into focus – I am part of a minority and not everyone’s in on it with me. I reflected more on my experiences in China and all the times someone denied me of my Chinese identity because I didn’t look “Chinese enough” so therefore I must not truly be Chinese. I thought about all the times people called me a 外国人 – a foreigner – and all the times I opened my mouth to speak and people were shocked by my authentic Beijing accent despite the fact that I was born and raised there. When I lived in China and went to international school, I figured since I’d been educated in a Westernized setting I’d feel pretty comfortable and at home in America, but when I moved here and that wasn’t the case I reflected on just how Chinese I truly am. I lived in China for the first eighteen years of my life; I’ve grown up surrounded by my Chinese family members and knowing nothing but Chinese culture and society. I don’t feel very American at all. It’s not the country I was raised in and I don’t know much about quite a few American customs; the society and environment are also not things I felt very familiar with due to the physical distance between me and America in my upbringing. China is familiar, China is what I know, but because of my race, I am not what China knows, and I am not what China is familiar with. It’s really strange to feel so connected to a place that pushes you away and rejects you like that. It leaves you with nowhere you feel like you really belong.

        At the end of the day, however, I am proud to be mixed, to be a 混血儿, because of the perspective and opportunities it gives me. I can see the good and bad in two cultures, grow up with two languages at my disposal, and have an array of cultural experiences I can compare to each other and learn from. I may be “other” and that may be something I’ll have to deal with throughout the entirety of my life, but it also puts me in a position to speak up about it, to teach people about these things, and to learn from these experiences. 

       Having gone through these experiences, my work in translation in college has been largely tied to reconnecting with my Chinese heritage. Recently, I’ve been working on translating the works of 多多 (Duo Duo), and have thus far translated eleven on his earlier works.

         多多 (Duo Duo) is the pen name of contemporary Chinese poet 栗世征 (Li Shizheng). Born in 1951, Duo Duo was a youth during the Cultural Revolution and was sent to the countryside in Baiyangdian, where he began reading and writing poetry. Duo Duo and several of his schoolmates, including 北岛 (Bei Dao), 顾城 (Gu Cheng), and 芒克 (Mang Ke), became known as the 朦胧诗人, or the Misty Poets. 

       The Misty Poets are a group of 20th century Chinese poets who reacted against the restrictions placed on art during the Cultural Revolution. They were named as such because their work was denounced by authorities as “obscure”, “misty”, or “hazy” for its more abstract imagery. Duo Duo’s early poems were, in line with this, short and elliptical, peppered with barbed political references. In the mid-1980s, his poetic style underwent a shift to more philosophical with long, flowing lines and special attention paid to the sound of the words. These abstractions utilized by Duo Duo and the other Misty Poets were a direct reaction against Mao’s decrees for art and artists to form a “cultural army” to educate the masses, providing them with revolutionary values. With the requirements and limitations Mao set, no art was art for art’s sake, and all art was political and compliant with his views, and was thus quite direct. An example of this is as follows:

The moon follows the earth,

The earth follows the sun,

Oil follows our steps,

And we shall always follow the Communist Party.

        During the Cultural Revolution, many young people were also sent to the countryside to be “re-educated” as per Mao’s values. This caused a lot of discontent and disillusionment, causing the revolution to be described as the “Ten Lost Years” afterwards. Although it was illegal to publish literature and art that wasn’t approved by the Communist Party during this time, under these extreme conditions, extensive underground poetry began to circulate. Duo Duo was part of this, but, like many of the other Misty Poets, his work was not truly published until the death of Mao and the arrest of the Gang of Four. During the time directly after what marked the end of the Cultural Revolution, the Misty Poets created the magazine 今天 (Today) which offered a platform for the feelings of disaffection many felt. The publication of these poems initiated a debate on the freedom of the individual and the author and their commitment to society, the state, and the party.

        After the Tiananmen Square Massacre, many Misty Poets were exiled, and Duo Duo was among these poets. On that fateful day, he had been on his way to London to give a poetry reading at the British Museum. He went on to live in the UK, Canada, and the Netherlands for many years, where his poetry shifted and took on themes of exile and rootlessness.

          The Misty Poets as a whole have always fascinated me. As someone who has family members who have been through the Cultural Revolution, as well as someone who loves to read and write poetry, the Misty Poets represent an overlap in my heritage and passions in a way that is difficult to find elsewhere. When I began to think about translations, the Misty Poets were the first to come to mind, and I knew I wanted to translate several poems by the same poet to give a good sense of their style and rhetoric. Choosing Duo Duo came to me purely because yet another aspect of my identity overlapped; my nickname. My Chinese given name is 夕夕 (Xi Xi), and because two 夕s make a 多 my nickname has always been 多多 (Duo Duo). This made Duo Duo’s work call out to me straight off the bat simply because his pen name was a name I’ve always had as well. Despite having never met the man or specifically sought out to read his work prior to this, this connection immediately made him feel familiar.

         In translating Duo Duo’s work, I found his work resonating deeply with me and knew I’d made the right choice. This doesn’t mean these translations didn’t come with their own set of challenges. Chinese, as a language, is vastly different from English. For one, Chinese doesn’t use an alphabet and instead uses a system of thousands of characters that each mean something on their own. This makes Chinese very concise at times – combining characters that already have meaning on their own makes it possible to describe a very conflicting or detailed concept in as little as two characters – which can be hard to translate into English without overcomplicating things. For another, Chinese is a tonal language so there are language conventions for which there is no equivalent in English. English is not a tonal language, so it cannot maintain the same sense of musical contours in of itself like Chinese.

        During the iterations of translations I did of these poems, I took care to maintain the imagery and sound of what I drew from the original Chinese. Both of these things were vastly important to Duo Duo and the movement of poetry from which his work came to be, so they were something I knew I had to work hard to preserve across languages. At the same time, I knew I had to preserve the meaning in the words; for someone like Duo Duo who writes with political undertones, that’s an important part of his poetry as a whole. On top of this, I knew I had to translate the poetry culturally too. There are some things that make sense to a Chinese ear due to cultural context and lived experience that simply don’t make the same sense in English, so an equivalent must be found to convey the same meaning while still maintaining the quality of the poem in Chinese.

         Details I found particularly difficult appeared in all the poems I translated. In 蜜周 (Honey Week), the title itself took some maneuvering. In the original Chinese, 蜜 (mi) is part of several words, such as 蜂蜜 (honey, from a bee) or 甜蜜 (sweet), while 周 (zhou) very simply means week. It’s not a pre-existing Chinese phrase and is a little difficult to translate. Reading through the poem and understanding it gave me the context of this poem being about a relationship, and “mi” in this context referring to the relationship, thus making me pick something like “honey” over “sweet” as not only does it not destroy the integrity of “mi”, it makes sense in this context in English as well being a term of endearment. I then struggled with whether or not this title made sense before realizing the original title is just as vaguely abstract, so I left it as it is. Apart from the title, there’s also a line where I translate as “the serenity of Buddha” where in Chinese it is quite literally “the serenity of a fat person”, but it’s understood with cultural context that this “fat person” represents health, wealth, joy, and other positive concepts, much like Buddha. Unfortunately, in English, that translation doesn’t quite hold in the same way the Chinese does due to different societal views on body weight and image, and translating it as such skews the poem in a way it wasn’t meant to be skewed. Translating it as Buddha may skew the words more, but I feel it brings English speaking audiences closer to the original meaning of the poem.

          诱惑 (Temptation) was also a difficult poem to translate, as I feel the abstractions in the poem when translated suddenly read as awkward in a way it doesn’t in Chinese. I really struggled with trying to keep the English simple and not add extra things that weren’t in the Chinese, but the structure tempted me to cram in extra words that needn’t be there to make it feel less awkward. I’m still not entirely sure I’ve reached a balance between those things in that translation. This is something I actually generally struggled with across the board, I just feel it the most prominently in that poem.

        Another thing I would like to mention is context for the poem 图画展览会 (Art Exhibition). When I read this poem, due to the context of knowing the author as well as the Cultural Revolution being a fairly recent collective experience for the Chinese people, I almost immediately picked up on what Duo Duo was trying to frame in the poem, but I realized that it would be hard for non-Chinese people to pick up on that given the distinct lack of context in comparison. In Art Exhibition, the poem is painting a picture of the widespread propaganda posters of the Cultural Revolution, which looked a lot like this:

        With that in mind and the framing of this as an “art exhibition”, the poem suddenly becomes much clearer in political commentary. 

        With all this said, below are eleven of Duo Duo’s early poems that I have chosen to translate and feel passionate about. I hope they bring you on a journey in understanding, at least from one perspective in one brief snapshot, the attitudes of the time.

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Casey Loehr