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We're really pleased to welcome translator Annie Sheng to tell us more about her work, including her translation of Ko Hua Chen's (陳克華) 'Celestial Nirvana - Written By the Curiosity Rover Upon Landing on Mars' 星球湼槃─為好奇號登陸火星而寫  — our first Samovar poetry translation! And we'll be seeing her again very soon...

What first got you into translation? And into poetry translation in particular?

I really enjoy the movement across cultures and societies, and facilitating understanding and dialog across various perspectives. Both anthropology, translation, and literature — areas of pursuit in my life — incorporate that kind of dynamic flow (though one might say with different sets of analytical, theoretical and artistic frameworks involved).

I really also enjoy learning — and translation involves jumping into a world headlong and finding a way around. I started translating Spanish to English in microfinance many years ago, engaging in the stories of small farmers, store owners, and many small businesses across Central and South America. Other projects include language advising in a short film on Chinese immigrants and my current endeavor of collecting and sifting through anthropological fieldwork conducted mostly in Chinese and Japanese.

As for poetry translation, there is real joy and agony — perhaps a beautiful agony — in trying to render that kind of lyricism and word play into another language. It’s not just word choice, but keeping the verses/lines more or less intact, and not just the verses but the overall sound and quality of the poem, in addition to the many interpretations and innuendos that underlie each image.

Is there something about the 'speculative' that you find particularly interesting when translating?

Yes, certainly, there is something wonderful about translating speculative literature and reading and creating speculative literature in general. Poetry is very expressive and given its form, quite malleable. In that sense, I think the art weds well with speculative themes, since poetry offers a very accommodating space to fold in the quirks and imaginative flairs of science fiction, magic realism, fantasy, etc.

I think many have stated that fiction in general, and especially speculative forms of art, allows us to explore and critique areas of humanity, culture and society in an oblique, yet somewhat direct way that may be even more poignant than stating it outright using strictly realistic examples. Of course, I would also emphasize the importance of anthropological studies into existing cultures and narratives of the everyday.

I think having different means to come at these really pithy questions is the best way to approach understanding and analyzing the full range of human expression and experience.

Can you tell us a bit about what attracted you to the work of Ko Hua Chen? His poems often blend Buddhist text and imagery alongside contemporary language and science – what kind of challenges does this present for a translator?

I really enjoy the narrative element to Ko Hua Chen’s poems. Many fold in a very pointed story or image, or well, multiple images in fact, but with one overarching current that charges them. His incorporation of Buddhist thought that runs alongside his very acute sense of scientific literacy (likely informed by his role as a professional doctor) adds elements to the poetry that make it very personal to him, but there is also a kind of understandable resonance (some might say universality) to them — that explores the human condition and the fate of our race as a species (suffering, loneliness, calmness, rebirth/continuance/cycles, etc.). There are a lot of unknowns on Earth, in ourselves and society, and in the universe beyond, from the workings of quantum mechanics to the depths of the human brain to the currently-ungraspable/unobservable past and future. His poetry navigates these realms of ambiguity, while drawing from these teachings and traditions that stem from Asia. In "Celestial Nirvana", Buddhist references are relatively upfront.

But, I would say that in terms of challenges presented by the incorporation of Buddhist thought in translation, I did not face much in this poem since, luckily, words and concepts of this nature have found its way into English language — terms such as Nirvana and meditation.

There are of course many challenges in translating some phrases and concepts in Chinese into English in general. Once such examaple is 亙古 gèngǔ. It literally means “throughout time" or  “from ancient time to present” but I feel like using the word “ancient” may mean “no longer present” and words like “perpetual” and “eternal” may entail a future state that may be implied but not actually stated, so I settled for “timeless.” It is not an exact transfer, but oftentimes that’s just impossible or not the best way to go about translation.

Another tricky area is the way in which two characters in Chinese are put together to mean one concept (compound word) , as in  “jìng/zhǐ…” “靜 /止……”at the end of his poem which could mean stillness, quiescent, dormant, or any number of words based on context). The word is broken up in a stanza break in clever way, where the 靜 character means silence and the 止 character literally means stop. With the verse break and all, it took me awhile fretting about, thinking of possibilities, before ultimately settling on “silence,” which has the sense of “stillness,” but with a more evocative touch—it recalls the earlier auditory sensation of the “ceaseless echo.” I also decided on putting the word “silence” on the next verse, instead of splitting the word “si-/lence,” which seems to me less elegant and without much reason in English. A part of me still wonders if “stillness” is a better choice, but you can spend a lifetime trying to agonize over one word and at some point you have to make a choice!

There are basic debates/schools/strategies of translation, for example, foreignization vs. domestication — which is a whole other beast in itself!

Can you tell us anything more about the speculative poetry scene in Taiwan? How is Ko Hua Chen's work received?

Ko Hua Chen is one of the seminal figures and a huge influence in terms of science fiction/speculative poetry in Taiwan, even if some of his works might resist classification. Chen also traverses genres and much of his work, including newer work, falls under quite a wide rubric of thematic classification.

I can point to a couple of different articles that discuss the speculative poetry scene in Taiwan. One is an article in Humanitas Taiwanica called, "Toward 'Post-human Poetry': Views of Science Fiction in Chen Ke Hua’s Poetry” written in Chinese by Liu Cheng-chen, a professor at National Tsing Hua University (2013). (Note: In the article, Ko Hua Chen’s name is romanized as “Chen Ke Hua.”) Liu states in his abstract, “The long science fiction poems of Chen’s early period reflected a modernist spirit, breaking the then popular trends of narrative poetry.”

Professor David Uher (Department of Asian Studies, Philosophical Faculty, Palacký University in Olomouc) also has an article in Anthropologia Integra called, “Trends in the Development of Science Fiction Literature in Taiwan” (2010, written in English), in which he situates Chen’s sci-fi poem Xīngqiú jìshì 「星球紀事」 (Chronicle of the Stars) within a larger timeline of science fiction literature in Taiwan. Their articles are much more exhaustive in terms of sci-fi literature in Taiwan in general and would be great sources for anyone looking to learn more!

You translate from Chinese, Japanese and Spanish – can you tell us a bit about some of the specific challenges and pleasures that come from translating from each of these languages?

Yes, I’ve done translation work in Chinese, Japanese and Spanish — and a lot of my professional interest in these languages also comes from anthropological exploration and research.

Language-wise, Spanish is the closest to English, but of course there are still areas that do not translate so easily. Idioms, of course, and cultural references are big tricky areas.

The word order of Japanese and levels of politeness and multiple ways to refer to “I” (gendered, with different inflections of roughness and delicacy), etc. present a challenge in translation, as do the many ways in which subjects of a sentence can be dropped in favor of understanding through context. In presenting voices from Japan in my anthropological articles and writing, I find myself adding in pronouns and details here and there to provide context to the dialog which could otherwise be gleaned by the overall conversation at the moment or in situ with a general understanding of Japanese history or culture.

In Chinese, there are the four-character 成語 chengyu idiomatic expressions, as well as the two-word concepts I mentioned earlier. Past and present tense are not denoted by conjugations of the verb, so sometimes there’s some ambiguity there, too. And, of course, there’s always the challenge of historical and cultural references. There are probably more challenges that I’m sure many other translators have agonized over and have probably blogged about!! But, the joy is crafting something that you feel best represents the text—and there is some satisfaction maneuvering through rough waters (or around solar flares?) with deft.

Do you have a wish-list of poets/ authors you'd like to translate? What are you working on at the moment?

No wish list of poets per se, but I enjoy the minimalism of scifaikus and there might be something coming up in that nature! (Note from the editors: watch this space!)

I really enjoy the breadth of human expression and if there’s something that stirs in me when reading — and it’s a piece that begs wider audience and has a kick of challenge to it — then I’ll consider taking it on.


Annie Sheng is an Asian-American writer and researcher, currently conducting anthropological fieldwork in Asia. Her translation projects include works translated from Chinese, Japanese and Spanish. She expresses deep gratitude to JouChieh Lee for all her advice and support in the realm of literature from this region. Annie hopes such beautiful works continue to gain exposure through cross-cultural collaborations.
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