Ming Di (penname for Mindy Zhang) is a Chinese poet and translator living in the United States, born and grew up in China, pursued graduate studies at Boston University before moving to California where she writes in Chinese and publishes in China and Taiwan. Author of six collections in Chinese: D Minor Etudes (poetry), Berlin Story (photo-poems), Days Floating on Footage (poems and essays on movies), Chords Breaking (poetry), Art of Splitting (poetry), and Selected Poems of Ming Di. She has completed four volumes of translation from English to Chinese: The Writer as Migrant (2010), Missed Time (2011), The Book of Things (to be published), etc., and two more in progress. The Book of Cranes that she co-translated from Chinese into English will be published by Tupelo Press (USA). She is co-founder and editor of Poetry East West, a Chinese-English bilingual literary magazine published in Los Angeles and Beijing.
PI: What is the most challenging aspect of translating poetry?
MZ: The hardest part of translation is to go inside the mind of the poet and find out what he did NOT intend to say. I like to present ambiguities and multiple readings but I also try to avoid misrepresentation. For instance, if the poet hated rhythm and musicality in poetry, making the translation musical would be misleading. Usually one can get it right linguistically in the first few drafts but I would spend more time to get the tone right. There are always several choices to translate a line, I would try to bring out the implied, the suggested, the hidden meaning and show the intention, the emotion, the mood. What drives the poem forward, the motif and echoes, the rhythm and variations, the passion or reasoning, the word play, the visual shifting, etc., should be reflected in the translation.
PI: Do you prefer translating poems from English to Chinese or vice versa?
MZ: Definitely from English to Chinese. I write mostly in Chinese… I didn’t translate poetry into English until I met some of the most interesting poets in China at poetry conferences eight years ago and got to know them better in recent years. I find their work fascinating but they are hardly known outside China. In the past three decades, only the “Obscure” or “Misty” poets and a small number of Post-Misty poets from China have been translated into English, but the newer generation is very different. The new poetry in China speaks more to me. So I started translating Chinese poems and collaborated with American poet Afaa Weaver but we progressed very slowly. I was highly motivated but there was no such need, until I met some poets from other countries at Struga Poetry Festival in Macedonia— their interest in contemporary Chinese poetry encouraged me greatly. At the present time I translate both ways.
PI: Can you describe to us your own process of translation?
MZ: I try to find out what the poet intends to say at a deeper and more sophisticated level. I imagine where and when the poem was composed, what went through the poet’s mind, who he wanted to speak to, and how he or she was speaking. I put myself into that situation and start working… Revision is important. Reading beyond the poems is also important. I look for reference materials such as interviews and reviews (or biographies) to get to know more about the poets. With the Young Poets Series, I write from personal interaction and observation— each set of poems is accompanied by some write ups, so readers in China would understand them more.
PI: Do you like collaborating with others in the process?
MZ: From Chinese to English, yes, absolutely. From English to Chinese, no. When translating from Chinese into English, I enjoy working with English-speaking poets and explaining the aesthetics and driving force behind the Chinese poems, and they would make my draft into more colloquial English. Communicating is important in the process. I’ve worked with Neil Aitken on more than 100 poems and this is how we revise a poem: I talk and talk and talk, meaning I speak out the line in different ways, until he says “That’s better.” Then he reads I listen, he reads different versions until I say “That’s it.” There are many ways to render a line, the subtleties of Chinese language and cultural reference embodied in poetry can be explored endlessly.
When translating into Chinese, I like to collaborate with the authors. For instance, I’ve asked Jan Wagner, Nikola Madzirov and Sonata Paliulyte to provide literal translation from their languages (German, Macedonian, Lithuanian) into English word by word, line by line, and explain to me the morphological and syntactical features. I don’t just rely on the English translation which can be paraphrase, I try to see how they built their poems in their native tongues.
PI: And how do you choose which poets or poems to translate?
MZ: The good ones. The unknown good ones. The not-yet-translated good ones.
I used to translate big names, but in recent years I enjoy being the first Chinese translator of young poets such as Marko Pogačar, Valzhyna Mort, Nikola Madzirov, Jan Wagner, Sonata Paliulyte, Ivan Herceg, Tomica Bajsic, Damir Šodan, Ramsey Nasr, etc. etc. about 40 of them. Some I met, some were recommended to me by other poets, some I found in magazines. I don’t care about “fame”, I choose interesting poetry of diverse styles. When I first translated Jan Wagner and Aleš Šteger, I didn’t know they were well known in their countries and in Europe.
As to translating Chinese poets into English, I choose currently active poets who are producing real interesting stuff different from what’s been introduced elsewhere. Some of them have been translated before but I try to bring out their unusual quality such as Jiang Hao, Jiang Tao, Hu Hudong, Lü Yue, Lü De’an, Li Li… some of them have not been translated ever such as Lin Zi, Pan Xichen, Jiang Li, Qiu Qixian… Of course there are other good poets such as Xiao Kaiyu, Xi Chuan, Han Bo, Xi Yabing, Sun Lei, Lan Lan, Zheng Xiaoqiong but other translators have been working on them.
Which poems to translate? The decision may take extensive reading. For instance, before I started compiling and translating the Book of Cranes, I read the author’s seven published books and two unpublished books, I chose the ones from different time period to show the evolving stages of the poetic development. With the Missed Time that was published in Taiwan last year, I selected eighty poems from the author’s three poetry books. The selection was based on how well the poems represent the author’s overall aesthetics. I also discussed with the authors during the selection and translation process. If I translate an entire book, then there is no question of selection, just the entire book. But for the majority of poets that I only translated a few poems of, the criterion is which poems would sound interesting and fresh in the target language. I like unusual imagery and expressions.
PI: There have been many political movements in modern China such as the Cultural Revolution and others. Have any of these events affected your writing in any way?
MZ: The Cultural Revolution (1966-1976) affected my growing up and coming of age. The 1989 incident influenced my writing tremendously. Other movements affected me indirectly such as the “anti-rightist” (1957-1958) as my mother and my sister were deeply traumatized by it. The war and 1949 were brought up by my grandma constantly as she couldn’t get it over. I had a collection of my grandfather’s old photos that spoke to me like nightmare— I only met him by his grave. My sister didn’t speak Chinese when she was brought back to China at age five but she joined the Red Guard against my father who she saw as an enemy… Political tragedies impact me from very early on but how to turn the emotion into power in poetry is hard— I didn’t have the strength to do so until I reached middle age— I grow very slowly and mature very late in writing. I don’t like my early writing and I don’t like other Chinese poets’ early writing either— emotional outburst is good only when it’s combined with craftsmanship. In recent years I try to look beyond the political events and look more into myself and into ancient history and mythologies— modern history is too distant for me to grasp the true meaning and too close to get the true essence either. China is only one spot in the world map. 1989 is only one year in the human calendar even although it’s the most tragic year in our upgrowing. There is so much more to write about, endless. But yes, deep inside me I have been drawn back to 1989 again and again. But I try to resist it. There is something larger than history. I resist the term “1989 Generation” even though everyone writing today in China belongs to it: some were already mature poets in 1989 but still affected by it (such as the misty poets in China), some were college or graduate students in 1989 (such as me), some were born in 1989 without knowing much of it (such as the youngest poets in China today). I resist the convenient term because poetry is beyond any boundaries, names, schools, labels, especially politically related terms. The more political we are, the more complicated our poetry should be— political background brings another dimension to poetry, it gives an underline power, an enigma, a bridge to something else, it does everything but limiting. If you ask, that’s how political movement in China “affected” my writing— it makes me see the weakness in my writing and it makes me want to write something more meaningful. In fact, I resent political poetry unless it’s transparent to other issues in human life.
PI: Has the translation process affected how you write your own poetry?
MZ: Not really, but maybe subconsciously. When I first started, I translated Emily Dickinson, Edna St. Vincent Millay, Moore, Bishop, Ruth Stone, etc., etc. They influenced me as a poet in a way but not directly in my writing. I resist influence from women writers, no matter how great they are. There is a masculine force in my feminine blood that wants to give a voice. I think I have been more influenced by Thomas Hardy and D. H. Lawrence, the sensitivity and vulnerability inside them influenced me as much as that in T.S. Eliot and W.H. Auden. It’s the subtle female power inside male writers that attracts me and influences me. Chinese poet and critic Zang Di says that “It’s the woman inside a man that reads poetry, and it’s another woman inside a woman that reads poetry.” I agree and disagree. I would say today that it’s the man inside me that writes poetry, it’s the other woman inside me that reads poetry (although I said something different in another interview); when it comes to translation, it’s the woman inside me that reads the original poem and it’s the man inside me that translates it— both forces are at work in translation, they work together in harmony but they resist each other underneath— the writing tries to resist the influence from the reading. That is to say, if I present my own voice in my translation, then the translation process doesn’t influence my writing. But I hide my personal voice in translation, I try to imitate the author’s voice— male or female— so translation process does influence my writing. However, poetry writing is not as simple as black or white, male or female. Voices of poetry are as rich and complicated as a full spectrum of colors, full wavelengths of lights, translators navigate in the sea, face the waves and cross them. Translation broadens the view, the vision, the horizon— that’s how it affects my own poetry writing.
PI: Can you tell us about your bilingual literary magazine, Poetry East West, and what kind of poems you publish?
MZ: Poetry East West is a small independent magazine with a focus on cross-translation of poetry from other languages into Chinese and from Chinese into English (and into other languages whenever possible). All editors are poets and translators fully engaged in poetry: Zang Di teaches poetry at Beijing University and has translated Rilke and several contemporary poets; Mai Mang (Huang Yibing) has translated Duo Duo’s poems into English and nominated him for the 2010 Neustadt International Prize for Literature; Yang Xiaobin has translated Tomaž Šalamun and John Ashbery; Neil Aitken has translated many Chinese poets into English; Wang Ao has translated Wallace Stevens and Hart Crane, etc. There are also excellent Chinese poets-translators from different parts of the world contributing regularly such as Fan Jinghua from Singapore who has translated about twenty poets including Derek Walcott, Adam Zagajewski W. S. Mervin and Paul Muldoon; Chen Li from Taiwan who has translated many poets including Wislawa Szymborska, Yang Lian from London who has translated contemporary British poets, Meng Ming from Paris who has translated French poets from French and Paul Celan from German, and Li Li who has translated Tomas Tranströmer from Swedish. Some wonderful poets from other countries are translating Chinese poetry into their languages such as Rupprecht Mayer (Germany), Rati Saxena and Sudeep Sen (India), Maryam Ala-Amjadi (Iran), Francois Roy (Mexico), Boel Schenlaer (Sweden), Tozan Alkan (Turkey), Anna Lombardo and Annelisa Addolorato (Italy), Damir Šodan and Miroslav Kirin (Croatia), etc.
What do we publish? Everything related to poetry: poems, critical reviews, interviews, essays, and poetry talk (a revived genre from classical Chinese literature) from well known and unknown poets around the world. What kind of poems? Anything interesting. The special feature of PEW is our “each-other-ness”: Poets Translating Each Other, Poets Critiquing Each Other, etc. This each-other-ness can be achieved in many different ways, the purpose is to promote cross-understanding and expand into poetic dialogues. “Each-other” in Chinese context is very broad, not excluding at all. We publish (or will publish) many other poets from all over China from the most unknown (but good) ones to the most celebrated ones thanks to the wonderful translation by sinologists such as Jonathan Stalling, Christopher Lupke, Lucas Klein, Denis Mair, Nick Admussen, to name just a few, and through the translation by PEW editors. Poetry East West is published in Los Angels and Beijing twice a year, a paper magazine with a simple webpage: http://poetryeastwest.com/. We are growing slowly— join us, and grow with us. And be patient with us as we are seriously behind the schedule due to working on an anthology…
Thank you Mindy!
MZ: Thank you Masashi for your interest and for your efforts in bringing more voices out to the poetry community.
Interview conducted by Masashi Musha