I translate poetry because I cannot resist its charm, and because I wish others who do not know the language in which it is written can also appreciate its beauty. The translator’s ego is big here despite the good will, but the process turns out to be most humbling especially when it comes to “reverse translation,” that is, from Mandarin—my mother tongue—to English (Ekaterina Petrova). In order to render MA Hui’s contemporary rewriting of Tsangyang Gyatso’s seventeenth-century poems while sustaining “the integrity of the source culture,” as Bill Johnson would say, I need to “humbly and practically” learn the other language (Gayatri C. Spivak). I study the anatomy of English poetry—reading Mary Oliver’s A Poetry Handbook and consulting other poets, for instance—when translating MA Hui in order to choose the most appropriate figures of speech, mechanisms of spacing, punctuating, and rhyming for the English version. This process of translation is a journey toward otherness. (See the seven translated poems in Ellipses, No. 91-92. 2021.)
Poetry is only untranslatable when the translator forsakes her power of creating poetry. In other words, to a translator, it is a myth that poetry is untranslatable. The charm of poetry owns to its specific, provincial linguistic and cultural identity. To sustain the poetic charm in a new language, the translator needs to break free from the linguistic confinement of the original to reproduce the artistic magnetism in a new form. The translator is the Muse of universes here, clapping her hands to rearrange “the alphabet of particles” so that she can rebuild a new poetic space (Alice Major). She may let go in her creation some alliterations, sibilance, or metaphors loaded with cultural specificities, but she takes care to keep the soul of the original poem alive and makes sure that it is also appealing to the readers of the new language.
When translating my own poem, “Also a Stranger,” I see myself rewriting some lines. Instead of saying “postmodern space/is ravaged and fragmented,” I have “The desire to conquer ravages/our home, sweet home.” I need “postmodern” to articulate the criticism in the Mandarin version but find that—along with the passive voice—it harms the poetic nature of the English verses. “The desire to conquer” would suffice instead in the English context as it conjures up colonization in readers’ mind. Self-translation, in this case, highlights the translator’s role as a poet.