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Interview of Jennifer Tseng 2011
By Aaron Crippen for the Beijing journal Dear Whistle
AC: When translating poems from English to Chinese, sometimes preserving the original word and image order is awkward. Can you tell your translator, how important is the order of images and lines in your poems?
JT: The order of images and lines in any one of my poems is an order that I have arrived at after much listening and scrutinizing. It is of the utmost importance. That said, I do such listening and scrutinizing (for the most part) in English. I think in English and I write in English, so the order makes sense for what translator Jin Di has called “the genius of the English language.” The Chinese language has, of course, its own genius, one that I assume a Chinese translator is best equipped to exploit. I am not a literalist, especially when it comes to translation. (Do we not have machines that can accomplish literal translations?) It is perhaps no coincidence that one of the earliest meanings of the word “translation” is “to die,” both in the sense of being transported from this life to the next and in the sense of one’s life as one knows it coming to an end. In this way, my poems are ready to die; their English language lives have been lived and they are yours to deliver to another (perhaps more heavenly) state.
AC: Tsinghua is mostly a science university and there is a general feeling here that the study of literature is not “practical.” Is there anything practical about the study and creation of literature?
JT: If one looks at one’s life as a preparation for one’s death, literature becomes infinitely more practical. It has the capacity to provide us with the tools to face death squarely: compassion for self and other, knowledge of oneself as part of a greater whole, the power to communicate and the power to accept worlds beyond one’s own. Literature gives one a sense of being accompanied and yet it also teaches one how to be alone.
AC: What influence, if any, does your Chinese ancestry have on your work or your life?
JT: My collection of essays-in-progress My Father, My America: Essays on Language, Literature and Culture begins to address this question, which is difficult to succinctly answer here. One crude but swift answer is that my “Chinese ancestry” has exerted enough influence to occasion the writing of at least one book. It would be more precise to say that “my Chinese ancestry” influences my work and my life always vis à vis its interactions with other factors such as location, cultural environment, demographics, language, the presence of other ancestries etc. all of which are constantly in flux. My “Chinese ancestry” exerts a peculiarly, paradoxically heavy influence in part because it was given to me by my father thousands of miles away from China. My father, traveling alone, carried his culture like an invisible suitcase that he then handed to me (and to my sister). Ever since, I have been trying to see that suitcase, to feel its weight, to understand its varied and sometimes forgotten contents.
AC: About ninety percent of the English majors here at Tsinghua University are girls. This suggests that the study of English is somehow a female enterprise. Do you have any thoughts on special qualities that women bring to literature or special opportunities that literature offers women?
JT: Historically, women have been consigned to (or awarded with, depending on how you look at it) the role of helping others. It has long been acceptable for women to work as mothers, schoolteachers, nurses, nuns, librarians etc.—as those whose primary task is to enable others to succeed. My guess is that most of the ninety percent who go on to use their English majors will become teachers. If there is something female about the enterprise of studying English it is closely linked to social structures, the feminization of the teaching profession and the current predominance of the English language.
As for the “special qualities” that women may bring to literature, or the “special opportunities literature may offer women,” I am not an essentialist. Whether female or male, every writer whose voice has been silenced or ignored, has the potential to bring her own sense of urgency to literature. There’s a charge to the telling of a story that has long been suppressed, an intimacy to a voice that speaks to us as a last resort, a voice without any visible audience, a voice that, even as it speaks to us, speaks alone. Literature offers such writers and readers a glimpse at communion, at fellowship/sisterhood; it holds up both a mirror and a window.
AC: We’ve talked in our classes about Allen Grossman’s claim that poems come from “an occasion generative to speech.” Is it fair to say that family relations and social concerns generate some of your poems?
AC: What usually inspires you to write?
JT: Charge. Sensation. Recognition. Memory. Encounter. Sound. Color. Music. Image. An acute sense of the passage of time. Death. Pleasure.
AC: Do you rely on inspiration or are you more deliberate about writing poems?
JT: I rely deliberately on inspiration. That is, I do what I can to meet regularly with my work. To a large extent, I believe Kafka: “You do not need to leave your room, remain sitting at your table and listen. Do not even listen, simply wait, be quite still and solitary. The world will freely offer itself to you to be unmasked, it has no choice. It will roll in ecstasy at your feet.” I try to allow for that.
AC: What’s a question I should have asked you, and what is your answer to that question?
JT: There is no question you should have asked, but I do have three questions for you and/or the translators. What is your mission as a translator?
AC: My first mission is to make the translation stand on its own merit as a literary work. It should have a tone and type of beauty similar to that of its source text; it should retain the cohesion of images that is in its source; its lines should function as units like they do in the source. The order of images in the translation should replicate as much as possible that in the source text. Poets in particular order images to convey meaning in the most concise way possible. And, for example, the image of a baby followed by the image of a woman suggests one thing—aging—while the image of woman followed by the image of a baby suggests something else—birth. At least, the two image sequences are not the same, and we cannot freely shuffle them. So I am kind of a literalist, unapologetically, for there will never be a machine that can translate poems as well as humans can.
JT: Do you approach the translation of a poem with a sense of fidelity? If so, to what or to whom?
AC: I have a strong sense of fidelity to the author. Translation is a selfless task. I gain from it the joy of the exercise, the satisfaction of making literature, and the goods of publication. But I do not seek self-expression through translation. Students have complained that my method of translation turns them into machines. But no machine can do what they do. And if it is self-expression they seek, they should be writing works rather than translating them. I consider translation an exercise in Zen selflessness. The more I as a translator become invisible in the translating process, the truer and more diverse my translations become. A selfless translator can transmit different styles of different writers; a self-expressive translator will make every poet sound like himself. Trust the writer, trust literature: these are the credos of the translator.
JT: Susan Sontag said, “…Translation is about difference. A way of coping with, and ameliorating, and yes, denying difference—even if…it is also a way of asserting difference.” As a translator, with this in mind, what is your relationship to difference?
AC: It seems to me that Sontag’s words apply as much to writing as they do to translating. Allen Grossman puts it succinctly when he discusses the “immiscibility of minds.” He argues that the premise of poetry (like the premise of translation, I contend) is the acknowledgement of the difference of minds, which necessitates a medium for communication between them, i.e. poetry (and translation). The reader will never precisely know the poet’s mind, regardless of what language it’s expressed in. Nevertheless, the poet and the translator both deny difference—or rather say affirm common ground—enough to believe that valuable meaning can be communicated from one mind to another. Translation is thus a loving act, in that it present as valuable the image of one mind—the poet’s—to another mind—the reader’s, for the sake of the reader. The image of the translator is largely absent from this process, which he facilitates out of his love of the poet and love for the reader.