Art Works Blog

Art Talk with Literature Translation Fellow Jennifer Feeley

When Jennifer Feeley was in high school, one of her creative writing teachers encouraged students to read as many books of poetry as possible. It was during forays to the library in search of poetry volumes that Feeley stumbled upon 100 Poems from the Chinese, translated by Kenneth Rexroth. From there, she devoured 100 More Poems from the Chinese, followed by David Young’s translations of T’ang Dynasty poets. “I fell in love with them, and wanted to be able to read the originals one day,” she said.

Today, Feeley not only can read the originals, but through her own translation work, she has opened up Chinese poetry and prose to millions of English-speaking readers. Her latest project, which will be supported by one of 25 newly announced NEA Literature Translation Fellowships, is to translate Mourning a Breast by celebrated Hong Kong-based author and poet Xi Xi. An unconventional compendium of prose, poetry, lists, illustrations, dictionary terms, and more, Mourning a Breast is a semi-autobiographical account of the author’s battle with breast cancer. We recently spoke with Feeley about her collaboration with Xi Xi, Hong Kong's literary traditions and nuances, and why literary translation is a deeply creative act.

NEA: While studying writing at Oberlin College, you said you came to realize that literary translation was a form of creative writing. I think there's a big misconception that translation is more of a scientific process—you're translating directly word for word. Can you talk about translation as a creative act?

JENNIFER FEELEY: It's definitely a creative act, especially in translating the work of Xi Xi. I started out by translating her poetry, and now I'm moving more into her fiction. She's an author whose work hinges on wordplay that is firmly rooted in the Chinese language, and that she uses as both a rhetorical device and for humorous effect. It seems impossible to translate such wordplay into English.

But I love a good challenge. One of the things I find so delightful about translating her work is that it forces me to think about translation as a creative art and not as something scientific. It forces me to think beyond the notion of semantic and syntactic equivalents, and to conjure up creative solutions that engage with English in a similar manner.

This happened a lot with her poems. One of her most famous poems plays on measure words in Chinese. So a piece of paper; a stick of gum. But unlike in English, every single noun in Chinese uses a specific classifier. This is a poem where she completely mismatches the classifiers and nouns, but for humorous effect. I had to find a way to play similar games in English. The very first line of the poem is "A [blank] of cabbage," and she's using a measure word that's normally used for coins and medallions. So what do we say in English? We say a head of cabbage. I thought, "Well, I'm going to say an ear of cabbage," because that signals to the reader what's going on. An English reader will know it's supposed to be an ear of corn or a head of cabbage. I tried to find similar mismatches in English throughout the poem. Xi Xi takes such delight in playing with Chinese. It's forced me to find similar delight in English. There's very little about it that's scientific, for better or for worse.

NEA: You mentioned that you've translated Xi Xi's poetry and are now moving into her fiction. What are the challenges of translating poetry as opposed to prose?

FEELEY: I thought it was going to be so much easier to translate her prose, and I was so incredibly wrong. One challenge about her poetry, other than the wordplay, is that she delights in music. I'd go to her fan pages, and a lot of her fans would say that they just loved the rhymes of these poems. So I knew I had to try and preserve this musicality in my translation.

With her prose, I don't necessarily have to deal with that aspect, though I still have to deal with the wordplay. But something else that’s very challenging for me about translating prose from Chinese is punctuation. Punctuation in Chinese is used very differently than it is in English. If I translated something into English from Chinese using the same punctuation, you'd have one very long, run-on sentence. Commas are often used the way we would use a period. I feel that I have to make that very big step to decide where to put the full stop. It feels very personal.

I look and see, “Well, is this an unusually long sentence in Chinese, or is this just a normal Chinese sentence?” I don't want to make it an exceptionally long sentence in English if it doesn't feel that way in Chinese. I don't want people to think these writers I'm translating are illiterate or have very bad grammar. I have to make these difficult choices, and it's hard. I just have to go with my intuition and hope that I'm serving the work as best as I can.

NEA: Through the years, you’ve developed a working relationship with Xi Xi. How would you describe your collaboration?

FEELEY: When I began to translate her work, I had no contact with her. She is notoriously private, so I never dreamed I would ever be able to get in touch with her, let alone meet her. One of the challenges is that when she was undergoing treatment for breast cancer, she lost mobility in her right arm and hand. So she doesn't do email anymore, and she doesn't write at the computer. She actually trained herself to become left-handed, and she writes out all of her work now with her left hand.

She has a very close friend, Ho Fuk Yan, who acts as her agent. If I have questions, I email him. He prints them out and takes them to Xi Xi, and then she either writes out the answers by hand and he types them up and sends them back to me, or she speaks her answers to him and he writes them down and then sends them back to me. So we have this intermediary.

But I've met her several times in Hong Kong, so I feel very fortunate. I think that it was once she read my translations of her poetry and she liked them that she trusted me enough to meet with me. Each time [I meet her], it feels like she's able to open up a bit more and be more comfortable. Especially with Mourning a Breast, because it's her most personal book, I think having her trust me and be comfortable with me is crucial.

NEA: Why do you think Mourning a Breast is so important for us to have in English?

FEELEY: To the best of my knowledge, it's one of the first books written in Chinese—if not the very first—to address the issue of breast cancer. Writing about illness has been rather taboo in Chinese culture, especially something like breast cancer. So I think just for that it's very important.

But beyond that—I hate to use this word—but there's something universal about it. This is an illness that affects everyone, and she says this in the preface. We still don't have a cure for this disease. I think that everybody regardless of where they're from somehow has experience with breast cancer, whether they've had it themselves, or whether someone close to them has had it. So I think from that viewpoint, it's also really important.

But this is quite different than [a standard] memoir; it's not a conventional narrative. She explores the topic from a variety of perspectives. In one of the chapters called “The Body's Language,” she ends up comparing literary translation to learning how to decode the body's signals. There's another chapter where she spends a lot of time talking about typography. She has one chapter where she looks at the significance of women's breasts in Western art, and she ties that into breast cancer. She brings in this variety of approaches, and in the process you get a sense of health education in Hong Kong and Chinese attitudes toward illness. Then there are chapters that seem more typical about going through chemotherapy and being in the hospital. So she manages to take this very serious, heavy topic and look at it from unusual perspectives, and she also brings a light touch to it. It's not a sad book. Ultimately, it's dealing with this very important topic in new ways. As a literary work, it stands up as being very impressive.

NEA: You mentioned that talking about illness, and specifically breast cancer, is taboo in Chinese culture. How do you go about conveying these types of cultural norms that might be unfamiliar to English-language readers?

FEELEY: I'm fortunate that Xi Xi herself brings this up in the preface of the book, how cancer is something that is not talked about in Chinese culture, and hasn't been given a lot of attention. I hope that even just through translating that it becomes clear to readers.

But in general with her work, cultural norms haven’t been something so challenging to translate. Her work has often been described as fairy tale realism. Because of that, it deceptively doesn’t seem Hong Kong-related or Chinese-related. In fact it is, because she might be using the fairy tale of “Cinderella” or “Snow White” as a metaphor for Hong Kong and the handover that happened in 1997. But you'd only know that if you knew something about Hong Kong. If you don't, it just seems like some sort of fairy tale.

NEA: Is this sort of magical realism a part of Hong Kong's literary tradition, or is it particular to Xi Xi?

FEELEY: It's not particular to her. A lot of younger Hong Kong writers are writing surrealist tales. I was on a panel with some of them last year, and they talked about how not writing explicitly about Hong Kong, and inventing fake names for it or not naming it at all, gives them more freedom to reimagine its history. It's definitely not uncommon.

NEA: Talking more about what may or may not make Hong Kong's literature unique to Hong Kong, I was also wondering if you could talk a little bit about how language and dialect might play into this?

FEELEY: The majority of Hong Kong literature is written in something that is called Standard Written Chinese. Standard Written Chinese is not a language that anyone really speaks, but it's a language that is used for writing. Hong Kong authors tend to write in this language, so it does not reflect the fact that most of them speak Cantonese in their day-to-day life. It has a different grammar, and often a different vocabulary, than Cantonese. It makes their work accessible to readers outside of Hong Kong, especially in Taiwan. Hong Kong is so small; allowing them to have this readership in Taiwan expands the potential audience. I would like to point out though that Cantophone literature is on the rise, especially among graphic novelists.

But I don't know Cantonese and in most cases I don't need to know it to translate Xi Xi's work. It's very, very rare that I come upon something in Xi Xi's work that is related to Cantonese, and on those few occasions, I consult with a good friend who's both a native Cantonese speaker and a huge Xi Xi fan. When I was translating her poetry, I did ask a friend to read some of it in Cantonese so that I could hear the sounds, and I do check Cantonese dictionaries at times, especially when I need to translate wordplay based on sound. What is more common is that Xi Xi may use a term or expression that is specific to Hong Kong. I know some other Hong Kong writers who've been told by their editor, "Oh, your Chinese seems too strange. It seems too specific to Hong Kong. We have to make it more accessible to readers." So you have this very weird situation where authors are writing in a language that they don't really speak, and even the dialogue that they write for their characters is not how people would really speak in Hong Kong. It's strange. For me as a translator, of course, it makes it easier because I don't know Cantonese, though I hope to learn it one day. But when you think about it as a reader, and I'm sure for the writers, it must be very alienating in a way—there's this level of estrangement from the text that they're writing.

NEA: How important is it to understand Hong Kong's culture in order to translate literature from the area?

FEELEY: In terms of the content, it is important. Especially for writers who are not directly writing about Hong Kong, you need to understand the situation. I think Mourning a Breast might be the only book where Xi Xi actually refers to Hong Kong as Hong Kong; usually she calls Hong Kong either "the floating city" or "Fertile Soil Town." "The floating city" comes from a painting by [René] Magritte. You know, it's in between. It really has no place to land. This is, of course, referring to the fact that nobody knew what would happen to Hong Kong when it returned to China. Even now, Hong Kong is this weird place that is technically part of China, but to get between mainland China and Hong Kong, you have to go through customs and immigration checkpoints. But it's not its own country. It's this kind of ambiguous space. So she writes about it as "the floating city."

When she calls it "Fertile Soil Town," it refers to the fact that after the Opium Wars, when the British came into Hong Kong, Hong Kong was really a muddy village. But look at what sprang out of that mud: this vibrant, cosmopolitan metropolis. It became a world financial center. So in many stories and novels where she writes about "Fertile Soil Town," she talks about how the soil was so fertile that all of these great things emerged from it. So you have to understand Hong Kong's history and its unique situation to really grasp that. If you didn't understand Hong Kong when translating, you might miss something or decide not to translate it, or translate it differently.

NEA: In your grant application, you described your translation process as method acting. Can you elaborate on that?

FEELEY: I have two metaphors I like to use for translation. One is the translator as method actor. I like to think about if the writer were writing in English, how would she write it? What turns of phrase might she use? English has a different texture than Chinese; it has a whole different history. I like to think that if Xi Xi were writing in English, she might take advantage of some of it. For example, I was translating a poem of hers called "Frankenstein." In her poem, Dr. Frankenstein reopens his business, but now he's cloning humans instead of making monsters by assembling body parts. Later, she's talking about how expensive it must be to purchase these clones. The Chinese just says "It's very expensive." But when I was translating this, I couldn't resist, so I translated it as, "Naturally, it will cost an arm and a leg." It fit so well with the poem to add this wordplay. I like to think that if Xi Xi were writing in English, that's what she would've done.

So that's what I mean about the translator as method actor. When translating Xi Xi, I find myself reading a lot of things that she reads. I end up reading Günter Grass or Milan Kundera or [Italo] Calvino and other works because these are big influences on her. You really start to feel an affinity with the author. I like to joke that I cannot translate authors who are darker, because I would probably kill myself because I get so immersed in their world.

My other metaphor for translation is to think of translation like knitting. I think of the original text as the pattern the author has made, let’s say [for a] hat. My translation is looking at the pattern and making my own hat. Of course it’s going to turn out differently depending on different factors. What kind of needles I use—do I use bamboo or metal? What’s the needle size? What kind of yarn do I use? What’s the weight of the yarn? What kind of fibers? What kind of color? I always drop stitches and add stitches—these are the accidental mistakes that happen. Sometimes they make the text better; sometimes they're just mistakes.

I use that to think about the labor in translation. It's so easy to say, “You're not the real author.” But in fact when you're the translator, that's 100 percent your labor. If I'm knitting a hat, the hat is 100 percent my labor. Yes, I'm basing it off this pattern that someone else wrote and of course it's going to look different than the product they originally made. But the hat I've made is all my work. I have the sore fingers.

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