Yi Feng on translating Shuguang Zhang

Yi Feng

on translating Shuguang Zhang

It seems that every poet at least once writes about poetry and poetics in a poem, if not several. Shuguang Zhang’s 《一首诗》(“A Poem”) in particular strikes me, since at the beginning of each stanza, it negates itself by saying “a poem is not a poem.” However, after reading the poem, I think that it defines what a poem is precisely and accurately. 一首诗, by negation, actually values and emphasizes the ambiguity and multiplicity of meanings within a poem, as well as indicates the importance of readers in the reading of a poem. Zhang’s imagery reminds me of T. S. Eliot’s Wasteland which presents images of “rubble,” a “wasteland,” and “rock[s]” Meanwhile, 《一首诗》also contains many traditional Chinese poetic features, with images commonly found in Tang Dynasty poetry, such as “boat[s],” “mountain[s],” “cloud[s],” and the legendary “Wangchuan.” When translating this poem, I tried to make my English translation align closely with the original poem. For instance, I used a direct translation of Wangchuan River, a mythical river between the living world and the dead world, and provided a footnote for context. I also tried to combine my understanding of the poem with the meanings present within it. For instance, the direct translation of “任凭波涛把你带到哪里” is “allowing waves to bring you anywhere.” My choice of “nowhere” rather than “anywhere” here indicates that poetry brings you to a place that is remote and beyond your imagination. In the last line “你在上面雕刻出人形,” the word “上面” means “on,” yet I translate it as “into” in an effort to imply that the rock actually becomes a human instead of just a human figure — just as a poem becomes what it is after it is read.

I love this poem since it shows different perspectives about love, nature and aesthetics. The title includes the name Nabokov, which is a reference to Vladimir Nabokov, a famous Russian-American novelist whose work Lolita will perhaps come to the reader’s mind. There is a sense of intertextuality in this poem. Shuguang Zhang’s 《纳博科夫的蝴蝶》(“Nabokov’s Butterfly”) ponders over the topics such as what love is, the relationship between nature and human beings, as well as the diversity of aesthetics. We can see Zhang’s masterful writing, in which he fuses scenes from everyday life with images of nature and aesthetics. When translating this poem, I try to replicate the original’s by using simple and everyday language. I keep the Chinese onomatopoeia “哗哗” (huahua), the dynamic sound of running water in my English translation. Additionally, I use many prepositional phrases such as “in the distance,” “in silence,” and “in wrath” to show a sharp contrast between verbal phrases like “capture and kill them” and “nail them on cardboard.” With these contrasts, I would like to indicate the disturbing relationship between human and nature, killing and silence, nearness and distance.

about the author

Shuguang Zhang was born in 1956 in Wangkui County, Heilongjiang Province, China. He is a poet, translator, and a retired professor of Chinese at the School of Literature, Hei Longjiang University. He began to write poetry when he was in college, pursuing a solid and tough poetic style in the past. Zhang’s poetry collections include The Clown's Gown, The Snowfall in the Afternoon, Zhang Shuguang’s Poetry, and Haunted House, among others. His more notable collections of translated poetry are Divine Comedy and Czesław Miłosz’s Poetry. Zhang has been awarded the first Liu Li’an Poetry Award, the Poetry and People Poetry Award, the “Poetry Construction” Master Award, and in 2019, the Su Shi Poetry Award. His works have been translated into English, Spanish, German, Japanese, Dutch, and other languages. The two poems presented here (“A Poem” and “Nabokov’s Butterfly”) are some of Zhang’s new poems, which diverge from his past poetic style. Recently, Zhang said that his poetic style has been changed over the past two or three years and he has been a close reader of some American and Western poets, including John Ashbery and Czesław Miłosz. Additionally, he said that he feels kinship with the poetics of Charles Bernstein and other Language poets.

about the translator

Yi Feng is a scholar, translator and associate professor at Northeastern University, China. She was a visiting scholar at the University of Pennsylvania in 2016. Since then, she has published several poems. Her English poems have been published in the Penn Review, Model Minority, and Voice & Verse Poetry Magazine. Her Chinese poems have been published in Lotus (芙蓉) and Chinese Poetry Website. Her translation of poems by Charles Bernstein appeared in Poetry Monthly(《诗歌月刊》) in 2019. She was awarded the Hunt Scholarship in 2016 and she won the Bronze Prize in an International Chinese Poetry Competition in 2017.