SCMP Runs Another Lame Review

Clouds of Dust

In February the South China Morning Post ran a review I called “horribly written” and said made me feel “embarrassed to say I like the translations in a book that could inspire such homely homilies.”

Here’s another stupid review of contemporary Chinese poetry in the SCMP, of I Can Almost See the Clouds of Dust 我几乎看到滚滚尘埃 by Yu Xiang 宇向, translated by Fiona Sze-Lorrain. It starts badly:

I Can Almost See the Clouds of Dust differs from other poetry anthologies due to its simplicity. However, that doesn’t mean this collection is easy to understand.

(The book is not an “anthology,” it’s a collection; the interest of the poetry is not whether it’s easily understandable; simplicity is not a rare feature of poetry collections…). It continues with ignorant and sexist remarks:

This doesn’t follow traditional poetic rhythms or even the cadences of normal conversations; it’s like reading a woman’s tangled thoughts.

And concludes with platitudes, clichés, and mixed metaphors all at once!

This anthology is a refreshing breeze that highlights the little details of our daily lives.

It can be helpful to address a non-poetry-reading audience in a poetry review–especially in a newspaper in a place such as Hongkong. But I hope this is the last time the SCMP runs a poetry review by someone who hasn’t read a poem since middle school.

Yu Xiang reviewed on Words Without Borders

Image of Yu Xiang’s “I Can Almost See the Clouds of Dust” I Can Almost See the Clouds of Dust, the new poetry collection by Yu Xiang 宇向 translated by Fiona Sze-Lorrain, has been reviewed on Words Without Borders by Naomi Long Eagleson. Here’s how it begins:

Yu Xiang’s poems are the poetic equivalent of shoegazer rock. She takes the mundane—a whiff of cigarette smoke, a falling leaf, a housefly—and stares at it so intently that it splits open to reveal something unexpected. In the introduction to I Can Almost See the Clouds of Dust, the translator Fiona Sze-Lorrain writes that Yu “is adamant that a mundane life does not lack poetry. Rather, it lacks being discovered.” And indeed, throughout this bilingual collection the everydayness of life is keenly observed, giving rise to poems that reveal as much about the self as they do the world.

Click on the image above for the full review.

Fiona Sze-Lorrain featured in China Daily

Solving a riddle with a harp and the magic of words

“Solving a riddle with a harp and the magic of words”

As a student at Columbia University, she dabbled in theater, writing and East Asian studies, and came to realize that there was more to be understood in the space between words and cultures, she said. Studying her own heritage from an intellectual perspective allowed for an ambivalence she had never indulged, and poetry provided an outlet for evolving views.

When she struggled with writing, she found solace in source material and the writing of other poets; from there, she discovered the pleasure of translating Chinese works. She has since translated books by the poets Yu Xiang, Bai Hua and Yi Liu, among others.

Click on the image for the full article.


Asymptote Reviews Bai Hua’s Wind Says

The new issue of Asymptote features Henry Leung’s review of Wind Says 风在说, poems by Bai Hua 柏桦 translated by Fiona Sze-Lorrain. Here’s what he has to say on the poetry and translation:

Beginning especially with the “Hand Notes on Mountain and Water” section in Wind Says, his poems become more staccato, numbered, and jagged, pinballing from image to image—freeing up the range of movement. One of my favorite lines is section 4 in “Hand Notes,” which reads in its entirety: “He has a dawn-like spirit, but his punctuality expresses his sadness.” And the poem ends with a rhyme of action that would not be so poignant or direct without the sharp cuts of white space around each line:

He smashes ants with a hammer.
That maid picks up and walks away with two pieces of dog shit.
That old man rubs two peaches like rubbing two testicles.

These are uninflected juxtapositions of images. They don’t require explanation or rhetoric; the images spin a vitality out of their own mysteries.
Sometimes I wonder if certain lines that fall flat—such as “infinitely, infinitely …” in “Character Sketches,” a line so poor compared to its succeeding line with the same function, “fiddling with an eternal bell on a bike”—are flaws of the original, or of the translation, or simply of the incapacity of English to carry abstractions the way Chinese can. On the translation itself, I must note some occasional awkwardness that is misdirecting more than productive—”Opposite windows open” is a mistranslation of what would mean “the windows opposite”; “The third story (can’t help but) begin(s) from romance” is an overcomplication of the original parenthetical; and so on—but overall the translation is admirable. Sometimes Sze-Lorrain even improves on the original, as in the exquisite cadence of “who blows now / who is fire / who is the convulsing arm of a new flower” in “Beauty.” And by no means can I fault a translator who can bring us this couplet from “Fish”:

Born as metaphor to clarify a fact:
the throat where ambiguous pain begins

Interesting, though, that amidst a discussion of translation, Leung would focus on the line “That old man rubs two peaches like rubbing two testicles” without mentioning that this is, in fact, a mistranslation: the line in Chinese is 那老人搓着两个核桃若搓着两个睾丸, so the old man is rubbing walnuts, not peaches.

Manoa Winter 2012: On Freedom–Spirit, Art, & State

24-2 frontWinter 2012

The various meanings of freedom are difficult to explain in the discursive language of theory and philosophy. But authors of fiction, poetry, and other narrative forms—using metaphor, parable, and figurative speech—are often at home with what is difficult and too subtle for reason alone.

Residing in countries throughout Asia and North America, the authors in On Freedom help us understand the need for cultural, spiritual, and intellectual freedoms in order to have a life that is fully realized.

New translations of fiction by A Yi and Zhang Yihe (translated by Karen Gernant and Chen Zeping), non-fiction by Woeser (translated by Dechen Pemba), and poetry by Chen Dongdong (translated by Fiona Sze-Lorrain), co-edited by Frank Stewart and Sze-Lorrain.

To purchase individual copies, please click here.
To purchase subscriptions, please visit the University of Hawai‘i Press ordering page.

SCMP on Bai Hua’s Wind Says

The South China Morning Post has published a review of Wind Says 风在说 (Zephyr Press), by Bai Hua 柏桦 and translated by Fiona Sze-Lorrain.

It’s a positive review, but it’s a horribly written one: full of cliches about Chinese essences (“Messages are conveyed in sharp but poignant images, paying homage to Chinese and Western writers of the past, as well as to the philosophical tradition in which Chinese writing is steeped.”), the untranslatability of translated poetry (“one must question how much is lost to the non-Chinese reader in translation”), and literary historical nonsense (“realism is, after all, a defining characteristic of Misty poetry, a reaction against restrictions on art during the Cultural Revolution”). By the time we reach the end line (“In Bai’s poetic voice, one can almost feel the winds of change blowing through the pages”), I feel queasy and am embarrassed to say I like the translations in a book that could inspire such homely homilies.

Oh, and there’s a picture of Chinese mountains enshrouded in mist–you know, because Bai Hua is post-”Misty,” get it?

Bai Hua’s Wind Says at Received & Recommended

Wind Says- Bai HuaThe weblog Received & Recommended has received–and recommends–Wind Says 风在说 (Zephyr Press), by Bai Hua 柏桦, translated by Fiona Sze-Lorrain (click here for their write-up of Fiona’s Water the Moon). Here’s what they say:

Bai Hua’s poetic style, potent and complex, when paired with Fiona Sze-Lorrain’s remarkable talent for translation continues to be a pleasure to read in Wind Says. The English poems in Wind Says appear along side their Chinese originals, so this small collection is perfect for people who read both English and Chinese texts.

Wind Says, by Bai Hua


Bai Hua 柏桦
translated from Chinese by Fiona Sze-Lorrain
ISBN 978-0-9832970-6-2 (paper) $15
6 x 8
200 pages

Considered the central literary figure of the post-Obscure (or post-”Misty”) poetry movement during the 1980s, Bai Hua is one of the most influential poets in contemporary China. Born in 1956 in Chongqing, he studied English literature at Guangzhou Foreign Language Institute before graduating with a Master’s degree in Western Literary History from Sichuan University. His first collection of poems, Expression (1988), received immediate critical acclaim. A highly demanding writer, Bai Hua’s poetic output is considerably modest but selective: in the past thirty years he has written only about ninety poems. After a silence of more than a decade, he began writing poetry again in 2007. That same year, his work garnered the prestigious Rougang Poetry Award. A prolific writer of critical prose and hybrid texts, Bai Hua is also a recipient of the Anne Kao Poetry Prize. Currently living in Chengdu, Sichuan, he teaches at the Southwest Jiaotong University.

Panax Ginseng Review of Sky Lanterns

Sky Lanterns: Poetry from China, Formosa, and BeyondHenry Leung’s review of Sky Lanterns, the new issue of Mānoa edited by Frank Stewart and Fiona Sze-Lorrain, has appeared at Lantern Review. Here’s how it begins:

Manoa’s recent “Sky Lanterns” issue spotlights “new poetry from China, Formosa, and Beyond.” The issue features contemporary poets organized in order of age: “not as a bow to hierarchy,” writes editor Fiona Sze-Lorrain in her prefatory note, “but to trace a possibility sensitive to time.” From a first glance at the cover, we see a juxtaposition of the old and the new in the grandly staged Soul Stealer, photographs by artists Zeng Han and Yang Changhong. In the diptych’s top half is Mulian Opera #11: costumed figures of an ancient theater tradition, including mythic animal avatars such as the monkey king, who populate a green landscape with a seven-story pagoda obscured by mist. Meanwhile, in the bottom half is World Warcraft #11 (dated a year later): costumed figures of neo-contemporary archetypes, including the princesses, warlocks, and demons familiar to role-playing video gamers, who populate a craggy landscape with a line of skyscrapers obscured by what may be polluted smog. The “possibility sensitive to time” in the photographs is appropriate to this volume because the costumed figures above and below reflect the modulations of culture, place, and society over time—and yet exist as avatars of myth and imagination outside of time. The same might also be said of the figures and expressions of poetry.