The Sydney Review of Books has published an interview with Bonnie McDougall, by Jeffrey Errington, covering topics ranging from her experiences with translation and poetry and politics.
The interview spends some time on her experiences getting to know Bei Dao 北岛, and translating his work in the eighties:
Did you meet Bei Dao at the Foreign LanguagesPress?
I had published a book of poetry and essays by the 1930s writer He Qifang [何其芳] and this book, somehow, reached Harbin in North China where a young woman read it and, in response, sent a letter to me via my publisher. When I went to China we finally met. Her journalist husband asked me, ‘would you like to meet the best young poet in China?’ This was Bei Dao, and it turned out that he was also working at the FLP, in the Esperanto office. He was obliged to study Esperanto and scour literary magazines to find writers to be translated into that language. Around 1980-81 a lot of the young men and women who were sent to factories or the countryside returned to Peking and other cities at the end of the Cultural Revolution and started to work for educational and cultural institutions such as the FLP. This included Bei Dao. It was a good job: reading through magazines and recommending works to be translated and published. As we worked in the same institution we were able to meet without attracting unwelcome attention—or so we thought. After some time the FLP told my office in the English section, rather bluntly, that Bei Dao needs to stop wasting my time as I was paid a rather large salary while his was less. So they tried to put a stop to us working together.
So when you get the world of a Bei Dao poem and bring it into English is it a Chinese reality that we are getting or by being reconstructed using English words is it an English-language reality — or is it swinging back and forth?
I think maybe swinging is one way to put it. There was not such a wide gap between educated young men and women in China and the young foreigners who flocked around them in the late 1970s and early 1980s. The young men and women who grew up in Cultural Revolution China were able to get books by foreign authors including works about foreign writing. So to some extent they were self-educated in twentieth-century English or French or German writing. So the lack of supervision was a major factor in the life of someone like Bei Dao, who for several years was working in a factory. Not surprisingly he was not a very effective factory worker as he was no good at pouring cement. He just sat in a corner and read. So they were self-educated in a way that produced a fairly good understanding of early twentieth-century British and American poetics.
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