van Crevel on Chinese Migrant Worker Poetry

At Modern Chinese Literature & Culture Maghiel van Crevel reviews Iron Moon the film (directed by Qin Xiaoyu 秦晓宇 and Wu Feiyue 吴飞跃) and the anthology (edited by Qin Xiaoyu, translated by Eleanor Goodman).

The review begins:

Poetry is the most ubiquitous of literary genres. It is written and recited and read and heard for families and festivals, in love and on stage, in prayers and protests, at imperial courts and in factories. In China, associations of poetry and factories, and of poetry and manual labor at large, are anything but far-fetched. One recalls the story of poetry production, which is really the only right word here, being whipped up to keep up with steel production during the Great Leap Forward (quite aside from the results in terms of quality, for poetry or for steel). And less frenetic, more sustainable instances of the linkage of poetry and labor throughout the Mao era, with factories – and drilling rigs, construction sites, and so on – generally depicted as good places. But today, poetry + factories + China conjure up a different picture. One thinks not of the proletariat but of the precariat, and not of glory but of misery.

And on the translation and the poetry, he writes:

Goodman is to be commended for the many places in which she handles the particulars of migrant worker poetry astutely in terms of style. If we allow for some generalization, this poetry tends to be less polished – to cite a cliché that may fit the present context better than most – than professional writing. It is, for instance, often unsteady or unbalanced in terms of register and tone, line length, rhythm, and so on. This raises the old question of whether the translator is at liberty to “improve the original,” and of what determines whether the changes they make are improvements. Beyond textual and linguistic issues, this question often involves reflection on cultural difference and, sometimes, more directly political considerations of what one wants the translation to be and do – with migrant worker poetry, prison writing, and so on as cases in point. On the whole, in this respect, Goodman’s engagement with the texts is highly effective, especially because she knows when to honor the literal, and when to shun it. For the great majority of the poems, she treads a fine line between respecting the original and ensuring that the translations read well, maximizing the chance that the reader will stay tuned and get the message. In all, the poetry in Iron Moon remains true to life in translation, so to speak.

For the full write-up, click the image.

NYTimes Reviews Iron Moon Chinese Worker Poetry Documentary

New York Times has published a brief review of Iron Moon 我的诗篇, a documentary on poetry-writing industrial workers in southern China, directed by Qin Xiaoyu 秦晓宇 and Wu Feiyue 吴飞跃.

Webster writes:

With arresting images, “Iron Moon” powerfully addresses China’s moral crisis in the wake of economic prosperity. Today, “if you don’t have money or power, it’s really hard,” says Xu Lizhi’s father. Especially if you’re working the line.

Click here for a preview of the movie.

Goodman’s Xu Lizhi in China Labour Bulletin

Eleanor Goodman’s new translations of the work of Xu Lizhi 许立志 have now been published on China Labour Bulletin. She writes:

As I translated the poetry … I was immediately attracted to Xu’s straightforwardness, honesty, and darkness. Although his life was clearly unhappy–indeed, he committed suicide a little over a year ago at the age of 24 by jumping from the 17th floor of a building in Shenzhen not far from the Foxconn factory where he worked–there is very little self-pity evident in his poetry. Rather, he casts a cold eye on the larger society, on the conditions in which he worked, and on himself … He keeps the reader (and translator) on her toes, and given his rhetorical skill and highly topical subjects, he has become an important voice in Chinese poetry, one that was silenced much too soon.

Here’s an excerpt of the poetry.

I Swallowed an Iron Moon

I swallowed an iron moon
they called it a screw

I swallowed industrial wastewater and unemployment forms
bent over machines, our youth died young

I swallowed labor, I swallowed poverty
swallowed pedestrian bridges, swallowed this rusted-out life

I can’t swallow any more
everything I’ve swallowed roils up in my throat

I spread across my country
a poem of shame

Click the image above for more. For my translations on China Labour Bulletin from November, 2014, click here.

TIME on the Poet who Died for your Phone

Time Magazine has a feature on Xu Lizhi 许立志, the former poet and Foxconn employee who committed suicide last September, whom they call “The Poet who Died for your Phone.”

In his 3½ years in Shenzhen, Xu captured life there in brutal, beautiful detail. In the city, the country kid found a voice that roared, publishing poems in company newspaper Foxconn People and sharing his work online. Factory workers are often treated as interchangeable, anonymous. To readers, his words were a reminder that every laborer has a mind and heart; for him, writing was a way out. “Writing poems gives me another way of life,” he told a Chinese journalist in an unpublished interview that TIME has seen. “When you’re writing poems, you’re not confined to the real world.”

As sidebars to their article, Time runs and links to translations of Xu’s poems by The Nao Project as published at libcom.org. In the body of the article, however, they quote (and alter, incorrectly: mala tang is not soup) my translation of “I Speak of Blood” 我谈到血, published by China Labour Bulletin–though without crediting me:

In the 2013 “I Speak of Blood,” Xu Lizhi captured the teeming cosmopolitanism of his adopted home, observing from his “matchbox” room a mix of: “Stray women in long-distance marriages/ Sichuan chaps selling mala soup/ Old ladies from Henan running stands/ And me with my eyes open all night to write a poem/ After running about all day to make a living.”

Translators, too, are often treated as interchangeable, anonymous. (Nao had their own problems with their translations being run, uncredited, by Bloomberg).

Time also notes that “Chinese poet Qin Xiaoyu [秦晓宇] is making a documentary film about Xu’s life and work.”

Xu Lizhi

China Labour Bulletin reports on a forthcoming collection of poems by Xu Lizhi 许立志, the migrant laborer who committed suicide on September 30, 2014:

A New Day is now the title of a forthcoming anthology of Xu’s work that contains nearly 200 poems dating back to 2010. Most of the poems were written while Xu was employed as a production line worker at Foxconn’s massive Longhua factory complex in Shenzhen.

The poetry critic Qin Xiaoyu who edits the new anthology describes Xu as both the voice and the chronicler of China’s millions of dispossessed migrant workers. Xu’s poetry, he said, was “simple yet powerful, both lyrical and critical, often using absurd or shocking images to reveal the tragedy of life on the lowest rungs of society.”

Additionally, New Books in Poetry has run a roundtable on Xu’s life and work with Jen Fitzgerald, Mark Nowak, Shengqing Wu, and Rodrigo Toscano. Listen at the page, or here:

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New Books in Poetry links to many other sites featuring or discussing Xu’s work in English, but they did not link to my translations, which China Labour Bulletin published in November.

I Speak of Blood: The poetry of Foxconn worker Xu Lizhi

The China Labour Bulletin has posted my translations of some poems of Xu Lizhi 许立志, a twenty-four year-old worker at Foxconn who committed suicide on September 30, 2014. As CLB reports, “In his brief two-year tenure as a production line worker at Foxconn, Xu published more than 30 articles in the in-house magazine Foxconn People.

Here’s a sample of his work in my translation:

I speak of blood, because I can’t help it
I’d love to talk about flowers in the breeze and the moon in the snow
I’d love to talk about imperial history, about poems in wine
But this reality only lets me speak of blood

我谈到血,也是出于无奈
我也想谈谈风花雪月
谈谈前朝的历史,酒中的诗词
可现实让我只能谈到血

The blogger 鬧 has also posted translations of a different suite of Xu’s poems at libcom, and Martin Winter has his own versions in English and in German.