Wang Baihua on “Reading Dickinson in Shanghai”

A portrait of Emily Dickinson. Universal History Archive/Getty images/VCGSixth Tone has published a piece by Wang Baihua 王柏华 of Fudan University (as translated by Katherine Tse) on her project to produce new and authoritative translations of Emily Dickinson into Chinese.

“The mission of the translator is to accurately convey the language, aesthetics, poetics, and the social, psychological, political, religious, and philosophical context of the original work to readers who may be wholly unfamiliar with it,” she writes. In this light, it’s interesting how she has gone about managing what she calls the Collaborative Emily Dickinson Translation Project–a project that bears thinking about in light of Eleanor Goodman’s review of The Reciprocal Translation Project–which she describes as “a global undertaking involving close to fifty Chinese and international writers, scholars, and translators”:

With this in mind, in 2014 I worked with two U.S.-based Dickinson scholars — Martha Nell Smith and Cristanne Miller — to bring together nearly 50 experts from China and abroad to collaborate on a Dickinson translation project. We divided ourselves into 21 groups, with each group assigned a set of Dickinson’s poems to research, translate, and analyze. Participants included Chinese poets, translators, and researchers, as well as a group of senior Dickinson scholars from across North America, and the whole program was backed by Fudan University in Shanghai.

This diversity of backgrounds and perspectives led to lively — sometimes heated — discussions about how best to understand and translate Dickinson’s poetry. As the person in charge, it was difficult to get everyone on the same page, but most discussions were ultimately amiable and productive. For instance, the poet Wang Jiaxin [王家新] incorporated observations he had made during a visit to Dickinson’s home into his interpretation of “There’s a certain Slant of light” (F320), while others worked to recreate what they saw as the “avant-garde spirit” of Dickinson’s work.

So, are collaborative poetry translation projects “a messy, fraught endeavor,” as Goodman writes, or the best way to produce “readable, accurate translations of the world’s greatest works,” as Wang states? Or does it come down to the particulars of the relationship between the various participants, and how able they are to listen to and respect each other?

Click the image above for the full piece.


Madrid on Chinese “Rhyme Spoilage”

Anthony Madrid (writing for the Paris Review) doesn’t like half-rhymes, slant-rhymes, or eye-rhymes:

Everybody who cares anything for old poetry in English knows how it feels—knows how awful it feels—when a poem is rhyming away and then suddenly the rhyme goes off the rails for a second because English pronunciation has changed since the time the poem was written.


What does all this have to do with Chinese? Well, if you don’t already know, you could easily guess that the Chinese language—with all its dialects, creoles, sister languages, and God knows what all—has changed a great deal in the last, oh, three thousand years.

He then launches into a discussion on what he calls “rhyme spoilage.” But what he finds interesting is that

I can also see how different from modern Mandarin the various words were in 1000 B.C.E.  … Yet—and this is the crazy part—they still rhyme in their new forms. This can only be because all the vowels and the consonants shifted together and consistently, like with the Great Vowel Shift in the Indo-European languages. Or that other thing where all the p’s in Latin show up as f’s in English (pater/father, et cetera).


Would it be right to say that a lot of old Chinese poetry has pretty much gone from being perfectly rhymed Robert Frost poems to being weirdly rhymed Emily Dickinson poems?

He wants your answers:

Right now there are people reading these very words who know—who truly know—the answers to these questions. So I’m going to go ahead and announce a very exciting conference that is to be held in my gmail inbox. We are looking for papers that would speak to the two questions, above.

Click the image above to read his full post with Madrid’s email to write him with your own expertise and opinions.