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.