Tracy K. Smith on Co-translating Yi Lei

LitHub has published an article by former Poet Laureate of the United States (2017-2019) Tracy K. Smith, about her experiences co-translating (with Changtai Bi) Chinese poet Yi Lei 伊蕾 (1951-2018) for her new book My Name Will Grow Wide Like a Tree (Graywolf).

Smith writes of her initial encounter with Yi Lei:

I’d been given a rough translation of “A Single Woman’s Bedroom,” and I’d been drawn into the expansive sweep of it. The poem is made up of fourteen related sections that follow almost improvisationally from one another, each driven by a sharp emotional insistence. I felt admiration for this poet’s passion, her sense of play, the ways each new gesture brought in a new gust of energy and indelible imagery. Her poem’s relentless availability to love, even in the wake of betrayal or devastation, spoke to feelings of desire, resistance, and loss that live in and have instigated a number of my own poems.

“Would it be okay,” I’d asked Nancy to ask Yi Lei, “if in certain of my translations, instead of being faithful to the literal features of the poem, I sought to build a similar spirit or feeling for readers of American English?”

There was some back and forth in Mandarin. “Yes,” was the eventual answer.

“I want to make the reader feel at home in these poems. Would it be okay if certain details were to shift or be replaced with others rooted in this culture?”

Again, there was more back and forth across the table. And then Nancy told me that Yi Lei was comfortable with my making these kinds of nuanced choices.

We weren’t even midway through our long New Year’s lunch, yet I was brimming with joy at the prospect of living awhile in the vision and vocabulary of these poems and this imagination. Yi Lei trusted me to live with and respond to her poems, and to offer them to readers in the way that I heard and felt them. It was a remarkable freedom and a daunting responsibility. And, yes, I was already committed to the task of shepherding this indispensable voice into a living contemporary English.

Remarkable freedom, daunting responsibility. Toward the end of the essay she explains her working relationship with her co-translator, offering an example of how she revised his work.

Our manner of collaborating was this: working from David’s literal translation of a manuscript of Yi Lei’s poems, I would listen to the poem’s statements and the images, essentially trying to visualize the poem’s realm, and to align myself with the feeling and logic of the work. Then, I’d attempt to re-envision and re-situate these things in English. Occasionally, this was a matter of shifting toward smoother, more active, evocative language. Often, it entailed locating a relationship between verbs and nouns and aligning those features within a new metaphor or image system, as occurred in this passage from David’s literal translation of “Love’s Dance”:

When you quietly evaded
It seemed that land sank in front of the
chest My shout was blocked by echoes
It was invisible hands that forged my
mistake To avoid a pitiful tragedy
I strangled the freedom of souls

To let my reason be pitch-black from
then I am willing to be dominated by

I allowed land sank, blocked, echoes, forged, tragedy, and pitch-black to guide me toward the metaphor of mining, which resulted in this passage from my version of the poem:

What happened deep in the mountain of
me. And then the mine in collapse. The
Choked with smoke. Voice burying
voice. An absence of air,
preponderance of pitch.
I don’t want to know, or understand, or be
restored To reason. In the wake of certain
treasons, I am

Still domitable, a claim in wait. I am
Possessed of my depths. I am willing

My strategy, whenever I reached a point of hesitation, was to ask the surrounding features of the poem to suggest a continuity that might guide me forward. Sometimes, I’d make a leap of faith, trusting to the larger energetic pull of the poem to keep me from losing the trail. Then I’d send my work to David, who would translate it back into Chinese for Yi Lei. Yi Lei read my version for feeling, image, and intention. If she recognized in my poem something essential from her original, we let things stand. Our conversation took place back and forth in this triangulated fashion.

“I have sought,” Smith writes, “in my translations of Yi Lei’s poems, to cleave to the original spirit, tone, and impetus.” But cleave is an interesting word, a contronym that means both uniting two things and splitting them.