Translation as Mediating Between Personal Readings of Bei Dao

Translator’s Note

Though Bei Dao 北岛 gave himself this penname, meaning “North Island,” because he is from northern China and tends to the solitary, throughout his literary career he has been associated with groups. Originally considered part of the Obscure (“menglong” 朦胧, or as it is more often, misleadingly, translated, “Misty”) Poets, his leading editorial role in the journal Jintian 今天 (Today) from the late ’70s cast him not only as an individual writer but as an exemplar of a generational style in opposition to the Mao era’s prescribed — and proscribed — poetics. Considering that Jintian continues under his editorship (banned in China from 1980, it was re-launched in the ’90s, early on in Bei Dao’s exile, and remains influential, even for writers within the PRC, today), Bei Dao as a social phenomenon, bringing writers of various styles and genres and viewpoints into a coherent and consistent conversation, continues as well.

Writing, too, is a social activity. But while Bei Dao’s prose — in addition to two collections of essays available in English translation, he has recently published a book essays on his most influential poets, a memoir of his childhood in Beijing, and a co-edited volume of reflections on China in the ’70s — is straightforward and conversational, his poetry plays on the boundaries between language as a communal and private affair: everyone who reads his poems shares the experience of the language, but will hold onto individual interpretations. Our translations progress from this tension: sharing his language with readers who do not know Chinese, and offering the possibility of further individual interpretations, even as we have our own interpretations and divergences from those of previous translators.

Our co-translation followed the method of most collaborative versions of poetry in the age of email: one overly literal version was prepared, upon which a freer version was done, and then reined in, and so on until we found the right balance (“butterflies amass afresh,” from “Loyalty,” must have required dozens of takes). Just as Bei Dao’s poetry shimmers between public and private speech — “I block out the sun of the mother tongue,” he writes in “Poison” — our translations mediate between each of our personal readings and the shared language agreed upon by both of us. And which we share with you.

— Lucas Klein, Hong Kong, 11 October 2010

Clayton Eshleman and Lucas Klein’s new translation of Bei Dao’s work will be forthcoming
in Endure, published by Black Widow Press in December 2010/January 2011.

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