Reviews / September 2015 (Issue 29)

Her Way of Meaning: Wang Xiaoni's Something Crosses My Mind

by Huiwen Shi


Wang Xiaoni (author), Eleanor Goodman (translator), Something Crosses My Mind, The Chinese University Press; Zephyr Press, 2014. 128 pgs.


In Something Crosses My Mind, which was shortlisted for the 2015 Griffin Poetry Prize, Eleanor Goodman chronicles and translates over forty poems (written from 1980 to 2011) by Wang Xiaoni, a leading contemporary Chinese female poet. Goodman selects the finest poems from across Wang's career, poems which are often full of dense imagery and metaphor. Hence, translating them is no easy task despite the poet's down-to-earthness and use of the vernacular.

Zhang Xuexin, a critic and scholar of contemporary Chinese literature, notes that Wang Xiaoni has no intention of seeing the world as "a forest of symbolism"; instead, she strives to capture the transient and poetic in the most "ordinary." In a similar vein, Goodman asserts in her foreword that Wang's poems, rather unlike those of her contemporaries, "spring from direct observation that is then transfigured." Wang cuts through the ordinary and transforms it, yet her sharp perceptiveness is not pompously self-asserting, but consciously balanced. On one sunny day, for example, she opens up hopeful possibilities for reforming China ("I Feel the Sun"), but on another occasion warns us of the sun's wounding power: "Disaster and luck/ both hang from the thinnest thread. / The sun, like a gallbladder, / rises" ("Early Morning"). With a great sense of humour, she finds comradeship in a watermelon's sorrow: "Without rhyme or reason, I carry the melon along / and without rhyme or reason, my busyness carries me" ("The Watermelon's Sorrow"). And she litters lines with descriptions of China's environmental realities while faithfully portraying a self-contained community that is blind to their impact:

The herd was driven into the ocean, and into the churning white froth.
Like a few unclothed and bashful gentlemen
the oxen strolled along the shore.
But the Pacific overran them
totally furious  ("Washing Water Buffalo in the Ocean," my italics)

She stands up, solid as a tall house on the earth
a house with a big flower garden
a house full of pipe organ music.
Far away the village pond jumps with black bubbles
her heart shines outward.
People say, this woman is religious  ("The One Holding Peanuts," my italics).

Elsewhere, she articulates a poet's silence proudly, but not without sadness:

But a Chinese train
Is like a peasant burrowing his way through a cornfield.
On Chinese trains
I don't say a thing  ("Silent All the Way from Beijing to Guangzhou")
Each day I write only a few words
like a knife
cutting into the gush of a tangerine's finely woven juice.
Let layer upon layer of blue light
enter into a world that's never been described.
No one sees my light
finely woven strand by strand like silk.
In this city I
silently serve as a poet  ("Starting Anew as a Poet")

The collection provides both the Chinese and English versions of the works, allowing the reader to compare Goodman's translations with the originals. Her translation doesn't always provide a literal rendition of the Chinese, but it has full awareness of Wang's poetic nuance, carries through the works' humour and sentiments and keeps the essentials of the music. For example, there is the line "夜空背後黑汪汪的深," which Goodman translates as "the boundless black depths behind the night sky." Unable to reproduce the sound of the doubling "汪汪" ("wangwang") in Chinese, Goodman cleverly uses the alliterative "boundless black" as an attempt to recreate the effect. Another example is "財富研出了均勻的粉末." Translated directly, this line would become "wealth grinds equally-shaped powder." Yet Goodman opts for the more compelling: "Wealth grinds equality to a powder." The choice works surprisingly well. There are many similar moments to these when the translation yields alternative imagery and themes that complicate any singular understanding of the original.

Of course, no translation can claim to be flawless and problem-free. Goodman sometimes shifts the syntax in order to smoothen the reading experience in English. This is not a problem in itself. However, in the second stanza of "A Rag's Betrayal," one of Wang's central poems,[i] the syntactical rearrangement undermines an intended connotation. The original reads:


However, Goodman's version goes:

I hadn't thought
such a mistake could be made
with only two hours of work and a rag

In this translation, the original meaning is kept perfectly, but it fails to convey a cultural implication of the word "勞動" (labour) in Chinese. It would not be an exaggeration to say that "labour" has an almost religious connotation in the context of "new" China— "labouring is the most glorious thing" ("勞動最光榮"), as generations of Chinese have been brainwashed into believing. Therefore, to have "labour" next to "a big mistake" as is the case in the original is no doubt a deliberate act of mockery and defiance. In spite of its awkwardness in English, the Chinese syntax thus needs perhaps to be maintained:

I hadn't thought that with
only two hours and a rag of
labour, such a big mistake could be made.

Having said that, I need to praise both Wang Xiaoni's poetry and Eleanor Goodman's translation. It is almost a cliché nowadays to say that translation is doomed to failure, but there are excellent failures, because they fail better, as Beckett would say.

Personally, I love seeing translations placed next to the original poems. In this way, the original and its afterlife go hand in hand, feed and speak to each other. Of course to do so, a translator must be brave and open, since such an arrangement invites endless and relentless comparisons, which inevitably lead to nitpicking about inaccuracies. However, the best translations are honest but not single-mindedly loyal, creative but not boundlessly wild. They provide a distinctive reading of the original, based on each translator's knowledge, experience and sensitivity. As Walter Benjamin puts it, "a translation, instead of imitating the sense of the original, must lovingly and in detail incorporate the original's way of meaning." Goodman's translation is certainly an endeavour like that. Her elegant renditions both capture Wang's sense and meaning, emotion and tone, while more importantly still manage to set Wang's unique voice and style free. Goodman captures Wang's confidence and insecurities, darkness and brightness, simplicity and whimsicality—in short, her way of meaning.


[i] Unlike other female poets, Wang's poetry can be personal but is never private. She explores her inner world but sacrifices no privacy. She tends to look at the outer world with a cold eye and fights fervently against voyeurism. "A Rag's Betrayal" expresses her insecurities and her strong wish to hide from the public eye.

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