The American poet Emily Dickinson once wrote, “The poets light but lamps -/ Themselves – go out.” The lamps lit by Dickinson's work continue to burn brightly, and even now — more than 130 years after her death — she continues to inspire poets, translators, and academics the world over.
For the past four years, I have helped run the Collaborative Emily Dickinson Translation Project — a global undertaking involving close to fifty Chinese and international writers, scholars, and translators. Last December, the fruits of our labor, “I Dwell in Possibility” — an annotated compendium of 104 new Chinese translations of Dickinson’s poems — was finally published. Many earlier translations of Dickinson into Chinese struggled to capture her ambiguity and the personal flourishes she wrote into her poetry, an oversight we hope to correct.
Dickinson did not become a household name in her native country until the 1920s. But once she did, it did not take long for her to attract the attention of China’s new generation of western-trained scholars. The first mention of her in Chinese came in 1926, though it would be 20 more years before the first Chinese-language translations of her poems would appear. In 1949, just before the founding of the People's Republic of China, the well-known poet Yuan Shuipai — then at the height of his fame — published Chinese translations of five of her poems. Yet despite his prodigious talent, Yuan struggled to translate Dickinson's spare, ambiguous, ungrammatical style into Chinese.
Still, Yuan’s work represented a promising start. Unfortunately, just months later the founding of the People’s Republic of China severed many of the academic and artistic ties between China and the United States. The country’s new literary authorities soon labelled Dickinson’s poems an example of “conservative bourgeois” thought, and her works disappeared from Chinese shelves.
It was not until the beginning of the reform and opening up period in the late 1970s that Dickinson could again be read openly. In 1984, the translator Jiang Feng — who also translated the English poet Percy Bysshe Shelley — finally published the “Selected Poems of Emily Dickinson,” a collection of 216 of her poems that set Dickinson on the road to becoming one of the most well-known and best-loved foreign poets in China. The years since have seen a steady stream of translations and re-translations of her work. By late 2014, a total of 1,500 of Dickinson’s 1,800 poems had been translated into Chinese, some of them upwards of a dozen times.
Back in 2009, Cristanne Miller — an Emily Dickinson specialist and professor at the University at Buffalo — invited me to write an article about the history of Dickinson’s reception in China. As I flipped through pages upon pages of Chinese translations of her poems, however, I soon realized that the majority of her Chinese translators had only a superficial understanding of her poetic style and what made her such an original writer. The famed Chinese writer and translator Qian Zhongshu once said, “The path from one language to another is besieged with hardships, risks, and, inevitably, loss,” and the Dickinson translations I found seemed to confirm his thesis.
As Dickinson almost never published or publicly commented on her work during her life, and because her writing style is unique, understanding her work well enough to translate it requires delving into the manuscripts she left behind. However, I found that almost all of Dickinson’s translators into Chinese had neglected to conduct even basic research. Many Chinese translations of her poems therefore fail to convey the unorthodox wording and experimental poetics that make her poems so memorable.
Even Dickinson’s English editors occasionally struggled with her language. In her “Publication is the auction,” she wrote:
Thought belong to Him who gave it -
Then - to Him Who bear
It’s corporeal illustration - Sell
The Royal Air -
Here she intentionally plays with tense — the words “belong” and “bear” are written in the infinitive. In 1929, the editor of an English-language collection of her poems actually corrected the text of the former to say “belongs.” But Dickinson scholars have since argued the choice was intentional — that it is meant to represent greater possibility. But Chinese has no verb tense, so how is a translator supposed to convey the author's decision here? How about he complexity suggested by her use of capitalization?
A portrait of Emily Dickinson. Universal History Archive/Getty images/VCG
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. Reading through these inadequate earlier translations of Dickinson, I decided the solution to these problems was annotations, which could help explain to new and longtime readers alike the depth of Dickinson’s work. Yet most translators lack the expertise to be able to provide in-depth annotations to a writer’s work, just as most academics cannot produce translations that possess the same verve as the original text.
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 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.
While I am pleased with the results of our project, I recognize that much remains to be done if Chinese readers are to have access to world-class translations of the international canon. The Chinese translation industry has undergone something of a renaissance in recent years, but the overall quality of translations remains quite low, in part due to persistently low wages in the industry. Many translations of classic works are riddled with errors — the result of overworked translators who fail to do needed research and publishers who view foreign classics more as a way to make a quick buck than as art.
What excites me about the success of the Dickinson project is not that our work is definitive or perfect — it’s not — it’s that we have stimulated renewed literary and commercial interest in Dickinson in China. I have recently signed agreements with two academic publishing houses to produce translations of Dickinson’s poetry, and I fully intend to approach them as collaborative projects.
A great poet deserves an equally great translation. If the quality of Chinese translations is to improve, publishing houses must be willing to identify and support skilled and knowledgeable translators, and give them the time and resources they need to work. The government, too, can play a more active role. Shortly after “I Dwell in Possibility” went to press, the Shanghai municipal government offered funding to produce similar translations for nine to ten famous poets from around the world.
China has been producing translations of foreign classics for over a century. Now we must engage with these texts on a deeper level. As one of this projects’ two founders, organizers, and managing editors, I dream that one day Chinese readers will feel the same appreciation and passion for Dickinson felt by writers such as Jorge Luis Borges. I also hope that the next generation of young Chinese poets and writers will grow up with the access to readable, accurate translations of the world’s greatest works needed for them to participate in global conversations about art and literature.
Translator: Katherine Tse; editors: Wu Haiyun and Kilian O’Donnell.
(Header image: robertharding/VCG)