Conversions

Conversions is a translation project featuring the work of three Chinese poets – two of Yi, one of Miao nationality, all from Sichuan Province. Unusually, their translated poems have been brought to life, not in a book or journal, but as large banners mounted on traditional Chinese scrolls, alongside their Chinese originals. These scrolls were installed in the vibrant social space of the Bookworm Chengdu, a western café, restaurant, bar and lending library – making this an exhibition of poetry in translation.

Rather than translate the poems alone, I worked with and mentored two teams of translators, all of whom were “untrained”. Teaching people the art of the translation became an incredibly important part of the process. All translators worked collaboratively, both together and, where possible, with the poets themselves.

This project was completed while I was an Asialink resident in Chengdu, China, from March to July 2008.

Credits

  • Director, designer & principal translator James Stuart
  • Poets He Xiaozhu, Lu Juan & Aku Wuwu
  • Translators Mark Hiew, Judy Seto, Bill Stranberg, Yang Zhi Han & Zhang Rui
  • Editorial advisors Aku Wuwu, Chen Xintong & Wang Yiyan
  • Interpreter & project assistant Yang Zhi Han
  • With thanks to Peter Goff, Tang Yi Chun,Angel Fan & Bill Stranberg at Chengdu Bookworm

This was an Asialink Project supported by Arts NSW and the Australia Council for the Arts, with additional asistancefrom the Bookworm. The project’s first installation was at the Bookworm, Chengdu, China – June-July 2008. It is presently installed at the Bookworm’s Suzhou branch.

Conversions - Suzhou
[Image: Conversions installed at the Bookworm Suzhou]

About

Background

The seeds for the project were planted shortly after I arrived in Chengdu in March. My arrival was well timed: right in the middle of the Bookworm’s International Literary Festival.

The Festival had drawn writers from all corners of the globe, though mainly the English-speaking world. One of the guests was Chinese-born Australia-based poet and translator Yu Ouyang. Over lunch one day, Yu got up to answer a phone call. It was from a poet-friend of his, based in Chengdu, who was busy organising a national poetry festival. Unbeknownst to mostforeigners at the Literary Festival, poets from all across China were flying in for a gathering of their own. I was immediately struck by this divide between local and international culture.

Thus the first goal of this project, which would later take the title Conversions, was to find a way of internalising the local within the international-concession-like space of the Bookworm. It seemed obvious that the most immediate way to do so was through a translation project, one that would bring Sichuan poets into the English language. One barrier was my relative inexperience as a translator, and my relatively poor Chinese language skills. These issues are resolved through the particular translation methodology applied to Conversions.

Even then, the question remained: how can translated poems actually transform a social space like the Bookworm? This question informed the decision to produce the poems as large banners and install them in the Bookworm rather than, for example, only organise a reading. [1] This approach also highlighted the inherently visual nature of written language as well as the long-standing tradition of poetry as both a visual and literary work of art, especially in the calligraphic traditions of countries such as China and Japan.

Through this approach I also wanted to place poetry into new formal contexts: where diners might expect to see a photo hanging or perhaps just empty space is now occupied by language, by poetry. Readers were invited to engage with the poems not just as objects to be contained in books but works of art with myriad incarnations. People who may have never opened a book of poetry in their life suddenly had access to the genre, simply by opening the door to the Bookworm.

The results of this conceptual work hung in the Chengdu Bookworm for some four weeks in July 2008. There were 12 scrolls in total: 6 poems – 2 by each of the poets, with both an original and translated version featured. The three poets featured were Aku Wuwu (or Luo Qingchun) and Lu Juan – both Yi nationality poets – while He Xiao Zhu is of Miao nationality.

Process

Translation

Apart from its installation as a bilingual exhibition the most distinctive feature of Conversions was its particular application of a collaborative or consensus translation model. In this approach, the translators work closely with the source language author in order to better capture the nuances of meaning that are inevitably compromised or, rather, transformed in all translation, especially literary translation. There is often more than one translator involved under such a model as well as an interpreter.

I established early on in my translation research that this was the right path to follow for the project methodology. I decided to pair up one native Chinese speaker with at least one native English speaker, with both having some prior interest in literature. This recognised that true bilinguals  – such as Ouyang Yu, able to write poems in both English and Chinese– are not common currency. It was also to have the desired effect of expanding the cultural engagement made possible through traditional language education programs. By choosing to focus on what the Chinese term nationality poets (minzu or ethnic minority) rather than Han poets, I was able to open another avenue for cultural engagement.

At a project translation workshop with the translators, we explored the notion that direct equivalence between a source language (SL) and target language (TL) text is not possible, making redundant the “lost in translation”cliché. In accepting this, Susan Bassnett posits, ‘it becomes possible to approach the question of loss and gain in the translation process.[2] I wanted to emphasise thata TL text must be a living, breathing entity: a poem able to be read not as cultural artefact but as a dynamic contribution to the TL’s literary culture. Such a notion has a prominent antecedent in Walter Benjamin’s seminal essay ‘The Task of the Translator’ wherein he describes translation as the act of releasing an idea, trapped in a foreign language, into a separate linguistic system.[3]

My own involvement in the project – as a poet – became clearer: I was to assist translators to integrate their texts with the vast pantheon of poetic conventions and discourses at play in the English language –to help their initial translations become poems.

Design and exhibition development

With translations complete, the design and installation of the banners was the next phase of the project.

The actual size of the banners was determined, in part, by the constraints of the physical space of the Bookworm, requiring them to be somewhat shorter and wider than initially planned.

I designed the banners to work as pairs, with the translation sitting on the left-hand side and the original on the right.A common motif and typography unitedeach pair. This motif and typography was adapted for both ofeach poet’s work.

The 12 banners also needed to be clearly recognisable as a single series. I achieved this through by commissioning a Chinese print maker (with the help of a local intermediary) to mount the banners in the manner of traditional Chinese scrolls – also a clear reference to local culture. The banners were digitally printed onto a synthetic fabric which was then mounted.

[Gallery: James Stuart et al, Conversions, unmounted banners]

The exhibition installation was in part a response to the opportunities and constraints posed by the Bookworm as a physical space. I wanted to ensure that all banners were grouped as an SL-TL text pair. I also wanted them integrated with the normal social functions of the space, while remaining prominent “artworks” that invited visitors to engage with them. Finally, the poem’s arrangement was to reflect the spatial qualities of a book: their arrangement had to form a physical journey.

[Gallery: James Stuart et al, Conversions, Installation and opening night at Chengdu Bookworm]

Project self-assessment

This project, despite the difficulties posed by its cross-cultural and cross-linguistic nature, felt right. The model below attempts to explore why.

Material Basis Material Expression Language-object (materialism)
Terrain (primary) Landing site opportunities Outcomes
  • Reference local poetic culture
  • Poetry as visual and physical object
  • Transform English-language space of Bookworm
  • Use translation process to strengthen cultural exchange
  • Use local techniques and materials as part of print production
  • Installation of poems as physical journey
  • Create strong visual design for poems
  • Transform physical and social characteristics of Bookworm space
  • Local poetry and culture integral to experience of Bookworm for exhibition duration
  • Real relationships established between poets and translators
  • Event launch with majority Chinese audience
Terrain (secondary) Landing site opportunities Outcomes
  • Deconstruct the idea of “correct” translations

Realised

  • Application of collaborative translation model
  • Translation workshop
  • Launch event where translators and poets read the SL and TL texts

Absent landing sites:

  • Explicit documentation of translation process and theory (eg through a publication associated with the exhibition)

Actual

  • Translation as process as well as product
  • Translations that also function as poems in English-language literary context

Desired

  • Peer review of translations

I feel confident that Conversions successfully engaged with the primary material basis of this project: to use the visual nature of poetry to bring local culture into contact with the international space of the Bookworm. The graphic design and print production both had clear references to traditional Chinese scrolls.The physical arrangement of the banners within the venue was able to “layer” the experience of the poems, similar to that which might be produced within a book. The exhibition design also enabled the poetry to become a social experience, rather than a purely private one.

The secondary material basis for the project was the translation process itself: the collaborative, exchange-based model became almost as important as the exhibition itself. While the translators and poets all engaged positively with the process and theory underpinning it, capturing this process as a language object was difficult.  The launch event met some of the requirements of the material expression. Perhaps the only way to strengthen this component of the project was to have developed some more formal methods for documenting the translation process itself. A journal article or publication associated with Conversions seem like the only possible material expressions for this process and its prominence as part of the project. These may yet eventuate.


[1] The event was launched with a reading by poets and translators as well as a performance featuring Yi nationality singers Amununu.

[2] Bassnett, Susan, Translation Studies, (Routledge: London, 1988, reprinted 2002) p. 36.

[3] Benjamin, Walter ‘The Task of the Translator’, Illuminations (Arrendt, H. ed. trans.) (New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1968)



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