fbpx

from the editor's desk

Self-translated-and-transformed, to a Higher Level of Failure

Ouyang Yu

Ouyang Yu is an award-winning poet and novelist. His first novel, The Eastern Slope Chronicle, won the 2004 South Australian Festival Award for Innovation in Writing. His third novel, The English Class, won the 2011 NSW Premier’s Award, and his 14th collection of poetry, Terminally Poetic (2020), won the Judith Wright Calanthe Award for a Poetry Book in the 2021 Queensland Literary Awards.

He was shortlisted for the Writer’s Prize in the 2021 Melbourne Prize for Literature and won the Fellowship from Creative Australia in late 2021 for writing a documentary novel, now complete in three volumes. And his eighth novel, All the Rivers Run South, was published in December 2023 by Puncher & Wattmann, which is also publishing his ninth novel, The Sun at Eight or Nine in mid-2024. His first collection of short stories, The White Cockatoo Flowers, was out in early 2024 with Transit Lounge Publishing.

The essay below is a self-review, something Ouyang describes as ‘a discussion of self-translation in relation to the author’s sense of self-shame when he first engaged in this act’.


After I gave an invited bilingual reading of my self-translated poems at ‘Literary Self-Translation and its Metadiscourse, Power Relations in Postcolonial Contexts’, at Liège, Belgium (26–27 October 2023) on the night of October 27th, over Microsoft Teams, my mind was so ignited and activated that I gave myself the task of writing another essay, this time a self-review on the issue of self-translation and its many tributary concomitants, in answer to a number of imaginary interview questions.

A word about self-review, a genre of my own making. Most books go unreviewed, particularly those published by small publishers or self-publishers. Many of my books, published by small publishers, are hardly reviewed, and my self-published books are seldom or never reviewed. If the author is still alive and does not give himself the honour of reviewing his own work, he is doing himself a disservice. Do you have to wait for that self-reviewer to die before you read one?

Please note that this is the first self-review I have written after the idea suggested itself to me today (30 October 2023). More to come in the future. When one gives up on all the book reviews of one’s own books in the world, this is what one does.

Why did you feel ashamed when you self-translated your own work?

I’ll refer you to a list of self-shames that I read in an online article, ‘Self-Shaming: Top Tips On How To Shift Into Your Power’, by Holli Kenley, as follows:

  • I am defective (damaged, broken, a mistake, flawed).
  • I am dirty (soiled, ugly, unclean, impure, filthy, disgusting).
  • I am incompetent (not good enough, inept, ineffectual, useless).
  • I am unwanted (unloved, unappreciated, uncherished).
  • I am weak (small, impotent, puny, feeble).
  • I am bad (awful, dreadful, evil, despicable).
  • I am pitiful (contemptible, miserable, insignificant).
  • I am nothing (worthless, invisible, unnoticed, empty).

This whole range of negative feelings is exactly how I felt when I first attempted self-translation, more so in Australia than in China, where I started translating my own work from Chinese into English, particularly after I became an MA student majoring in Australian literature in Shanghai.

For one thing, I translated my work because Ms Rubinstein, a lecturer in English from the USA, employed by my university ECNU (East China Normal University), had promised to collect my writing along with others and get these published in the USA. Sadly that never eventuated after she returned to the USA, in or around 1987.

But I had no concerns. In a Chinese-speaking country, there was no outlet for publication anyway. One amused oneself by translating oneself and one wouldn’t even tell one’s fellow poets that one was engaged in such activities. That would most likely elicit contempt or jealousy or both, in the form of such unvoiced thoughts: Who do you think you are? Is your English good enough? Is your Chinese good enough? Is your work good enough? Don’t you know that the best translators would only translate the best work of the best authors? Wouldn’t it be best to wait twenty, thirty, forty or fifty years till you are world-famous when all the best translators of the world come rushing towards you and pounce on you as a most delicious piece of translatable meat? If you translate your own shoddy work into shoddy English, what hope is there of it ever getting published? And what’s the point of wasting your time, energy and resources?

These negativities, internalised, didn’t disengage me from the act of self-translation; on the contrary, I ignored them and pursued it, haphazardly, half-heartedly and persistently till I arrived in Australia in the autumn of 1991, in mid-April.

Did Australia treat you any better translation-wise?

Not really, not in the beginning. As I wrote or said elsewhere, I was honest enough when it comes to the issue of ascription. In submitting my work, I put these words below the title: ‘Written in Chinese by Ouyang Yu / Translated into English by Ouyang Yu’, with the illusion that it would be accepted with admiration because of my ability to translate my own work into English, and because of my command of the Chinese language. Little did I know that translation in this country wasn’t a big thing. Translators, as a rule, do not have their names featured prominently side by side on the cover with the authors they translate when their translations come out. Little did I expect my self-translated work to be rejected again and again until I realised, a decade or so after, that there must be something wrong with the approach I had adopted, and that no one liked self-translated poems, in my case at least. What followed when I changed my ascription to ‘By Ouyang Yu’ was more successful.

In a way, this resembles what is now known as rebranding. Instead of calling students from overseas ‘foreign students’, you call them ‘international students’. Instead of Dunkin’ Donuts, it’s now Dunkin’. No more English departments but English and Cultural Studies. It’s the same here. No more ‘written in… and translated into…’; a simple ‘By Ouyang Yu’ got it going.

How many poems in Moon over Melbourne and Other Poems are self-translations?

Good question. This was my first published book of poems written in English (Papyrus Publishing, 1995), and my second published book after my translation in Chinese of Germaine Greer’s The Female Eunuch (1991). From memory, there are a number of poems that are self-translations in Moon over Melbourne. But do let me check exactly how many there are, the checking being easy as I can recognise them from their English versions straight away.

A list of found self-translations in that book (the 1995 Melbourne version) is provided below:

‘Song for an Exile in Australia’ (14)
‘The Day Nothing Happened in Melbourne’ (18)
‘The Romance of a Small Town’ (84)
‘Undergraduate Life in Wuhan’1 (85)
‘I Have Said It All Wrong’ (88)
‘Life’ (89)
‘Untitled’ [with the first line, ‘I hate the spring’] (91)
‘A Blind Fortune-teller Tells Me That’ (92)
‘Moon’ [with the first line, ‘You are lonely’] (93)
‘The Moon’ [with the first line, ‘like the sleepless eyes…’] (94)
‘Strangling’ (98)
‘Untitled’ [with the first line, ‘My baby was…’] (99)

That is, there are twelve self-translated poems from Chinese out of eighty-four in English, exactly seven per cent of the total.

One poem that I was not sure about was ‘Sex Notice’, because my fading memory was unable to pin it down to either Chinese or English when first written, until I checked its publication in《西方性爱诗选》 (Western Erotic Love Poems in Chinese Translation), Otherland, No. 10, 2005, 325–327, where it is footnoted that it was first written in English in Melbourne in July 1991, subsequently self-translated into Chinese, published in the USA-based journal,《新大陆》(New World), June 1995, No. 28, p. 21, and the Melbourne-based journal,《原乡》(Otherland), August 1998, No. 4, 89–92.

By now, I think, my memory that I had spent a decade or so submitting stuff with dual ascription can somehow be repudiated because, after all, these twelve poems that found their way into the Moon over Melbourne collection were not thus ascribed, showing that I must have hidden the fact of self-translation when preparing the manuscript as a result of shame.

How about your third published collection of poetry in English?

After Moon over Melbourne, I published two more collections of poetry, Songs of the Last Chinese Poet (Wild Peony, 1997) and Two Hearts, Two Tongues and Rain-coloured Eyes (Wild Peony, 2002).

This third one—let’s call it the Two Hearts collection—consists of a total of 105 poems. When I took a look at the contents page twenty-one years after its publication, I couldn’t resist a laugh at my own expense: nearly all the poems were self-translations. Let me first count the odd ones out, ones originally written in English, again in a list:

‘What is Maturity?’ (39)
‘Three Scenes in a Melbourne Winter’ (61–62)
‘Dream Snow in Melbourne’ (63)
‘Spring on a Grey August Day’ (64)
‘from Dream Landscape’ (65–66)
‘Down Smith Street’ (67)
‘Night Thoughts (2 poems)’ (68–69)
‘Far and Near’ (70)
‘Making Love, Philosophically Speaking’ (71)
‘Spring from a Car Window’ (73–74)

The rest are all self-translations in English, except one that remains unclear as to its origin. The poem, ‘Far and Near’, shows that it was revised on 3 June 1999, later published in LiNQ (October 1999, 40), before it was published in the Two Hearts collection (70) and The Best Australian Poems 2004, edited by Les Murray (Black Inc., 201). And it’s also included in my Terminally Poetic (Ginninderra Press, 2020, 48), only because that book was ready to submit by the end of 1999, another story that I shall talk about separately in another self-review.

The problem is that my memory always tells me that ‘Far and Near’ seems to have been first written in Chinese. Although I can’t find any evidence of that, and there is no trace of it, either, in a source document of it, my as-yet unpublished collection of self-translated poems from Chinese into English, Twin Tongues.2

In his introduction to the Two Hearts collection, Nicholas Jose talks about Ouyang Yu as ‘a welcome presence in Australian poetry’ (i). He talks about Yu’s poetry as ‘charting his own sensations as an outsider, an exile, a wanderer’ (ii). He talks about the poems of this collection being ‘mostly lyrical’ (ii). He talks about the ‘twisted strands of Ouyang Yu’s poetic practice’ (iv), although he never mentions the fact of self-translation.

Perhaps Ouyang Yu should have apologised for not providing that vital information when the manuscript was submitted for publication? It is never too late, though, to spill the beans because, after all, there was that sense of shame in connection with the act of self-translation in the early days and the associated fear that this might lead to a rejection of the manuscript.

Still waters of shame run deep indeed.

Can we talk about your fourth and fifth collections of poetry in English?

First up, my fourth collection is Foreign Matter (Otherland, 2003), a self-published collection that does not contain any self-translated poems.

My fifth collection is New and Selected Poems (Salt, 2004), that contains five sources of poetry, from ‘Uncollected Poems’ (with no self-translations), Songs of the Last Chinese Poet (1997), with no self-translations, Two Hearts, Two Tongues and Rain-coloured Eyes (Wild Peony, 2002) (all self-translations except three), Foreign Matter3 (with no self-translations), and Terminally Poetic (unpublished at the time), again with no self-translations.

New and Selected Poems took thirty-five poems from the Two Hearts collection, including three that are not self-translation, ‘Dream Snow in Melbourne’ (93), ‘Night Thoughts (2 poems)’ (94–95) and ‘Far and Near’ (96). By then, as far as I can recall, I couldn’t care less if they were self-translations or not as long as they could get published, and I no longer worried about the ascription, or the proper part of it, either.

Must the bilingual speaker necessarily be a self-translator?

Interesting, and intriguing, thought. I have never thought on that and I think they must be. My first language is Chinese and my second, English. In this sense, the thought process must innately involve that process of self-translation except that it happens instantly, to a degree where any meaningful analysis is near impossible. It’s only when one feels tongue-tied in speaking English, for want of a better word or adequate expression, that the process makes itself conspicuous by its absence. In future, this may warrant a finer examination by AI, something that goes beyond normal human efforts.

Is self-translation a practice you sustain across the other genres as well?

Yes, of course.

In 1999, I self-published my first Chinese novel,《愤怒的吴自立》(The Angry Wu Zili), in Beijing, one that I had finished writing towards the end of the 1980s in Shanghai. When I started writing my first English novel, The Eastern Slope Chronicle (2002), I found it irresistible to weave in the story of that Chinese novel. Following is the part where I did that, the quotation in italics being a self-translation from the Chinese novel,

On the night of the massacre, after watching the feelings turn into white heat, I went alone to the auditorium and had finally managed to decide on the opening paragraph of my novel, with the rest of pieces falling into place. When all the rest of them were swarming out onto the streets or pouring into the campus, turning the volume of Voice of America or BBC to the loudest, I was hiding among the deserted seats, alone in the eerie quiet of the unrevolutionary atmosphere and wrote the following:

I am only twenty-one years of age. For me, this world has completely lost its meaning. I am not only disappointed in it and angry with it but also hate it. I now have only one wish: to kill myself. I cannot destroy the world but the world can easily get rid of me: everyone has to spit one spit to drown me. I would sooner end my life than be stank to death by the stinking fart of the masses and drowned by their murky urine, thus announcing the end of the world by my own end.

I have no raison d’etre. This world itself does not have any raison d’etre. Perhaps I was born with a black heart. My veins were running with sticky blood as black as the ink, just like the river before my house, with rotten stench, as black as charcoal, which, in summer and under the poisonous sun, would shine with smothering light, and, at dusk, blood would smear the white bellies of the fish. Adults and children would vomit around the place, unable to bear with the overpowering odour…(287–288)

When did you write those Chinese poems that you self-translated into English?

To answer this question, one has to go back to the original handwritten manuscripts, of which I have a number that remain intact to this day. I shall sample three.

One poem is ‘I Said to My Son’, in the Two Hearts collection (85), which was originally handwritten on ‘86.12.13’, and revised on ‘87.1.5’, on the 水利电力部长江流域规划办公室 letterhead, which, of course, in our dating system, is 13 December 1986 and 5 January 1987; the letterhead means ‘Yangtze Valley Planning Office, the Ministry of Hydroelectric Engineering’.

The poem is hereby quoted in its self-translated entirety:

I Said to My Son

China does not contain the world
But the world contains China

China is the ship
The world is the ocean

China is too small
The world is too big

China is the star
The world is the space

You want to be the ship when you grow up
Or the ocean?

The star
or the infinite space?

When I looked at the handwritten manuscript I received a shock, because it wasn’t quite like what was presented in the published book, as follows, paired with its self-translation, just done at 10.59am, Tuesday 31 October 2023, on the right:

我对儿子说                                       I Said to My Son

中国不能装下世界                        China cannot contain the world
世界能把中国装下                        The world can contain China

中国太小太小                                  China too, too small
世界很大很大                                  The world too, too big

你长大别当中国人                        Don’t be a Chinese when you grow up
去做世界公民吧!                        Go and be a citizen of the world!

Please note that I wrote this poem in Shanghai at the age of thirty-one when my son was two years old, and I made the discovery of the manuscript thirty-seven years after it was first written.4

Another poem, written earlier, in Wuhan, is ‘Ordinary Days’, which I wrote on 2 August 1984 and revised on 26 February 1985. It goes in my self-translation thus:

Ordinary Days

my days are ordinary, very ordinary
each includes taking a bus to work, a day at the desk and taking a bus home
reading till late at night, going to bed and waking up
and taking a bus to work and come home, day after day, year after year

no-one asks me what i see on the bus and what i think
no-one wants to know what kind of life it is like at the office desk
fewer are willing to explore and understand
what secrets are hidden on those long nights

and i wouldn’t want to say how beautiful the eyes of the conductor who forgets selling
her tickets
how heavy and tiring the piles of translation manuscripts weigh
and how deep, lonely and wakeful the nights are
because my days are ordinary, so ordinary that they are boring (Two Hearts 7)

The third poem I wrote in Wuchang, while doing my BA majoring in English and American literature, at Wuhan Institute of Hydroelectric Engineering, now part of Wuhan University. I wrote it in June 1982, revised in June 1983 and on 4 May 1985, the Chinese version below:

无题

独立落花中

悄然临晓风

晓风携香去

残留一肩红

This is a poem with aaba rhyme, of four lines, each line of five characters, quite strictly adhering to its classic form except the punctuation that is deliberately shed. As a result, I got a rejection, specifically on this one, with the editor’s comments pencilled in the margins to the effect that ‘旧诗应守格律’ (‘Old-form poems should adhere to the rules and forms of classical poetic composition’), and, on the whole, commenting on the suite of my poems submitted thus: ‘未能选出。仍属一般性断想。缺乏有特色的内容和精细的构思。’ (‘Unable to select these as they still are the general kind of broken thoughts, lacking in characteristic contents and refined conception’).

My self-translation of the poem (7), as can be seen in one glance, has broken out of the strict classical mode, not even rhyming or trying to:

Untitled

standing alone among fallen flowers
i am silently facing the morning breeze

when the breeze disappears
my shoulders are covered with fallen red

Why did you liken the process to the ‘coming out of a gay man’?

Yes, that’s what I said in answer to a question about the shame or self-shame at the self-translation conference in Belgium, half-jokingly, because, in retrospect, that’s how one felt when one decided to declare oneself as a self-translator, no longer ashamed of the act, something that had been denounced as ‘an activity without content, voided of all the rich echoes and interchanges I have so far attributed to the practice of translation’, a practice ‘never innocent’ because it ‘occurs in situations of exile or of crude subjugation, where one language is attempting to take the place of another’ (Whyte 64–71).

It’s not till 2012, twenty-one years after my arrival in Australia in 1991, that I fully came out of hiding as a self-translator, with my publication of Self Translation (Transit Lounge Publishing, 2012). It’s not for me to find out how many poems have duplicated or overlapped the ones published before in my four other collections, but it is important that one has finally overcome one’s deeply felt shame to reach a higher level of failure, bearing in mind Samuel Beckett’s remark, ‘Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail better’ (7).

Anything else you want to add to all that?

Oh, yeah. I came out yesterday (10 October 2023), for a second time, about something I had intended to hide. In preparing my short-story manuscript, The White Cockatoo Flowers [subsequently published by Transit Lounge, 2024], I have been debating with myself whether I should disclose the fact to my editor and publisher that ‘Island, a Novella’ is actually a product of self-translation. I didn’t reveal this to my editor. But I did to my publisher, Barry, when I sent him an email yesterday, in which I said,

Yes, it’s deliberately non-chronological in ‘Island’, deliberately fragmentary and out of sequence, breaking the flow of story… Acknowledgments: Let’s stick to the story ones unless you suggest otherwise. One question: ‘Island’ has been published in its Chinese version. Do you want that to be acknowledged please? This is a self-translation of the novella in English. (By the way, self-translation has become big now. I’ve just been invited to do a reading of my self-translations in an international conference held in Belgium on self-translation and its metacourse5.)

Barry’s reply is swift and positive:

Be good to have the China publication acknowledgement for ‘Island’. Good about self-translation, and Belgium…

And with that I added the last happy straw to the existing Acknowledgments, with this bit of information,

‘Dao’ (Island) [岛], published in Chinese in The Triangular Mainsail ([Sanjiao Fan] Chinese title:《三角帆》), Winter 2016, pp. 59–85.

P.S.

As time went by, more material surfaced. I am most happy to inform that I have now found my very first self-translation that had been done even before I began my MA studies in Shanghai, of a poem I handwrote in Chinese:

彼岸

我们向往彼岸
我们在彼岸
又向往彼岸的彼岸

(Handwritten in May 1983)

The self translated version goes:

The Other Shore

We look forward to the other shore
On the other shore
We again look forward to the other shore
Looked forward to

(Self-translated on 28 September 1985)

That, now, is the first self-translation produced in my life. If I am asked to render a new self-translation, thirty-eight years after the first, I’d give it as follows, trying to be closest to its original form of three lines,

The Other Shore

We long for the other shore
When we are on the other shore
We long for the other shore of the other shore


Notes

1 Its original Chinese title is《无题》, or ‘Untitled’.
2 My latest finding points to the fact that ‘Far and Near’ was first written on 1 September 1994.
3 This is a handmade book of poetry published by Otherland Publishing in 2003. It won the 2003 Fast Books Prize for Best Poetry in the self-published category in NSW, Australia, and was not officially published till 2022 by Ginninderra Press, when it acquired a new title, Foreign Matter and Other Poems.
4 I’m happy to provide an electronic copy of the manuscript should there be a request on publication.
5 My apologies: this should be ‘metadiscourse’.


Works Cited:

Beckett, Samuel. Worstward Ho. London: John Calder, 1983.

Greer, Germaine. The Female Eunuch. Trans. into Chinese Ouyang Yu. Guilin: Lijiang Publishing House, 1991.

Jose, Nicholas. ‘The Wanderer: Ouyang Yu’ [Introduction]. Two Hearts, Two Tongues and Rain-coloured Eyes by Ouyang Yu. Sydney: Wild Peony, 2002. i–iv.

Kenley, Holli. ‘Self-Shaming: top tips on how to shift into your power’, CLEARlife, nd. Sourced at: https://clearlifeinc.com/self-shaming-top-tips-on-how-to-shift-into-your-power/.  

Murray, Les, editor. The Best Australian Poems. Melbourne: Black Inc., 2004.

Ouyang, Yu. Moon over Melbourne and other Poems. Upper Ferntree Gully: Papyrus Publishing, 1995.

—. ‘Sex Notice’.《新大陆》(New World), 28, June (1995): 21.

—. Songs of the Last Chinese Poet. Broadway: Wild Peony, 1997.

—. 《原乡》(Otherland), 4, August (1998): 89–92.

—. 《愤怒的吴自立》(The Angry Wu Zili). Beijing: Otherland Publishing, 1999.

—. ‘Far and Near’, LiNQ October (1999): 40.

—. The Eastern Slope Chronicle. Blackheath: Brandl & Schlesinger, 2002.

—. Two Hearts, Two Tongues and Rain-Coloured Eyes. Sydney: Wild Peony, 2002.

—. Foreign Matter. Melbourne: Otherland, 2003.

—. New and Selected Poems. Applecross: Salt, 2004.

—. ‘Sex Notice’. 《西方性爱诗选》(Western Erotic Love Poems in Chinese Translation), Otherland 10 (2005).

—. Self Translation. Melbourne: Transit Lounge Publishing, 2012.

—.  《岛》‘Dao’ (‘Island’), 《三角帆》[Sanjiao Fan] (The Triangular Mainsail), Winter (2016): 59–85.

—. Terminally Poetic. Port Adelaide: Ginninderra Press, 2020.

—. The White Cockatoo Flowers: stories. Melbourne: Transit Lounge Publishing, 2024.

Whyte, Christopher. ‘Against Self-Translation’. Translation and Literature 11.1 Spring (2002): 64–71. Sourced at: https://www.jstor.org/stable/40339902.

share this

Join our mailing list