Five or so years ago I saw the Zhou brothers perform at Columbia University. I recall a saxophone player and a violinist joining the mix, as well as Bei Dao and Eliot Weinberger reading while the brothers dipped their mops into buckets of black ink and splashed and brushed an enormous hanging white sheet that in the end revealed a painting of what looked like a menacing rorschach crucifixion scene. When I was asked to have a go at translating Bei Dao’s Zhou brothers essay, my mind automatically flashed to that ominous image.

I’ve translated little prose; my love lies with China’s ancient and more ancient poets, whose work I’ve always translated for one reason: to gain a deeper understanding of their poetry. And if errors arise, only the ghosts of the ancients could haunt my dreams. But then I’ve always admired Granta and Bei Dao, and I was intrigued by these two eccentric Chinese artists settling in Chicago, a city I’ve never been to, its whispered name evoking images of Sun Ra in full Egyptian attire. Plus both the journal and author were supportive, the deadline was in a week, and what was life without additional sleepless nights? Not only that, I had also translated one other bit of Bei Dao’s prose (a preface he wrote for a book of poems by Gennady Aygi), was fortunate to have been the in-house editor for his book of essays, Midnight’s Gate, and had actually seen the brothers in action. Wasn’t this just the sort of Erfahrung push a translator needed?

As I embarked on my adventure I immediately started to feel that old hatred for simplified Chinese characters. I had never properly learned them and usually faked my way through when reading, skimpy vocabulary and all. My various dictionaries were beginning to crack. In a panic, I phoned my mother and calmly talked through a few paragraphs with her. I started to feel more at ease, found a slow rhythm, the characters began to bend their syntax into English. Gradually I even enjoyed flowing along with Bei Dao’s telegraphic phrasings, peeking into his life in a narrative way that is entirely absent in his crystalline poetry while trying to carry over his balance of playfulness and seriousness. His prose is that of a master poet – clear and subtle, few wasted breaths, fewer wasted words, clauses clipping along like puka shells on a string. For many years during the Cultural Revolution Bei Dao worked as a blacksmith, and his writing bears this experience, the precise shaping of words. Here, too, was a humorous side of Bei Dao not found in his poetry – him flopping around on a dorm-room couch during a conference, trying to sleep; the self-parody of the famous ever-itinerant poet impelled into intellectual work-for-hire across the globe (he still cannot legally return to mainland China); the awkward situations and encounters that arise from such an existence. Because of this, rather than being a kind of traditional artist monograph that systematically runs through an artist’s life and work, his essay is impressionistic, distilled from his ongoing friendship with the Zhou brothers, what he hears about them from others, what he’s seen of their work, the irrelevant details that make up biography and history (their flat leather shoes). All of these literary traits can also be traced in the essays of Zhang Ailing, and indeed her Written on Water, beautifully translated by Andrew F. Jones, was in the back of my mind as I plodded along. If Bei Dao ever collected his essays in one volume, Zhang’s title would fit his book, too. Both writers blend techniques of fiction and poetry in their essays, the result fulfilling Su Shi’s reflections on writing ‘resembling traveling clouds and flowing water’.

As far as specific instances of wrestling with this translation – besides the usual agonizing over particle phrasings that seem to make or break the English and – I’ll point to two. Bei Dao’s leisurely, travel-journal-like style seamlessly alludes to classical texts – a quotation from the Analects, a reference to the Mustard Seed Garden Manual of Painting, another to Jia Yi’s essay “The Faults of Qin” [‘Thereupon the First Emperor discarded the ways of the former kings and burned the books of the hundred schools of philosophy in order to make the people ignorant.’] At one point Bei Dao begins a paragraph with a common four-character proverb,  時來運轉 shi lai yun zhuan, which literally means ‘time passes fate turns’ (i.e. after a period of bad luck there’s a break for the better). It’s a popular saying with a poetic, musical turn, that when spoken in Mandarin, tonally rings second tone, second tone, break to sharp fourth tone, long extended third tone. In the context of the Zhou brothers’ lifeturn, tucked in its perfect place in the essay, it relates beautifully, the box clicks, fate actually breaks at the character for fate. At least that’s how I hear it. Originally I put, “Time revolves reprieve,” and was quite pleased I even shortened the character-to-translated- word count by one. This also has the slight catchy ring of a proverb, and echoes the transmigratory roots where the saying possibly originated – in the translating of a Buddhist sutra (The end of the preceding paragraph was originally: ‘…to the point where the two transmigrate to another list of dismissed names.’ ) But perhaps its slight ambiguity seemed out of place to Granta as after some back and forth, it was changed to “But time brought a swift reprieve.” Not terrible-sounding, and quickly understood, a functional sentence, though ‘swift’ isn’t there in the Chinese. This, I should add, was only one of a few instances where I disagreed with the editors, and didn’t persist. Without their heroic and careful efforts, the entire piece would be incomprehensible. An interesting coda to this proverb: When William Dean Howell’s novel A Hazard of New Fortunes was translated into Chinese, it was published with the straightforward title 新財富的危害 xin cai fu de wei hai. It later only reached a popular audience in China when it was published with the title 時來運轉.

Lastly, I was also proud of the last paragraph of the piece that I felt stumbled along in drunkenness like the two figures staggering through the darkness. The last two sentences originally were: “On the road back to my room, my feet stumble over some garlic… and why isn’t it possible to walk in a straight line? Shan Zuo holds me up, leads me on, we, staggering, tumbling, pierce the darkness.” Perhaps a rough, slightly too literal first draft, but I unfortunately missed the removal of the garlic in the proofs, which I would have fought to keep. The irrelevant detail that makes its surroundings glow.

Chicago’s South Side 1946–1948
Great Books about Chicago