Anna Yin

When I received the book cover and the page proofs of Mirrors and Windows from Guernica Editions, I was overjoyed. I was no stranger to this joy, for I had previously published five poetry collections; yet this time was different. It was like a long laborious childbirth, finally, safely, delivered. Holding 280 pages of the contributions of the 59 poets whose texts were included–as well as the two-way translations (English to Chinese; Chinese to English) in a beautiful and sophisticated mirror-layout, I reflected on many detours that I had taken on the winding journey of this translation project.

Robert Frost once remarked, “Poetry is what gets lost in translation.” Then why did I spend years translating poems and make the great effort to publish them into book form?  I saw it and continue to see it as necessary. I believe it to be what I might call “a loyal love,” not just a consumption of time and labor, but a journey of collaboration of words mapping, discoursing, exploring, and restoring. Translation needs the courage of “To Be or Not to Be,” the interrogation of “Other” and “I,” the isolation and unity of reflections and explorations. It involves culture, history and politics to bridge the messages for allowing deeper mutual understanding, communication and more…I wanted desperately to be a part of this exchange.

Yet without any precise GPS for navigation, one can easily get caught up in detours and get lost on this poetry translating odyssey. Looking back, I recognize detours were necessary. I turned to Every Step Was into a New World, and there I found Al. Moritz’s intuition and philosophy; and when I followed A.E. Stallings’ Mistake, I understood even mistakes were an opportunity to grow and to learn; in Dana Gioia’s Thanks for Remembering Us, I smiled at his amusing love episode triggled by an unsuspected error. In The Flaw by Molly Peacock, I witnessed: “a hand saying through the flaw, / I’m alive, discovered by your eye.” Yet, Peacock’s Why I am Not Buddhist puzzled me for days. Next, I ran into chaotic torments in Allan Briestmaster’s “Ask dying fish what difference: fire and mud …” and in Lan Lan’s “But already too late – / Around the world the tall pillars /Are collapsing…”  My translation pilgimage entailed traversing various labyrinths among historical courses and cultural examinations. I could get lost but still I had to keep going.

I remember Moritz’s semi-autobiographical Poetry: “though as it assures you it abashes you / with crushing beauty…” and I translated it in 2013, but found several mistranslations later, after our email exchanges. Then with an online Poetry in Translation discussion, we traced the unconscious side to Dante’s journey through the deepest of dark forests. All those collaborations helped me to rework my translations.  When I flew to Italy in 2019, I found myself waiting in a long queue in front of St. Peter’s Basilica and I was reminded of Richard Greene’s “I was thinking of Michel-/angelo almost daily – Pietà / as essence of the only art I seek…” I instantly reviewed my translation; at Pompeii, I heard Ronna Bloom’s “Salve, Salve, Salve…” echoing beyond the ruins; I regret I missed Tombeau de Keats and only could imagine George Elliott Clarke’s “Language fabricates intimates..” and picture the ghost of Keats inking letters that bloomed in the vast Roma field.

It takes years to get there—to get to the heart (and the head) of a poem! When at last I thought I had fully understood their poems and felt confident in my translations, I heard Gioia’s Do not Expect: “And only briefly then / you touch, you see, you press against/the surface of impenetrable things.”  So, what do I know? How confident am I?  What has still been lost, after many revisions and discussions with these poets and their thoughts re-thinking— seeing windows open and close as if by themselves and then open again—mirrors reflect, obscure and spring to life again? Where can I detour? Where can we detour?

I found C.D. Wright’s poems were the most difficult to translate. Upon completing the book, I was still perplexed. I tried to learn “the art of losing,” although I believe I stumbled upon the clue to her Only the Crossing Counts: “Frankly my dear, Frankly my dear, Frankly”; I made my final translation. Unfortunately, when she was still alive, I had not confirmed this with her. Now I leave it as it is, I believe that the final choice is truly her call, her autobiographical voice.

Tantalized by Peacock’s Peach, I had the good fortune to discuss it with her in detail. I also had the joy and nerve to invite other Chinese translators to translate the same poem and shared an online hot debate to exchange different translation values, interpretations and even mistranslations. The reward I received from these collaborative processes was that I grew in confidence to translate and transform the poem in a Chinese romantic way, “a red tinge, with a hinge,” to a renewed world.

While translating the renowned late Chinese modern poet Luo Fu’s poems into English, I constantly thought of “The personal is political” in a larger sense. I was stunned by his arresting images and symbols. His grief of “the clock, / is constantly / killing itself…” reminded me of inevitable tragedies in history and inspired me to write The Great Cold and other poems. For his poem “讀詩十二法” (Twelve Ways of Reading Poetry), I made extended image enhancements and applied such techniques as pen poetry, make poetry, shape poetry, engrave poetry, compose poetry…with compatible imagery in twelve varied ways, so the poem never repeated his expression “寫詩” (write poetry) in my translation. I hope this is my special effort to pay my great homage to him and respect for his work and render the complex layers of humanity and cultural background implied by his poem. Additionally, I used Traditional Chinese instead of Simplified Chinese for his original to reflect its multifaceted cultural and political meanings. Luo Fu greatly advanced beyond several generations of Chinese poets; even with his shortest poems, we can perceive his grim humor, sharp insight and linguistic play all informed by modern Chinese culture, politics, and philosophy.

Scientifically, any image we see in a mirror is the image in the past. Translation seems the same: No matter how long poets want to claim that Poetry is timeless, we read poems with the language and the cultural context related to special moments or historical periods. Thus, translating a poem is to “Make it New” and “Make it Known” in another language. It is such a thought-provoking and word-collaborative process that it demands “a love so dark / you have to long to pierce it repeatedly” (Moritz). Like the “Eros, / raddled asteroid, lumpish and erratic, / on a loopy path” in Advice to the Lovelorn by Alice Major, I have struggled to find directions, but I truly believe that for a peach, even in its mirror-image, the translator should let readers taste the juice of it.  Clarke claims: “the struggle for Beauty is never ‘history’”. I believe translators should, like the poet, strive to recreate its beauty.

I hope with Mirrors and Windows I have fulfilled the role as both a poet and a translator. Yet I have deliberately left a few “flaws” or unsolved “slipups”, Yes. That was and remains my plan. I hope readers will pause, detour, and uncover them, then they begin to debate: “Am I alive or lost in translation?”

—first published on FreeFall Magazine