Xi Nan is a writer and translator of different genres. Besides numerous books in Chinese, she recently published Brandy, by Alien Buddha Press and With Light and Dust by Terror House Press. Her most recent project is 207th Bone, a translation of poetry by Zhou Li which is coming out October 22nd with Simi Press. I had the opportunity to speak with her about the project, Chinese poetry, and the art of translation.
Joey Carney: Translators often get unjustly overshadowed by the writer, but a translation is a lot of work. Could you talk about yourself a little, and how you became involved in writing and translating?
Xi Nan: Thanks a lot, Joey, for arranging this interview. Indeed, as you said, translation is a lot of work, and the works are also very trivial, but at the same time, this is my main daily work. My daily work is to read manuscripts, (independently) publish books, translate, and write my own works. I lived in the UK for thirteen years before, and currently live in China, and sometimes travel to other places as well. As for why I became involved in writing, I think this is a very natural thing, probably because of the strong love in my heart, so I started writing and doing some related works full-time in 2009. This has continued to the present. My translation is inseparable from my writing. There are many good writers around me who have written good works, but due to language barriers, their works are rarely read by English readers, and I want to introduce their works to more people around the world.
Joey: Are there any writers that have had an influence on you?
Xi Nan: My writing experience is rather tortuous. I personally was influenced a lot by the Chinese novelist Shi Kang (石康) in my early days of writing. He is a bit like J.D. Salinger’s writing style or literary works of the Beat Generation. Looking back now, I think Shi Kang is more likely to be an instinctive and emotional writer. Later, I was interested in the works of some other writers, but I quickly gave up. I found that it was not what I really wanted. Currently, I more appreciate writers like the Polish poet Wisława Szymborska or my work partner Fish Lu (鲁鱼, he’s also my boyfriend), who pay more attention to the benign interactions between writing and life. Both of them have a more peaceful and calmer inner world and are able to manage life in an orderly manner, instead of sacrificing life itself to “achieve” writing. I am quite satisfied with my current writing status.
Joey: Do you think there are any special obstacles or challenges when translating from Chinese to English, as opposed to other languages?
Xi Nan: In fact, not only Chinese-to-English translations, English-to-Chinese translations also have such problems. Each language and the culture behind it have their own very unique part, which cannot be conveyed by simple conversion between different languages. How to express this part of the content in another language and at the same time make it understandable to readers living in different cultural backgrounds—this is the biggest challenge.
Joey: You are an indie publisher as well as a writer. Can you talk about that a little?
Xi Nan: Yes, poet Fish Lu and I are currently operating our own literary studio—it is called Whale Studio—mainly doing independent publishing and translations. Our indie publishing projects mainly translate and publish relatively marginalized writers. As you may know, the current publishing environment in China is not very free. A large number of writers usually don’t have many opportunities to publish their works through traditional channels. So our work, for these writers, is like one more publishing possibility and one more choice. For our translations, in addition to introducing Chinese writers to English readers, we also hope to translate the works of contemporary English writers in the future and introduce their works to Chinese readers—especially their ongoing contemporary writing—we know very little about it, but we are also very interested in it.
Joey: Describe the book 207th Bone. What is it all about? Why should people read it?
Xi Nan: This is a book of emotions. It’s about a person’s own emotions. It’s also about men and women, and about the world. I don’t think we should read this book as a story; it is not a story anyway. I also don’t think we should see it as the experience of an entirely different person, although it does come from the experience of a different person. What I want to say is that people of different races, regions (or even different epochs) in the world have the same basic emotions – the writing of this book is based on such a basic fact. So for friends who are going to read this book, I suggest they regard this poetry-collection as a self-dialogue on late nights.
Joey: Zhou Li is as good as any famous writer out there, lucid, pensive, and talented, but he isn’t well-known. How did you discover him and why did you choose to translate this book?
Xi Nan: There are many such writers around us, but for various reasons, they are not known to many people. I think this kind of situation does not only exist in China, but also in other parts of the world. But this is exactly the meaning of our work; we want different writers and people around the world to know more about each other. Zhou Li is our friend, and we naturally know more about him and his works, so we’ve chosen to translate his works and introduce them for Western readers.
Joey: The poems in 207th Bone are simple and short, but have a lot to say. Is this a common thread in Chinese poetry or is it unique in this book?
Xi Nan: There are various types of poetry writing in each language, and it is the same thing in China. Poetry writing like Zhou Li’s cannot be regarded as a “common thread”. There are many other forms of poetry writing in China today, but the form in this book is not unique, either. It should be said that this is a writing choice made by Zhou Li and a small group of other writers.
Joey: Contemporary Chinese poetry isn’t well-known in the West. Can you describe what is going on in China with poetry right now?
Xi Nan: Writing poetry is one of the daily jobs of Fish Lu and I. As far as we know, after the rise of the Internet, Chinese poetry writing has become very active nowadays. Not only has it become very civilian, it has also produced a very large number of works. The forms of works, as we’ve discussed above, are diverse, ranging from very traditional to very modern and even post-modern; there are both writings from the wild grassroots and from the intellectual elites. For a writer, one must find a writing style that he recognizes and that suits him, and then to participate in it.
Joey: What are some other good poets that deserve more recognition? Do you see any common threads with literature in the West?
Xi Nan: There are certainly many such poets. Besides four books in Chinese (three poetry-collections and one novella), we have also translated into English and published three collections of poems in the United States this year, including Zhou Li’s 207th Bone published by Simi Press. Some are books or translations in progress and are expected to be published later this year or next year. We will continue to introduce more Chinese poets to Western readers. Since modern times, Western literature has always been a model for Chinese literature, and it is still the main model now. But the situation is also changing, especially in poetry writing that we are more familiar with. Some Chinese poets are trying to get closer to the best poets in the world. This includes the topics they’re concerned with and the explorations in their writings. I don’t know the common threads in Western literature very much, but according to my limited observations, as a part of modern art, I think Western writers are actively making explorations and discoveries.
Joey: What other projects are you working on right now?
Xi Nan: In terms of translation, currently I have two books at hand that have been completed or nearly completed, and two other books I have not started yet. One of the latter has already been accepted by a good publisher, and I’m still seeking another publisher for the second one. We’re also at the moment working on three Chinese books of different poets, which are expected to come out later this year. I sincerely hope we will have opportunities to cooperate again in the future, Joey. As for my own writings, I do it almost every day. It is already part of my life.
Joey: It’s been an honor working with you as well, Xi Nan. You have a unique writing style and are very meticulous in your translations. For me, it seems like a translator is always having to rewrite a book. Language isn’t just communication, it’s also culture, even a vision of the world. How do you look at a book you translate?
Xi Nan: Yes, in simple terms, translation seems to be a conversion between two languages, but fundamentally, it is actually the transmission of information between two cultures. In my opinion, it is impossible and also unnecessary for a translation to be 100% faithful to the original; but having said that, to “become another story entirely” is not only unnecessary, but also makes the meaning of translation lost. In my translations, on the basis of being as faithful to the original work as possible, I try as much as possible to convey the parts that the author most wants to convey to the reader. I think I have done that.
Joey: Thank for your time and good luck with your upcoming projects.
Xi Nan: Thank you very much, Joey. It’s been a great pleasure working together with you. I also really appreciate your time and providing this space to discuss some thoughts about our new book, 207th Bone, poetry and translation.