Listening to Chinese whispers

Translator of Modern Chinese poetry Denis Mair says he is drawn to the alternative voices in the Communist nation

March 10, 2015 08:55 pm | Updated 08:55 pm IST

Translator of Chinese Poems Denis Mair. Photo: V Sreenivasa Murthy

Translator of Chinese Poems Denis Mair. Photo: V Sreenivasa Murthy

A Bulgarian poet once told Denis Mair that her best translator is someone who wants to be a poet but isn’t a poet. “I am kind of like that... a wannabe poet,” smiles Denis Mair. “I have written one or two books of poems, though.”

An English translator of modern Chinese poetry, Mair says a translator has to sometimes “think like a poet to bring a poem into the translated language as a poem rather than get stuck with words.” But it is a hard balance to let the author’s creativity shine through the translation without being too literal or too distant from the original.

Mair, who was in the city recently at the invitation of Toto Funds the Arts to share his thoughts on modern Chinese poetry, has always been drawn to the “alternative view of politics” in the Communist nation. “I have not worked much on the Marxist poets. It is always the alternate voices that attracted me in Chinese poetry,” says Mair, who is currently a translator for the Zhongkun Cultural Fund in Beijing and a research fellow of Hanching Academy in Taiwan.

For instance, Meng Lang whom he has translated writes and publishes out of Hong Kong, “where there is still space for dissenting voices.” Jidi Majia is a poet who belongs to an ethnic minority group in China whose poetry articulates the identity and spiritual outlook of the Nuosu people in poetry. Mair writes in an article that Jidi Majia has a strong affinity for figures of America’s Harlem Renaissance. “Only a poet with a tremendous soul could have succeeded in the project that Langston Hughes attempted: the revival of people’s identity, from the roots up, in a modern setting of cultural dislocation and anomie,” he writes. On the other hand, Huang Nubo whose poems Mair has translated, is a real estate developer, entrepreneur and mountaineer who founded and remains Chairman of Beijing Zhongkun Investment Group.

A different perspective

Mair has, in fact, seen very little Marxist-sympathizing Chinese poetry showing up at Chinese poet conferences within or outside China, even when they take place right under the government’s gaze. The mid-August poetry festival in Beijing of which he is one of the organizers, for instance, happens next to the military museum and the government provides venue for it. “But the organizers there invite a lot of poets with alternative viewpoints.” Artists and poets take on the responsibility of being this alternative voice, which often makes them “cultural heroes as popular as rock stars.”

Interestingly, most of these poets Mair has translated, who hold an alternative view of culture and politics, do not take a directly antagonistic stand to the political establishment. “Meng Langa, for example, knows that it does not help to write direct poetry of advocacy. His poetry is more meditational on the historical crisis that China faces. It is not critiquing the government, but critiquing social trends. Not blaming government directly, but saying that the whole country has a historical problem,” says Mair.

In one of the more openly critical poems titled “Sacrifice of Youth” in Verses of Education, Meng Lang writes: “Over the upraised arm is your sky/ Where the arm lowers is your land/ Out in the open, already open, the Motherland herself/ Is about to push you into the hospital’s last ward!”

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