“A neverending journey”: A Conversation with Yilin Wang on The Lantern and the Night Moths” -curated by Wendy Chen

Released last month with Invisible Publishing, The Lantern and the Night Moths, selected and translated by Yilin Wang, offers stunning translations of five Chinese poets. Wang also includes thoughtful craft essays on translation in the book, making visible the typically-hidden labor and decisions in the translation process. I had the opportunity to interview Wang about the collection and her journey in becoming a translator—and what it means to inhabit the world in the position of a translator.

Yilin Wang 王艺霖 is a writer, a poet, and a Chinese-English translator based on the stolen and occupied territories of the Musqueam, Squamish, and Tsleil-Waututh peoples (colonially known as Vancouver, Canada). Yilin’s writing and translations have appeared in The Malahat Review, CV2, Room Magazine, Clarkesworld, The Toronto Star, Words Without Borders, The Common, and elsewhere. Yilin is the editor and translator of The Lantern and the Night Moths (Invisible Publishing, 2024). Yilin has won the Foster Poetry Prize, received an Honorable Mention in the poetry category of Canada’s National Magazine Award, been longlisted for the CBC Poetry Prize, and been a finalist for an Aurora Award for speculative poetry. Yilin has an MFA in Creative Writing from UBC and is a graduate of the 2021 Clarion West Writers Workshop. Find out more at www.yilinwang.com.

Wendy Chen: In your essay on Qiu Jin, a 19th-century revolutionary woman poet, you speak about being in the position as a “collaborator” with her and her work, a position that seems incredibly inviting. Can you speak about how you first became interested in translation and “collaborating” with other poets?

Yilin Wang: A few years ago, while I was pursuing my MFA in Creative Writing, I became increasingly aware of the fact that many writing workshops often overlook literary traditions from the Global South, especially literature in translation. Pulled by my personal desire to reconnect with Chinese poetry and reclaim that literary tradition, I began deliberately reading more Chinese poetry both in Mandarin and in translation.

I was shocked and dismayed, however, to encounter in certain literary circles a widespread practice known as “bridge translation.” This can be traced back to an idolization of certain white monolingual writers, who despite being completely unable to read the source text and their utter unfamiliarity with Sinitic languages, are often put in the position of translator solely based on their writing achievements in English. These bridge translators create “renderings” of Chinese poetry based solely on their deeply flawed and imagined understandings of “literal translations” provided by so-called “native informants.” The renderings almost always disregard the voice, register, syntax, and literary contexts of the original text, showing little or no self-awareness and reflection about positionality or cultural appropriation.

What is especially troubling to me is that the practice continues to be widely practiced even now, often with little scrutiny from the publishing industry. Multiple Chinese poetry books published each year—sometimes the only English translations of a poet’s work—continue to be bridge translations.

Frustrated by all of this, I started experimenting with translating some Chinese poetry on my own back in 2018. Over the past six years, I have tried to build a translation practice that is much more deliberately grounded in close reading, dialogue, and research. In summer 2023, when I fought the British Museum after they misused my translations of Qiu Jin’s poetry without permission, credit, or pay, I developed an even stronger sense of responsibility and kinship towards the poets I translate, especially Qiu Jin. As a translator, I see myself as a close collaborator and advocate for the poets I translate. I tried to highlight the relational nature of translation work in my essays in the anthology.

WC: My awareness of the practice of “bridge translation” as an emerging writer a decade ago was also the spark for my interest in tackling translation, so I find it so important that you’re addressing this practice. I also found the way you advocated for yourself and your work as a translator in your fight with the British Museum particularly inspiring–especially considering that translators and translation work is often intentionally made invisible to readers. How has translation shaped your relationship to language? Or vice versa?

YW: Working as a literary translator has trained me to be a much more careful and attentive reader. When I translate a poem, I often find myself close reading it a dozen or more times. I linger on every word, image, and line, as well as take note of the poet’s use of allusions, emotional turns, and ambiguity. My appreciation for a poem deepens further as I revise, draft by draft. I am pulled deeper into the poet’s consciousness, inhabiting their viewpoint as I search for ways to render their poem into English. I become hyper-aware of the limitations of language, of linguistic and cultural differences, of the ways a poet’s work pushes against these constraints. The work of a translator feels like a neverending journey. Every poet I translate teaches me new ways of crafting a poem.

When it comes to translating this anthology in particular, I learned a lot especially from translating Fei Ming’s work. In my essay “On Fei Ming: To Translate Nothing and Everything,” I delve into the joys and challenges of translating the ambiguities and silences in Fei Ming’s work. His poetry often has a misty, elusive quality that resists interpretation, allowing for space, possibility, and multiplicity. Translating his work into English has made me hyper-attuned to the use of ambiguity and silences in poetry, and I look forward to experimenting with these elements in my work in the future.

WC: There’s so many incredibly rich conversations happening between the poems and poets in this collection. How did you choose to put these five poets in conversation with one another? Were there any poets you wanted to include, but ultimately left out of this collection?

YW: I wanted to include a selection of work by emerging and established modern and contemporary Chinese poets that would give readers, poets, and fellow translators who are unfamiliar with Sinophone poetry a brief introduction to the genre. During the initial stages of compiling the anthology, I briefly considered including some renowned avant-garde poets who emerged in the 70s and 80s, such as Bei Dao or other writers of the Misty Poetry movement. In the end, however, to limit the scope, I chose to maintain a tighter focus on the emergence of Chinese modernist poetry itself and on some of their previously untranslated contemporary counterparts.

I ended up choosing five poets. Three of the poets—Qiu Jin, Fei Ming, and Dai Wangshu—are voices long celebrated for their pivotal contributions to the emergence of modern Chinese poetry. While previous translations of their work do exist, those translations are almost always academic, neglecting to prioritize the poetics of the work. The two contemporary poets featured—Xiao Xi and Zhang Qiaohui—are women poets whose stunning writings have been greatly overlooked both in China and abroad. I am honored to bring their writings into English  for the first time.

While the five poets’ work explore a wide range of themes, whether ancestral lands, connection to heritage languages, or sociopolitical issues, all their themes would especially be of interest to readers in the Sino diaspora. Qiu Jin, one of China’s first modern feminist poets, wrote frequently in her poetry about her wish for a zhīyīn 知音, literally “someone who understands your songs.” I consider all the poets featured in the anthology a kindred spirit and zhīyīn. Their longing for deep connection is one that runs through this anthology.

WC: In The Lantern and the Night Moths, you strikingly choose to alternate your translations with several essays you’ve written on translation itself. These essays offer up such rich insight into the process of translation, which is usually not made visible in a translated text. In one of my favorite essays titled “On Xiao Xi: The Infinite Possibilities of Poetry Translation,” you break down the many decisions you had to make in translating certain phrases or words—demonstrating how the process of translation is the act of honing down these infinite possibilities available to you as a translator. How did you settle on this kind of structure for the collection, and why was it important for you to do so?

YW: It’s common for translated poetry collections to have a short essay or preface that introduces the source text’s literary context, style, and themes as well as offers some insights into the translator’s process. I didn’t want my collection to feel academic, however, so I decided to take a more creative approach.

I included an essay for each of the five poets featured, bringing together research, personal anecdotes, and reflection to explore a range of topics like the positionality of a diaspora translator, the intimate dialogue that unfolds between a poet and translator during the translation and publishing process, and the many decisions that a translator makes on the page when translating.

Many of my essays were written during and in the aftermath of my fight with the British Museum, a context that made me especially sensitive to the ways that translators are often seen as invisible or even exploited within the publishing industry, museum spaces, and academia. I also drew inspiration from the ways that Gillian Sze weaved together poetry and craft essays in her book Quiet Night Think, and from the translator’s notes in Don Mee Choi’s translation of Phantom Pain Wings by Kim Hyesoon and Wong May’s translation In the Same Light: 200 Poems for Our Century.  

WC: Making the translation process visible is so important for conversations around what and who is translated, and why–conversations that intersect with power and identity. Your essays also provide insight into the common questions that come up for translators during the process that are shared across particular projects. I greatly admire the breadth of translations you offer readers in The Lantern and the Night Moths, from work by 19th-century Qiu Jin to 21st-century Xiao Xi. Do you approach translating 19th-century Chinese poetry differently than translating more contemporary work? How are the processes similar or different?

YW: While every poem poses a unique set of challenges for translators, Classical Chinese poetry (such as those written by Qiu Jin) can be especially tricky to translate due to the presence of formal and stylistic elements that add another layer of complexity. For example, Classical Chinese poetry has strict rules around the tonal patterns of each line, the use of parallel syntax, and limitations on the number of monosyllabic characters per line, which are simply impossible to render into English given linguistic constraints.

Classical Chinese poetry is also known for an extreme focus on concision. A sentence’s subject, verb, object, and prepositions can often be omitted or implied, leaving so much to be gleaned from context alone. Additionally, Classical Chinese poets also rely heavily on a shared body of common knowledge and imagery, where many words or stock phrases like “the moon,” “the cicada,” or “the lotus” are never just their literal meanings, but have to come for a specific, commonly agreed-upon set of symbolic associations, all of which are known by Chinese writers and readers, yet never stated explicitly on the page. 

Given these kinds of challenges, I tend to translate Classical Chinese poetry much more slowly, reading the poetry aloud and annotating it line by line, paying attention to every word and to diction choices. Then I will attempt some close, literal translations where I render the poem word by word, trying to preserve the syntax and to tease out the unsaid. Then I will move towards attempting more experimental translations, where I work to evoke the emotional experience of reading a poem, focusing on the spirit of the work rather than abiding strictly by every formal decision. I go through as many revisions as needed, combining different drafts until I eventually settle on a final translation. 

WC: How much archival research or biographical work do you conduct on writers that you are preparing to translate? In what ways does this research impact the final translations, if at all?

YW: My translation practice is very rooted in research. Most of Qiu Jin’s work was published posthumously, so when I was translating her work, I often encountered multiple versions of the same poem, and I had to consult academic and annotated editions to help me determine which version to use as the source text. To better convey the passionate longing in Qiu Jin’s poetry and to sensitively render her poems touching on feminism and gender, I also conducted extensive research on Qiu Jin’s worldviews, her relationship with her sworn sisters and friends, and the world and the era she inhabited.

When it comes to the anthology as a whole, I learned about the lives of each of the three modernist poets through biographical and historical research. I sifted through their interviews and essays for their first-person accounts of their thoughts on literature, their approach to writing a poem, and their general literary sensibilities and influences. I also held long conversations with both contemporary poets I translate, asking them questions about their creative choices and their intentions behind specific lines. They also sent me multiple interviews and reviews of their work published in Chinese.

WC: You end the collection on the poem “Night Moths” by Dai Wangshu. This is such a poignant poem and translation, with a line that will remain with me for a long time: “Circling the halo of candlelight, / night moths dance in wretched repetition.” In your essay following this translation, you discuss how Dai “explore[s] the relationship with the self and an other, whether a butterfly, night moths, or people . . . ” and contextualize Dai by discussing his work as a translator as well as a poet who navigated different languages and countries. For me, the process of translation is very much navigating between “the relationship with the self and an other,” as one must navigate one’s own voice with the voice of the original work. How do you navigate this relationship? How do you honor the original work while staying true to your own vision as a translator?

YW: A translator friend, who goes by the pen name yjtc, recently told me that to read a translation is like looking through a translator’s eyes. It is such a lovely way of putting it. I think of translation as a form of creative writing that is rooted in careful reading, interpretation, and re-invention. For me, honoring a poet’s vision is less about conforming to every technical feature of the original language, but rather honoring a text’s actual voice, style, decisions, and the overall spirit of the poem. When I translate, I always try my very best to honor the spirit of the original, convey while making creative decisions to account for linguistic, cultural, and stylistic differences between languages. I ask myself, if the poet were writing the same poem in English, what decisions would they be making, and how would they recreate the work?

WC: What is the revision process like for your translations? Does that process differ from your revision process with your own work?

YW: After I finish a first draft of a translation, I will re-read both the source text and the translation, identifying all the spots in the translation where I feel like my translation decisions have been insufficient when it comes to rendering the source or where I feel improvements could be made.

Sometimes, I trip over a phrase that’s been translated too closely and literally, giving it an awkwardness in the English translation. Sometimes, a powerful moment in the original poem has become dull and lost the emotional punch of the original. In other moments, I find phrases that I rendered more creatively out of necessity that feels like it has strayed too far from the original. When I encounter any of these spots, I slow down, and try to retranslate the section in multiple ways, testing out different approaches until I find the one that I most prefer. Sometimes, as I revise, I discover new possible readings of a line, section, or even the poem, which also lead me to rethink my understanding and translation approach.

In the revision process, I will often find myself getting too close to my translation, where I have stared at the same word choices for hours and feel unable to come up with fresh choices and decisions. In these moments, I will sometimes set aside pre-existing drafts, and return to the source text, creating a completely new translation from beginning to end without looking at earlier attempts. I also will seek out feedback from several critique partners, some of whom can read Chinese and some who cannot, asking them to share their suggestions in the form of reader reactions and questions about the text. 

Eventually, when I settle on a translation that I am fairly satisfied with, I set it aside for a few days or even weeks before returning to give it a fresh read. At this stage, I will read through the translation without looking at the source text, checking to see if the translation stands alone as a poem in English, without the need for a reader to consult any aspect of the source text. I make more tweaks for word choice, flow, and details at this stage. It is common for me to revise a translation a dozen or more times before I consider it complete.

WC: What advice do you have for new translators?

YW: I would encourage aspiring and emerging translators to read widely in the source language. A translator is often a curator, and it’s important to be aware that we have the power and privilege to make deliberate choices in seeking out voices that we feel most passionate about translating and advocating for. Additionally, given that translation is a form of creative writing, I strongly recommend translators to take creative writing workshops in the genres they wish to translate into, so they have access to a wider range of tools and techniques they can employ when translating. A few years ago, I actually created a spreadsheet that provides a list of translators who are willing to share their knowledge and expertise with emerging BIPOC translators, so I will share that here as well for any BIPOC translators who might find it helpful.

WC: Thank you for so generously creating and sharing this resource with emerging translators! What a valuable resource for BIPOC translators to help them get started in the field.

Who are some of your favorite translators currently at work today? What are your favorite translated texts?

YW: There are so many translators whose work I admire, and due to the limitations of space, I will focus on speculative fiction and poetry here. I am a huge fan of Ken Liu’s translations of Chinese speculative fiction, especially his anthology Broken Stars. I also deeply appreciate Gigi Chang’s tireless work translating Jin Yong’s wuxia (martial arts) fiction novels, such as the Legend of Condor Heroes series, which has introduced them to a wider Anglophone audience. When it comes to poetry translators, I especially recommend checking out the work of Quyên Nguyễn-Hoàng, Jack Saebyok Jung, Chenxin Jiang, Neil Aitken, and May Huang.

WC: What is a translation project that you’d like to work on next? How do you decide on what work you choose to translate?

YW:For me, translation is a labor of love, so I tend to prioritize works I feel truly passionate about translating, while always keeping an eye out for emerging and overexcluded voices that have never been translated before or are underrepresented in translation. I am currently working on translating a full-length collection of selected poems by Qiu Jin, whose work I hope to make more widely accessible to a general English readership. I’m also hoping to branch out to translate some more queer Taiwanese poetry and to translate more poetry written by poets in the Sino diaspora.

Wendy Chen is the author of the novel Their Divine Fires (out May 7, 2024 from Algonquin Books) and the poetry collection Unearthings (Tavern Books). Her translations of Song-dynasty woman writer Li Qingzhao are forthcoming from Farrar, Straus & Giroux in 2025 in a collection titled The Magpie at Night.