This entry in the Why This Book Should Win series, is by Becka Mara McKay, BTBA judge, author (A Meteorologist in the Promised Land, Happiness Is the New Bedtime), translator (Laundry, Blue Has No South, Lunar Savings Time), and director of the Creative Writing MFA at Florida Atlantic University. We will be running two (or more!) of these posts every business day leading up to the announcement of the finalists.
Sea Summit by Yi Lu, translated from the Chinese by Fiona Sze-Lorrain (China, Milkweed)
In his excellent essay on translation “Anonymous Sources,” Eliot Weinberger posits “There is a cliché in the U.S. that the purpose of a poetry translation is to create an excellent new poem in English. This is empirically false: nearly all the great translations in English would be ludicrous as poems written in English, even poems written in the voice of a persona.” I have always only half-agreed with Weinberger on this point, or perhaps I only agree with half of his point: yes, it is a cliché (and a danger) to believe that the purpose of translating poetry is to simply create a new poem in English; yes, to measure an English translation of a poem against a poem written in English is a useless and fruitless exercise. But I nonetheless object to the appearance of the word ludicrous among the rest of Weinberger’s sensible assessment. And in the case of the poems of Sea Summit, which are vibrant and crystalline in Fiona Sze-Lorain’s remarkable translation, I would replace ludicrous with luminous. No, these do not sound like poems written in English, nor should they. They represent a carefully crafted intersection between the original Chinese and the English, a prismatic lens through which the original Chinese sparkles, transforms, and insistently sings. These are nature poems that defiantly employ an urban vocabulary—or perhaps they are urban poems seeking the solace of nature through the only language they know. In either case they are utterly original and absorbing, forcing us to rethink how we perceive objects and moments we might otherwise deem mundane. The ending of the poem “A Bouquet of Cauliflower” is a meditation on many things—the vegetable in question is only the beginning of a disquisition on the requirements of patience, the passing of the seasons, and the mystery of the world beneath our feet:
a string of buds awaits the bloom
like a thousand Buddha hands with palms closed
only a cauliflower with a thin stem
places a huge spring on its body
Many of Yi Lu’s poems examine the natural world with this mixture of serenity and compassion, sorrow and sly humor. Here is the beginning of “By the Maple Woods”:
Here are the millionaires of autumn
yellow leaves scattered like torn pieces of manuscript
only silver gray branches
can hold the sky palace
Fiona Sze-Lorain is, according to her biography on the book’s cover, “an acclaimed zheng harpist,” and her ear for the music of poetry is evident throughout the book. The rattles, roars, and hums of the natural world are deftly reproduced in exquisite moments of internal rhyme and alliteration—techniques which never call attention to themselves but simply serve as elegant vehicles for these equally elegant poems.
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