[REVIEW] “Outstanding Translations of a Singular Poet: Yam Gong’s ๐‘€๐‘œ๐‘ฃ๐‘–๐‘›๐‘” ๐‘Ž ๐‘†๐‘ก๐‘œ๐‘›๐‘’” by Mary King Bradley and Matthew Cheng

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Yam Gong (author), James Shea and Dorothy Tse (translators), Moving a Stone, Zephyr Press and ๆฐด็…ฎ้ญšๆ–‡ๅŒ– Spicy Fish Cultural Production, 2022. 208 pgs.

Some poetry is easily translated. Some is not. Although a good translator can usually find ways to deal with the linguistic obstacles, an important question remains: can reading the work of certain poets ever truly be the same experience in translation? In the bilingual Chinese-English collection Moving a Stone: Selected Poems (2022, Zephyr Press and Spicy Fish Cultural Production), co-translators James Shea and Dorothy Tse have compiled a thoughtful, comprehensive volume of Hong Kong poet Yam Gongโ€™s work, illustrating that while good translations might not ever wholly capture the original, they can certainly come close.

For more than four decades, Yam Gong has produced a body of work that in many ways defies translation. This is because his style relies on elements such as word play, allusion, Cantonese expressions, subtle dark humour, and an intertextuality that marries Eastern and Western influences. In addition to almost all of Yam Gongโ€™s most important poems written since the 1980s, this new collection offers a concise but informative introduction that discusses the poetโ€™s life and work, as well as aspects of the translation process. Translatorsโ€™ notes at the end of the book likewise offer valuable context for many of the poems.

In their introduction, the translators help to position Yam Gong for the reader, describing him as a โ€œsingular poet โ€ฆ a literary outsider, yet respected in both experimental and traditional camps, among both older and younger generations of writers in Hong Kongโ€. They also draw attention to the โ€œsly paradoxes and sleights of handโ€ that characterise the deceptive simplicity of the poems. Their obvious respect for what makes Yam Gongโ€™s poetry so special is undoubtedly why the English translations in Moving a Stone succeed at a very difficult task.

Moving a Stone is only the second collection of Yam Gongโ€™s poetry to be available in bilingual form. (The other is the chapbook Performance Art, published in 2015 by International Poetry Nights in Hong Kong, translated by Canaan Morse.) Some of Yam Gongโ€™s poems therefore now exist in two different English translations. In the loosely chronological order of this new collection, these include โ€œThe Emperorโ€™s New Clothesโ€, โ€œA Butterfly Flaps Its Wingsโ€, โ€œPerformance Artโ€, โ€œThe Third Bankโ€, and โ€œA Song from Mother Mary and Miss Condoleezza Riceโ€. Since these poems have been singled out twice for translation into English, they seem a logical choice to focus on here.

As the first of these poemsโ€™ titles suggests, โ€œThe Emperorโ€™s New Clothesโ€ is based on the story by Hans Christian Andersen, in which a childโ€™s innocence is required for a powerful but gullible emperor to see the truth. For this poem, the translators have made slight changes to the arrangement of several lines in the second and third stanzas, and so do an excellent job of maintaining both the rhythm and sense of the original. Like most of Yam Gongโ€™s poems, however, what makes this poem a challenge for the reader is not simply its structure, but the larger literary and political context in which the poem operates. Probably because its broader context is not directly referenced, there are no translatorsโ€™ notes, but it is nonetheless worth discussing this context in order to give the reader a better idea of just how complex such an apparently simple poem can be.

In this short poem of just eleven lines, Yam Gong subverts Andersenโ€™s original narrative (a technique often employed in his poems), and thereby recasts its meaning:

The emperor put on his new clothes
and exposed
an invisible

Except for the child
all the people
in the kingdom
knew this secret

which is why
altogether they bear
the laughter of their descendants

This time, the emperor puts on his new clothes, but everyone in the kingdom knows his secret except for the child. The poem is not about innocence, therefore, but about โ€œthe crowdโ€, a trope explored in several of Lu Xunโ€™s short stories. The crowd is aware that the emperorโ€™s new clothes expose not his naked body, as in Andersenโ€™s folktale, but โ€œan invisible / handโ€. The poem becomes a metaphor for capitalism, the market, and power, the emphasis on the crowdโ€™s knowledge of the true situation: capitalism is in charge. They must therefore conform to the status quo and a rigid social structure in which greed is good, and in doing so, โ€œbear / the laughter of their descendantsโ€.

โ€œA Butterfly Flaps Its Wingsโ€ is yet another example that requires a bit of historical and cultural context, and in this case, there are translatorsโ€™ notes to assist us. The poem plays with the idea of historical figures who have quite literally lost their heads: a general from a short story by Shi Zhecun, the demi-god Xingtian from the Classics of Mountains and Seas, John the Baptist, the โ€œHeadless Empressโ€ of Cantonese opera Yu Lai-zhen, and the late-Han general Guan Yu. If the head represents the self, then the state of being headless explores the idea of losing the self, although the head is also about memory, dreams, sensations, and the imagination. With its series of missing and misplaced heads, the poem connects disparate stories from East and West and encompasses the ancient and modern, the local and foreign. In this way, Yam Gong expands poetryโ€™s boundaries, exploring not only the collective unconscious but also the eternal recurrence of suffering inherent to human nature.

This sounds a bit grim, yet the poem is anything but. As the translators point out in the introduction, โ€œYam Gongโ€™s knack for variousness allows him to be funny and light-hearted, and meditative and serious-minded, often in the same poemโ€. Here, they pay tribute to this aspect of Yam Gongโ€™s style by choosing to translate a repeated key line as โ€œWhereโ€™s your head?โ€ This has a delightfully wicked playfulness that also hints at the poemโ€™s various layers of meaning.

โ€œPerformance Artโ€ is another variation on the theme of the head and beheading, this time inspired by vandalism of the iconic bronze statue of Hans Christian Andersenโ€™s Little Mermaid, which looks out over the sea in Copenhagen harbour. In their notes, the translators provide basic details related to the statueโ€™s decapitation and also explain an allusion to the work of a Hong Kong writer; once again, the poem brings together the disparate influences of East and West. The poem as a whole is about emptiness, starting from the mermaidโ€™s missing head. Written sometime around the year 2000, when the internet was a new phenomenon, the poem talks about โ€œa virtual wallโ€ and โ€œa weeping webโ€โ€”Yam Gong clearly foresaw the emptiness of this new technology. Even the singing is โ€œsung with the sorrow / of not being understood / and of the forgetfulness / that followsโ€; even if it could be understood, it will be forgotten, fully illustrating the emptiness of the virtual world in post-modern society.

For the poem โ€œThe Third Bankโ€, the translators have also provided some useful notes for the reader. These tell us that the title is an allusion to the Brazilian writer Joรฃo Guimarรฃes Rosaโ€™s short story โ€œThe Third Bank of the Riverโ€, first published in Primeiras Estรณrias (First Stories) in 1962. It is worth adding that Rosaโ€™s story was translated by the Hong Kong poet, novelist, and essayist Leung Ping Kwan (perhaps better known by his pen name Yesi) and published in The Chinese Student Weekly in 1969. As a result, it was one of the very first translations of 1960s Latin American literature in Hong Kong.

The poem is once again typical of Yam Gongโ€™s style, particularly in respect to its use of word play and intertextuality, in this case referencing multiple works of Western literature. In addition to the titleโ€™s Western literary association, for instance, he incorporates the line โ€œAs a result, because, although, despiteโ€ from the poem โ€œCould Haveโ€ by the Polish Nobel laureate Wisล‚awa Szymborska (translated into Chinese by Chen Li), which he then splits across four lines.

The poem opens, however, with a series of lines that allude to Wittgenstein and perhaps offer one of the most difficult translation challenges thus far. Flexing his wordplay abilities, Yam Gong has created an effect in Chinese like stammering or a child playing a word game by repeating sounds in Wittgensteinโ€™s name, variously transcribed. These draw us into the poem and focus our attention. In the bookโ€™s introduction, the translators explain that these different ways of rendering Wittgensteinโ€™s name are โ€œto create a refractive effect. Our translation (โ€œWhen Wittgenstine passes through / When Wittgenstinestine and his language pass throughโ€) attempts to maintain this turning over of sound, which evokes the bending of light passing through glass.โ€

Wittgensteinโ€™s linguistic philosophy was built on the concept of the language-game, a term he used to describe language use and the fact that words actually do something, that our words are interwoven with our actions. Yam Gongโ€™s poem is also about language. It suggests that language is just a game, or just a way to communicate, but the poemโ€™s most important idea is communicated in the convoluted way it talks about the longing of someone living for someone already dead:

Only the longing a dead person had while alive
for a living person after death
lies on the first bank of the river

On the second bank of the river

lies only the longing a living person while alive has for a dead person after death
As a resultโ€ฆ

If we read the poem too quickly, we may fail to understand and end up confused by the language game Yam Gong is playingโ€”the distinctions he is drawing between the living person and the dead person, dead and alive. It is at this point that he quotes Szymborska, to shift his poem in another direction, to release the heaviness of this business of life and death, and give us space in which to reflect on the longing of this eternal divide, the poemโ€™s main idea.

The final poem to be considered here is โ€œA Song from Mother Mary and Miss Condoleezza Riceโ€, which is dedicated to the poetโ€™s mother. Yam Gong frequently mentions his mother in his work, portraying her as a figure of kindness, goodness, and gentleness. The opening line of this poem, written two years after the 2003 invasion of Iraq by the United States, features the then US secretary of state at the piano, an image that probably originated in Yam Gongโ€™s frequently mentioned admiration for Miss Riceโ€™s skill on the instrument. The dark humour of this poem lies in Miss Riceโ€™s ability to play the piano โ€œfrom which lovely sounds surge forthโ€ with the same hand that could set off โ€œmassive, explosive reactionsโ€ at the push of a button. The dark humour of the line is heightened by the contrast of a later line, โ€œPeople all over the world jam in different voices and keysโ€, suggesting a literal and figurative world harmony. Like the poetโ€™s mother, God makes frequent appearances as a character in Yam Gongโ€™s poems, portrayed as a being who communicates with humans from a different perspective; this is not an external god in another world but a god who exists as part of the community and has direct connections with human beings. In this poem, God speaks in Cantonese, warning Miss Rice not to claim she acted in ignorance of the consequences if she presses the button. Yam Gong shows us the dichotomy of war and peace, conflict and music, as the poem concludes with a song and grace and tears.

This poem once again has difficult elements to translate, and the translatorsโ€™ solutions to these problems, such as how to deal with Godโ€™s comments made in Cantonese and the poetโ€™s English insertions, are seamless in an English version that again feels true to the rhythm of the original Chinese. In fact, the only translation decision that seems slightly discordant with the original is in the first line, โ€œMiss Riceโ€™s finger on the button is at the piano again,โ€ which perhaps somewhat incongruously implies that Miss Rice is playing โ€œChopsticksโ€ with a single finger rather than creating a surge of beautiful music. But to mention this is merely nit-picking, and as such underscores the overall quality. The rest of the translation sings.

Indeed, as a celebration of Yam Gongโ€™s work, this volume has something to offer readers of Chinese and English alike. It offers both a carefully curated selection of poems from his two earlier collections as well as previously uncollected material published only in Chinese, and outstanding translations for the poetโ€™s first book-length collection in English.

How to cite: Bradley, Mary King and Matthew Cheng. “Outstanding Translations: Yam Gong’s Moving a Stone.” Cha: An Asian Literary Journal, 05 Mar. 2023, chajournal.blog/2023/03/05/yam-gong/.


Mary King Bradley is a Chinese-to-English translator, freelance editor, and writer who received her MFA in Literary Translation from the University of Iowa in the United States. Her translations have appeared in The Georgia Review, Mekong Review, Voice and Verse Poetry Magazine, and the bilingual anthology Writing in Difficult Times. Her translation of Dr Peter Wing-kai Lokโ€™s book Emotional Capitalism: From Emotional Dictatorship to Emotional Redemption (Iff Books) is forthcoming this year. A personal essay was recently published in the Hong Kong English anthology Making Space: A Collection of Writing and Art (2022, Cart Noodles Press).

Matthew Cheng is currently president of the Hong Kong Film Critics Society and review editor for Voice and Verse Poetry Magazine and Osqaure. He is the author of Word and Light: Reviews of Film Adapted from Literature, the prose collection A Walk Down Recollection Road, and three collections of poetry, as well as editor of more than thirty books on literature, film, and culture. In 2013, he received the Hong Kong Arts Development Award for Best Artist (Arts Criticism). In 2015, he took part in the University of Iowaโ€™s International Writing Program.

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