Ouyang Jianghe and Austin Woerner

Interview with Ouyang Jianghe and Austin Woerner

In September of 2009, I had the pleasure of meeting the Chinese poet Ouyang Jianghe (or O.J. as he’s often called by friends) and his current translator into English, Austin Woerner. They both had come to the Vermont Studio Center, an artist residency in Northern Vermont, to forge new poems and translations for a new selected book of Ouyang’s work, forthcoming with Zephyr Press in Winter 2011.

I had the opportunity to speak with Ouyang and Austin about their thoughts on poetry, the process of creative translation, Ouyang’s experiences growing up during the Cultural Revolution, the language of music, and new Chinese forms. Here is an excerpt of that lively and lyrical conversation.

(During the interview, Austin acted as both participant and active translator between Ouyang and myself. Ouyang’s quotes are a combination of his own spoken English and Austin’s translations. I also want to mention that Ouyang is such a passionate and charismatic speaker, full of hand gestures, emotional emphasis, a lively face both serious and quick to laugh—that even without understanding his words directly when he was speaking in Chinese, I found myself riveted, and the excitement in the room was palpable.)

—Sierra Nelson


Sierra Nelson: Is the new book you’re translating already published in China, and the translation is new—or is the book itself new?

Austin Woerner: It’s actually a new selection, so we’re selecting from Ouyang’s entire oeuvre and creating a new anthology. He has several anthologies in Chinese, and this will be selecting from all of them.

SN: Are you deciding together what poems to include, or how does that work?

AW: Essentially there are three sources of input. First, I read the poetry, and based on my own reactions I came up with a list of what I liked the most. And then Ouyang came up with the list of the poems that he liked the most and felt were the most significant. And then we have the co-editor of the series, a professor of Comparative Literature at Columbia named Lydia Liu—and she also came up with a list of poems she thinks are the most significant. So we had these three lists, we sat down, and we tried to figure out where all the check marks lined up.

Ouyang Jianghe: Yes, there are the three perspectives—Austin as a reader of English and a writer of English, me as a writer of Chinese, and Lydia Liu as an academic and a critic and also as someone with a capacity in both languages.

AW: So it’s a process of mutual crossing out, we just see what everyone agrees upon, and what everyone doesn’t agree upon, we don’t translate.

OJ: But I wanted to mention, too, that we are also thinking about the process of translation itself and about our audience when choosing the poems.

AW: Right—for example, poems that seem like they might be of particular interest to American readers, or poems that seem like they would be particularly good—that would come across, out the other end of the translation machine looking really nice—you know, we tend to lean towards those. And sometimes there have been poems that are really important—that he or Professor Liu thinks are really important for the Chinese perspective—but for the poems to come across in English, it might just be impossible.

SN: So what determines that? Can you give me an example of what might not come across, what you feel might be impossible?

[Very long interlude of Ouyang speaking, Austin animatedly conferring.]

OJ: Your question was, is there anything that cannot be translated? And are there poems we might have dropped, because they were too hard to translate? The things that have the most difficulty coming across are the things that have the most specific cultural reverberations accompanying them.

AW: For example, there was one very long form poem called “Thanksgiving” which Ouyang wrote when he was actually living in the States. He lived here for about four years, back in the 90’s, in Washington D.C.

OJ: The poem is from the perspective of a Chinese person in the States during Thanksgiving. But it’s also talking about China from the perspective of a Chinese person in the States. So it makes a lot of in-culture references, such as things that happened in the Cultural Revolution. For example, back in that time people who were being persecuted as counter-revolutionary would have half of their head shaved. So hair on one half and bare on the other, that was called a yin-yang head, or yin-yang haircut. In fact this happened to my father in the Cultural Revolution.

AW: So the poem at some point makes a casual reference to a yin-yang haircut—but the poem is full of references like that. It’s essentially winking at the reader as you go along, all these things that you’d know and understand because you’re a Chinese person. But it’s a little more difficult to turn around and wink at the American reader who doesn’t know what you’re talking about.

OJ: It’s like this—imagine there’s a woman walking up the stairs—a narrow stairway. And that woman is me, the writer, the creator of the original piece. The woman is walking very slowly to the top. And you are the American reader, the translator, and you want to get up to the top of the stairs as fast as you can. So you hurry up and tap on her shoulder; you say, “Hey, I need to get up, let me through.” And this woman has a long, long, thick braid all the way down her back. You tap on her shoulder, and she turns around—but instead of a face, she has another backside of the head, and a long, long braid going down her front. [Laughs.]

AW: Just translating it into English doesn’t necessarily mean that the reader will know what it means!

As a translator, I would add that there are certain things that are hard to translate and certain things are easy to translate—I don’t think there’s anything that’s untranslatable. I think that as things get harder, you need to compensate more with your own invention to recreate the effect.

So if we wanted to translate that [Thanksgiving] poem and put a whole lot of effort into it, we probably could. But it’s also a rhyming poem, which makes it even more difficult. And it’s also long, with all those in-culture references—so probably it’s not worth it to deal with all of that. But I really do think that translation is not just about bringing every single word over into English—it’s about creating a parallel poem—recreating the same experience for the reader.

And some poems that seem almost untranslatable, we’ve done. For example, there’s one poem, which I can show you if you’re interested, called “Handgun.” The poem is basically about playing word games in Chinese.

Unlike English, pretty much every word in Chinese—I shouldn’t say every word, but most words in the advanced vocabulary anyway, in the written language—are made up of two characters. So for example, you have one character jie 解 that means “untie,” and when that character is paired with another character shi 释 which means “to release”—“untie and release”—that means “to explain” (jiefang 解释). And there’s another character that means “to end” or “to bring to an end” (liao 了)—so pair together “to bring to an end to untie,” that becomes “to understand” (liaojie 了解). So a lot of these words are actually built out of components that are very obvious, just sitting there on the page looking you in the eye.

The simplest example—there’s the word for “thing” in Chinese, dongxi 东西, which means “east-west.” So you could say, “There are a lot of east-wests in this room. We’ve got too many east-wests in this room, let’s throw some of them out.” But people don’t think of it in terms of two separate components, they just think that it means “thing.”

Anyway, this poem that we translated is called “Handgun,” and it’s all about this game of taking apart characters that have two separate components—so it begins, “you take apart a handgun,” into two separate components, “a hand and a gun.” And then you play these games where you add a thing to the hand and you add a thing to the gun and that becomes something else. And that’s a sort of game that we can’t really play in English all that well—I mean, it’s not as obvious. We can break our words apart, but we can’t break the same words apart. So the challenge for me was to write a poem that’s playing the same game, but I can’t break the same words—so I need to find words that I can break—and that means that I may actually be talking about different things than his poem is talking about—although I hope as best I can to stick to the original theme. So if you look at the original of his “Handgun” and my “Handgun”—they clearly look like poems that were inspired from the same source, but they don’t look like identical sides of one thing.

SN: That’s fascinating. Will the book include both the translation and the original?

AW: Yes, the book will be bilingual so you’ll be able to see all that. And I’ll be writing a translator’s introduction so I can also say “Hey guys, they’re not all the same. Be on your guard here.”—“You’ll notice there are differences. . . .” [Laughs.]

SN: And do you include either footnotes or endnotes for some of these things, or some kind of raw translation?

AW: I don’t like the idea of footnotes. When you have footnotes, it makes it feel like you’re seeing the original through a clouded pane of glass. But if your translation compensates for those differences within the translation itself, then you’re creating a new thing, you’re creating something that stands on its own feet as a work of art in English—in theory, hopefully you’re doing that. That for me is a much more exciting challenge than trying to create an approximation of what he’s done and then explain it through footnotes. That feels lame.

SN: That makes sense—it feels more like a creative act than something academic.

AW: Right, exactly. I don’t know if there was ever any conscious decision in this process that it would be a creative translation as opposed to an academic translation. But you know they happened to find me as a translator and I happen to be a creative translator not an academic translator, so I guess that’s how it got started.

SN: Were the two of you paired for a particular reason? Was there something in each of your sensibilities that matched up? Or was it simply luck, fate, that brought you together?

AW: I’ll start with a little bit of the background to fill in some of the details. Basically the way this got started was I met Lydia Liu, the professor who is the co-editor of this series, through a friend of mine, Su Wei, a professor who taught me when I was at Yale, who is also a novelist and whose work I’m translating. That’s actually how I started being interested in literary translation, through translating Su Wei’s novel. When I met Lydia Liu, Su Wei told her I had also translated a collection of poems by a classical Chinese poet, Li He, who lived sometime in the ninth century. And Li He is a particularly complicated, tangly poet.

OJ: A very difficult poet!

AW: So I gave Lydia Liu the address of the website where I had published some of these poems.

OJ: She took a look at his translations and really liked what he had done with them, thought that they were very creative. So she thought that he would be a good match for the difficulty of my poems—in terms of the voice and the rhetoric, and also in terms of the music.

AW: Yes—all these different layers of complexity. It’s not just (and this is me editorializing) an image, an image, an image, an image—the way things are said is very much as important as what is said, and in most cases for him it is the only thing that matters. It’s about the way things are said and not about what is said specifically. But to sum up, because of the complexity and difficulty of what he’s doing, she saw my creative approach to this classical poet’s work and thought I would be a good match.

OJ: But to speak a bit more about our creative process—working together we talk about the poetry on many different levels. Of course there’s the simple level of what the words mean, but even more importantly there’s the syntax, the syntactical complexity, the rhetoric, the way things are said—so we talk a lot about that. We also talk a lot about the music of the language itself and how to convey that music in English. I try to convey to Austin what the music of the language is in the original, and we talk about how to emulate that.

AW: Yes, so then I have to find a way to convey it in English. And we often do talk about it in musical terms. I mean, Ouyang is a huge fan of classical music. You should see his CD collection—it’s the largest I’ve ever seen.

OJ: I’m actually a classical music critic. I’ve written many essays about the piano and classical music playing. I also have many CD’s—I think 10,000.

AW: And also the largest speakers I’ve ever seen.

OJ: Very large speakers! I love music!

AW: So to talk about the music of the language, we often use analogies from classical music. I actually have a lot of background in classical music as well. Before I started writing I was heavily into composing classical music—so Ouyang and I had that common language right from the beginning.

So we talk about the music of the language, and sometimes it’s tricky because the things that make the language musical in Chinese might not exist in English. For example, in Chinese it is all about line, because of the tones, and often some of the music of the language might be based on the contours of the lines. Whereas in English, we don’t have tones, but English words are often rhythmically more complicated and interesting than Chinese words—Chinese words tend to have either just one syllable or two, just one thing after another, but with interesting lines on top of it. English is all rhythm—so sometimes when I look at an effect he’s produced in Chinese, and the effect may be due to the contours of the line in Chinese—when I’m translating that, I think how I can use rhythm in English to convey that same effect?

SN: So it’s like translating a melody into a rhythm?

AW: Exactly—it’s like translating one type of music into another kind of music. Translating a flute line into a drum line.

That’s one thing we talk about a lot. Another thing we talk a lot about is voice, because this is really, really important. (And this is me editorializing here) but this is often something that’s lost in translations from Chinese—the sense of the voice.

OJ: We do spend a lot of time talking about what sort of voice it is in the poem. And we talk about how to find a corresponding voice in English, and about poets that we know in common. Is this more like Wallace Stevens, or John Ashbery, or some combination of both? Or is it like Whitman?

AW: So by using those poets as posts I can sort of grapple along, banisters in the dark—I can use them to navigate and figure out what kind of poem I want to produce in English.

OJ: And because we’re not just talking about the meaning of the words, we’re talking about these other more intangible things, essentially what we’re doing is writing a new poem, producing a new work of art. We’re having two parallel creative processes. There’s the saying by the Greek philosopher that you can’t cross the same river twice.

AW: Because the water is always different—you can’t translate the poem, you just have to write a new poem.

OJ: No—it’s that the same reader can’t possibly get the exact same experience from the Chinese poem and the English poem.

AW: They’re two different rivers. Same river you’re crossing at two different times. Not the same river. [Laughs.]

OJ: [Laughs.] Yes. The difficulty of translation.

SN: What brought you both to poetry in the first place? And after that, what brought you to translation—why translate?

OJ: So the story of how I first came to poetry. When I was very young, about ten years old, I was exposed to classical Chinese poetry.

AW: Which is a completely different kind of language from what people write now. For example, the ancient language of Laozi, the Daoist writers, like the Dao De Jing, and also the language of the Tang dynasty poets, like Li Bai, Du Fu, and Li He, the fellow I translated.

OJ: So at a very young age I was exposed to these voices. But what I soon came to understand was that that poetic language was perfected millennia ago. The writing of the Daoist philosophers—well that was 2,000 years ago. And the Tang dynast poets, that form of expression was honed to a point 1200, 1300 years ago. And since then there has been basically no innovation, it’s just been people mimicking what they’ve done. So I felt very moved by this poetry, but at the same time I felt a sense of loss and disappointment because there was nothing more to do with it.

But back at the time when I was reading, it was during the Cultural Revolution and it was very difficult to get a hold of and actually read these sorts of materials—and it’s a long story about how I came to be able to read them at this time. During the Cultural Revolution all that stuff was banned—you couldn’t read the old books, you couldn’t read the old poets. A lot of people of my generation had almost no exposure to that language, to the ancient Chinese poetic language. (Now it’s a different situation, because young people are distracted by all the various distractions of modern life, and they don’t read it either.) But I was unusual because I was very steeped in this language from the beginning. It created a sense of nostalgia in me—I felt a calling from the spirit of the language.

But now, for people living in our world right now, you can’t write poetry like that—you can’t write traditional sonnets like people would write 1300 years ago because they were writing about different things and their lives were different. You need a new form, essentially. You need a new language.

AW: Here I should add a little editorial note. Up until the beginning of the twentieth century, written Chinese was written in the style of the ancients, like Confucius and the people who were writing in the Tang Dynasty. People still wrote in this way—so if you look at a letter from those days, if you’ve just studied modern Chinese you won’t understand it—it’s almost like reading Latin, or as if people still wrote in Shakespearian English until the 1920’s. So essentially Ouyang is working in an entirely different written language than that poetry—in a sense creating a new language, making poetry out of a colloquial language that’s never been poeticized before.

OJ: So as a modern person, you need to find another means of expression to explain things, to express the things of your own spirit, and to express and talk about the things that are around you, that are different from what was around the ancients. So in a sense I had two births as a poet—one was my being influenced by the ancient poets, and I did start writing poetry in the ancient style—but then I had a second birth as a modern poet, and that was mainly influenced by my reading translated literature, reading poetry translated from the European languages, French, English, German—and that had a great impact on the voice that I have now.

As a poet, I feel like I am channeling three different things: my personal experiences, as an individual—my experience being a person in China right now, and seeing the things going on around me, the poetic implications of that—and then my passion for literature, for literature for its own sake.

SN: And is the connection to the ancient style, is that tied in to that passion for literature? How does that infuse the work that is now modern?

OJ: Essentially, it’s an indirect sort of influence. Rather than having that ancient language seep into my language, I feel that one of my missions has been to try and cut out that language as much as possible. In order for poetry to change, it needs to give up certain things. In some respects, its influence upon me is my effort to avoid it.

AW: But I want to add here that we’re just talking about the linguistic aspect of things. It’s more like the decision to cut away rhyme. You know, why do we not always write in rhyme? Because we want to make something new, because we want to find poetry in aspects of language that are not rhyme. So in terms of the actual language itself, he’s trying his best to cut out all of that ancient stuff. However because he has this vast encyclopedic knowledge of the traditional, of Chinese history, cultural, and politics—

OJ: It’s not just language, it’s over 2000 years of accrued knowledge, and that definitely shows up in the poetry. Poets who have a grounding in that and poets who don’t have a grounding in that—you can definitely tell the difference, in terms of the poetry’s thickness.

AW: Or in terms of depth, we might say.

OJ: For example in one poem we translated called “Our Hunger, Our Sleep,” there are many references reverberating, many things that reverberate with traditional Chinese culture. For example there’s an image of a leopard in the poem. And this image of the leopard goes back to poems about leopards written by people hundreds and hundreds of years ago, and so people who have a grounding in that will perceive that depth in the poem.

AW: So linguistically speaking it’s a relationship of distancing, but in terms of the content itself, the actual stuff that he’s writing about, it’s by all means flowing right in.

OJ: It’s very interesting, this one point, and maybe a main difference between Chinese and American poets. A lot of American poets who have been influenced by Chinese culture and Chinese literature in particular, for example, poets like Gary Snyder—what they are influenced most by is the relationship of man and nature and also some of the Zen philosophy and Daoism. So to these American poets like Gary Snyder, they’ve taken these aspects and adopted them, made them part of their own poetic expression and also part of their own lives, part of their own philosophies of life. So this has become the way Americans think of Chinese literature—it’s become representative.

But in fact most Chinese poets throughout history are not that way. There’s a small fraction who decided to withdraw from society and write about nature and Zen and those kinds of things. But most Chinese poets throughout history have been officials in the government.

AW: I don’t know how familiar you are with this, but there’s this traditional examination system where in order to get a good post in the government, which was pretty much the only way to get ahead in society, you needed to be a cultured gentleman—and that meant you needed to write poetry, and that meant you needed to be able to do good calligraphy, it meant you needed to play chess and the zither and that kind of thing.

OJ: So the main flow of Chinese poetry was not about withdrawing from the world, it was about engaging with the world, engaging with society. Obviously modern Chinese poets are not going to become government officials, but they still look at the world with the attitude not that they are going to withdraw from society but that they are going to engage with society. For traditional Chinese poets, in the Chinese intellectual tradition, there were basically two different choices—one was to reach out and engage with society and other people, and the other was to withdraw from society and just cultivate yourself.

AW: So the strand of Chinese thought that poets like Gary Snyder have picked up on is that withdrawing from society aspect—but the real, actual main stream of Chinese thought is the engaging with society, not the withdrawing.

SN: And is that still a choice for modern poets in China—to withdraw from society or engage more with society? Or was that withdrawing choice a strand that broke off farther in the past?

OJ: At present, the most influential poets in Chinese are all of the engaging-with-society bent.

AW: And I should say that right now when we’re talking about this in Chinese, we’re using two words that are understood to be a dichotomy—“entering the world” (rushi 入世) and “going away from the world” (chushi 出世). So, it’s more natural to group each poet as “entering the world poet” or “going away from the world poet”—although that sounds a little awkward in English.

OJ: So basically not really, there aren’t many influential poets now who are taking that kind of tack.

SN: The away from, the hermit.

AW: Yes, the away from society, the hermit approach. And part of it has to do with religion.

OJ: Because basically that choice—the question of do you leave the world or do you engage with it—was a product of the system that they had then. Which was either you went into the civil service and you became a civil servant and you took the test and you served the government—or you became a hermit and you just focused on your own literary work.

SN: And when you say “then”—what’s then?

AW: When we say “then” we’re talking before the twentieth century. When we talk about “before” and “then” for China, it usually means up until the fall of the Qing dynasty, which was the beginning of the twentieth century—and then “now.” So our break-off between ancient and modern is accelerated. So as he was saying, that was basically the product of the system then, but obviously we don’t have that same system now so that dichotomy doesn’t really exist now, it’s not as much of a question.

SN: I’m curious about how you were able to get your education in the ancient texts, how you were able to gain access during the Cultural Revolution. I’d like to hear more about that story, if you don’t mind.

OJ: So here’s the story. Back when I was in middle-school, I started doing calligraphy. And when you learn calligraphy, you need to know ancient poetry because that’s what you write when you do calligraphy, what you “calligraphize.” At that point, in every large city there would be only one store that sold old books, antique books—and by old books I mean books that were not about Communist ideology—traditional books, we could call them. And during the Cultural Revolution they weren’t allowed to sell these books—so all these books were back in the warehouse—it was closed off, and nobody could go in. But I learned from a classmate who happened to the be the son of the proprietor of this traditional bookstore in Sichuan province, where I was living, that if you got a red letter of recommendation you could go in to look at the books. Now my father was a military officer, so we were moving all throughout the Sichuan province when I was little. He was a high-ranking officer, and I discovered that he was just high enough in rank to be able to get this red letter of recommendation. So I got the letter and my father gave me a one hundred dollars—one hundred Chinese dollars! Which is not much now but at that point it was a big pile of money, probably for most people equivalent to about a seven-month salary. This was when I was about ten years old.

And my father gave me this money and told me to go and buy whatever I wanted. Everything in the bookstore was half-price for military people so I was able to buy double the amount that I normally would have. I went in and bought about two hundred books—a huge cart full of books. And these were old books—antique books, with traditional binding, and very valuable. Antiquities, basically. So I bought this huge pile of books and was able to read them—all of these books about Chinese tradition and culture, classic poets and poetry, but not only poetry but everything—plays, Laozi, Confucius, the Daoists, The Book of Changes, history, and everything! And of course, also great patterns for writing calligraphy.

I was just barely a teenager. But at that time, you know, there was nothing. No movies, no television, no books—things were really boring at that time, there was nothing to do. You weren’t allowed to do anything. One of the favorite hobbies of the kids at that time was to bike to the game court and have a competition to see how long they could keep the bike up without moving. The whole point of a bicycle is to get from point A to point B as fast as you can! And they’re busy trying to see who could move the least. [Laughs.] It was the preferred pastime of boys at that point. The girls did hopscotch. What the teenagers would do—just nothing!

So for a person like me, there was nothing to do but read. My classmates called me “Encyclopedia Ouyang” because I soaked up so much knowledge in those days. Nowadays, kids are on the web, or they’re traveling, or they start dating really early—there are so many draws on your time now. It was very different, a different era.

SN: And what about you, Austin—what brought you to poetry?

AW: You know what first brought me to poetry, actually? It was setting it to music. I’ve composed classical music since I was about eight years old—I started playing the piano at that point. I started writing music, people were interested in it, and I found myself studying composition and writing music a lot. I had this whole other life as a composer from when I was about eight through the end of college.

So all throughout high school I was writing classical music, and it was then that I started setting poetry to music. My first real engagement with poetry came when there was a soprano at the music school where I was studying who commissioned a bunch of students to write pieces for her to sing, based on poems—a lot of them were from Baudelaire’s “Flowers of Evil.” So I chose a poem from “Flowers of Evil”—I was in tenth grade, probably the perfect time to be reading “Flowers of Evil,” right? [Laughs.] A really dark poem about how awful everything is! So I set it to music for voice and stringed quartet. I’d say that’s how I first got started. And I’ve got a little copy of “Flowers of Evil” that has followed me around ever since those teenage years.

I feel like I had several levels of engagement with poetry. There was that first initial bit of interest—you know all throughout high school and college I did write occasionally, though I would never have identified myself as a poet. I would say that I occasionally write poetry. And I took classes in fiction writing as well. And it really wasn’t until we started this project that I got involved in poetry on a day to day level. I remember at the beginning, when I got this pile of his poems and started to wade into the poems in Chinese—and I started to realize, well, I really need to be a poet in English in order to be able to do this. I need to turn myself into a poet in English.

So I remember I biked to the Brooklyn Public Library and got out a huge pile of contemporary and twentieth century American poetry—a whole bunch of big anthologies—everything from Billy Collins to Wallace Stevens, T.S. Eliot, you name it. I just got a big pile. I’d never taken any classes on poetry, no academic study. I had only taken one class on literary translations, when I translated that traditional Chinese poet I had told you about. But until then, I wasn’t a practicing a poet. So it really was starting this project with Ouyang that turned me into a practicing poet.

So at the time when I knew we were going to start this project but before I had met Ouyang, I started writing. Just to try to figure out what kind of voices I liked in poetry. And then when I met him and started reading his poetry I discovered that the kind of voices that I was attracted to in poetry were nothing like what he was writing! So I needed to change my style—I need to learn to write poetry that basically I didn’t know how to write.

You know what I was trying to get to before was a very lucid poetry, kind of like Billy Collins, where it’s really like a little story in a crystal. And it’s not at all what Ouyang is about—it’s not about a story, it’s not about characters—it’s just about words and the play of words and the associations between words. It’s very dense and tangled and difficult, and requires quite a lot more brainpower to dig into it. So that meant that I had to learn how to like that stuff, and learn how to understand it. Or at least how to make something from it, how to assimilate it into my own voice—so that I could do that trick, you know? [Laughs.] I can’t translate convincingly enough unless I can write in that style as well.

When I was in China with Ouyang I brought along my book of Wallace Stevens. And when I had first cracked it I was like, oh man, I’m not sure what I think about this guy. Do I want to wade through this stuff? But I started reading it there more seriously and getting into it and trying to understand really what he was getting at. Hart Crane, too, I remember I read a lot of Hart Crane at that point. So I was trying to figure out, well, what is Ouyang doing? How do people do this in English? What does what he does look like in English?

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