May’s Monthly Memo | March

I thought of walking round and round a space
Utterly empty, utterly a source
Where the decked chestnut tree had lost its place
In our front hedge above the wallflowers.
The white chips jumped and jumped and skited high.
I heard the hatchet’s differentiated
Accurate cut, the crack, the sigh
And collapse of what luxuriated
Through the shocked tips and wreckage of it all.
Deep-planted and long gone, my coeval
Chestnut from a jam jar in a hole,
Its heft and hush become a bright nowhere,
A soul ramifying and forever
Silent, beyond silence listened for.

Sonnet 8 from Clearances by Seamus Heaney

🖼️ For a long time, March has been a complicated month for me and my family. March is beginning and ending; celebration and grief; life and death. But perhaps it is this way for much of the world, too, for this is the month in which winter melts into spring while sunlight stays around for longer, beaming its way through the living room even at dinnertime.

When I first visited America, always in the summer, what I loved most was the longevity of sun. Here, the sun rose early and took its time to set. As a child, I was entranced by how light lingered, elongating an ordinary day.

Did I ever have an “American Dream”? I never thought of my feelings towards the US in such terms before, but sometimes you only recognize the shape of a feeling when it is ending. At 18, I made the decision to come to the US because this country produced so much of the art and literature I loved. In America, the parking lots were the size of soccer fields, universities were prestigious and promising, and the sun always seemed to be shining. As a teenager living in one of the densest cities in the world, I felt that America was where I’d find space and freedom—the blessing to do whatever I wanted. 

In many ways, I found what I was looking for here. Chicago has become my second home; it’s a place that has shaped my thoughts and my future. But this March, even as I make plans to stay in this country, I know that my “American Dream” has somewhat splintered. Perhaps it’s the convergence of political crisis (I am talking about the primaries, yes) and public health emergency that has finally broken me. But I think part of it is also watching people around me earlier this month shrug off the coronavirus when Asian countries (and Asian people abroad) have been compromised, traumatized, and stigmatized by COVID-19 since January. Oftentimes, the feeling that you can do whatever you want has large-scale repercussions.

Recently, I came across an article about the pandemic titled “That Discomfort You’re Feeling Is Grief.” I began this piece by saying that March is a complicated month for my family, and that’s because 10 years ago this month, my dad lost his fight with lung cancer. 16 years ago, he was diagnosed—at the same time SARS descended on Hong Kong. Now, as I read about ventilator shortages across the country, I think about how my dad depended on complicated respiratory equipment to survive. I think about how regular hospital visits wove themselves into the fabric of my childhood years. COVID-19 impacts not only those who are infected with the disease, but also anyone who depends on emergency services, medical machines, and hospital access. When SARS came to Hong Kong, I had no idea that my family had not one, but two deadly illnesses to worry about. All I knew, as a kid who disliked going to school, was that I got to stay home. Now, I wonder how many of my favorite childhood memories originated from the SARS era. I always like to believe that my memories are more accurate than they are.

When I was in Hong Kong this December, I catalogued my old diaries (over a dozen; I was a prolific journaller). I revisited my diary entries from March 2010, confident that I’d find, in the spaces of grief, my own handwriting; proof that I had journalled my way through crisis. After all, this is what I remember doing—writing, writing my way through grief. To my surprise, I found nothing. An absence, a clearance. The final poem from Seamus Heaney’s sequences of sonnets “Clearances,” written in memory of his late mother, comes to mind.

Grief takes the form of its subject, loss. And, as something that is difficult to talk about, even with family, grief is deafeningly silent. When you see an empty restaurant, a shuttered shop, or a silent campus, you are observing grieving spaces. It is little wonder that so many people I know risked passing through germy airports to return to their families despite travel warnings. To grieve apart always accentuates the loss, for grief itself is a vacancy. 

But March, as I said at the beginning, is also about celebrations. March is, and it almost feels underwhelming to say this, my birthday—and not just mine, but my brother’s, too. To have a twin means to grow up with someone who has been with you since there was nothing at all; to have a companion in the countering of loss. For the first time in four years, Henry and I got to spend our birthday together, and I don’t take this gift lightly. He flew in from Syracuse last Sunday, and the days before the flight were turbulent and nerve-wracking; Henry’s flight was hastily booked, cancelled, rescheduled, and then rescheduled again. He was flying in from an airport near New York City (as I type this, my poor brother is still in room-quarantine). Everything had to be cleaned—Henry himself, his clothes, his suitcases. While he showered, I stepped outside to where we had left our shoes. When I picked up his boots, prepared to wipe them down, I glanced at the sole and saw—to my surprise—that we’d both been wearing the same shoes that day—Clarks. What are the odds? Twinning, as they say.

I am lucky that I get to be quarantined with Kevin, Henry, and our great roommates. I’m lucky that I get to work from home, and that I can FaceTime my mom and sister. In times of crisis, it always feels trite but crucial to count your blessings. March 2020 has been a master class in escalation, but also a lesson in patience. It has been a month of cancellations and grief—but also celebrations and sunlight, the miracle of watching the days last longer. As we continue our social distancing, alone or with family, we are joined in protecting our loved ones and strangers. As March turns into April, let us hopefully move past our grief, fill in the vacancies, and safeguard the coming of spring. 

*

🎬 Okay, I’m going to be concise for the rest of this memo. This month, Kevin and I finished seasons 4 and 5 of Clone Wars. The series becomes stronger as the seasons progress, which is largely due to the maturing of Ahsoka Tano and the series’ filling-in of plot holes from the original prequels. If you read February’s monthly memo, you’ll know that we watched seasons 2 and 3 last month. So, we are making good progress—but also watching literally nothing else, perhaps to our roommates’ disappointment.

📖 I finished reading Valeria Luiselli’s Faces in the Crowd, translated from the Spanish by Christina MacSweeney. The novel’s multiple protagonists include a translator, a poet, a publisher, a mother. A translated book about translation? What else could be more up my alley? I also started reading, but did not finish (alas, I had to return it to the library) Sour Heart, a collection of short stories by Jenny Zhang. My favorite book that I read this month was Last Things by Jenny Offill, whose imaginative language and lean prose made from great bedtime reading. I’m currently working my way through Pachinko by Min Jin Lee, which feels uncannily relevant to my life right now. Why is it that the books we read always mirror our lives?

“My mother said that one day the pictures wont make any sense anymore … because everything will be inside … and we’ll all live in huge buildings connected to one another by tunnels…. Our skin will be thin as paper from staying inside and we won’t even remember that we once told time by the sun.” – Jenny Offill

“History has failed us, but no matter.” – Min Jin Lee

“How does this thing about remembering the future work? … If you dedicate your life to writing novels, you’re dedicating yourself to folding time.” – Valeria Luiselli, tr. Christina MacSweeney

🎵I started “zooming” this month, so”Zing a Little Zong” by Bing Crosby has been stuck in my head (when I sing it aloud, to Kevin’s amusement/frustration, I change the word “Zing” to “Zoom”). “Don’t Get Around Much Anymore” by Louis Armstrong & Duke Ellington also feels very apropos right now. Additionally, I challenged myself to learn a solo jazz routine to “Melody in Swing” by the Don Byas Quartet, so that’s probably my most-played song of the month.

💬Quarantine. That’s it, that’s the tweet.

Concerning Coronavirus

In 1997, the year that I was born, the H5N1 virus in humans was first reported in Hong Kong. Almost 20 people were infected while 6 died. This would not be the first time the “bird flu” virus descended on Hong Kong.

In order to contain the 1997 outbreak, the government ordered a ban on chicken imports from China and then a mass slaughter of chickens; around 1.3 million birds. According to a CNN article from 1998, “Hong Kong’s chicken killers haunted by guilt,” the slaughtering of chickens was a deeply traumatic event for workers in the Agriculture and Fisheries department. Many of these workers were religious and did not want to kill birds; some could still hear the cries of the murdered birds when they went to bed at night. “Hong Kong Destroys Its Chickens,” a Washington Post article published in December 1997, goes into more detail on the killings:

More than 250,000 chickens were killed with carbon dioxide gas in the first day of an operation that involved thousands of government workers from a half-dozen agencies as well as private vendors, who also slit the throats of the birds and dropped the carcasses into plastic garbage bags. Yellow dump trucks and earth-moving machines made huge piles of poultry remains at three large landfills….. So massive is the job that the government did not have enough salaried workers and ended up hiring day laborers to kill chicken and geese for one Hong Kong dollar — the equivalent of about 12 cents — per slaughtered bird.

Although the public was assured that you could not catch the bird flu by eating chicken, this did not stop restaurants from removing chicken from their menus or the government from ordering the slaughter. My favorite poem by Chung Kwok-keung is 家務 “Housework” (translation forthcoming in Circumference Magazine later this year). The first time I read the poem, I teared up. It tracks the speaker’s relationship with chickens from his childhood to adulthood, as he watches chickens go from being creatures of love and affection to the faces of a fatal virus. I won’t share my full translation here yet (message me if you want it), but here’s the last stanza:

Is that love? I see a thin fluid flow from your beak like tears
Is that the flu I see a whole city of people with long faces
Between rainy and sunny days, I learn to wear masks and hazmat suits
Deeply raking the mud, doing that never-ending work
Oh-oh, I hear again that voice that voice stopping and going
Mouths sealed in every stuffed black plastic bag
Is that love, for the children we removed you from the cookbook
Is that love, for our own sake we piled up your bodies
Like houses crowded together in the morning at night in a shut-up city
I hear that voice that voice is nearby is at my feet
Without understanding it that language is buried like the days

Original text here.

I mention the bird flu because it is the first influenza that took place in the timeline of my life so far. Since then, there have also been SARS (2003), H1N1 swine flu (2009), Zika (2015), etc, listed here. And now: COVID-19 (2020).

How do infectious diseases shape cultural and personal memory? I have been thinking about the influence of diseases such as SARS and H5N1 on HK’s history as I translate some of Chung’s poems, a number of which touch on these diseases. I have also been thinking about how I am personally reacting to COVID-19, which is the first serious pandemic that I am experiencing as a functioning adult. Now is certainly the first time I am making decisions surrounding personal health in a place other than HK, in times of a virus. This distancing in some ways makes homesickness all the more acute.

I actually have distinct memories of the SARS era, or so I believe. What I remember is not SARS, however, but a blissfully long chunk of time spent at home; piecing together puzzles on the study room floor; making art with my mom; reading. It’s absurd to think that while this deadly virus was proliferating in Hong Kong, my artistic interests as a child were also proliferating. When I remember SARS, I remember staying at home (school was cancelled) and thriving off tons of playtime. Only years later did I realize that it was a totally different narrative for my parents. For the city.

Trauma, grief, and disease create voids in our life of different magnitudes. 1.3 million chickens eradicated from the face of a city. A misremembering of months spent away from school. Cancelled conferences and international gatherings. A 3,000+ global death toll.

This Thursday, I was supposed to attend AWP, the largest literary conference in North America. On Saturday, the largest physics conference in the world (to draw 11,000) was cancelled 36 hours prior to the event. AWP is supposed to host 12,000 writers. To make matters worse, the CDC released a patient who had tested positive for COVID-19 over the weekend in San Antonio, and said patient immediately went to the mall, a food court, and a hotel near the airport. Yesterday, the mayor of San Antonio declared a public health emergency. He later claimed he did so purely to seek legal leverage. He would later publish a letter saying that San Antonio is as “wonderful as ever,” encouraging others to visit. The co-executive director of AWP (now former director; she resigned this morning, long story) sent mixed messages about a potential cancellation through her personal Twitter account; writers panicked; misleading information was tweeted; planes and hotels were cancelled; and then came the announcement that the conference is still on.

Rumors, proliferating rapidly alongside the virus, are powerful vehicles for self-fulfilling prophecies. People hear that supermarkets are running out of rice, so they go and buy all the rice; next thing you know, the supermarkets are out of rice. People hear that a conference is cancelled, so they cancel their hotel reservations and registration; next thing you know, the lack of attendees in-effect cancels the event.

Crises always expose flaws that are already inherent in a system, and the institutional issues that have arisen since the COVID-19 outbreak remind us that our world is, at its ugliest, a place where xenophobia can run amuck; where decisions about public health are set aside for profit; where fear can drive irrationality.

Now is the first time I’ve thought about how a pandemic can affect the publishing industry. The London Book Fair will soon experience the same lack-of-attendance woes as AWP is now, for example. Small presses who shelled out to attend the conference will take an economic hit. This is the first time I have seen so clearly a combined crisis of health and governance in the literary world. In his takedown of AWP in the LA Review of Books, former AWP executive director Matt Burriesci wrote: “How can this board restore the organization’s health when they don’t seem to even acknowledge the sickness?”

There is a lot more about the virus that I want and need to think through, but perhaps not on this platform. Years later, when I look back on this time, I wonder what I will remember.

May’s Monthly Memo | February

“These kind of soy sauces are passed down for generations. They are heirlooms. If you look into yourself, you see past, present and future. You see that time revolves endlessly. You can see the past from the present. By looking into myself, I see my grandmother, my mother, the elders in the temple, and me. As a result, by making soy sauce, I am reliving the wisdom of my ancestors. I am reliving them. It’s not important who or when. What is important is that I’m doing it in the present. I use soy sauce, and I acknowledge its importance. It is no longer just me that’s doing things. It’s me in the past, in the present, and even in the future. Soy sauce is eternal. It is life itself.”

– Jeong Kwan, a Buddhist nun from Korea. She said this during an episode of Chef’s Table. It’s not a poem *per se,” but it is the most poetically heard-rending thing I came across this month so I wanted it to serve as the poem of the month.

🖼️ February tends to be a short but crammed month, and this year was no exception! This month, my ALTA mentorship officially kicked off, and I got to meet my mentor Jennifer Feeley in Chicago, which was wonderful. It’s crazy to think that my book project is slowly, yet surely, underway. This month, we celebrated both Kevin’s birthday—I made a Yoda cake using spinach and honey—and valentine’s day (back to back, convenient for me). We felt lucky that the annual UChicago Folk Festival took place over that weekend. We go every year, so neither of us had to brainstorm date ideas (our ideal date night is probably binge-watching Clone Wars at home, so thinking of “real” dates is challenging). But we did end up having a nice dinner at Strings Ramen and then a surprise Saturday night dinner at Giordano’s, where I bit my tongue so hard that I took an entire week to recover and couldn’t speak/eat properly for like 3-4 days. On the subject of my February afflictions…this month, I also had to get my ears cleaned (first time using my medical insurance) after my ear wax accumulation became unbearable (sorry if this is TMI), and for the past 2 weeks my left neck muscle has been kind of sprained (from trying to knock water out of my ear; from doing bad crunches at Cardio HIIT; from waking up the wrong way and yanking it). Anyway…February has also been a busy, busy month at work, as we’re gearing up to go to AWP in San Antonio next week (more on that in March). But I’ve still found time to work on some translations, and co-translated this op-ed for Lausan HK: “I went to eat at three ‘Hongkongers Only’ restaurants.” It’s “a reflective account of what it has been like to be Mainland Chinese in Hong Kong under the dual conditions of epidemic and ongoing political struggle.” I’ve said it before and will say it again; translation is all about having empathy.

🎬 If you follow this blog, you’ll know that I watched Miss Americana and wrote a long, “extra” blog post about it. I actually watched it a second time in a more relaxed setting (just me and Kevin and one other roommate) and that was waaay more fun. February is actually quite a significant Movie Month; the Oscars happened! I am delighted that Parasite took home four major awards: best screenplay, director, foreign film, and PICTURE. Of course, Parasite‘s win also behooves the Academy. It feels like the first time in a while that a Best Picture win has been so widely celebrated. I’ve been reading some more analyses of how the film is a technical masterpiece; e.g. the simple “ram-don” dish is a striking metaphor, lines are employed in the cinematography to represent class divisions, timing is perfect and exacting in the film and screenplay, etc. More on Parasite later. This month, Kevin and I also successfully finished Season 2 of Clone Wars and are now on Season 3. Sometimes I wonder why I spend so much time watching these cartoons, but then again I realize how much fun it is to indulge in these concise, tightly-written episodes. Actually, one of the episodes even made me tear up! An episode we watched today (I am composing this sentence on Monday, Feb 24) also made me think a lot about how the accents of voice actors are used to suggest, sometimes problematically, racial differences between different aliens. For example…Cham Syndulla is French? Lott Dod and the other Neimoidians are…East Asian? Of course, given how Neimoidians are depicted as being somewhat slimy and treacherous, you can see how casting them in Asian voices is kinda problematic. I did some digging on the Internet and feel justified by this article from 1999 that confirms some of my thoughts on the matter:

The Phantom Menace is filled with the hierarchies of accent and class status. The Jedi knights speak in full paragraphs, resonant baritones and crisp British accents…. The “status-obsessed,” hive-dwelling Neimoidians, on the other hand–who lead “a labyrinthine organization of bureaucrats and trade officials from many worlds that has insinuated itself throughout the galaxy”–speak like Charlie Chan.

Also, wiki.starwarsminute points out that the stereotyped demographic changes based on which version of the movies you’re watching:

In the English language version, Silas Carson (the actor playing Nute Gunray) imitated a Thai actor’s reading of the lines.

In the German version, they were dubbed with French-sounding accents.

In the French, Spanish, Czech and Italian versions, the Neimoidians were given Russian accents.

Okay, enough on Star Wars (for now). This month, Kevin and I also watched To All the Boys: P.S. I Still Love You (we’d seen the first movie together) and I think the movie may have convinced me that I’m no longer a rom-com gal. The movie was generally fun to watch, although the on-the-nose attempts to emulate Wes Anderson (and Buzzfeed Tasty) were a Bit Much. Kevin was frustrated at how “extra” everyone in the movie was; I felt personally attacked by how Lara Jean wears a perfect outfit (and new shoes) in every scene; we both thought the movie did John Ambrose McClaren dirty! And, like Star Wars (I guess I am bringing it up again), To All the Boys tries to thrust diversity in our faces through its casting while steadily uplifting something else; in the case of the rom-com, it’s what can best be described as a “basic white girl” aesthetic. The movie stars an Asian-American lead, which is great. But when you cast an Asian-American woman in a film that isn’t fundamentally interested in race yet sporadically gestures to it throughout, the screenwriting begins to feel a bit checkbox-y. It’s telling that the press circuit has mostly been interested in the male heartthrobs in the film, too. The audience isn’t actually primed to root for Lara Jean throughout. At times, it feels like she is explicitly directed to get on our nerves. In this way, I think she and Kelly Marie Tran (as Rose Tico) are in the same boat. Maybe. On Feb 28, fueled by sheer curiosity, I sped-watch Love is Blind, the new reality TV sensation taking over Netflix. It’s 10-episode show that begins with a simple, yet dystopian, conceit: if you put 10 women and 10 men in two different rooms, and allow them to have conversations without seeing each other, can they find true love based on *personality* alone? By episode 10, they are supposed to get married. Of course, because it’s reality TV, no one on the show looks “bad” to begin with, so it’s not exactly a princess and the frog situation. The real experiment of the show is not, as they claim, to discover whether love is blind. Instead, it’s a concentrated character-study on the ways in which gender dynamics manifest even in the absence of physical interaction.

📖 This month, I read Severance by Ling Ma, who teaches fiction in the Creative Writing department here at UChicago. Severance is an eerily timely novel about the “Shen Fu Virus” that turns New York city into an apocalyptic city. The fevered zombies repeat mundane actions over and over again until they turn into the walking dead. The novel probes us to consider: does one need to be fevered to be trapped in an infinite, mindless routine?

“Memories beget memories. Shen fever being a disease of remembering, the fevered are trapped indefinitely in their memories. But what is the difference between the fevered and us? Because I remember too, I remember perfectly. My memories replay, unprompted, on repeat. And our days, like theirs, continue in an infinite loop.”

All zombie narratives are about the disintegration of society in some way (politically, environmentally, socially), and Severance is also a story about immigrating, “severing” from a home country. The parts in the novel that really resonated with me were what the narrator had to say about moving to the US; her mother telling her to moisturize and their realization that milk is sold in the US in gallons.

I’ve also started reading Valeria Luiselli’s Faces in the Crowd, translated by Christina MacSweeney, as well as Jenny Zhang’s Sour Heart. I also read quite a few poetry books this month; Suzanne Buffam’s The Pillow Book, Ted Kooser’s Kindest Regards, and of course a number of poems by Chung Kwok-keung.

Two articles published online that I loved reading this month are 1) Lok Fung’s piece on the “Ups and Downs of Poetry,” in which she mentions me alongside a number of other women writers as “同類人” (kindred spirit, birds of a feather, etc.): “旅居芝加哥的黃鴻霙從現代性的換喻入手,拆解那些愛情與城市的現象” (something like “Chicago-based May Huang uses the modern literary device of metonymy to unpack images of love and the city”). Lok Fung was one of the poets I wrote about in my thesis and now we are pals! Love to see it.

2) The second article I loved is Sharon Choi’s op-ed for Variety, in which she discusses her experience interpreting for Bong Joon Ho throughout the film awards season. This piece brought tears to my eyes, it’s so beautifully written. And her grit and kindness is so evident throughout all of it. My favorite passage is this one:

Switching back and forth between languages has never been my job; it’s the only way of life I know. I’ve been my own interpreter for 20 years. A psychologist specializing in bilingual children once told me that most people have a similar brain capacity — if a monolingual knows 10,000 words, a bilingual would only know 5,000 in each language. All my life I’ve been frustrated by having to choose one of the two. This is why I fell in love with cinema’s visual language. Filmmaking is a similar process of translating my interior into a language that can communicate with the outside world, but I didn’t have to search for equivalents that were only approximations of the original.

🎵 After my long rant on movies + books, I will spare you with a mercifully short paragraph on my February in Music; the Folk Festival took place this month, and the one band whose sound really stuck with me was Bill and the Belles, an americana band from Johnson City, Tennessee (I really hope y’all read that as a Wagon Wheel lyric). My favorite tune by them is “Lonesome Blues.” There are such clever rhymes in that song, and its percussion presents fun opportunities for dancing. I feel obliged to add that Doja Cat’s “Say So” was also a significant song for me this month because it is the track my Cardio HIIT instructor uses for the weights circuit of the workout. Lollllllll

💬 Finally…my word of the month this February is….SHOES. Because this month, I finally decided to invest in shoes again. Shoes for work; for the snow; for dancing; for general coolness. I have a difficult relationship with buying shoes, and once considered writing a dystopian short story in which the protagonist is trapped in a large, suburban DSW for 24 hours and can only escape if she buys the perfect pair of shoes… but anyway. Shoes enable you to fully become the person you want to be, whether that person is a runner or swing dancer. This is nothing new, of course; just a life lesson I had to remind myself again this month. And shoes also remind me of the timeless saying, “to put yourself in another’s shoes.” I feel like I’ve been doing that a lot this month, not only through my translation work, but also at work; while watching the DemDebates; when thinking about the coronavirus; during phone calls with my family. Onwards to March!

Happy translation news!

I’ve been sitting on this news for a while, and am happy to finally announce that I’ve been awarded funding through the ALTA Emerging Translator Mentorship Program to work on my translations of Chung Kwok-keung’s poetry with Jennifer Feeley! Jennifer is a translator I’ve admired for a long time; her translations of Xi Xi’s poetry was the first instance of Hong Kong poetry in translation that really resonated with me. The six other mentees chosen through the program work with Arabic, Catalan, Korean, Russian, and Norwegian. You can learn more about the other mentees and mentors here, and scroll down (or visit this link) to learn about my project. I hope to use this blog as a space to provide updates on my process; an online translation journal of sorts. 💖

_____

The ALTA Emerging Translator Mentorship Program is designed to facilitate and establish a close working relationship between an experienced translator and an emerging translator on a project selected by the emerging translator. The mentorship duration is nine months. The emerging translator is expected to choose a project that can be completed in this timeframe, and they will only be advised on that particular project. Congratulations to this year’s poetry from Hong Kong mentee, May Huang, who will be mentored by Jennifer Feeley:

May Huang

May Huang is a writer from Hong Kong. Born in Taiwan and based in Chicago, she translates prose and poetry from the Chinese. She graduated from the University of Chicago with honors in English and Comparative Literature last June, and is a member of the Third Coast Translator’s Collective, a community of translators primarily based in the Chicagoland area. She is thrilled to attend ALTA for the second time this November as a mentee of the Emerging Translators Program!

May was introduced to literary translation in 2017, when she enrolled in a prose translation workshop taught by Annie Janusch through her university’s Program in Creative Writing (coincidentally, May now works as the program’s Student Affairs Administrator). Since then, she has been lucky enough to study with Jason Grunebaum, Haun Saussy, Jennifer Scappettone, and Lynn Xu. Her thesis, which was awarded the Janel Mueller Undergraduate Thesis Prize, explores the ways in which poetry and translation shape urban life in Hong Kong and Chicago.

May’s interest in the poetics of place has always been a driving force behind the poems that she reads, writes, and translates. Her poems about Hong Kong have appeared in journals such as Cha: An Asian Literary Journal and The Kindling Journal, and her reviews of Hong Kong poetry have been published in the Hong Kong Review of Books. The first translation she published, titled “Chicago” and published in Brooklyn Rail’s InTranslation, came from a suite of city poems by the Taiwanese poet Ya Hsien. May’s translation of the short story “How the Best Masters Died” by Ma Xiaoquan is forthcoming in the Wuxia issue of Pathlight Magazine.

Over the course of the ALTA mentorship program, May intends to translate a book-length manuscript of poems by the Hong Kong poet Chung Kwok-keung (鐘國強). A prolific poet, essayist, critic, and translator, Chung has been writing poetry for over two decades and is the recipient of numerous Hong Kong Biennial Awards for Chinese Literature, among other accolades. His poems navigate the personal and political to portray the city’s different dimensions; through his work, one understands more about what it means to work, eat, live, love, and protest in Hong Kong. For May, translating Hong Kong literature is not only about advocating for the city’s culture, but also about better understanding its past, present, and possibilities. When translating Chung’s work, May feels connected to and endlessly inspired by Hong Kong—a city she is proud to consider home. May’s translations of Chung’s poems have appeared in Exchanges and more recently in Asymptote, in an essay on protest poetry that went viral on Twitter.

May is thrilled to be mentored by Jennifer Feeley, whose translation of Xi Xi’s work was one of the first examples of Hong Kong poetry in translation that she encountered. Now is a crucial time for Hong Kong literature to reach an international audience, and May is grateful to ALTA for supporting Hong Kong voices through its mentorship program.

This mentorship is being offered by ALTA in partnership with the Hong Kong Poetry Festival Foundation.

What one Major Swiftie Thought of Miss Americana

Like most Swifties with Netflix access, I watched the long-awaited Miss Americana yesterday. Sipping from my Taylor Swift mug, I watched the 1.5 hour doc, directed by Lana Wilson, with my sister (another Taytay fan), my boyfriend (a Swiftie now as well), and a few of my roommates (who mostly watched while multitasking). After the documentary, I’ve been thinking a lot about who watches Miss Americana, and how your position in the Swiftverse influences the ways in which you receive the doc. How does the doc speak to you if you’re already a massive Swiftie who knows a lot about Taylor’s rise to fame and what she’s been through this past decade? If you’re a casual listener of her music and mostly know the hits like “Love Story” and “Shake It Off”? If you’re just watching because you happen to live with someone who really cares about Taylor Swift? If you are politically active—as a conservative? A liberal? A socialist? Although Miss Americana moves chronologically through Taylor’s formative years, the doc ultimately wants to tell us more about what’s next for the star: Miss Americana is the portrait of the artist as a young activist.

The documentary is titled “Miss Americana,” which feels fitting; it is a reference to a track from Lover that borrows a high school setting to make larger claims about national disillusionment and the importance of finding love amidst political chaos. The song is probably one of Taylor’s most close-readable songs; Swifties and non-Swifties alike wonder, who’s Miss Americana? And who is the heartbreak prince? A few weeks ago, Kevin sat me down and we went through the song line-by-line as he asked these very questions.

Well, one thing that we can agree on is that Miss Americana represents Taylor here. “Americana” refers not only to “things associated with the culture and history of America,” but is also a musical umbrella-term that encompasses folk, gospel, bluegrass, country, and other music traditions. To be “Miss Americana,” you have to reflect America-ness in some way. You have to be America’s sweetheart.

But what makes America “Americana” when the country is so divided? In 2016, when presidential election day came round and the country was presented with two options—Hillary Clinton and Trump—whomever you voted for said something about what you believed (or wanted to believe) about America.

Until 2018, Taylor had remained infamously quiet about her politics. So quiet that neo-Nazis decided she was their “Aryan goddess.” It didn’t help that Taylor had released an album called “RED” and turned the color into her aesthetic for a year. Or that she’s a wealthy, white, straight woman who grew up on a Christmas tree farm.

For so much of her life, Taylor was taught that “a nice girl doesn’t force their opinions on people; a nice girl smiles and waves and says thank you; a nice girl doesn’t make people feel uncomfortable with her views.” And it is precisely Taylor’s niceness that has made her a role model to so many. Growing up, I remember how Taylor was always presented by the media as the exemplar superstar; the one who is close to her family and takes tons of photos with fans and doesn’t ever stir up drama. This is in sharp contrast with some of her peers; in 2008 and 2007 respectively, Miley Cyrus was criticized for posing nearly topless in Vanity Fair while Vanessa Hudgens was dealing with a nude photo leak. If you were paying attention to teenage pop culture at this time, you’d know that 2007/8 was when Taylor was recording Fearless, which debuted at the end of 2008 and propelled her into worldwide fame. As a young kid, you listen to “Love Story,” “You Belong With Me,” “White Horse,” etc., and decide to let go of your former idols, Hannah Montana and Gabriella Montez. The new nice girl in town is Taylor Swift.

Taylor begins the doc by telling us that all she ever wanted to be was a nice girl. Someone good. She should know that her kindness and empathy is what makes her fans (at least me) love her so much. But, as Taylor admits, her own desire to play the role of good-girl Miss Americana came back to bite her in unexpected ways. One of the pivotal moments in the doc (and in Taylor’s life) is when (trump-supporter) Kanye West and Kim Kardashian turn the world against Taylor by releasing “evidence” that Taylor gave Kanye permission to call her a bitch in his song, “Famous.” These are dark times I remember well. It felt like all of a sudden, people who were just waiting for an opportunity to hate Taylor Swift came out to say, “Aha! I knew it! There’s no way you could possibly be so good and innocent. You’re a snake.” People were fed up with Taylor’s nice-girl image, her popularity, her attractive boyfriends, her inability to mess up. Her blunder with Kanye proved that she was not only a good girl who effed up, but a good girl who was never so good to begin with.

What’s happening here is not just that haters are gonna hate. People turned on Taylor not just because they were mean-spirited or jealous. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that this drama ensued in 2016, a time when the “goodness” of America was thrown into question after November. Why did people turn on Taylor Swift? Why didn’t enough people vote for Hillary Clinton? Both are instances that involved a disbelief in the “good” of Americana. Oh, Taylor Swift isn’t who you thought she was? Well, neither is America.

Taylor has said some very enlightening things about why she didn’t endorse Hillary in 2016, notably in an interview with Vogue:

“The summer before that election, all people were saying [about me] was She’s calculated. She’s manipulative. She’s not what she seems. She’s a snake. She’s a liar,” Swift said. “These are the same exact insults people were hurling at Hillary. Would I be an endorsement or would I be a liability? Look, snakes of a feather flock together. Look, the two lying women. The two nasty women.”

What’s unspoken here is that Hillary’s top celebrity-endorser at the time was Katy Perry, with whom Taylor was still infamously beefing with in 2016 (according to the public eye), so Taylor’s involvement in Hillary’s campaign would have caused another host of problems. But Taylor is right; she was unpopular in 2016. And her team wouldn’t want that unpopularity to spread further, particularly not to the election.

In the doc, Taylor tells us that women in the music industry have to constantly reinvent themselves to become “interesting,” or else they become disposable. Indeed, Taylor has been doing this her entire career; going from country sweetheart in Nashville to pop icon in New York. But Miss Americana is about Taylor reinventing herself in a new and more important way; as a politically-vocal artist.

If you want to watch “Miss Americana” to know how “Shake It Off” was made, forget it. As Taylor says in the doc in a tearful scene, it “just feels like it’s more than music now at this point.” One of the best scenes in the doc is her posting her Instagram post about elections, in effect coming out as a democrat (personally, I always knew she was a democrat and I find the Aryan-goddess theories ridiculous):

Credit: https://tayorswift.tumblr.com/post/190577760681/i-wanna-do-this-okay-so-i-always-have-to-bring

The scenes where she talks about the lessons she’s had to learn along the way are by far the most impactful moments in the doc. For example, when she says:

“I’m trying to be as educated as possible on how to respect people and deprogram the misogyny in my own brain. There is no such thing as a slut, as a bitch, as someone who’s bossy, there’s just a boss. We don’t wanna be condemned for being multifaceted.”

And my favorite:

“I wanna love glitter, and also stand up for the double standards that exist in our society. I wanna wear pink, and tell you how I feel about politics. I don’t think those things have to cancel each other out.”

You might be asking, is Taylor Swift “woke” now? And you might be saying, “well if so, she’s late to the party.” But, look around you; clearly, the world is not woke (whatever that means). Miss Americana shows one of the planet’s biggest superstars doing what we should all be doing, i.e. continuously educating ourselves, recognizing our own hypocrisy, and speaking up for what we believe in. Taylor laments towards the end of the doc that she feels as if she were frozen at the age she got famous. A number of tough wake-up calls in her life, from the Kanye incident to her sexual assault case in 2017 to her mom’s ongoing battle with cancer, forced her to reassess everything around her. Taylor is famous for writing about heartbreak, but the “heartbreak prince” in her song represents another kind of heartbreak: one that exposes the pain that the country you call home. A recurring claim Taylor makes in the film is that Marsha Blackburn’s values are not the “Tennessee Christian Values” the American people stands for. And yet, Blackburn was still elected as senator. An important message that this film conveys (and I haven’t seen anyone say this yet) is that to many people in Tennessee, clearly, Marsha Blackburn is their Miss Americana. All this goes to show that, despite how clear-cut the doc is about what Taylor believes in, America is still rife with divisions and disillusionment.

I expected that I’d tear up in the doc when Taylor spoke about her political awakening, or about her mom’s cancer. But actually, the moment that truly got me (and I feel so emotional typing this still) is the rare scenes of her with Joe Alwyn:

image

Miss Americana, both the song and the movie, are about political despair. But they are ALSO about love; “finding happiness without anyone else’s input.” As someone who has Taylor’s entire discography essentially memorized, I know how much Joe (true love) means to her. It’s not only trauma, but also the love in Taylor’s life that has empowered her to find her own voice. And I think that’s beautiful. The doc shows a number of scenes that are obviously filmed by Joe, in effect making him another cinematographer helping to tell her story. The decision to include his gaze (not so much the male gaze but the lover’s gaze) in the film alongside Lana’s shows that we’re seeing Taylor not only through the eyes of “her team,” but also her family. The doc focuses so much on Taylor’s political awakening, but don’t forget that Taylor Swift—before she became Taylor Swift The Activist—was (and is) Taylor Swift the Love Guru. I don’t want her to think that songs such as “Miss Americana,” “YNTCD” and “Only the Young” carry greater gravitas than “Call it What You Want” or “Cornelia Street.” I hope she knows that her voice, no matter what she is using it for, has and will always be of profound importance to those who care about her.

If left to my own devices, I could easily continue to work on this piece until it is book-length but I’m gonna try and wrap it up, lol.

Parts of the doc that I really appreciated, apart from the aforementioned, include: Taylor swearing (we love to see it), Tree Paine being supportive (Tree is Taylor’s publicist and I love her), Taylor eating a burrito and talking about how she had her first burrito in her late 20s (I, too, arrived at burritos late in life), the montage that shows Taylor talking about her conception for the ME! video and the actual filming of it (it was nice to see directorial decisions in the doc), the dinner scene with Abigail (in general, I liked seeing Taylor’s friends make lil cameos in the movie; e.g. Claire Winter and Ashley Avignone), the cat backpack (the funny moments of this doc were peak), her arguments with her dad about politics (heartbreaking tho), her self-deprecating humor (which is well-known among Swifties), the scenes with her mom (love Andrea Swift)…

I didn’t walk away from the doc feeling jubilant, though (as this review might make clear already). In fact, I think the doc actually makes one feel rather sad about the way in which fame and public scrutiny can really affect one’s self-perception and mental health. After I finished watching the documentary I didn’t quite know how to feel for a while. I didn’t reaaaallllyyy like the way in which the documentary was interspliced with “Age 23, ” “Age 25” markers, for instance. If they wanted to divide it up in that way, I would’ve almost preferred they included more information (e.g. “RED era”). Aesthetically, I didn’t really like the white-font-on-black-background look.

Similarly, I thought the doc included way too much footage from reporters. Like, waaaayyy tooo much (loads of which I’d already seen before, but then again, I arrive at this doc with 12 years of experience). The fact that this footage predominantly appeared in the first half made me think that maybe it was a directorial/artistic decision to show us how everything we know about Taylor comes from public judgment. But I felt that an over-reliance on media to tell Taylor’s story actually does her a great disservice. The whole doc is about how she wants to shape her own narrative and tell us her own truth. So why is SO much of the film filled with other people telling us about her? Esp. people from the past? I almost wish that we saw her family/friends tell us about her instead; I would’ve wanted to see original content, not rehashing of old footage. I guess a big reason for this is that the doc primarily wants to tell you about Taylor’s political present/future, not necessarily what she was like as a kid (they’re saving that angle for the next doc in like 15 years, I think). But, it was a bit unnerving to see the first ~6 years of Taylor’s career practically narrated to us by reporters/journalists, whereas Taylor has always told us about her life through music. In some ways, music wasn’t really the focus-focus of the doc, even though we certainly see and hear a lot of it. Did we really need to see that much Marsha Blackburn (I guess yes, if you buy my earlier argument about the 2 Miss Americanas)? In some ways, Miss Americana felt a bit like a collage. As I mentioned earlier, I liked moments in the doc where you could see the director making her own editing choices (e.g. the montage). But the viewing experience is drastically altered when many of the clips comprise of news recordings, many of which take place in the past. Tellingly, two reporters who are featured criticizing Taylor have since come out to apologize for their words (as well as express surprise at their cameos in the film). I kinda wonder how many people they had to get “permission” from to use footage. But I guess it’s as Taylor said; it’s about more than just the music now.

All in all, I love Taylor. I love how much the documentary allows us to see what’s important to her, and also what’s important to America. I’m happy for Taylor, and feel extremely lucky to be alive at the same time as her. Here’s to seeing what Miss Americana does next!

May’s Monthly Memo | January

Happy end-of-January, and welcome to a new tradition that I am launching—May’s monthly memos! Since the new decade began, I’ve been thinking of a blogging practice I want to turn into a habit. I didn’t want to blog about something every day, and I’m trying to train my brain to not think about time in weeks, which is what four years of the quarter system have taught me to do. A month seems nicely-sized, and lends itself to an alliterative title, which often influences my decision-making. I should probably say something about the word “memo,” too; I chose it not only because it starts with ‘m’ (I could’ve gone with “musings” or “mail”), but also because I like what “memo” means: according to Wikipedia, “memo” is derived from the Latin memorandum est, “It must be remembered,” a fitting motto for my monthly blog posts. There’s also a formality about memos, which are used in law and business communications, as well as an informality—I can write in bullet points and keep things short. My monthly memos will likely begin with a poem, briefly go into “notable happenings” of the month, discuss movies/books/music I consumed, and conclude by unpacking a word or phrase that sums up the month. Here I go!

____________________________________________________

Because the year is new and the great change
already underway, we concede a thousandfold
   and feel, harder than the land itself,
a complicity for everything we did not see
or comprehend: cynicism borne of raw despair,
long-cultivated hatreds, the promises of leaders
traveling like cool silence through the dark.
My life is here, in this small room, and like you
   I am waiting to know—but there is no time
to wait for what has happened.
What does the future ask of me,
those who won’t have enough to eat by evening,
those whose disease will now take hold—
   and the decades that carry past me once I’ve died,
generations of children, the suffering that is never solved,
the heat over the earth, its marshes,
   its crowded towers, its unbreathable night air.
I would open my hand from the wrist,
step outside, not lose nerve.
Here is the day, still to be lived.
We do not fully know what we do.

—Excerpt from New Year, Joanna Klink. This poem feels uncannily appropriate for January 2020.

🖼️ January is one of my favorite months of the year because it always signals a new start. For the past 4 years, my Januaries have started with travel—flying from Hong Kong to Chicago. This year, the transition was particularly difficult, and I felt homesick in a way that I hadn’t before (nostalgia + guilt + worry). Leaving and going are often part of the same miserable equation. But before I knew it, “the great change [was] already underway,” and I soon settled back into my Chicago life. I got a gym membership, and for the first time ever now “work out regularly,” going to the gym 5 times a week with Kevin. I typically run on the treadmill, swim (because swimming is marvelous for thinking), and lately have also been enthralled by Cardio HIIT classes (I am sore in 4 different places as I type this). At the beginning of this month, my essay on Chung Kwok-keung’s poetry was published on Asymptote, and I experienced (also for the first time ever) what it’s like to go viral-ish on Twitter. Last week, I received some more positive translation-related news, but I’ll wait until February to announce that here… This month, the world saw the outbreak of the coronavirus; “disease will now take hold,” as Joanna Clink says in the poem. Masks and food staples are sold out in many places, and there is fear in many corners of the world. What’s most distressing to me about the virus is the way in which its arrival has piled another calamity onto Hong Kong, a city that has spent the past 7ish months embroiled in protests. Months earlier, people feared going outdoors because of tear gas; now, people stay indoors for fear of a dangerous virus. Both political instability and health epidemics are rooted in government incompetence. There is no way to truly talk about the virus without also talking about China’s dictatorship (and Hong Kong’s puppet administration). It’s in times of serious viruses that the connective threads of the world become exposed; global commerce and travel are also victims of the virus. I hope next month brings better news.

🎬 Because I started the New Year on a 15-hour flight, I watched a ton of movies this month. On the plane, I saw Boy Erased (grim and haunting, about a conversion therapy program), Mary Queen of Scots (badly written Oscar bait, imo), Olaf’s Frozen Adventure (to clear my mind after having watched 2 dark movies), Where’d You Go, Bernadette (Cate Blanchett is a gem), half of Mr. and Mrs. Smith (one thing I’ll say about that movie is that Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie make chewing food looks really good). Back in Chicago, Kevin and I finished watching Season 4 of Star Wars: Rebels (shockingly good) and are now watching selected episodes of Clone Wars. Earlier this month, we also watched CATS in theaters. It wasn’t…
that bad. The cinematography and performances are great. Of course, Taylor was fantastic. And Sir Ian McKellen was actually quite convincing. But… all things considered…it was a bit of a catastrophe! I 100% saw Judi Dench’s human hand and gold wedding band at the end of the movie. By far the best movie I saw this month was Knives Out, written and directed by Rian Johnson. It. Was. Delightful! I love a good whodunnit. The film was supported by an outstanding cast in outstanding costumes. Tonight, I’ll be watching Miss Americana, the long-awaited Taylor Swift documentary directed by Lana Wilson. You can expect a review of the doc to appear on this blog soon!

📖 This month, I’ve mostly been reading one big book: Herman Melville’s Moby Dick. I planned to kick off 2020 reading novels by women/ POC writers, but somehow ended up picking a staple of the (mostly white male-dominated) western literary canon. I can explain myself—I’ve been following a Moby Dick bot on Twitter and every quote the bot tweets is, quite frankly, profound. I actually knew relatively little about the novel going in; I didn’t realize it was kinda a gay love story (although I’m not too surprised; I’m familiar with the Melville-Hawthorne love story theory). I also didn’t think to take the novel so literally; Moby Dick is literally full of dick jokes. And I mean this in the most literary-analysis way possible. Phallic symbols are everywhere, including the titular sperm whale. The book also explores race; there’s a chapter on whiteness (the whiteness of the whale and of people) and one of the book’s main characters is a person of color. There are almost No Women in this book, although Melville does have a rather long chapter on whale “harems.” It’s always an ~experience reading a novel by a narrator who is blithely unreliable; there are moments in the novel where I think our narrator (“Call me Ishmael”) has got to be kidding me! And he probably is. He claims to be a geologist, art critic, poet, playwright, sailor, whale-expert… Moby Dick is kind of an 800-page long white male fantasy. But it’s a fantasy that is often beautifully written, and isn’t afraid to tell on itself. In as much as it presents a grim view of society, human relationships, and the environment, Moby Dick is a playful read. It’s like whale-watching at sea; there are time in the novel where you just stare at the ocean and lose interest, and times when the hint of a fin or spout of water totally grips your attention. If you want to experience some of that Moby Dick Magic without having to read the whole book, I’d recommend checking out the Twitter bot, reading the chapter on whiteness, and also the chapter on “spermaceti” (the chapter is titled—I kid you not—”A Squeeze of the Hand”). Aside from reading about whales, I’ve also been reading poems by Chung Kwok-keung, as he gave me (very kindly) a number of his books in December when we met up for lunch. I look forward to translating more of his work!

🎵 Since I’ve been going to the gym this month, workout music is essential. To Kevin’s dismay, I spent the first week listening to “Mr. Mistoffelees” and “Jellicle Songs for Jellicle Cats” from CATS. My most-played song of the month is probably Eric Church’s “Heart Like a Wheel” (recommended by my brother) or “Neon Moon” (both the Brooks & Dunn and Kacey Musgraves remastering). I looove country music. Towards the end of the month, Chinese New Year kickstarted my nostalgia for old Chinese classics; I’m currently listening to 老鼠愛大米 (a classic from my childhood) and 你知道我在等你嗎 (which my sister and I heard in Chinatown). They truly do hit me in the feels. I also discovered the Postmodern Jukebox version of “ME!” and it’s giving me LIFE. I’ll regularly update my 2020 songs on this playlist.

💬 Now, to wrap up this quickly-elongating memo: my January word-of-the-month is threads. This month, I sewed my frayed sneakers back together; I threaded together beaded rings with fishing line; I scrolled through countless Twitter threads to keep up with the drama of our times. And “threads” has come up in the media I’ve consumed, too, notably in Knives Out (threads of mystery, ya feel?) and chapter 47 of Moby Dick:

“…it seemed as if this were the Loom of Time, and I myself were a shuttle mechanically weaving and weaving away at the Fates. There lay the fixed threads of the warp subject to but one single, ever returning, unchanging vibration, and that vibration merely enough to admit of the crosswise interblending of other threads with its own. This warp seemed necessity; and here, thought I, with my own hand I ply my own shuttle and weave my own destiny into these unalterable threads. …The straight warp of necessity, not to be swerved from its ultimate course- its every alternating vibration, indeed, only tending to that; free will still free to ply her shuttle between given threads; and chance, though restrained in its play within the right lines of necessity, and sideways in its motions directed by free will, though thus prescribed to by both, chance by turns rules either, and has the last featuring blow at events.”

It’s kind of a gnarly paragraph to unpack, but Ishmael is drawing a connection here between threads and fate. What parts of our future do we have the “free will” to weave? Are the threads of our lives “unalterable”? Ultimately, Ishmael seems to suggest that the vibration of chance determines how our destiny unravels. So, threads speak to the future. And just 3 nights ago, I watched the ending of The Return of the King (which always makes me cry) with Kevin, and Frodo similarly wonders:

“How do you pick up the threads of an old life? How do you go on, when in your heart you begin to understand… there is no going back? There are some things that time cannot mend. Some hurts that go too deep, that have taken hold.”

It’s a quote that immediately spoke to me, as I—even in January—am already thinking about where I’ll be in six months, whether I’ll be here in the US or back in Hong Kong, picking up the threads of an old life. As Clink says in “New Year,” “what does the future ask of me… Here is the day, still to be lived. / We do not fully know what we do.”

Flèche

Earlier this month, my review of Mary Jean Chan’s Flèche was published in HKRB!

HONG KONG REVIEW OF BOOKS 香港書評

May Huang reviews a celebrated debut collection of poetry by the Hong Kong writer Mary Jean Chan.

Mary Jean Chan, Flèche (Faber & Faber), 78pp.

The word “flèche,” after which Mary Jean Chan’s debut poetry collection takes its name, contains multitudes: the “flèche” is an offensive technique used to surprise an opponent in fencing, a sport that Chan competed in as a teenager living in Hong Kong. As a duel between two opponents, fencing is a particularly apt metaphor for the clashing beliefs and languages in Chan’s book. “Flèche” also evokes desire and kinship (one’s “flesh and blood”): two central themes in Chan’s writing about her sexuality, her relationship with her mother and how her and her mother’s narratives are intertwined. In other words, Chan has picked a perfect title, one that is as expansive and evocative as the poems that it encompasses.

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On Translating Chung Kwok-keung and the Language of Hong Kong Protests

An essay that I wrote for the Asymptote blog went viral on Twitter yesterday, gaining over 1.4K retweets and 1.5k likes. Nothing I’ve ever written has elicited such a strong response before, so I’m still processing it all! It’s been especially heartwarming for me to see that the folks responding to the piece on Twitter are largely Hongkongers—the community I am translating for. It means so much to me that my work as a translator touched real people. As a writer, you hope that your work will have an afterlife beyond the relationship you have with it; that it will reach people and move them in some way. The two poems in my essay, written by Hong Kong poet Chung Kwok-keung, were written about the protests currently happening in Hong Kong. I have been sitting on these translations for months and thinking about how to present them (or if I even should). After going back to Hong Kong this December and having the opportunity to meet Chung for the first time, I felt like I was able to understand my role as a Hongkonger and translator in a more defined way. I wanted to get these poems out into the world to show people how remarkably creative Hong Kong poetry, specifically Chung’s poetry, is—and to show them that this creativity is connected to the vivacity of the city’s language and people. I’ve included my full essay below; you can also read it on the Asymptote blog!

On June 9, 2019, more than 1 million people took to the streets to protest an extradition bill proposed by the Hong Kong government. If passed, the bill would make it legal for Hong Kong citizens to be extradited to Mainland China and tried under Chinese law—a legal system that not only threatens Hong Kong’s rule of law, but is also known for repeated human rights violations. Given China’s steady encroachment on Hong Kong since 1997, the “one country, two systems” policy that guarantees Hong Kong’s autonomy until 2047 is undeniably in jeopardy. The city’s concern over its future continually manifests in its local discourse, protests, and literature. 

Although I grew up in Hong Kong, my interest in translating Hong Kong literature blossomed in Chicago, where I was studying English. Reading the work of Hong Kong writers allowed me to see my home city in a new light. One of the first Hong Kong poets I came across was Chung Kwok-keung, who writes about Hong Kong people, places, and politics with an attentive and empathetic gaze. In December 2014, he wrote a suite of poems (two of which were translated by Emily Jones and Sophie Smith for Asymptote) titled “Occupy Stories” about the Umbrella Movement—previously the biggest protests in Hong Kong in recent years. Now, with protests taking place again in the city, Chung is writing with an eye towards how the anti-extradition movement has shaped society.

I was not in Hong Kong when the protests began, so Chung’s poems became a unique way for me to connect with what was happening back home aside from relying on family, news, and social media. Since June, I have translated a number of his poems about the protests into English; two in particular, “When Yuen Long’s Main Road has lost its refuge islands” and “Beneviolent Force,” are strong examples that demonstrate how Hong Kong poetry reflects the city’s protests. 

In his poem “When Yuen Long’s Main Road has lost its refuge islands,” Chung maps out key sites of conflict during the 2019 Yuen Long attack, an incident that shocked Hong Kong: on July 21, a mob dressed in white attacked protesters and civilians in Yuen Long. The “Main Road” that appears in the title of Chung’s poem is what locals call the Yuen Long section of Hong Kong’s longest road, “Castle Peak Road.” “Refuge islands” are raised platforms placed in the middle of roads to facilitate pedestrian crossing. As Chung explained to me, these refuge islands have been gone since the 1980s. In this way, the notion of safe passage on Hong Kong’s longest road (perhaps even preceding the road from 1997 to 2047) has long been in question. The physical identity of the city is analogous to its political reality.

When Yuen Long’s Main Road has lost its refuge islands 

When Peace Road is no longer peaceful 
When Teaching Road teaches us nothing 
Thin streets use a broad power 
To teach police batons, shields, vanished warrant cards 
How to stand up like people 
Rotten to the point where Winning Way shuts its door 
All that could be sold out has been sold out clean 
What is left in Forever Fragrant 
When tear gas bullets, rubber bullets, sponge bullets 
Bloom on the chests and heads of reporters 
When the officials crawl into their shells 
When the elderly are at the frontlines 
When the West Rail Line’s lobbies are welcome Wonderlands for 
Village dogs and the Raptors 
True Luck Street feels too long 
Blood is not so close to freedom 
Happy Together Street is for the police’s PR speeches 
White shirts prefer dark nights 
Flashes don’t come from stray fireflies 
Now blood enters our vision 
Heads become specks 
When Yuen Long’s Main Road has long lost refuge islands

當大馬路沒有了安全島

當安寧路不再安寧的時候
當教育路教育了人們什麼
瘦瘠的街道以坦蕩的力量
教育警棍,盾牌,消失了的委任證
怎樣才能站得像個人
腐爛到了一個點
榮華便關上門
可以出賣的都出賣淨盡了
還有什麼東西在恆香
當催淚彈,橡膠彈,海棉彈
喜歡在記者的胸膛與腦袋上開花
當高官在龜隱
當老人在前線
當西鐵車站大堂是永遠開放的歡樂天地屬於村狗和速龍
泰祥街感覺太長了
血和自由之間沒有那麼短
同樂街讓給警民關係組的開場白吧
白衣人都喜歡黑夜
反光的不是迷失的螢蟲
到了連目光也見血
頭顱點點
當大馬路早沒有了安全島

7/28/2019

The poem is structured around actual roads in Yuen Long, the official English names of which are transliterations; for instance, 安寧路 is transliterated as “On Ning Road,” while 教育路 is “Kau Yuk Road.” However, the sonic doubling and wordplay in Chung’s poem would not be evident to an English speaker if they did not know what the road names signify: 安寧 means “peace,” and 教育 means “education/teaching.” As such, local street names take on a new life in translation (if you type “Peace Road” into Google Maps, you won’t find the actual street). For similar reasons, I also translated the names of the two iconic bakeries mentioned in the poem, Wing Wah (“Winning Way”) and Hang Heung (“Forever Fragrant”), even though their transliterated names are commonly used in Hong Kong. I was not able to exactly replicate the effect of all of Chung’s wordplay, however; for instance, the line “True Luck Street feels too long” is striking in the original because “True Luck Street” (泰祥 “tai cheung”) and “too long” (太長 “tai cheung”) are homonyms. Multiple puns in the poem reveal a city in crisis, posing the question: what does one do when familiar places no longer live up to their name? 

In her essay “The Poetics of Dislocation in Natalia Chan’s Poetry,” the scholar Esther M.K. Cheung argues that “the inclusion of general names and proper names is instrumental in giving verisimilitude to literary texts and establishing a cultural and historic setting…. Chan’s poems typify the close relationship between place-writing and place-naming in an urban context.” Both Chan (better known as “Lok Fung”) and Chung’s place-naming show us that the topography of the city reflects its times. In encountering their work, we are invited to read the city by walking the poem—which one may even do literally by mapping out the poems’ various locations:

Chung’s use of wordplay is even starker in the poem “Beneviolent Force,” in which he alludes to slang words that have taken root since the protests started. The title of the poem, 克警, is a nickname that Hongkongers have given to the Hong Kong Police Force (HKPF). 克 stands for 克制容忍, a phrase that police use to describe themselves; it means to exercise restraint, to be tolerant. At a time when police violence has been so visible in Hong Kong, it is of course deeply ironic that the police would call themselves tolerant or self-aware. 克警 is a homonym of 黑警, which literally translates to “black police,” what we would call a “bad cop” or “dirty cop” in English. I wanted to come up with a similarly oxymoronic title: thus, “Beneviolent Force” (a pun on “benevolent force”). 

Beneviolent Force 

How gentle 
And wistful 
Is the brave man: 
Reporter my ass, motherfucker 


All crows are the same shade of 
Bumping heads ‘til you’re blue and 
Tracing a darker and darker 


The dogs have also come out
To break ties with those animals 


Don’t wave your nightstick around 
Even if you don’t show it 
We can all see 
Your withering cards 


Officers buried in the Gallant Blossoms: 
Oblivious to the Han Dynasty 
Let alone the Yi Jin

克警

1

多溫柔
念舊的
男子漢:
記你老母

2

天下烏鴉一般
頭頭碰著
越描越

3

狗也出來
跟牠們割蓆

4

別亂揮警棍了
即使不出示
我們都看見
你的萎荏症

5

浩園記:
乃不知有漢
無論魏晉

7/9/2019

What is striking about “Beneviolent Force” is the way in which it upends our understanding of commonplace phrases. Stanza 1 ends with 記你老母, a derivation of the common Cantonese curse 屌你老母 (“fuck your mom”). 你老母 went viral when a cop used it against a man who said he was a reporter (記者); the police didn’t believe him and fired back with the curse. In stanza 2 of the poem, which was one of the most challenging parts to translate, the word “black” (黑) is removed from three idioms: 天下烏鴉一般黑 (“every crow under the sky is the same shade of black”), 頭頭碰著黑 (literally “heads bumping into black,” i.e. always running into bad luck), and 越描越黑 (“the more one traces, the blacker the picture becomes”). By absenting the final, crucial word “黑” from the poem, the poem perhaps mimics what the police themselves are doing: removing mentions of their corruption from the narrative. In Stanza 4, 萎荏症 (literally “flaccid/withering disease”) is a homonym of “warrant cards,” which the police have notoriously failed to show on multiple occasions. In Stanza 5, Chung alludes to “Gallant Gardens” (浩園), the cemetery where public officials (including the police) are buried in Hong Kong浩園 is phonetically similar to The Peach Blossom Spring (桃花源記), a classic Chinese tale about a secret utopia. The utopia’s villagers sought refuge in the Peach Blossom Spring during the Qin Dynasty and stayed there ever since, oblivious of the Han (漢) dynasty and the Wei and Jin Dynasties (魏晉). The police of the past who are now buried in Gallant Gardens are like the fable’s villagers—blissfully oblivious to the chaos reigning outside, wreaked by their fellow men. Moreover, 魏晉 is phonetically similar to “Yi Jin,” a term that has been used to denigrate police officers (the term derives from the Yi Jin Diploma programme, which is typically pursued by students who do not perform well academically).

Wordplay, and the act of translating it, is meant to be playful, and yet “Beneviolent Force” feels like a lament. Through language that subverts our preconceptions of familiar phrases, Chung shows how the city’s impression of the police has undergone significant change since the protests started. A once-trusting relationship has evolved into deep resentment and fear following demonstrations of police violence; indeed, one of Hong Kong protestors’ “Five Demands” is for there to be an independent inquiry into the HKPF.

What’s significant about both “When Yuen Long’s Main Road has lost its refuge islands” and “Beneviolent Force” is that their puns only exist when the poems are read in Cantonese. One would also have to know some of the slang used by protestors to recognize them in the poems—these words come straight from the streets into the lyric. Today, Hongkongers are inventing new words (journalist Mary Hui unpacks many of these phrases in this illuminating Quartz article) not only to express themselves, but also to survive. By communicating in a secret language, protesters have a better shot at evading police; by communicating in Cantonese, they keep Hong Kong’s local language alive. 

As someone whose Cantonese is rusty and who was not in Hong Kong when the protests were at their peak, I did not have an easy time translating Chung’s poems. Understanding all the references involved doing research and communicating with Chung, whose feedback not only informed my understanding of translation, but also of Hong Kong. One of the main reasons I translate is to better understand the place I come from—and that process takes work. The discourse surrounding Hong Kong protests is complicated, as is the effort to translate it to different audiences.

Since the protests began, Hongkongers have taken up a famous quote by Bruce Lee as their motto: “Be water.” The full quote is as follows:

“Empty your mind, be formless, shapeless, like water. If you put water into a cup, it becomes the cup. You put water into a bottle and it becomes the bottle. You put it in a teapot it becomes the teapot. Now, water can flow or it can crash. Be water my friend.” 

Aren’t translators also like water? Don’t our voices also adapt to fill the shape of whatever text we’re translating? Translation creates a powerful space for empathy, because you must write out another voice and adapt to it. You become like water, filling a cup and becoming the cup. When I translate a protest poem, I understand more about the real work of protest happening on the ground. So, perhaps it is because of the challenges posed by translation that I find it one of the most productive tools for facilitating understanding. Aside from translating Chung’s poetry, I also contribute to Hong Kong Columns (Translated), which translates local news articles that do not often receive mainstream English coverage. I’ve also translated for Lausan, a collective committed to “sharing decolonial left perspectives on Hong Kong.” Lausan welcomes translators working with multiple languages, and recently shared an article translated into Indonesian. If you are a translator or are interested in translation, you may find both productive platforms for engaging in Hong Kong politics. It is also important to keep an eye out for translations of Hong Kong voices on the protests, such as Andrea Lingenfelter’s recent translation of Hon Lai-chu’s essay “Hong Kong’s Sickness,” or Jacqueline Leung’s translation of Stuart Lau’s fiction in the Fall 2019 issue of Asymptote. The writer and translator Tammy Ho-Lai Ming has also been actively writing poetry about the protests since they began.

In a recent essay for Zihua Magazine, Chung wrote: “Poems should respond to their times. Poems should have humanity. I have always insisted upon this in my work.” The same can be said about translation, which is its own form of activism. Through shining a light on Hong Kong voices, I believe that advocates of Hong Kong literature can show the world that the city is worth fighting—and translating—for.

Read more essays on the Asymptote blog:

And don’t miss the following highlights from our Fall 2015 issue:

The Dark Side of the Force: Star Wars, Junk, Capitalism (and Hope)

WARNING: SPOILERS AHEAD

Blogging about Star Wars is somewhat of a tradition of mine; my previous blog was called “may-theforcebewithyou,” and I reviewed both The Force Awakens (2015) and Rogue One (2016) when they came out (I was on a blogging hiatus when The Last Jedi hit theatres). So, it only seems fitting that I say something about The Rise of Skywalker (henceforth Rise), the final (?) installment of the now 9-part Star Wars saga.

I grew up watching Star Wars, so my love for the saga is rooted in family, my childhood fondness for endearing droids, “the force,” never losing hope, etc., all the classic tropes for which the saga is known. And we like what is familiar and dear to us; the enduring power of Star Wars proves as much. Yet there were moments during the long-awaited Rise when I felt that the film’s evocation of the past, the familiar, and the nostalgic no longer hit the mark. None of the #throwbacks in Rise—Lando, Luke’s X-Wing, least of all Palpatine—really made me feel nostalgic. By dredging up the iconography of its past to define (or salvage) the present, Rise simultaneously advocates for a culture of reuse while flaunting conspicuous waste.

It might seem strange to apply a recycling metaphor to the Star Wars franchise, but let’s face it—the movies have always been about trash. I mean, literal junk. In Episode 4, the genesis of Star Wars, R2-D2 comes to Luke via the Jawas, who sell mechanical scraps. The Millenium Falcon is “a piece of junk.” Of course, there’s also the iconic trash compactor scene. But junk is valuable in the saga. The Falcon is precious. You can fix a broken ship using spare parts, janky as they are, and it’s often in the junkiest/jankiest places that you strike gold: Ochi’s ship on Rise, for example, is where Rey and co. find clues that help them get to where they need to go.

But when franchises like Star Wars start to rely on recycling past content, nostalgia begins to feel like a gimmick. Suddenly, the independent-scavenger mentality of finding value in scraps is replaced by the sameness of conveyer-belt manufacturing. Rise depends so heavily on its predecessors that it no longer feels “new.” Yes, the film introduced a number of new characters, the most memorable of which is Jannah, but in its darkest moments, Rise feels disposable.

What does Rise lose by resuscitating Palpatine and killing off all the main villains (I am not counting Kylo Ren as a villain here) of the first two sequels? It shows us that General Hux and Snoke (or at least, the idea of Snoke having a more interesting backstory) never mattered. Instead, there was a bigger villain lurking in the background and masterminding everything all this time. And frankly, the bigger villain is not Palpatine himself, but (and this is where I go off the rails a little bit) the Star Wars capitalist machine. When Palpatine faces Rey towards the end of the movie, he is almost hanging from a mechanical contraption that looks comically staged. Visually, it looks as if some twisted puppeteering is at work, and indeed it is: just as Snoke was Palpatine’s puppet, Palpatine is the Star Wars franchise’s puppet, dropped into the final film to tie together the saga’s strings. The fact that Palpatine’s dialogue very much resembles his lines from Revenge heightens his puppet-ness; he’s like a doll that repeats trademark lines when you push it. When he said “unnatural” and “do it,” I didn’t know whether to put my head in my hands or to laugh. (J.J. Abrams wrote/”rehashed” the dialogue for that scene, by the way; more on my beef with him later).

The irony of Rise is that the film, despite its “recycling” tactics, exposes the privilege (and wastefulness) of capitalist consumerism; you can afford to throw things away or be careless because you know you’ll be able to buy something similar later or even get it back. In some ways, modern technology has made us less afraid of losing things. But it’s also made us wasteful—wasteful of material objects and of ideas. Like, you can say that Rey’s parents were “nobody” in Episode 8 and then backtrack to say that she’s actually Palpatine’s granddaughter in Episode 9. Or, you can wipe C-3PO’s memory and then back it up later safely. It’s like accidentally deleting a photo and then finding it again in a file called “recently deleted” (I’ve done this). It’s like submitting a final draft of a paper via Google Docs and then going back to edit the document even after the deadline (I have not done this). Capitalism makes us apathetic.

Seeing Lando, Han, Luke, the X-Wing, Palpatine, and more in Rise didn’t always make me feel nostalgic; I felt exhausted. Don’t get me wrong; I think attention to history is vital, and I have boundless appreciation for the detail-oriented references in Rise. Show me a trick once, and it’s magic; but use it over and over, and it becomes a gimmick. As my former professor Sianne Ngai argues in her book Theory of the Gimmick, “gimmicks strike us as both working too little (e.g., as labor-saving “tricks”) but also as working too hard (overstrained efforts at getting our attention).” It’s a lot of effort to bring back a cast of old characters for Rise, but it’s also lazy. So many of the major turning points in this film occur because someone from the past makes it happen: Lando brings a massive fleet of rebels to fight the imperial fleet, Han’s memory-ghost has a moment with Ben, Luke stops Rey from chucking her lightsaber into the fire, Palpatine becomes the sequels’ new/old villain, etc. The rehashed lines from previous films, reused tropes, and revived characters feel like labor-saving devices that piece Rise together. This method of reusing and recycling does not promote sustainability; instead, it feels like regression. By having Rey be a Palpatine or a Skywalker, the film doesn’t allow the saga or its new characters to go anywhere new. We are stuck in the lineage of the past, forever lightspeed skipping between different allusions. Perhaps that’s just the fate of a film like Rise, which is tasked with the difficult job of bringing the whole saga to a close (for now). But I do think that Episodes 7-9 have given us the opportunity to see a different side of the galaxy in ways that are more nuanced and contemporary. I love that we get to see behind the mask of stormtroopers. I love that our understanding of the “force” changes with every movie, such as through the force bonding in The Last Jedi. I love that the protagonist is a strong, independent, and complex woman, played by the amazing Daisy Ridley. Episode 9 had the potential, maybe, to be a more daring movie.

But Star Wars is no longer just a movie. It’s a phenomenon. It’s a franchise. It’s Disney. It’s hierarchies of power. It’s a capitalist product that needs audience appeal to succeed (related: Scorsese recently wrote a controversial op-ed about Marvel’s capitalist tendencies). How do you watch a film and get lost in it when you know so much about its production and real-world context? It was difficult for me to watch Han Solo appear in the final movie while knowing that Harrison Ford probably did not want to be there. And it was weird to watch Carrie Fischer’s scenes knowing that Abrams had to build part of the plot around her leftover dialogue from previous movies. It’s also super upsetting to know that Abrams pulled nepotism cards to cast his pals in this film, at the expense of characters like Rose who got brutally sidelined, treated as disposable. Sadly, Palpatine puts it best: there’s something “unnatural” about Rise. The moments I loved most were the ones that felt the most human and original: like Finn (one of my favorite characters) slowly but surely realizing he is force-sensitive. Or Ben slamming his cheek on the Sith tomb and saying “ow.” Now would also be a good time to mention that I have a massive crush on Adam Driver, who brings such tenderness and humanity to Kylo Ren/Ben Solo. Which brings me to the #Reylo kiss, a big and controversial audience-appeal moment in the film. Some might loathe it. But Driver and Ridley are utterly convincing, and the sexual tension that has been building up between them since Episode 7 grows with every scene. At the end of the day, they are fighting the same enemy—Palpatine, the villain of the past who tries to feed off their dyad power, who symbolizes the ghost that haunts any film that follows successful predecessors.

Rise is many things; the end (for now) of a 9-episode saga, a gimmick, a love story, fan service, a box office hit, etc. Despite its flaws (and my harsh-ish review), it is also entertaining, moving, beautifully filmed, and supported by an incredible cast that gave the film the humanity it needed. I laughed, cried, and gasped. What I loved about Star Wars is still what I love about Star Wars—its soundtrack, its optimism, its empathy. It’s been incredible to grow up with the saga and see the characters of the original trilogy mature across different movies. Rise is flawed, but why shouldn’t it be? Perhaps, at the end of this review, I should also embrace the light/dark tension that characterizes every Star Wars movie. After all, what makes Rise problematic is also what makes it an apt representation of the complicated, ever-changing, imperfect world that we live in—one that wants to hold on to the past even as it lightspeeds into the future, one that is often exploitative but also admirably just, one that is effortlessly cynical but also boundlessly hopeful. Rise does a beautiful job of showing (yes, even through its #throwback cameos) that we do not have to be alone… that the force can bring people together, even in the darkest of times. So, on that note… may the force be with you.

Lost in the Woods / j’ai perdu le nord / 森林迷路

To my little sister’s chagrin, I have had “Lost in the Woods” from Frozen II stuck in my head since I watched the film on Saturday. Sung by Kristoff, who is voiced by the amazing Jonathan Groff, “Lost in the Woods” is the movie’s scene-stealer. In a sequel that ventures mostly into familiar territory, despite the titular song (“Into the Unknown”), “Lost in the Woods” is a surprising, charming, and hilarious tangent—one that showcases Groff’s impeccable vocals, is animated like an 80s’ boyband music video, and brings the usually-reticent reindeers to life as background singers. In a movie musical that seems built for the stage, “Lost in the Woods” is a refreshingly relatable ballad that is closer to Queen and Air Supply than Broadway. The song does for Frozen II what “I’ll be Back” did for Hamilton: surprise us with a musical number that isn’t like what we’re hearing in the rest of the musical (note: Groff plays both Kristoff and King George). So: the sweet boyband spot that the song hits, coupled with Groff/Kristoff’s undeniable charm, make “Lost in the Woods” my song of December 2019. And let’s face it: I am certainly feeling a little “lost in the woods” at the end of the decade!

I could go on about other reasons why this song rocks. The electric guitar twang, the multiple chordal shifts, the piano, etc. But what I really want to talk about today is “Lost in the Woods” in translation.

As a global monopoly/enterprise, Disney relies on translation to reach its international audience. It is no surprise that, when Frozen first came out, the 25-language version of “Let It Go” went viral on Youtube. I am a massive fan of “Libérée, délivrée” (the French version), and I find “随它吧” (the Chinese version) hilarious. So, I decided it would be fun to also look up the French and Chinese versions of “Lost in the Woods.” I’ve included all three versions below. The point of this post is to 1) have some fun, 2) discuss music in translation 3) and get to the bottom of what makes me like “Lost in the Woods” so much. Reading a text you like in translation helps you learn about why you like it—you’ll see!

Again, you’re gone, off on a different path than mine
I’m left behind, wondering if I should follow

You had to go, and of course it’s always fine
I probably could catch up with you tomorrow
But is this what it feels like to be growing apart?

When did I become the one who’s always chasing your heart?

Now I turn around and find I am lost in the woods
North is south, right is left,
when you’re gone
I’m the one who sees you
home,
but now I’m lost in the woods
And I don’t know what path you are on
I’m lost in the woods

Up ’til now the next step was a question of how
I never thought it was a question of whether
Who am I, if I’m not your guy?
Where am I, if we’re not together forever?
Now I know you’re my true north, ’cause I am lost in the woods
Up is down, day is night, when you’re not there

Oh, you’re my only landmark, so I’m lost in the woods
Wondering if you still care
But I’ll wait for a sign that I’m on your path
‘Cause you are mine (you are mine)
Until then, I’m lost in the woods
I’m lost in the woods
I’m lost in the woods
Quand tu t’en vas
Que tu prends un nouveau chemin
Je ne suis plus rien
Je ressens comme un grand frisson

Je pense à nous
Je me dis que tout va bien
Peut-être que je me fais des illusions

Je ne sais plus quoi faire
Lorsque la vie nous sépare
Je suis comme un vieux bateau
Qui guette la lumière du phare

Je suis comme une boussole
Qui a perdu le nord, et le sud
L’est et l’ouest
Quand tu pars
Je savais lire dans le ciel
Mais là j’ai perdu le nord
Et bientôt l’espoir de te revoir
J’ai perdu le nord

Autrefois, notre amour était une évidence
Le doute n’avait jamais montré tant de ferveur
Je suis là, si tu veux de moi
Je suis là, pour t’offrir le meilleur
Pas des fleurs

C’était toi ma vraie boussole
Parce que j’ai perdu le nord
Je ne sais plus où je suis
Quand tu t’en vas


Plus rien ne me console
Et j’ai perdu le nord
Est-ce qu’un jour
Tu reviendras
J’attendrai tu verras
Ton vrai chemin
C’est avec moi
Car sans toi
J’ai perdu le nord
J’ai perdu le nord
J’ai perdu le nord
J’ai perdu le nord
你離開了
再一次跟我分開走
而我是否跟隨你
還是說放手
 
你必須走
我只能默默接受
也許明天能跟上你的節奏
這是否代表了我們在分叉路口
到底我要追逐你的心到什麼時候
 
當我轉身才發現
我在森林迷路
南是北左是右
你不在
我應該為你守護
但我現在迷了路
你到底選擇什麼路
我找不到路
 
到現在
我想問如何找到未來
我從未想過這到底應不應該
我是誰
失去你的愛
失去你
我的世界從此
不存在
 
你是我的北斗星
我在森林迷路
我世界 日和夜
變得模糊

你是我的地圖
我在森林迷路
也許你不再關注
往耐心
在等待
我祝你的幸福
雖然我在森林迷路
在森林迷路
找不到出路
Note: I could not find the names of the lyricists who translated the French and Chinese versions. #NameTheTranslator. I also chose to use the Mainland Chinese version of this song mostly because the audio was more HD.

The first thing to note about “Lost in the Woods” is that the song is situated in the actual forest, i.e. Kristoff sings it when he is literally lost in the woods. And yet, the phrase “lost in the woods” mostly carries figurative significance; the idiom “out of the woods” (the title of a Taylor Swift song, by the way, did you think I wasn’t going to point that out?) means that one is no longer in a dangerous predicament. The rest of the song is deeply figurative, too; lines such as “you’re my only landmark” and “you’re my true north” suggest that Kristoff is lost in the woods because he has literally and figuratively lost Anna, his compass (“ma vraie boussole” in the French). So, the woods are merely the setting, and not the reason, why he is “lost.” Given the figurative function of the woods, how important are they, anyway, to the song?

It is fascinating to observe that “woods” do not appear a single time in the French translation of the song. Here’s a simple transliteration of the French version that I found online (note: “a big thrill” in the first stanza is more like “a great shiver”). Seriously—not even a tree. Instead, the song is titled after the idiom “perdre le nord” (to lose the North), which means to lose direction. So, the French translation takes after the original by adopting its idiomatic, figurative quality. In fact, most of the french translation is full of metaphors that don’t exist in the original. Instead of “is this what it feels like to be growing apart….” we get “when life separates us, I am like an old boat watching for the lighthouse’s glow.” The idea of watching for the lighthouse’s light is like “chasing your heart.” That’s actually beautiful. All in all, I find “Perdu le nord” quite a genius translation, given that North-ness is inherent in the original song—lines such as “North is South,” “you’re my true North” make “North” an important part of the woods anyway.

Compare what the French translators have done to the Chinese version, which keeps the “woods” in the song. “I’m lost in the woods” translates literally to “我在森林迷路“ (wo zai sen lin mi lu), which is quite fortuitous since “woods” and “路” (lu) share a vowel rhyme (ish). Interestingly, whereas the English and French versions repeat the same refrain, be it “lost in the woods” or “perdu le nord”, the Chinese version switches it up a little bit. It alternates between “在森林迷路” (lost in the woods) and “找不到出路” (zhao bu dao chu lu / cannot find the way out). Both end with the same character, “路”, so it works. The variation sonically/musically works in the Chinese, too—something about repeating “lost in the woods” over and over in Chinese feels odd (maybe because it isn’t an idiom?). Fun fact: the Taiwanese/Mandarin version of “Lost in the Woods” is titled 森林迷途, which also means “lost in the woods,”but uses 迷途(mi tu) instead of 迷路 (mi lu). The difference between both is negligible, but I personally think the “l” sound of “lu” works better when you’re singing that lllllong note…

Something I like to do when comparing works in translation is to see how my favorite line translates into different languages. I am obsessed with “up ’til now the next step was a question of how / I never thought it was a question of whether.” Listening to the French (Autrefois, notre amour était une évidence / Le doute n’avait jamais montré) and the Chinese (到現在 / 我想問如何找到未來 / 我從未想過這到底應不應該), I have a more nuanced idea of why I like that line so much. It’s not just the way it begins the second verse, musically; it has to do with the rhymes/diction itself. The rhyme between “now” and “how” hits a sweet spot for me, and I get that in the Chinese with 在 (zai) and 來 (lai). There’s even a third rhyme in the Chinese at the end with 該 (gai). The French version doesn’t quite hit these rhymes, but that’s okay. I personally also think the multi-syllabic nature of “évidence” in the French throws me off a bit, whereas the English and Chinese remain nicely monosyllabic at the end of the first line: “how” and “ 來 .” I think my ear is also looking for the repetition of “question,” which stands out because it’s a nice, crunchy word. There’s no crunchy repetition of any word in the French version of this lyric. In Chinese, the special character that is repeated is 未,which means “future” in the first instance (未來)and “have yet” (從未)in the second. This is super clever, but I almost feel as if it gets lost amid the other monosyllabic words repeated in the lines: “我想問如何找 /未想過這底應不應該.” Nonetheless, maybe I’ll appreciate the doubling more when I listen to it again later. Finally, I think another reason why I like line so much in English is that I just think the word “whether,” especially in contrast with “how,” is so great. I also like how “ferveur” in in the French rhymes with “whether.” So, all this is to say: comparing how a line you love lives in different translations is a productive way to get to the bottom of what makes it shine; and to appreciate how it transforms in other iterations.

As someone who loves to translate form and rhyme, I find song translations a work of art. It’s fascinating to compare how “Lost in the Woods” takes on a highly figurative life in French, and to see how the song operates in Chinese, which is a language that makes rhyming effortless.

Ultimately, regardless of the language we’re reading, we can agree that the feeling of being “lost in the woods” is universal. There’s a reason why Dante’s 14th-century Inferno still mesmerizes us with its opening lines: “In the middle of the journey of our life / I found myself astray in a dark wood” (tr. Seamus Heaney). And, just as Dante’s Inferno has captivated translators and translation scholars worldwide, perhaps the many translations of Disney songs are what help the franchise hold on to its magic today.