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. 💖

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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:

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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!

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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.

Credit: https://www.deviantart.com/gh-mongo/art/Fuzzy-Wuzzy-138922842

Fuzzy Wuzzy, or “毛毛寶寶”

It all started with a blue pair of fuzzy pants.

I’ve been wearing the same blue Bossini pants as my winter pajamas for the past ~13 years. It used to be so long that the pant legs went past my ankles, and I had to tie the drawstring extra tight to keep them from falling off. Now, over a decade later, the pants fit perfectly (although the drawstring, weakened from years of use, still requires extra fastening). And, believe it or not, the pants are still “fuzzy.”

Last winter, while remarking on the fuzziness of my pants, Kevin broke into rhyme:

Fuzzy Wuzzy was a bear,
Fuzzy Wuzzy had no hair,
Fuzzy Wuzzy wasn’t fuzzy was he?

It was the first time I’d ever heard the tongue twister, and I soon committed it to memory. Whenever Kevin uttered the word “fuzzy,” I’d dutifully follow up with my well-memorized lines: “wuzzy was a bear…”

Now, a year later, winter is descending on Chicago and my fuzzy pants are back. Yesterday, Kevin asked me how I’d render the “fuzzy wuzzy” rhyme in Chinese. Now, I’m not someone who typically feels most creative at night, but the translation almost seemed to create itself:

毛毛寶寶是隻熊
毛毛寶寶沒有毛
毛毛寶寶並不毛毛對吧!
Máomao bǎobǎo shì zhī xióng
máomao bǎobǎo méiyǒu máo
máomao bǎobǎo bìng bù máomao duì ba!

Above is draft 1 of the translation. As you can tell from the transliteration, I immediately prioritized alliteration. Chinese is a reduplicative-generous language, especially with adjectives (e.g. 小小 = “small small”), so 毛毛 (“furry furry”) felt like a good way to translate “fuzzy” (毛毛蟲 is caterpillar, and they’re certainly fuzzy creatures).

Now, what is a “wuzzy” anyway? In my understanding of the rhyme, it’s basically a marker of cuteness, so 寶寶 (“baby”) seemed appropriate. 毛毛寶寶 has the catchy, alliterative ring to it that “fuzzy wuzzy” has. Although, to be fair, there’s something extra-cute about the “zz” sound in English that I’m not sure I’ve totally replicated in the Chinese.

I wanted the syllables to all match up, which is where the final line was a challenge. A trochee is a stressed syllable followed by an unstressed one (e.g. fuzzy), and the third line is entirely in trochaic meter. So:

fuzzy | wuzzy | wasn’t | fuzzy | was he?

Side note: to my delight, the Wikipedia page on trochees cites Taylor Swift:

The Taylor Swift song “Blank Space” contains examples of trochaic metre in its chorus, which is responsible for many listeners mishearing part of the lyric as the line “Got a long list of ex-lovers” is forced into an unnatural shape to fit the stress pattern:Got a long list of ex-lovers

Where the stress would, in spoken English, naturally fall on the ‘ex’ of ‘ex-lovers’, it instead falls on ‘of’ and the first syllable of ‘lovers’, which can confuse on first hearing and cause the mind to try to fit an alternative two-syllable word into the ‘of ex-‘ foot. Supposedly, the line is misheard as “All the lonely Starbucks lovers”. 

Anyway, back to “Fuzzy Wuzzy.” My initial attempt achieves the trochaic meter:

毛 | 寶 | 不 |毛 | 吧?

But, alas, metrical translation is not enough. What makes the final line sublime in English is its impeccable wordplay:

Fuzzy Wuzzy Wasn’t Fuzzy Was-he?

Aside from the alternating F / W words, “Wuzzy” and “Was he” are also homonyms! The creator of this nursery rhyme has taken a nonsensical word, “wuzzy,” and transformed it into a perfectly poised rhetorical interrogative: “was he?”

The problem with my current Chinese translation is that I don’t quite hit that sweet spot.

Fuzzy Wuzzy Wasn’t Fuzzy Was-he? = F W W F W
máomao bǎobǎo bìng bù máomao duì ba? = M B B M D

The final 吧, which gives the poem its rhetorical effect, doesn’t quite give the poem a triumphant sonic finish when it introduces a new consonant into the line (“d”). I’ve been racking my brains, and here are some alternate endings:

毛毛寶寶名叫毛毛好嗎 ? Máomao bǎobǎo míng jiào máomao hǎo ma? 
~Is it right to name wuzzy “fuzzy”?
毛毛寶寶面貌並不毛毛! Máomao bǎobǎo miànmào bìng bù máomao!
~Fuzzy wuzzy’s appearance ( 面貌 ) is indeed not fuzzy!
毛毛寶寶明明並不毛毛! Máomao bǎobǎo míngmíng bìng bù máomao! 
~Fuzzy wuzzy is clearly (明明 ) not fuzzy!

Sound-wise, I prefer the last one, although only the first one has the rhetorical effect that matches the English original. But seriously, how cute is:

毛毛寶寶是隻熊
毛毛寶寶沒有毛
毛毛寶寶明明並不毛毛 !
Máomao bǎobǎo shì zhī xióng
Máomao bǎobǎo méiyǒu máo
Máomao bǎobǎo míngmíng bìng bù máomao!

This morning, Kevin sent draft 1 to his family group chat, and his mom immediately responded with a revision to line one:

毛毛寶寶是隻貓; Máomao bǎobǎo shì zhī māo
Fuzzy wuzzy was a CAT! 😻

Here, we really see the magic of translation. It doesn’t really matter whether fuzzy wuzzy is a Cheshire or a grizzly; what matters is the fuzziness. And you don’t get a fuzzier translation than:

毛毛寶寶是隻貓
毛毛寶寶沒有毛
毛毛寶寶明明並不毛毛 !
Máomao bǎobǎo shì zhī māo
Máomao bǎobǎo méiyǒu máo
Máomao bǎobǎo míngmíng bìng bù máomao!

(I am very open to more suggestions, by the way!)

This morning, I finally thought to Google the origins of “fuzzy wuzzy,” and ended up on a Reddit thread about the unfortunately racist origins of the phrase; during the Mahdist War, “fuzzy wuzzy” was a pejorative name that British troops gave to the Hadendoa people because of their hairstyles. Rudyard Kipling wrote a poem about it (bleh). Honestly, there’s something quite dark about this poem. If you search up “fuzzy wuzzy” in Google Images, you also get sad photos of a hair-less bear. What a buzzkill! (or fuzzkill, wuzzkill).

Thankfully, none of those connotations are translated into the Chinese. And that, dear readers, is what is gained — not lost — in translation.


天公用意真難會,又作春風爛漫晴。

Snow landed in Hyde Park this week!

It was Thursday, October 31, but the Halloween Hype was enveloped by a thickening blanket of snow all day. The weather forecast predicted it would snow and lo and behold, the weather did not flake on us (well, it did, depending on how you interpret that joke).

Since childhood, I’ve been obsessed with snow. Hong Kong kids don’t grow up with snow, and it becomes emblematic of the magic that “going abroad” promises: picture-perfectness, Christmas wonderland, new clothes.

I think I was destined to love snow because the last character of my Chinese name, 霙, means snowflake or sleet (I prefer snowflake). It comes from the poem “雪夜獨宿柏仙庵” / “Staying in the Bai Xian Temple on a Snowy Night” by the Song Dynasty poet Su Shi. The character “霙” isn’t found in certain dictionaries, which is a fun fact I’ve always treasured. My English name, May, comes from the Chinese word 妹 (mèi), “little sister.” Having been named after a Chinese character found in a poem and a homophone translation, I like to think (somewhat vainly) that I was ‘born’ to write and translate poetry.

Written in around 1075, the poem is below:

雪夜獨宿柏仙庵
蘇軾

晚雨纖纖變玉霙,小庵高臥有余清。
夢驚忽有穿窗片,夜靜惟聞瀉竹聲。
稍壓冬溫聊得健,未濡秋旱若為耕。
天公用意真難會,又作春風爛漫晴。

Wǎn yǔ xiān xiān biàn yù yīng, xiǎo ān gāo wò yǒuyú qīng.
Mèng jīng hū yǒu chuān chuāng piàn, yè jìng wéi wén xiè zhú shēng.
Shāo yā dōng wēn liáo dé jiàn, wèi rú qiū hàn ruò wèi gēng.
Tiān gōng yòng yì zhēn nán huì, yòu zuò chūn fēng lànmàn qíng.

Staying in the Bai Xian Temple on a Snowy Night

Night rain becomes fine jade sleet
While pure winds blow on temples above
Mid-dream, my window is pierced
Yet the only sound in the quiet dark
Is the bamboo leaves’ quick cascade.
Barely past a winter cold myself,
How will fields recover from the autumn drought?
We can hardly foresee heaven’s intents,
For soon again a warm breeze will blow
Bright crisp color into fine spring days.

The above is a translation I did for an advanced workshop around 2 years ago, and what you’re about to read is part of the translator’s note I wrote to accompany the translation. As is typical of Su Shi’s work, contrasts and surprises are abound in this poem. The abruptness (yet nothingness) of the commotion in the window disrupts the delicate image of the jade-like sleet, and this disruption is accentuated by how line 3 begins suddenly with “夢驚,” (dream-surprised). I’ve replicated the original syntax in my translation, beginning line 3 with “mid-dream.” Moreover, the description of the bamboo ‘cascading’ is also strange; 瀉 means to flow rapidly, and is not a word that one would typically use to describe bamboo. The array of emotions (tranquility, concern, hope, etc.) in the poem also adds to its internal juxtapositions.

My first attempts to translate the poem involved trying to preserve the rhyme scheme and meter, and I experimented with the first and last lines as such:

“The night rain swiftly turns to snow, while cool winds on high temples blow Heaven’s intents are hard to guess, for soon again the spring breeze blows”

A merit of this approach is that I echo the pun in the original with “清” and “晴” (qīng/line 1 and qíng/line 4); the former signifies clearness and purity, while the latter denotes the sunshine of spring (fun fact: the last character of my sister’s name is 晴). The identical rhymes that begin and conclude the poem make it come full circle. However, I felt that being constrained to a rhyme scheme wouldn’t allow other elements of the Chinese poem to shine in English, so I revised to forgo meter but incorporate internal rhymes. Even without the doubling of 清 / 晴 in my second draft, I’ve attempted to retain the poem’s ‘full circle’ effect by concluding lines 1 and 4 with “fine jade sleet” and “fine spring days,” respectively.

The last three characters of the original, 爛漫晴, succinctly convey the bright colors ( 爛漫) and crisp clearness (晴) of a sunny spring day, but it is challenging to be as tersely communicative in English. Thinking of how Pound kept the radical of Chinese characters in mind while translating, I used the word “warm” in my translation because the character for “fire” (火) appears in “爛.” Finally, although Su Shi was not in any way inspired by Robert Frost, and vice-versa, I couldn’t help but draw a connection between this poem and “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening,” one of my favorite English poems. The sound of “easy wind and downy flake” in Frost’s poem reminds me of the bamboo sounds that Su Shi hears. So, there is some cross-pollination between:

The only other sound’s the sweep   
Of easy wind and downy flake.   

and:

Yet the only sound in the quiet dark
Is the bamboo leaves’ quick cascade.

Su Shi’s poem is about the unpredictability of the weather, and as such of life. It snowed all day on Thursday, but on Friday the autumn colors reasserted themselves again. Today, which is Saturday, only the highest rooftops still carry the powder of our Halloween snow. We can hardly foresee heaven’s intents, indeed.

Because I can’t resist a revision, here’s my 2019-updated translation of Su Shi’s poem, which in some ways is my namesake. With this revision, I’ve again attempted a return to form; 8 lines with 7 syllables each (to match the Chinese). With this revision, I’ve abandoned some of the choices I described in depth above, but I suppose that’s all part of the process. Until the next revision…

Baixian Lodge on a Snowy Night

Night rain turns to fine jade sleet
Pure winds blow on temples high
Mid-dream, my window’s pierced
By nothing but the leaves’ cascade.
Barely past my winter cold,
Will fields brave the autumn drought?
Who can know heaven’s intents
For soon we’ll see fine spring days.

Loving him is like driving a new Maserati down a dead end street… #7YearsofRed

Related image

7 years ago today, Taylor Swift’s best album—RED—was released. RED is a masterpiece, and it seems like critics are only realizing that now; on the recent best-songs-of-the-century listicles that have cropped up, RED has certainly been having a moment. In particular, “All Too Well” is finally getting the recognition it deserves (#57 on Pitchfork, #29 on Rolling Stones). I believe the reputation stadium tour had something to do with this glow-up, too; the song’s acoustic performances truly shed light on its exemplary songwriting and emotional magnitude. And as autumn turns leaves burning red all around us, RED is the perfect seasonal album to listen to on repeat.

When RED first came out, I didn’t give it enough love. But in recent years, the album has grown to become one of my favorites. So, on the 7-year anniversary of RED, I’d like to write this track-by-track appreciation post for the album—and suggest some new ways to think about/listen to the songs today, especially in light of Lover.

Here we go!

State of Grace A lyrical masterpiece and pop/rock/country hybrid, “State of Grace” is the perfect opening track. I personally think it’s her best opening track ever (maybe tied with “Fearless”). Listening to the song post-Lover, certain words jump out at me more: traffic lights, blue, golden. Notice how these are all color-related terms? On an album titled after a color, this opening track also asks us to think about “shades of wrong,” a “mosaic [of] broken hearts.” The affinities between RED and Lover are strong and certainly intentional, given how Taylor has also been performing songs from RED in recent live performances (“All Too Well” on NPR, “Holy Ground” on BBC Live Lounge, and she totally name-dropped “Treacherous” on Jimmy Fallon).
* Listen to the acoustic version of this song!

Red – Who doesn’t love a good TITLE TRACK? On “Red,” we go to simile/metaphor land and it’s amazing. “Loving him is like driving a new Maserati down a dead end street…” It’s amazing how the color red permeates the first verse without even appearing in it. Taylor saves the word “red” for the last line of the chorus, where it counts: “Loving him was red.” The song is beautifully synesthetic, in that all the emotions Taylor describes in words (eloquent as the are) are eventually best described through splashes of color. The pop/country crossover feeling on this song is also especially strong.
* In this song, “losing him was blue” and love is “burning red.” On Lover, however, Taylor often associates blue with love instead (in Paper Rings). Also, she directly references “Red” in “Daylight:” “I once believed love would be (burning red) / But it’s golden / Like daylight.” Talk about a glow-up!!

Treacherous – I think of “Treacherous” as the spiritual predecessor to “I Did Something Bad” from reputation, and the fact that both songs are Track 3 might confirm this theory…it’s the first ballad on the album, and its lyrics are haunting: “all we are is skin and bone / trained to get along.” Wow.
*The secret message in this song (hidden in the lyric booklet) alludes to The Temper Trap’s “Sweet Disposition.” Perhaps listen to both songs side by side and see what you find?

I Knew You Were Trouble This is Taylor’s first song with a bass drop, and that fact in and of itself already makes the song pretty legendary. IKYWT was a major milestone for Taylor, both in terms of genre cross-pollination and audience reach. Taylor x Dubstep is a combination that not many realized they needed…until this song dropped. The music video very much leans into this feeling, too. When Taylor debuted pink hair in the Lover area, many also immediately thought of her pink hair in the video. IKYWT is one of a kind in Taylor’s early discography. This is not to say, however, that nothing else on the album sounds like IKYWT; the “me-e-e-e-e” rhythm in the song echoes the “re-e-e-e-d” vocal patterning in Track 2.
*You’ve heard the “goat” remix of this song, but have you seen Tom Holland’s take??

All Too Well where do I begin with this song, Taylor’s chef d’oeuvre? The longest song in Taylor’s discography (it would have been longer if she hadn’t cut the 10-min version), “All Too Well” is treasured, beloved, worshipped among Swifties. Lately, I can’t stop listening to it on repeat when I’m running. The song boasts Taylor’s best musical arc, arguably best lyrics, and most moving narrative. It all starts with a scarf that is introduced in the first verse and returns at the end: “you keep my old scarf / from that very first week.” Like a scarf, the song is composed of similar patterns and loops in a way that makes the song stronger with each iteration. Taylor wrote the song to get over a bad, bad breakup, the way you’d reach for a scarf to warm you. There are lyrics in this song that are among my all-time favorite lines, one of them being: “we’re dancing round the kitchen in the refrigerator light.” I mean, WOW. Also: “autumn leaves falling down like pieces into place / And I can picture it after all these days.” The parallel between pieces and picture?? Also, the way “red” appears in this song is sublime; “you almost ran the red ’cause you were looking over at me,” “your cheeks were turning red.” Also, the bridge in this song is just unbelievable. “Maybe we got lost in translation / Maybe I asked for too much / But maybe this thing was a masterpiece / ‘Til you tore it all up.” Well, one thing is clear. “All Too Well” is a masterpiece, and no one is tearing it up!!

22 Earlier this year, I wrote a longer essay about turning 22 vis à vis this song. “15” and “22” are the two age-songs in Taylor’s oeuvre, so “22” has always held a special place in my heart. It’s one of the poppiest songs on the album and, like IKYWT, has a “viral” charm. “I don’t know about you, but I’m feeling twenty two-oo” is a line that sticks both melodically and lyrically. You can count on the song being blasted at 22-year-old birthday parties. It’s also one of the songs on this album that is deliberately self-deprecatory; in one of the verses, you hear a voice in the background going, “Who’s Taylor Swift, anyway? Ew.” Taylor’s knack for poking fun at herself will reemerge two songs later, and is also the kind of energy that made “Shake it Off” from her next album one of her biggest hits ever. “22” is a song that embraces the ups and downs—”We’re happy, free, confused, and lonely at the same time”—and is thus a timeless hit, whether you are 22 or not.
*Did you know? The girls in the “22” music video are Taylor’s real-life best friends.

I Almost Do – An underrated song on the album, “I Almost Do” is about the difficulty of getting over someone, the instinctual reaching for the phone. Sandwiched between two songs that sound pretty defiant, “I Almost Do” is one of the most vulnerable, honest songs on RED.
*I think of “I Almost Do,” Treacherous,” and “The Moment I Knew” as being part of the same trio.

We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together – More commonly referred to as “WANEGBT” in the Swiftie fandom, this song was the first single to be released—and, in some ways, also the “odd one out” in the album. WANEGBT doesn’t really sound like anything else on the album; a single-release strategy that Taylor is known for (see: the release of “ME!” as her debut for the Lover era). But “WANEGBT” is a powerful blast of pop, which does foreground the pop influence in this album. “You would hide away and find your peace of mind / with some indie record that’s much cooler than mine,” she sings to her ex in this song, as if noting the genre characterization of her album. The shake-it-off energy in this song also carries much powerful-woman energy, which Taylor completely exuded in the RED era—from her outfits to her red lipstick to her skyrocketing fame.
* “WANEGBT” is a power move. Listen to it alongside “The Man” for some perspective!

Stay Stay Stay – Here’s the cutest song on the album, and for some people, it’s a little too cute—but I love the quick lyrics and iteration in the song. It’s a perfect ukulele jam. Taylor didn’t write this song about a relationship she was in, but about relationships she observed—the kind of love she hoped to find, the kind of love she sings about in “Lover.” My favorite line is probably, “you came in wearing a football helmet and said ‘okay, let’s talk.'”
*If you liked this song, you’ll also like “Paper Rings,” and vice versa!

The Last Time (ft. Gary Lightbody) – Without a doubt, this is Taylor’s most heartbreaking ballad, and one of the most emotional songs on this album. I find the harmonies in this track amazing, and something about Gary’s voice lends this song an indie quality. I particularly like how the word “me” quavers leading up to the chorus.
*If you haven’t seen this song performed live yet, head over here!

Holy Ground – Another lyrical showstopper, “Holy Ground” has some of the best lines on the album: “back when you fit in my poems like a perfect rhyme,” “spinning like a girl in a brand new dress”… the drumbeat that propels this song makes it soar. It’s a song that forgoes regret and instead thinks of the territory of a past relationship as being holy. A number of Tay’s songs draw upon religious imagery, and I love how we get it in subtle ways in this album, with “State of Grace” and this track.
*Listen to Taylor’s 2019 update of the song here, as performed on BBC Live Lounge.

Sad Beautiful Tragic Another slow ballad on the album, this song is a trio-of-adjectives and feels like the melancholy parallel of “22.” Instead of the bop that is “happy/free/confused/lonely,” we’re in the nostalgic realm of sad/beautiful/tragic. The heartbreak in the following line is palpable: “time is taking its sweet time erasing you.” The ukulele/riff in this song really shapes its entire emotional arc.
*Try listening to this song with earphones in, paying attention only to the riff. I promise it will hit different.

The Lucky One – In this song, Taylor gets incredibly candid about fortune and fame. What’s it like to be so luckily loved by so many fans, and yet have a “lover in the foyer” who “doesn’t even know you”? It’s a song that gets real: ” you don’t feel pretty, you just feel used / And all the young things line up to take your place.” And yet, it’s also a song that recognizes the double sides of being “lucky;” it’s both lucky to have your name up in lights, and also lucky to be someone who can get out unscathed, dignity intact. Thinking about the way Taylor values her privacy now, I think she’s figuring it out what it means to be truly “the lucky one.”
*The word “lover,” apart from appearing in “Lover,” also appears in this song!

Everything Has Changed (ft. Ed Sheeran) – The collaboration that gave rise to the Ed/Taylor friendship, this song is one of my favorite duets that Taylor has ever done. It’s lovely and sweeping, and the chorus is triumphant. The collab also feels totally natural; it makes complete sense that two of our generation’s best songwriters would put their guitar-plucking skills together to make something happen. It’s also a triumph to go from a song like “Sad Beautiful Tragic” to “Everything Has Changed,” a narrative about the tables turning. Fall is a time of change and this song highlights the particularly beautiful, falling-headfirst kind.
*If you’re already familiar with this song, you’ll certainly want to visit its original lyrics, which are more wordy but also delightfully detailed.

Starlight Taylor wrote this song about Ethel Kennedy (and she liked it), which I think is pretty cool. It’s another track on the record that feels distinctly poppy and sparkly, which befits its title. I love songs that Taylor writes based on other people’s stories; she does something similar in Lover with “Death by a Thousand Cuts,” but in “Starlight” you get the most exquisite details.
*Listen to her cover of “Untouchable,” another starry song.

Begin Again – What a perfect way to close the album; by suggesting a return to form, a renewal of love. Taylor’s most narratively-cohesive songs master the “loop” structure: see “All Too Well,” “Tim McGraw,” Our Song,” Love Story,” etc. They end the way they begin. The idea of new beginnings seems to always come at the end of a Taylor album—the final tracks, such as “New Year’s Day” and “Daylight,” all suggest revival. Perhaps the prettiest and most delicate song on the album, “Begin Again” is what autumn feels like: crisp air, a new start, revisited memories.
*Fun fact: Katy Perry loves this song and added it to her playlist recently. In the year 2019, Katy and Taylor are friends again.

The three tracks on the Deluxe version of RED are “The Moment I Knew,” “Come Back…Be Here,” and “Girl At Home.” Each of them could have belonged naturally on the album, and in many ways, all of them have become canonical (I particularly like “Come Back…Be Here”).

But that’s all I’ll say for now. Happy listening to RED. ❤️