Translanguaging poetry as a linguistic exercise

I woke up to the kind of orange sunlight that signals there are wildfires nearby. There’s one raging over the mountains right now. But somehow, the apocalyptic feel of it is comforting to me. When I was in Ohio for grad school, there was a single day when I experienced the same kind of sunlight, which I immediately knew was coming from wildfires to the north in Canada, even though no one else in my cohort realized what was causing it. Struck by my sudden homesickness, I wrote the following poem, first published in inkscrawl in December 2015:

by S. Qiouyi Lu

dust billows and gallops on the horizon,
gulps down sunlight, douses this red planet redder—

(fourteen/fifteen/I’m trapped on the 5 north
wildfires rampage ahead, erupt into ash, and the sun
streams orange. I roll down the window. smoke
infiltrates my nostrils, clings to my tongue.)

the storm drenches us in bloodlight.
c’mon, we have to get inside—I run after her, taste
odorless, filtered air, grit between my teeth—
for just one moment, I miss home.

The other day, Dr Sara Louise Wheeler sent me a link on Twitter to her post “Translanging as part of the creative process.” I found myself fascinated by the process of actively working between two languages. My Chinese has improved a lot now that I’ve been translating professionally for a couple years (wow, when did that happen), but I still primarily translate from Chinese to English. I think I’m ready to try my hand in the other direction—some translators can go both ways, while others specialize in only one. No better practice than translating my own work, where I know my intent.





I kept the translation pretty literal, except for one thing that I focused on: using characters that have the water radical 水 (氵). In the English version, I use water-related terms like “douse,” “streams,” and “drenches” to create a cognitive dissonance with the red imagery and fire imagery. I preserved that as much as possible in the Chinese, and got to add an instance where the water metaphor isn’t in the English: “咬灑上沙子的牙齒,” which literally translates back to English as “grind teeth with sand spilled on them.”

I also got to add an extra layer of nuance in the Chinese with the final term “老家.” Initially, I translated “home” as just 家, but Chinese meter tends to prefer a four-syllable structure rather than a three-syllable one, so the addition of 老 filled that gap for aesthetics, but also created a subtle distinction, in that 老家 (lit. “old home”) is a term for one’s place of origin, further reinforcing the connection to a distant Earth from Mars.

However, there was one subtlety that got lost in the translation: the title. The Chinese title reflects the meaning of “Particularities” as the unique nature of something, but loses the play on the word “particle” to reflect the dust imagery in the piece. I didn’t see anything immediately punnable when I was working with the dictionary, so I left that as an acceptable loss.

I also decided not to translate “orange” as the standard 橘色, which, like the English term, refers to the fruit as well. It felt extremely out-of-place in the poem, as the plant imagery and wood radical of the character reflect objects that are purposely absent in the imagery—the Mars scene is notably a dust storm and not a fire because there’d be nothing on Mars for a fire to consume. In any case, I chose the native term 赤 chì, a type of vermillion, famously used in the movie title 《赤壁》 about the historic Battle at Red Cliff. I wanted to draw from that rock formation imagery, and the character has the serendipitous side effect of making you clench your jaw to pronounce it, foreshadowing the last stanza.

I’m really pleased with how this turned out, and was pleasantly surprised that my mom (who beta reads almost all my translations) didn’t have any changes or suggestions. Comes to show that my Chinese really has improved a lot, and that my alethiometer-like reading of Chinese dictionaries is following a genuine native speaker intuition. Proof that you can reconnect to your heritage language with practice and persistence.

Photo by Pixabay via Pexels