On Translating Wang Xiaoni
Eleanor Goodman is the reipient of a 2013 PEN/Heim Translation Fund grant for her translation of Wang Xiaoni’s Something Crosses My Mind. Read an excerpt of Goodman’s translation here.
Wang Xiaoni is widely considered one of the most important poets writing in Chinese today. Her work is known for its keen detail and the use of ordinary objects—potatoes, trains, mountains, sunlight, dust rags—to create emotional resonance. She leans toward simple but penetrating language, with an acute ear for the rhythm, weight, and nuance of each given word and line. Although her some of her favorite topics involve the state of women in contemporary China, and her own life in particular, her work is not easily categorized as feminist, but instead occupies a position of ambiguity, sometimes resisting, sometimes accepting the traditional roles of wife, mother, daughter, and “woman poet.” As such, she has been essential in bringing about the increasingly (though still not at all) equal place that female writers are being accorded in China’s contemporary literary scene.
I was drawn to Wang Xiaoni work for another reason entirely, and that is her strong engagement with the pressing sociohistorical issues of the moment in China. The Chinese social and interpersonal landscape has been changing at breakneck speed for the last thirty years, and as witness to these seismic shifts, Wang Xiaoni consistently adopts an insightful and nuanced approach to topics that others have tended to come at with a sledgehammer. Ideologically, she is of a generation that was first inculcated with and then freed from the incredibly rigid (and often violently enforced) strictures of the Cultural Revolution. She was a leading participant in the blossoming of poetry, and of the arts in general, in the early 1980s, and experienced the subsequent crackdowns personally. Through this cauldron of individual and collective history, she has developed a style that both skirts the limits and addresses them directly. She is a poet intimately familiar with how language can be manipulated for both good and ill, and she uses this awareness to consciously engage with what has in effect become dead symbolic language. The “sun” of Mao Zedong, the “workers” of the revolution, and the “magpies” that used to bring omens of good fortune are retransfigured in her work to once again carry meaning. It is a meaning produced out of a political destruction of symbolic connotation, and a general loss of trust in language and meaning. Poets create new worlds in the context of their work, and what I admire particularly about Wang Xiaoni is that the worlds she creates on the page are vitally and vividly connected to the world in which we all live, and indeed, enrich it via her readers. She does not shy away from ugliness, specificity, or the mundane, nor does she build a cage of private language around her poems. Instead, her work is a door opening onto something further and deeper. I hope through these translations, English-language readers will come peer in.