Tuesday, 10 May 2022

Translating literature – not such a lonely business after all

 Nicky Harman writes: Literary translation, like writing, is traditionally a one-woman or one-man job. At most, two people might work together to translate a book. Large-scale collaborative translation projects are a thing of the past, the far distant past when the Bible and the Buddhist scriptures were translated. But literary translators are resourceful folk and have begun to get together in mutual support groups. Here, I interview Natascha Bruce and Jack Hargreaves, both of whom are active in such groups and agreed to tell me more about them.


Natascha Bruce translates fiction from Chinese. Her work includes Lonely Face by Yeng Pway Ngon, Bloodline by Patigül, Lake Like a Mirror by Ho Sok Fong and, co-translated with Nicky Harman, A Classic Tragedy by Xu Xiaobin. Forthcoming translations include Mystery Train by Can Xue and Owlish by Dorothy Tse, for which she was awarded a 2021 PEN/Heim grant. She recently moved to Amsterdam.


Jack Hargreaves is a translator from East Yorkshire, now based in Leeds. His literary work has appeared on Asymptote Journal, Words Without Borders, LitHub, adda and LA Review of Books China Channel. Published and forthcoming full-length works include Winter Pasture by Li Juan and Seeing by Chai Jing, both of them co-translations with Yan Yan, published by Astra House. Jack translated Shen Dacheng’s short story ‘Novelist in the Attic’ for Comma Press’ The Book of Shanghai and was ALTA’s 2021 Emerging Translator Mentee for Literature from Singapore. He volunteers as a member of the Paper Republic management team and releases a monthly newsletter about Chinese-language literature in translation.

Friday, 6 May 2022

Moro Warrior, guest post from Thomas McKenna

Thomas McKenna is a social anthropologist based in San Francisco.  He has been conducting ethnographic research in the southern Philippines since 1985. 

Following the attack on Pearl Harbor the Japanese invaded the Philippines. On May 6, 1942, U.S. Lieutenant General Jonathan Wainwright surrendered U.S. troops in the Philippines to the Japanese. Published to coincide with the 80th anniversary of that event, Moro Warrior combines indigenous and military history, anthropology and biography, to tell the remarkable but forgotten story of the Philippine Muslim (Moro) resistance fighters of World War II. Bridging continents and cultures, it is a story of sadness and loss, but also one filled with humor, camaraderie, romance, and adventure. It is not aimed at academics, but at general readers, in particular history and military history buffs. 

So, over to Thomas…

Thursday, 28 April 2022

Asian Cartography At Its Best: The NLB Exhibition and Literary Maps


Asian cartography has a very special place in my heart. Cartography is Western-centric but the maps currently on exhibition until May 2022 at the National Library of Singapore’s Mapping the World: Perspectives from Asian Cartography, will show that in fact Asian cartography has a long lineage, predating Western cartography. These maps are worth several trips: not only are some of them quite rare (and difficult to access since they form parts of collections elsewhere), they span multiple kingdoms and dynasties, geographies and eras, from the religious Korean map Cheonhado (Map of All Under Heaven), Joseon Dynasty, 19th century, on loan from MacLean Collection, Illinois (Image 1) to the Idrisi world map of 1154 (on loan from the Bibliotheque national de France), produced by Arab geographer Muhammad al-Idrisi (1100-1165) and composed in accordance with the Islamic tradition of orienting the south at the top. (Image 2) 

Image 1

Saturday, 23 April 2022

'Tastes Like A Bot, But Is Not': New poetry by Daryl Lim Wei Jie

Guest post by Laura Jane Lee

Daryl Lim Wei Jie’s sophomore collection Anything But Human is a provocative incantation of sensations and sensuality, of detritus and the mundane. The volume hails a marked departure from the poet’s momentous first collection, A Book Of Changes, landing it more on the irreverent, tongue-in-cheek side of things, as poetry goes.

Anything But Human takes its title from Wang Xiaoni’s poem ‘A Rag’s Betrayal’ (一塊布的背叛), in which she writes, “Only humans want secrecy / now I’d like to pass myself off / as anything but human.” (trans. Eleanor Goodman). With this epigraph and title, Lim ushers the reader into an immersive vignette of objects made strange. Amongst these are snapshots which one perhaps can only describe as “delightfully unpleasant” – an oxymoronic feat within itself – evoking  incomprehensible sensations in the reader’s body with lines such as “The cough caught in my / throat flowers into a bulbous alien fruit”. Lim’s poems boldly traverse regions of distaste and pleasure, a pleasure rooted in physicality skirting but narrowly avoiding the sexual; as when he writes “They call me a daughter of disorder. See you / at the dungeon later, dry but preferably wet.” 

Another prominent theme of Lim’s poems is the thrill of lush decay, speaking of compostable orchids and orangutans, richly marbled and melting sleep, and silverfish unmaking knowledge out of circulation. These are poems which run rife with the postapocalyptic stench of late capitalism, in both the domesticity of the compliant toilet and the dying oranges in the fridge; to the Costco-like supermarket of ‘Junkspace Rhapsodies’. Not only does Lim conflate the mundane and the grotesque (which are often not so different). In the poem ‘Cloisters’, he invokes the toasts bearing images of Christ and the Virgin Mary fetching exorbitant prices on eBay, and in doing so juxtaposes food, spirituality, and capitalism, arguably the primary non-human mainstays of contemporary society. While these brilliant and humdrum idiosyncrasies running throughout the book easily set Lim apart from most of his contemporaries, it is also against the backdrop of such deftly woven paradoxes that his inventive reinterpretations of Bai Juyi pale in comparison. The lacunose translations seem to lack the same urgent yet languid flippancy of Lim’s original poems, and would perhaps find a better home in a separate volume of similarly reinterpretive poems.

These shortfalls are few and far between, largely outshone and more than redeemed by the experience that comes with reading the rest of the collection. The reader is served enthralling sensations of putrefaction alongside slices of the quotidian, societal observations of the variety seen on SINGAPORE ON PUBLIC NOTICE (@publicnoticesg), as in ‘Narrative (II)’, in which the persona asks permission to pee on insects before doing so, and closely observes the plastic packaging growing out of bushes. One wonders if Lim is the very prophet he writes of in ‘The Prophet’s Day Out’ (for Wong Phui Nam) and ‘The Prophet’s Last Warning’; the reader can’t help but notice that the collection, written pre-pandemic, speaks of occurrences such as “Parliament is closed today, but so are / the KTV lounges” and “The air-conditioning doubles as disinfectant… The air-conditioning doubles as reinfectant”. 

For all the simultaneous sharpness and listlessness of his poems, Lim’s Anything But Human features lines of strange, shaking tenderness, all nestled amongst the debris. For visceral human emotions to feature amongst things which are “Anything But Human”, is for them to be heightened and distilled to a singular shade of essentiality and desperation. Equally interesting is the handful of lines strewn carelessly across the poems, which provide a provocative political commentary, issuing from the mouth of what seems to be a half-hearted commentator. Anything But Human is not without surprises – it is at turns most ostensibly human.

Upon this reviewer’s first reading of the collection on the MRT line, somewhere between Tan Kah Kee and Chinatown, she scribbled the following comment beside the first poem, ‘Expression of Contentment’:

"Tastes like a bot"

Perhaps the comment would now be better revised to: “Tastes like a bot, but is not.”


Laura Jane Lee is a poet from Hong Kong, currently based in Singapore. Under her former name, she founded KongPoWriMo, Subtle Asian Poetry Collective, and is the winner of the Sir Roger Newdigate Prize.

Her work has been awarded in various international competitions including the Oxford Brookes International Poetry Competition, Out-Spoken Poetry Prize and the Poetry London Mentorship Scheme, among others. She has been published and featured in journals and newspapers such as The Straits Times, Tatler Asia, HKFP, HK01, QLRS, ORB, and Mekong Review; and will be reading at the 52nd Poetry International Festival in Rotterdam, Netherlands.

Previous pamphlets include chengyu: chinoiserie (Hedgehog Poetry Press, 2020) published under her former name, and flinch & air (Out-Spoken Press, 2021).

Read a review of Laura Jane Lee's 'flinch & air' here

Wednesday, 13 April 2022

Can a machine translate a novel? Nicky Harman wonders.

 Rather to my surprise, I found myself at a discussion of this very question at the Literary Translation Centre, in last week's London Book Fair 2022.

This is not my first brush with computer-aided-translation (CAT) tools. Back in the day (2000-2010, so quite a few days back!) I used to teach a CAT tools module on the Translation and Technology (Scientific, Technical and Medical) MSc, at Imperial College London.

First, let’s define some terms: CAT tools do many different things. Translation Memory (TM) apps create a database of segments (sentences or phrases) from the work of previous human translators and offer them up when the human translator comes across identical or similar phrases in a subsequent translation. TM apps are regularly used by companies producing instructions manuals and their translators. Imagine, for example, someone translating an instruction manual for a washing machine where most of the text for different models is repeated, but the spec differs. Note the human agency.

There’s Machine Translation (MT), something we scarcely touched on back then because the results were laughable even between European languages. But things have changed. Roy Youdale, of Bristol University, UK, who was one of the speakers at this talk, writes in a recent article ‘Can Artificial Intelligence Help Literary Translators?’ that ‘A game-changer …. has been the incorporation of machine translation (MT) into CAT tools.’ He goes on: ‘MT basically uses a computer to search and compare the words in a source text with very large databases (billions of words) of texts already translated into the target language. In addition to the translation of individual words, the computer searches for corresponding sequences of words or ‘strings’, a process known as ‘string matching’.’ Anyone who has used DeepL or Google Translate to get the gist of an online article written in a language they can’t read, will know that the results are often quite clear and well-worded.

Thursday, 31 March 2022

Oral History as a Practice of Care: Theatres of Memory from Singapore's industrial history


Block 115 Commonwealth Drive, Singapore's first flatted factory.

Editor's note: Our poetry column takes a break this month as I dip into a new, brilliantly-told industrial history of postwar Singapore, published by Pagesetters

Last weekend, I found myself in a cavernous stairwell at Block 115 Commonwealth Drive, tiptoeing to see through the high, grid-like windows as a faint mustiness settled over me. The banisters were cool to the touch, smooth with decades of use, while cigarettes flattened into corners told of the building’s more recent occupants. I followed the tinkling of a windchime onto one of the upper corridors, where a door swung open to reveal shelves of clay figurines and – hunched at a long table – a potter at work. Save for the glossy poster on the wall outside, I could well have imagined men and women arriving in neatly-pressed uniforms for an afternoon shift at Roxy Electric, Wing Heng, or another of the many tenants to have occupied Singapore’s first flatted factory since it opened in 1965.

Thursday, 24 March 2022

Wesley Leon Aroozoo Shares His Inspiration for "The Punkhawala and the Prostitute"

As the saying goes, “History is written by the victors” and with that the stories and documentations of the forgotten or lesser regarded in history are usually limited or unknown. As a Singaporean storyteller intrigued with early Singapore history, I am passionate in uncovering these forgotten stories and sharing them. One of the forgotten stories that inspired me greatly belonged to the Karayuki-sans (Japanese prostitutes) who played a part in shaping the history in 1800’s Singapore. 


I came across bits of information about the Karayuki-sans as I naturally gravitated towards the history section of the library. I was surprised that I had no idea that we once had Japanese prostitutes in Singapore. I began to realise that the stories in our textbooks in school only covered one side of our history, in particular, stories about British Masters and philanthropists, their worldview and success stories, but not the lesser-known ones like the Karayuki-sans, who are seemingly marginalized or maybe even shied away from. Another fascinating role from early Singapore history that captivated me was that of the Punkhawala, a servant who manually pulls a ceiling fan for their masters. The role of the Punkhawala is usually carried out by an Indian servant or even an Indian convict labourer who is serving his sentence in Singapore which was a penal colony back then. I chanced upon a very brief mention of this labour intensive role and was intrigued by what could possibly be on the servants’ mind while pulling the manual fan all day. 

The House of Little Sisters: Eva Wong Nava Writes About The Challenges of Writing YA Historical Fiction

Thank you, Elaine Chiew, for the invitation to share about the challenges and issues in regard to writing historical fiction for a teenage audience, and about my book The House of Little Sisters, launched February 22, 2022. It is categorized as a Young Adult or a YA book suitable for a readership of 12-18 year olds. but YA is an age category rather than a genre, created by publishers to market books. The genre for this novel is historical fiction. 

The blurb of The House of Little Sisters tells readers that the novel is a “supernatural exposé of a past system that still has a tight grip on contemporary Singapore and Malaysia.” The word “past” gives this novel its context.  What brought me to finally write HOUSE was a burning curiosity about the employer/ helper relationship that is so predominant in Singaporean society. During a 7-year sojourn in the city-state, I was struck by how families in Singapore relied so much on their helpers. I was particularly struck by how co-dependent several employer/ helper relationships I had observed were. I wanted to know what the historical premise for this was.

I knew there were challenges in writing a historical fiction novel. Because I am also an art historian, I understand the nature of research and how sometimes, research can throw up some curve balls. HOUSE took me nearly 5 years to research. My research includes trawling through archived photographs, locating and reading historical documents, interviewing and talking to people. 

Sunday, 13 March 2022

Jokowi and the New Indonesia: How the world sees an Indonesian President Guest post from Tim Hannigan

UK-based Tim Hannigan writes mainly about Asia, especially Indonesia. He is the author of three history books: Murder in the Hindu Kush; Raffles and the British Invasion of Java; and A Brief History of Indonesia. He also edited and expanded A Brief History of Bali and wrote A Geek in Indonesia. He has written travel features for newspapers and magazines in Asia, the Middle East, North America and the UK, and has contributed to various radio and television documentaries on Asian history. He has also worked on guidebooks to destinations including Bali, Nepal, Myanmar, and India, and written and edited Indonesian phrasebooks. He works on travel writing as an academic. His research has been published in various journals and edited collections, including Studies in Travel Writing, Journeys and The Journal of Commonwealth Literature. 

Now, with Darmawan Prasodjo, a political insider with unparalleled access to the president and an intimate first-hand knowledge of his decision-making processes, Tim has co-written Jokowi and the New Indonesia: A Political Biography.

In 2014, Joko Widodo, popularly known as Jokowi, was elected the seventh president of the Republic of Indonesia, going on to win a second five-year term in 2019. Raised amid poverty in a riverside slum and with a background in the furniture export trade, Jokowi broke the mould for political leaders in the world's third-largest democracy. His meteoric rise came without the benefit of personal connections to the traditional elites who have dominated Indonesian politics for three-quarters of a century, making this a true rags to riches story.

This new official biography tells the story of how the boy from the riverbank made it to the presidential palace in record time. It explains how Jokowi's background and heritage have created a distinctive style of politics and informed his ambitious development goals, including massive infrastructure projects, universal healthcare and a reimagining of Indonesia's educational system. It also looks at how a man raised with a traditionally Javanese worldview negotiates the tensions, contradictions and conflicts of this vast archipelagic nation.

Here, Tim discusses Jokowi’s international image...

Sunday, 6 March 2022

Shanghai by Riichi Yokomitsu - a Japanese Novel of Interwar Shanghai

 Shanghai between the world wars is a fascination of Westerns, the Chinese themselves, but also the Japanese. The zeitgeist of 1920s Shanghai is reflected in the appropriately named Shanghai by Riichi Yokomitsu.

Friday, 4 March 2022


The fifth edition of TEXTURES (4 March 4 to 3 April) returns with the theme The Great Escape, opening in six Festival Pavilion locations (Oasis Terraces—Punggol; Sumang WALK – Punggol; Ang Mo Kio Public Library; Canberra Plaza; The Arts House, Sengkang Library) and offering workshops and programmes in other community and public library spaces (Sembawang; Toa Payoh). 

Monday, 28 February 2022

Everything you always wanted to know about Chinese literature in translation, by Nicky Harman

Full disclosure: I’m devoting my blog this month to a personal project, The Paper Republic Guide To Contemporary Chinese Literature.

Translations from Chinese – from mainland China, Hong Kong, Taiwan and beyond – have proliferated in recent years. With so much choice now available, we at Paper Republic decided to put our heads together and produce a guide for enthusiastic and adventurous readers, to be published on 1st March, 2022.

Paper Republic, as many of you will know, was founded in Beijing in 2007, and is now a UK-registered charity (aka non-profit), with a mission of increasing the quantity, quality, and visibility of Chinese literature in English translation. Formed around a core team of volunteers, of whom I am one, it draws on the expertise of many of the leading literary translators working in the field. Its website provides free-to-read translations of the best of new Chinese stories and poetry, as well as a database of Chinese literature and its translation. 

Saturday, 26 February 2022

“Who Dare Say?” Reading voices of witness from Burma/Myanmar in a time of war

On Thursday, as aerial photographs began to circulate of long columns of cars leaving Kyiv, their precious cargo of human life appearing painfully small from the sky, two poems came to mind. The first I had seen being shared online by concerned friends and fellow writers, a collective cry of despair and moral culpability – ‘We Lived Happily During The War’, by Odessa-born poet Ilya Kaminsky. And the other, ‘Burma’s Siberia’, I had just read in picking off new shoots will not stop the spring, a new anthology of witness poems and essays from Burma/Myanmar published last month. 

'Burma’s Siberia’ is dedicated to K Za Win, one of two poets killed when the military opened fire on civilian protestors last March. Another poet Khet Thi, who had read a rousing poem at K Za Win’s funeral, was later abducted from his home, and died in police custody. This poem was written less than two weeks after K Za Win’s death, as the wider literary circle was still reeling from a series of losses. Its author, Kyi Zaw Aye, was a friend of K Za Win’s who had hosted him in his house the night before he was shot. “Never once / the world is on our side”, it begins, “We unfurl our own flag / we unfurl our own sail / always against the wind”. 

Thursday, 24 February 2022

Small London Indie Press Leopard Print Releases First Anthology of Asian Stories

This week's Contemporary Voices column is written by Ivy Ngeow as guest writer for Asian Books Blog.  Ivy is a true Renaissance woman (see bio below for all the other hats she also wears). 

We celebrate the first Asian Anthology from Leopard Print. Ivy, take it away...

Small London Indie Press Leopard Print Releases First Anthology of Asian Stories

By Ivy Ngeow, Commissioning Editor,  Asian Anthology: New Writing Vol. 1

Leopard Print was founded in 2019 by Josh Antony Lee and I. With our design and small business backgrounds, the idea was to welcome more books which we loved to read but felt were lacking: beautiful, diverse and eclectic books by the culturally underrepresented. 

Tuesday, 22 February 2022

Indie-Spotlight: Selling Books with Asian Main Characters - Part II


Indie Spotlight is a column by WWII historical fiction author Alexa Kang. The column regularly features hot new releases and noteworthy indie-published books, and popular authors who have found success in the new creative world of independent publishing.

Wednesday, 16 February 2022

Indie-Spotlight: Selling Books with Asian Main Characters - Part I


Indie Spotlight is a column by WWII historical fiction author Alexa Kang. The column regularly features hot new releases and noteworthy indie-published books, and popular authors who have found success in the new creative world of independent publishing.

Sunday, 6 February 2022

Talking About Rakugo 2: The Stories Behind the Storytellers, guest post from Kristine Ohkubo


If you have been following Asian Books Blog, you’ve probably come across the name Kristine Ohkubo. Kristine is a Los Angeles-based indie-author who uses her work to explore topics related to Japan and Japanese culture.

Beginning with a travel guide to Japan, Kristine has published seven books since 2016, with each work exploring either Japan, Japanese culture, or Japanese history.

Kristine has had a deep love and appreciation for Japan and Japanese culture since she was a teenager growing up in Chicago, Illinois. As an adult, her extensive travels in Japan have enabled her to gain insight into this fascinating country, which she shares with you through her writings.

In June 2021, Kristine released an English guide to the traditional Japanese art form known as rakugo. Rakugo storytelling is a unique performance that uses gestures and narration rather than costumes and props; it requires a high degree of skill to perform. A rakugo story is comprised of both narrative and dialog between multiple characters, all of which are conveyed by a single storyteller. The storyteller strives to express the personality of each character by differentiating their tone of voice, choice of words, manner of speaking, and other factors.

The book titled, Talking About Rakugo: The Japanese Art of Storytelling, was written in collaboration with Tokyo-based English rakugo storyteller, Kanariya Eiraku. 

Eiraku participated in the Tatekawa-ryu rakugo school established by the legendary rakugo performer Tatekawa Danshi. After learning about the essence of rakugo from the rakugo master, he began offering Japanese rakugo classes in Tokyo in 1991. Sixteen years later, he established his English rakugo classes. This year will mark the 15th anniversary of the establishment of the Canary English Rakugo classes in Tokyo.

Since 2007, he has performed in front of enthusiastic audiences in Japan, the United States, the United Kingdom, Denmark, Australia, New Zealand, Georgia, Kazakhstan, and Laos. He has also translated over sixty classical and contemporary rakugo stories into English.

Eiraku is one of the founding members of the English Rakugo Association in Tokyo. The organization was established in 2020 with the mission to spread rakugo all over the world.

In 2022, Kristine and Eiraku collaborated once again to bring you the second book in the rakugo series, Talking About Rakugo 2: The Stories Behind the Storytellers. The book is officially scheduled to be released on February 7, 2022, which happens to be Eiraku’s birthday!

Friday, 28 January 2022

'In the Same Light'? New translations of Tang poetry by Wong May

 Guest review by Daryl Lim Wei Jie

Wong May, the poet behind In the Same Light, a collection of two hundred Tang Dynasty poems in translation, is something of a legendary figure. Born in Chongqing, China during the Second World War, she subsequently moved to Singapore with her mother and siblings. After being involved in the fledgling poetry scene at the University of Malaya (now the National University of Singapore), she moved to America, attended the Iowa Writers’ Workshop from 1966 to 1968, and published three remarkable poetry collections in America, under the Harcourt imprint. She moved to Europe in the 60s and now lives in Ireland; according to the biography in this book, she paints under the name Ittrium Coey. In 2014, her fourth collection of poems, Picasso’s Tears, was published after a silence of 36 years. 

Wong’s migrations were on my mind as I read this book, which is subtitled 'From the Migrants and Exiles of the Tang Dynasty'. After all, the sense of belonging to a Chinese diaspora, and the complexities of that position, ties us – Wong , myself, and many others. (When Wong writes about “us” in her Afterword, it is clear she means and identifies with “us Chinese”). Wong can be situated in a long tradition of diasporic writers who have written poetry primarily in English, but have productively engaged with the classical Chinese tradition. (Malaysian poet Wong Phui Nam and his translations of the Tang poets come to mind, as do Singaporean Joshua Ip’s perverse anti-translations in his recent collection translations to the tanglish, and this reviewer’s own adventures with Bai Juyi.) As China increasingly enters the imagination of the West, sometimes on its own terms, and too often as lurid phantasm, one wonders if Chinese diasporic writers are drawn to Tang poetry as an act of cultural ambassadorship – not necessarily for China, but for broader Chinese culture(s). At the very least, China’s growing prominence seems to have sparked some introspection and (perhaps I speak for myself here) a desire to rediscover this heritage on our own terms. 

It may be unusual to begin a review by focusing on the translator. But one cannot help but notice Wong’s presence, even as she repeatedly disclaims it in the Afterword: “The translator should ideally be the missing person”, she writes; and elsewhere, “Poetry is what requires no translation”. Yet this extraordinary Afterword, titled ‘The Numbered Passages of a Rhinoceros in the China Shop’, is a magnificent, peculiar tour de force that spans nearly a hundred pages, and the book is transformed by its existence. It is probably why you should buy this book. In fact, I’d recommend that any reader start there, because the translations are imbued with fresh significance after the Afterword.

It is the key to the book; it is also somewhat beyond summary. In some ways it is a frenzied guided tour of a quixotic memory palace-museum like no other: Wong tells us about the Tang poets she translates, and offers interpretations and appreciations of their work. She also provides snippets of her own life; we learn that her mother was a Classical Chinese poet, and that the noted Singaporean calligrapher and poet Pan Shou was a familiar presence in childhood: “Uncle Pan, in whose voice I first heard Du Fu’s”. She curates imaginary display cabinets to accompany the poems: one, labelled ‘Specimens’, has “Cliff honeycomb, winter bamboo shoot, purple taro & corn, fiddlehead greens, vetch and wild chestnut. Foraging with Du Fu on the famine road.” Ezra Pound, that false friend of the classical Chinese poets, makes an appearance, of course; so does an interpolating illustrated rhinoceros figure, who provides laconic commentary on the Afterword. She discusses repeatedly a philosophy of reading and understanding poetry, exemplified in the Chinese words 入神 (rù shén) and 出神 (chū shén), the former meaning “to enter the spirit” and the latter meaning “to exit the spirit”. When reading, we are told, “one enters the world, or the world enters you.” At the end, we are ushered into a gift shop, where the Tang poets and their poems are paired with Western artists on souvenir tea towels, all of them “Made in China”. Here’s one: “Blue fields. Warm sun. Smoke rises where jade lies buried. Fat of some land. The blue fields of Li Shangyin shall always be Van Gogh, smoke semaphoring in cross stitch needlepoint kit, colour threads included”.

One cannot help but beguiled by this performance: it’s entrancing, and entirely sincere. At times it overpowered my own scepticism about Wong’s easy comparisons between the Tang poets and the Western canon, such as parallels between Li He’s poetry and Keats’ La Belle Dame sans Merci, or King Lear and Wang Wei’s poetry. Perhaps more generally, as an Anglophone writer from Singapore who still feels with some heat the distinctions between the centres and peripheries of Anglophone writing and publishing, I am unable to agree to Wong’s proposition that the translator’s task is simply to “return the text to the body of world literature, the world in which all have our origin”. I can only aspire to such ecumenism, but my experience speaks against it, my heavy awareness of distinctions drawn repeatedly between the “local” and “international”. 

Moving to the translations themselves, one immediate question is: why this selection? In terms of the poets chosen and the number of poems translated, weight is given to the conventionally well-regarded, such as Du Fu, Li Bai, Wang Wei, Meng Hao Ran, Bai Juyi and Li Shangyin.* (Some others have just a single poem featured.) Du Fu’s selection is the most extensive, and sheds light on Wong’s intentions in selection: poems of exile and wandering, as well as poems about Du Fu’s well-known friendship with Li Bai, feature prominently. 

In the Afterword, Wong remarks that “In China … the image of the poet is indissolubly linked with exile.” The exilic condition of the Tang poet has been celebrated for centuries: the poet miles away from his family and home, due to war or banishment; who struggles to find home; who finds home in friendship with other poets; who finds home where there is poetry and wine. It is perhaps no surprise that emigrant writers, and in particular, the Chinese diaspora, have found Tang poetry so emotionally resonant. (We see this in Wong’s own concerns: her haunting poem ‘Sleeping with Tomatoes’ documents the tragic plight of fifty-eight Chinese migrants who suffocated in a van while being trafficked.) A poignant demonstration of this exilic condition is provided by the first poet featured, Liu Zongyuan, in Wong’s translation: 

Troubled by little

                        Haply a guest
                        Am I 

                        The tree haply
                        My host. 

In the translations of Du Fu’s numerous poems to Li Bai, Wong achieves a perfect balance between lament, longing and love: 

A thousand autumns –
                             We can cope with.

& yet
& yet to deal with the paraphernalia

Of this life
                As if one were dead,

            How friendless is that. 

Another theme is poetry itself as a subject, as shown in this Bai Juyi poem:


So my verse takes me
Far from the world’s mockery
       Singing madly
To the mountains 

It  worries me.

Also notable are two rare female Tang poets: Yu Xuanji and Xue Tao. Across the centuries, Wong May, herself a pioneering female poet, gives voice to Yu Xuanji’s frustrations and impossible ambitions as she looks at a list of those who have passed the civil service examinations:


                                    & how I hate the clothes
I stand in,
The cloth they are made of.
            They cover up much.

A woman’s poems too
Are something to hide?

Poetry alas,
& much more besides.

        Lifting my head
I went through
The list of names 

With plain envy.

Much of the striking verve of these translations can be credited to Wong’s style, and I would like to point out three aspects of this method: the use of space, the freshness of voice, and the willingness to go beyond the text.

The first is well-demonstrated by the examples above: space restores to Tang poetry the necessary emphasis and significance of each character, much harder to achieve in English. If we look again at Liu Zongyuan’s poem above, and compare it to another translation below, it is the inspired use of form that brilliantly conveys the forlornness of the scene, and restores emphasis to the two key words in the second line quoted here: (“guest”) and (“host”).

On the second point, Wong often draws the Tang poets far closer to us through colloquial diction, such as in (yet another) Du Fu poem about “Not Seeing Li Bai”:

Am I alone in loving that talent
Goddamn talent
One would wish on no man? 

This injection of contemporary freshness brings us naturally to the third point on going beyond the original text. If we revisit Bai’s Juyi poem on poetry (《山中独吟》; 'Singing Madly in the Mountains'), it is clear that the last line in Wong’s translation isn’t present in the original, but it is precisely what provides the translation’s dramatic effect.

Whether this translation aligns with the spirit of the original is possibly a matter of taste, but the surprise achieved by Wong’s startling transmutation of the original is undeniable. (Aficionados of Wong’s poetry may find it reminiscent of her verse, e.g. “Poetry / rots my teeth”.) 

I started this review with Wong May, and I wish to go back to her, because she is an inescapable presence in this book. 

Wong has been a ghost in Singapore’s poetic canon, and as writers and readers have dug more deeply into our literary history, we rediscovered Wong, who was hitherto barely known, yet right there from the beginning, in the early post-independence years. (Happily, Wong is now featured in the online encyclopedia of Singapore poetry, poetry.sg.)** As we read, a few of us were increasingly taken, even a little obsessed, with her work, which seemed singular for its time. I found myself buying her out-of-print books second-hand, shipping them from America. One day, my order of A Bad Girl’s Book of Animals (1969) arrived. It was from a university library in South Carolina and I found, to my astonishment, that it was autographed (and dedicated to Denise Levertov). I am closer to this ghost now, having been one of the first people to have read these translations; having heard Wong May’s voice speak, as if directly to me, in the Afterword; having written this review. It may be the closest I ever get.  

‘Ghost’ is also apt because of the very last poem in this anthology, which is presented as written by an anonymous poet. In fact, the first two lines are well-known in Chinese contemporary culture: 



When you were born, I was not yet born; when I was born, you were already old.

You regret that I was born too late; I regret that you were born too early.

(Translation mine)

Extraordinarily, these lines were discovered on a Tang-era porcelain pot from the famed Tongguan Kiln in Changsha, excavated in the 1950s. The author of those lines is unknown, possibly a folk artist or poet of the Tang dynasty. Yet the remaining six lines in Wong’s translation are not from the original, but apparently a continuation by a contemporary Chinese poet, Cheng Dongwu. (Mysteriously, this is also the only poem which has the text in the original Chinese.) It is oddly fitting that this last poem, which bridges all the other poems and the Afterword, is in part by a contemporary author. That famed injunction by Ezra Pound, by way of Emperor Cheng Tang of Shang’s washbasin, comes to mind, an abiding inspiration and warning to future readers and translators of the Tang poets – “make it new”. 


A minor kvetch: one would have expected an internationally renowned publisher like Carcanet to have taken greater care with the editing, yet inconsistent and incorrect spellings of the poets’ names are rife: Meng Hao Ran is variously spelt “Meng Hao Ren” and even “Meng Haran”, for example.

** It may be instructive to compare her story and reception with that of another poet in a similar position, Wong Phui Nam, the pioneering Malaysian poet who was referenced earlier. In addition to sharing a surname and an interest in Tang poetry, both have, until recently, been written out of the history of Singapore literature in English, despite having been pioneering figures in the scene whilst studying in the University of Malaya in the 1950s and 60s. Like Wong May, Wong Phui Nam is also drawn to the exilic condition of these poets.


Daryl Lim Wei Jie is a poet, editor, translator and literary critic from Singapore. His first book of poetry is A Book of Changes (2016). He is the co-editor of Food Republic: A Singapore Literary Banquet (2020), the first definitive anthology of literary food writing from Singapore. His latest collection of poetry is Anything but Human (2021). His poems won him the Golden Point Award in English Poetry in 2015, awarded by the National Arts Council, Singapore.

Wednesday, 19 January 2022

Mesándel Virtusio Arguelles, an introduction to his Filipino poetry in translation


Kristine Ong Muslim recently translated Hollow (original title, Guwang), a collection of some of Arguelles's early poems written in Filipino. Mesándel Virtusio Arguelles’s works and interests encompass books, conceptual writing, translation, film and video, installation, found objects, and text-based experimentation and the poems in Hollow range from ekphrasis to Philippine history. One sample poem, "Deep Well" can be read in Asymptote [https://www.asymptotejournal.com/poetry/mesandel-virtusio-arguelles-deep-well/] and another, "Curse", in Circumference Magazine [http://circumferencemag.org/?p=3073]

Here, in a guest post for the Translation blog, she offers the Introduction to Hollow, written by Amado Anthony G. Mendoza III and translated by herself.

Monday, 17 January 2022

A great year of reading ahead

Asian Books Blog is now reopen after the recent holidays, and we're looking forward to Chinese New Year.  Look out for a post from Nicky Harman on Wednesday, and whichever calendar you follow, here's to a great year of reading ahead!