Poems

do not fear heights

Notes

The Chinese poet Yu Youyou was born in 1990 and is one of a modern generation writing free verse. The literal translator, Dave Haysom, gave us a fascinating introduction to her work where he also outlined three sorts of ambiguity found in Chinese poetry which can create difficulties when translating into English: 1) ambiguity of number, 2) ambiguity of tense and 3) ambiguity of subject. Straight away this poem confronted us with some of these problems – should the first line contain a single cigarette or plural cigarettes? Who do the suicidal thoughts belong to?

There was also some discussion about the floors of the building. Originally, Dave’s literal read: ‘time of death can only be on the first floor’. But the first floor in China is what we call the ground floor here (and the line seems to allude to suicides hitting the ground). If we changed that did we also need to change the fifth floor to a fourth floor? We decided not, especially as Dave told us that in China fourth floors are often considered unlucky and so omitted!

 

do not fear heights

The Chinese version of this poem is deceptively simple: the imagery is plain and the cadence is conversational, but the loose structure is stiffened by the repetition of certain key words (like 楼: “building”, but also “floor/storey”). The symmetry of the first stanza proved hard to elegantly replicate using English syntax (which, unlike Chinese, doesn’t permit the frontloading of noun and verb phrases with complex modifying phrases); in the workshop we had to first produce a lengthier rendition, before we were able to pare it down to a sparse style that matches Yu Youyou’s original.

Dave Haysom

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Comments (2)

Dave Haysom

Hi William,
If you check out the literal translation, you’ll see that I originally had it as “will always”, but the “will” got smoothed out in the final version. It’s sometimes ambiguous as to whether 要 is expressing a desire for something to happen (我要吃饭: I want to eat), or the likelihood of something happening (要下雨: it’s going to rain) – but the particular construction 每(个...) 都要 suggests to me that the latter is more likely here!
– Dave

William Locke IV

Great poem and translation! I just discovered this site via Pathlight: New Chinese Writing at Paper Republic, and am really glad I did! I have one question about the finished translation. The final two lines of the poem are:

每天都要跟
住在一楼的人打招呼

every day I say hello to my neighbors
on the ground floor

However, my first thought on reading 每天都要。。。 was to translate it as “every day I want to…” Is there some clue in the text that tells you 要 in this line should be understood as something the narrator does as opposed to something the narrator wants to do?

Thanks for the wonderful reading!

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