do not fear heights


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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