Otherland: Ouyang Yu

Otherland: Ouyang Yu
Talks / Lecture

Photo of Ouyang Yu
Recording date: 
25 February 2016

Celebrated poet, author, translator, academic and critic Ouyang Yu discusses the challenges of operating in two languages with Canberra poet, Melinda Smith. Yu, who was brought up in China, is a prolific writer in both English and Chinese, publishing 77 books and founding Australia's only Chinese literary journal, Otherland.

Ouyang Yu

By 60, Ouyang Yu published 77 books in both English and Chinese in the field of fiction, nonfiction, poetry, literary translation and criticism. His second book of English poetry, Songs of the Last Chinese Poet, was shortlisted for the 1999 NSW Premier’s Literary Award. His third novel, The English Class, won the 2011 NSW Premier’s Award, and his translation in Chinese of The Fatal Shore by Robert Hughes won the Translation Award from the Australia-China Council in 2014. He is now professor of English at the Shanghai University of International Business and Economics, in Shanghai, China.


Transcript of Otherland

Speakers: Kathryn Favell (K), Melinda Smith (M), Ouyang Yu (O)

Location: National Library of Australia

Date: 25/02/16

K:            ... and tonight’s going to be such a wonderful intimate conversation that I think we can all engage with or without microphones. For those of you who don’t know me my name’s Kathryn Favell and I look after the Community Outreach Programs here at the National Library. And as I begin, I’d like to acknowledge the traditional owners of this land and thank their elders past and present for caring for this land we’re all now privileged to call home. Our conversation tonight of course forms part of our public programming with ... for the Celestial Empire exhibition. Celestial Empire and its public programs would not be possible without the support of a tremendous group of partners and if you have been coming to events you will have heard these thank you before but please bear with me as I go through them once again because we really couldn’t have put on Celestial Empire, or had the monkey out the front, or run events like tonight without the extraordinary group who’ve joined us.

So first and foremost I’d like to thank the National Library of China for sharing its exceptional collection with us. Tonight the gallery’s open ‘til 8pm so if you haven’t had the chance to see Celestial Empire now is your chance to pop in after we’ve had our conversation. I thank our partners, Shell in Australia, Seven Network, Wanda One Pty Ltd, Optus Singtel, Huawei, Cathay Pacific, TFE Hotels and our event partners, the ANU’s Centre for China in the World and Asia Society Australia for their generosity. I thank our government partners, the Australian Government for its support through the National Collecting Institution’s Touring Outreach Program and the Australian China Council and the ACT Government through Visit Canberra. And by the end of this exhibition on 22 May I reckon I might just have memorised all of that and be able to get through it without stumbling. I’m getting there slowly.

Tonight’s a little bit of a special night for me, I was mentioning to Ouyang that 20 years ago I was the literary editor for Muse magazine ... some of you will remember Muse magazine. It was in the days before email and every month a little package of letters would arrive in the mail with some poems and every month I would sit there looking at all the submissions that came in and wonder if anyone would notice if I published one of Ouyang’s poems yet again. You know even then you had to be fair and mix it up a little bit but I have watched with great interest ever since—although tonight’s the first night we’ve met—how his writing career has developed and now he is the author ... he’s published 77 books, which seems something of a miracle, in both English and Chinese in the fields of fiction, nonfiction, poetry, literary translation and literary criticism. He’s won two New South Wales Premier’s Literary Awards, the first in 1999 for his book of poetry, Songs of the Last Chinese Poet, and then in 2011 for his novel, The English Class. Somewhat epically he translated into Chinese Robert Hughes’ The Fatal Shore and won a translation award for that work in 2014. He cofounded Australia’s first Chinese language literary journal, Otherland, and he’s now Professor of English at the Shanghai University of International Business and Economics. And I’m going to claim that all of that was possible because of Muse magazine.

Tonight Ouyang is in conversation with our own Melinda Smith, who’s poetry editor for The Canberra Times. She’s also the recipient of the Prime Minister’s Award for Literature—and you probably could have heard all of Canberra cheering in 2014 when that award was announced—and she’s an ANU University medallist and honours graduate at the ANU’s Faculty of Asian Studies. Please welcome Ouyang and Melinda.


M:          Thanks so much for that glowing introduction, Kathryn. Thank you, everyone, for coming, it’s a lovely kind of full crowd and we’re looking forward to a fascinating conversation with a fascinating piece of Australian poetry and literary history. And future, it’s not like you’re done yet. So as people would have heard in the introduction you’ve been publishing in both languages for a very long time, born in China and came to Australia as ... kind of in your 30s. Would you like to tell us a little bit about how you came to choose Australia as a place to come to?

O:           Yes, thank you, Melinda, and thank you for coming here. Actually assumed that today probably I only had one or two audience, I was overwhelmed with so many and in fact I ... once I remembered I had a talk at UTS and there was only one in the audience. My worst record. But anyway yeah I’m talking about Australian literature. When I received a fax from China advising that I was invited to an interview at East China Normal University in 1986, I was in Canada. I was the head interpreter for a group of Chinese experts working on the Yangtze dam, because it was being planned and we were collaborating with a Canadian agency called CEDA, C-E-D-A. I was unsure whether I should go or not because the first year when I went for it in Guangzhou I didn’t pass it, I didn’t pass the interview, I passed the reading examination but was rejected in the oral interview.

M:          That’s frustrating.

O:           Yeah. Well that story later because there’s a lot of interesting things about that one but the second one I went for Shanghai and passed a written examination again and received a fax for that ... actually it’s not a fax, fax wasn’t even available then in 1986, it was ... what is that? Telegram or something like that ... telegraph, yes, telegraph. Meters of telegraph I sent to Australia afterwards but anyway I decided to go and I didn’t actually go for Australian studies, I went for the English literature, read English literature. But the professor came along and said unfortunately the professor you went for has fallen ill and could not take any more postgrads, would you be interested in what I did? I said what did you do? He said Australian literature. I said oh, I’ve never heard about it.

M:          Is that a thing even?

O:           Never heard about it, is there literature? Is worth pursuing? You know and then he just took an hour you know to fill me in on what ... what’s there. And I came away and thought about it and eventually I thought it was a good opportunity, I decided to go from there. That’s how it all started.

M:          Wow.

O:           Yeah, totally ignorant except of course I had read a number of short stories translated into Chinese by Patrick White.

M:          Ah ...

O:           Yeah well his fame travelled far to China, into Chinese language.

M:          Chinese language.

O:           Yeah.

M:          I had no idea that it was such a lineball thing between English literature and Australian literature.

O:           That’s right, yeah.

M:          All because somebody was sick, that’s an amazing ...

O:           Yeah because you had ... before you go to any subjects you have to decide which professor or specialist you want to go with and that’s how it happened.

M:          That’s fascinating. And so in the end you ended up doing your master’s at Shanghai and then coming to La Trobe ...

O:           That’s right.

M:          ... in Melbourne to do your PhD ...

O:           Yes.

M:          ... on representations of Chinese in Australian literature ...

O:           Yes and I ... by the way when I chose the writer to write about, out of all the writers I chose Christina Stead, focusing on The Man Who Loved Children, yeah because we did have, you know, rows and rows of Australian books, but I sort of bypassed all and I just happened to read the book and I thought that was really outstanding so I chose to do it. And 10 years after I translated that book into Chinese as well, yeah because that’s the one that stays in my mind and I thought that needs to be you know I introduce to the Chinese readership.

M:          And what kind of response have you had with your translations of Australian classics into China? Well let’s first ask about The Man Who Loved Children, how was that received?

O:           Yes, The Man Who Loved Children was published ... the first edition was published in 1999 in Beijing and the launch was done at the Australian Embassy in Beijing, was really a big one, the Embassy was saying to me you could invite your friends to come so I invited quite a number of Chinese poets to be present at the launch. And I remember ... still remember one remark made by a woman audience member, she said who is this writer? Is she famous? I was really embarrassed by that.

M:          Well you know that’s a fair enough question if you’ve ...

O:           Yeah, yes, she’s very famous except that you do not ... you have never heard of her but here’s the opportunity for you to read her.

M:          Oh that’s fascinating so as well as The Man Who Loved Children into Chinese you’ve also translated fiction and nonfiction, you’ve done both The Female Eunuch and The Whole Woman and you’ve done two books by Robert Hughes, one of which was The Fatal Shore that won the translation prize. You’ve also done things like Capricornia and Tirra Lirra By The River, That Eye, The Sky and ... oh you had a ... which one was the David Malouf that you had ... oh Flyaway Peter.

O:           Flyaway Peter, yeah.

M:          So ... and that’s over the course of many years of effort, of course. I just wanted to ask how do you choose which books to translate? Is it a ... totally a kind of labour of love or do you have a publisher that you work with regularly who tells you what they do and do not want to see in Chinese ...

O:           Yeah, interesting question. I started ... when I was a postgrad I grew interested I quite a number of Australian books and I had to do things by stealth to be you know honest because I think ... I wouldn’t mention names ... I think some of the more precious books, Australian books, were not made generally available in the Australian Studies Centre there, but they were kept as part of the private collection in the professor’s house. Which meant you had to ... of course the professor still lent the books to you but we had to ... well I did this, I ... basically I just photocopied the two books, that is, Flyaway Peter and was ... the second one is Tirra Lirra By The River. These were the two I really liked so I just made photocopies of them, returned them within the limit of two weeks and then I translated them while I was still working on my MA thesis.

And those two manuscripts were done without any hope of some meeting or getting published so they were done entirely out of pleasure because I enjoyed doing them, I really liked the books. And later on when I came to Australia, and I came to Australia in 1991, so in 1994 a new committee was formed to introduce a series of Australian ... classic Australian novels into Chinese in translation. That’s how I approached them and said could I, you know, some manuscripts and that’s how... I was in Australia and my dad was still alive back then. I wrote letters to him and he, I sent a manuscript from China. I still kept the translations of those and everything was done by hand and one page ... one piece of paper on both sides filled with characters.

M:          All about arranging that.

O:           Yeah.

M:          So ...

O:           But later on things have changed drastically but ... don’t know from when but maybe beginning in 2000, after 2000, when people approached me and wondered if you would like to translate this or that and that’s how I never had to really approach the publishers. But before that I had to do a lot of hard work for about 20 years, yeah.

M:          Until you suddenly became the go-to guy.

O:           Not necessarily. I hope so but yeah, it’s just that changed the whole thing, yeah. Not with writings, though, it was translation. Writings are still hard, very hard, yeah.

M:          Talking a little bit more about the nuts and bolts of translation now…

O:           Yes please.

M:          ... because you’ve done so much of it in both directions, firstly is there one direction, Chinese to English or English to Chinese, that you find more difficult?

O:           Not necessarily, I think both ways ... translating into Chinese has its own problems and challenges and similarly into English the same, both ... but they’re different, it’s different, very different and you talked about ... you asked me about direct translation, this is what I thought as soon as went into the exhibition downstairs because I immediately noticed that certain things could be where directly translated. For example the very first thing is, I’m not sure what it’s translated into but it seems to be a time of rule, or something like that, and when I had a look at the Chinese it’s actually ‘sim,’ which literally or directly can be translated as ‘sacred governance’ because ‘sim’ meaning sacred, governance is ‘zhili’. And the other thing is ‘hongcheng’ which is translated as a rambling world.

M:          Yeah.

O:           Yeah. But literally it is red dust, red dust is much ... I think much better, much ...

M:          Yeah, it’s much more evocative, yeah, yeah.

O:           ... more evocative and in fact one Chinese writer by the name of Ma Jian, he’s now based in London and some of you may have read his work, he had an early book of nonfiction that is titled exactly Red Dust, in Chinese ‘honcheng’, directly translated, you know. And then there’s another one ... I forgot the English translation here in the exhibition but in Chinese it’s called ‘wenyi feng’, ‘wenyi feng’ can be indirectly translated as ‘literary style’ but actually it’s not style. ‘Feng’ means wind, it’s a wind of literature or literary wind. It’s a beautiful like poetic way, literary wind. Whatever that is like a wind that goes past you know it’s just so ... it’s all in the words.

M:          It’s all in the word.

O:           It’s all in the words.

M:          Yeah well I mean you have been quoted as saying you know direct translation is poetry.

O:           It’ss poetry, that’s what I realised when I was in my mid–40s, you know, it’s not something that I realised when I was young, but as you grow older and as you practise more you realise something that is so simple, that is hidden in the language itself.

M:          And that kind of direct translation is a tactic that you’ve spoken about actually employing when you translate poetry, and also I think in fiction sometimes.

O:           Yes, in nonfiction for example what you mentioned, The Fatal Shore that I translated, you need to remember there is quite a number of instances in which I did direct translation, for example there’s a tree called black boy tree. How can you circle ‘round that by rendering it more lyrical? It’s just black boy tree which you can’t find in any existing dictionaries, there’s no matching definition but you can just do it. ‘Heiren nanhai shu’, black boy tree. And that’s one instance and the other one is a kind of ... a variety of gum known as scribbly gum. Oh that’s so difficult because there’s nothing in the dictionaries that you can find and match and I had an idea of turning it into—because in Chinese calligraphy there is a kind of calligraphy that is known as ‘caoshu,’ meaning grass ...

M:          Grass style, yeah.

O:           Grass calligraphy because you write so ... in such a scribbly way that it resembles the wild grass so I used that. I called that tao shu, meaning a scribbly gum in Chinese.

M:          That’s perfect, that’s ...

O:           Yeah so ... and that is also a kind of direct translation. And take one more example, when I translated a Chinese poem into English he talked about his palm, he talked about his palm, but palm is boring because in Chinese it’s literally known as ... if this part of the hand you’re talking about is ... you talk about hand–heart. My mother plays something in the heart on my hand, that’s beautiful beyond description but if you say my mother plays something on my palm, well that’s just on my palm. But in Chinese there’s that hand–heart.

M:          So it opens up a whole other resonance.

O:           Exactly and that is direct translation in itself.

M:          That’s fascinating. Now you have actually also done a translation job on your own words, you wrote ... ever since arriving in Australia you’ve continued writing poems in Chinese for your own record and for your own pleasure and then in 2012 or 2013 you brought out a book called Self Translation, where you actually provided them all on the left-hand page in Chinese and then translated them into English on the right-hand page. So can you tell us a bit about what it was like to try and translate yourself and how that differs from translating another writer?

O:           Yeah, that history. There’s a long history of that that’s now over 20 or nearly 30 years. Since I came to Australia I started writing poetry in English and of course I had been writing in Chinese all along and then suddenly I realised that certain poems that I wrote in Chinese I could turn them into English. But my experience was a failure basically because what I did in the early days was in terms of inscription I would say ‘Written in Chinese by Ouyang Yu’ and then ‘Translated into English by Ouyang Yu,’ then everything was rejected until I thought why should I have bothered you know with that, I can simply just written by Ouyang Yu. Just by Ouyang Yu. So it’s almost like you know there ... I did a PPT talk about this and someone at Monash University got very interested in the idea and got me to give another talk there and I said in the early days there was really shame associated with this business.

What do you want to do because people seem to have ... to regard this as not right? Surreptitious, you know, what is that? If you’re good enough you know people will pay attention to your work and they will come along and offer to translate you into another language. This must mean that you’re not really good enough and you had to do it yourself. You see there’s that shame there and I bore that shame for 20–odd years until eventually I said okay, it’s not good enough, but I'm committed doing it myself, you know? And of course it’s out of an experience in which you compared work that other people translated of other people and you realise that while you are still alive you could translate you and while you are dead then it’s open for anyone to enter into your work. Now is time, you play with yourself or you translate yourself.

M:          I had ... I must confess I had never realised that that was an angle from which those translations could be used.

O:           Oh big shame, was me, big shame, big shame.

M:          That’s incredible, yes.

O:           Yeah, bearing ... bore it so long you know it’s very hard, yeah.

M:          But I mean the book itself has had a good critical reaction ...

O:           That’s ...

M:          Michael Farrell in The Australian absolutely loved it and lots of other people have said that ‘it’s a favourite book of mine’. In fact Subhash Jaireth who can’t be here tonight who’s an academic and translator at the University of Canberra, he said you must ask him, make him talk about self–translations, so I think it’s a bit of a sleeper hit if you know what I mean, that book. So maybe those poems are finally getting the justice they deserve after being frowned on for so long.

So we’ve kind of talked a lot about your work as a translator, I’d like to shift gears a bit and talk about your fiction and poetry writing and your own creative output for yourself. And as Kathryn said at the beginning, Ouyang Yu's a prizewinning novelist and a prizewinning poet, which is an incredible quinella to pull off in any language and his novels, of which he’s written more than two but I suppose I want to talk about the two more recent ones, The English Class and Diary of a Naked Official. At ... and both of those are very, very different novels but both of them have a kind of long section at the end where you talk about works cited or works considered and there’s works in English and works in Chinese and it’s quite a diverse collection, there’s you know kind of ... there’s fiction in there but there’s also historical documents and statistical compilations and all sorts of things that you’ve cited there so I just wanted to kind of step back and ask you when you were writing those novels were you thinking of them as having a conversation with other novels in English or with novels that had been written in Chinese or were you thinking of them doing something else entirely?

O:           Yeah, I think there was movement in my writing from the first novel I got published in 2002 which is The Eastern Slopes Chronicle, and in fact that novel was finished as early as 1998, but it took a long time to get accepted and published. By the way every book of mine suffers multiple rejections, multiple absolutely. The first novel was rejected everywhere in the world. I did ... when it was finally published I did a list of rejecters, yeah. It numbered 28, yeah.

M:          Ouch.

O:           Yeah, that’s the thing and the second one was ... in fact The English Class was the third but it was published before the second one which is Loose: A Wild History, yeah and that was rejected by everyone too. And I still remember when I was at the New South Wales Premier’s Literary Award when I was ... I gave a speech and I said it’s always like when you are actually hit down to bottom, to hit absolute rock bottom then there’s hope of getting back because you ... there’s ... you can’t go ...

M:          There’s nowhere further down to go, yeah.

O:           Yeah, any further. Yeah, it’s always like that but the movement I wanted to talk about was in the early days like The Eastern Slopes Chronicle, it’s all in my head, I just wrote it out like an outburst of material and inspiration and experience. As I moved further along the line I found that I ... there was things personal, there were things historical and book-related, I had to do much more research. This shows you know at the ...

M:          At the end of the book.

O:           ... end of that book, yeah, and that the two books ... yeah, I had to do a lot of digging into history into other books, I reference to many other things, yeah, that’s what I did.

M:          But I mean it’s quite obvious reading those books that they are ... they’re really quite deeply rooted in all of those other sources and they’re trying to synthesise what you’ve dug up, I suppose, yeah.

O:           That’s right, traditions, cultures, not just one but two and yes, that’s what ... and of course when it comes to Diary of a Naked Official it has reference to Japanese books as well but translated into Chinese that I have read.

M:          So the ideas have come on a threefold journey by the time they get into a book written in English.

O:           Yeah, yeah.

M:          It’s incredible. Thinking now about your fiction and about your poetry ... I suppose that kind of dovetails into the next question I wanted to ask ... there are some places in your work where it’s obvious that the reader will have a richer experience if they understand both Chinese and English, there are puns and jokes that play off differences of viewing things in Chinese and English or just different ways of expressing things. In fact I’ll read a little example from one of Ouyang’s poems if that’s okay.

O:           Yeah, yeah.

M:          There’s a poem called ‘Translation, Half or Complete’ and I’ve just picked out a few lines and it actually ... it’s comparing English and Chinese expressions.

English, by comparison, seems reticent

Or in our logic, [only] half-cooked

For when we describe a damning situation

As hot fire and deep water they are content enough to admit

To deep waters; similarly a sea change is only partly what a sea

And mulberry field change means if it really means

Anything. […]

Most of the times when shadows are caught in one

Wind is lost in another.

And, you know, reading those lines it’s obvious that if you understand the Chinese expressions that you’re bouncing off you get a much richer experience of the poem. Would ... can I be a bit controversial and propose that perhaps your truest and best audience is a bilingual audience? Of whom there are bazillions in the world, of course.

O:           Yeah, no, it’s a very good ... interesting thing you mention about the audience being bilingual. I think it’s open, it’s open to both the bilingual and monolingual because even with the monolingual one part of it that is left unexplained and heathen will be left for these people to keep digging and come up with other things. And this is exactly what happened with book reviews, literary essays or academic papers that I have found on my writings because sometimes the meanings is stretched beyond the limit, sometimes I think oh, it’s not really what I meant but what does it matter because once the text is born it’s just open to any amount, any sorts of interpretation? Some people as far as in South America so how can you help? You can’t you know each person say that is not right so fine, yeah, as long as you know it leads to more imaginary ... imaginative things being produced, it’s fine.

M:          It’s fine.

O:           Yeah, it’s fine.

M:          I mean certainly I'm not fluent in Chinese at all ...

O:           Doesn’t matter ...

M:          ... but as a mono ... not a monolingual writer but as a reader who only can read the English dimension of what you create, that poem is really evocative and makes me want to go and look up the Chinese expressions, so I think, yeah, it is having the effect that you described of making people go looking.

O:           Yeah ...

M:          And sometimes they might find something that you didn’t intend them to find but that’s ... yeah.

O:           That’s right and the other thing I guess is also personal, it’s having to do their own character. For example what I find is a bit irritating is on WeChat, we talked about WeChat which is social media that combines every trader and all sorts of other Instagrams in Chin ... in the Chinese-speaking world, everyone’s using it, I find when people post their stuff on it they explain a lot whereas they noticed something I do, I always put things there without any explanation, I’m not into explaining because pictures are there, they are telling you what’s going on. And why bother explaining? And same with poetry, the best if you leave it unexplained.

M:          To stand by itself.

O:           Yeah, just stands by itself and you can explain any way you want to. And there’s no mistakes, yeah, anything is good. Even today when I ... I have a theory about mistakes because I think mistakes are creative, they lead to new things being produced and happen ... new happenings. And this is why I always encouraging my students to make mistakes, creating mistakes in their writings.

M:          Reminds me, I think I read an interview with you where you had misread something that the poet Dana Gioia had ...

O:           Yeah, that’s right, yes.

M:          ... but your misreading was far better than the original ... oh not .. far more amusing and interesting than the original poem. I can’t now remember what that was.

O:           No, it’s ... actually I was reading a book by him where he says you know one of the poems he says I feel the pain, I feel the pain. I thought oh that’s a great line because he said I peel the pain, I peel the pain. Then on second reading I thought ... I was disappointed, I feel the pain. But then I ... it occurred to me I could write that down as a poem so it became a poem, I peel the pain. I love the I peel the pain but it was born out of a mistake, yeah and ever afterwards many of the poems I wrote were based on mistakes that takes you to highs, unexpected heights, really great stuff you know you never know.

M:          Yeah, creative disruptions ...

O:           But bec ... but because you know we from childhood in China particularly, you are always corrected, nothing you do seems to be right until you realise everything wrong is…

M:          So seeing the value in mistakes.

O:           …it can be right, it can be right, yeah.

M:          It’s a kind of radical position to take, really ...

O:           Yeah, in poetry in particular, yeah.

M:          ... when you’ve grown up in that context. Oh so much great stuff here, I’m just hoping that we can get through all the rest that we want to talk about. So I’d like to ask you a little bit about your creative process as a fiction writer and as a poet. You have said that your poetry brain is going in the background all the time when you’re you know when you’re brushing your teeth, when you’re giving a lecture, when you’re driving a car, it’s going pretty much all the time. Do you find that happens with your fiction or does your fiction come to you in a different way?

O:           I originally gave a talk at Fudan University in Shanghai and I mainly talked about poetry, I made an analogy of poetry being a process of lovemaking in which you take from step one right to the end, ‘til you ejaculated so the poetry, the writing of poetry is you know is very much like that, it’s like ejaculation. And then one in the audience posed a question, what is the writing of a novel is like? I don’t think I made a good answer but ever afterward I keep thinking what is that like? And eventually I came up with an answer about writing of a novel, is like running a marathon, it’s just like running a ma ... because for me a typical novel takes about three to four years so you keep going at it on a daily basis without even knowing if all this effort is wasted, you know? You spend four years doing something then it gets ridicu ... what’s the point, you know? Poetry’s much better you know it’s so pleasurable, it comes out and that’s it. When it’s good it may be one of the best things, yeah but why do you want to write a novel? Yeah, that’s something that beats me.

M:          As a poet I can only second your characterisation of the two forms and that’s ... I haven’t yet written a novel because I don’t think I have a marathon in me. So kind of rounding off this chat about your creative output, Timothy Yu has had a look particularly at the poems in self translation, but also other parts of what you’ve created and he said that your Chinese poems in your Chinese language had a surprising lyricism and he contrasted that with your acid English tongue.

O:           Oh right.

M:          Would you say that was a fair comment or would you say that he needs to look deeper?

O:           Maybe my Chinese tongue’s also as acid except that he ... I don’t know how good his Chinese is, you know? And by the way I ... oh well forget it ...

M:          No, no, no ...

O:           ... yeah well ... no, I translated one poem from English into Chinese so it’s also a self translation but I think the practice in China is that it was accepted and was quite well liked online but they never, ever mentioned the fact that this was originally written in Chinese and later self translated. And the prompting factor was I actually read a translation of that poem by someone I do not know but I was very unhappy about it so I decided ...

M:          So you made the ...

O:           Yeah, then and there to translate it myself into Chinese. Which is also you know shows this is really a worthwhile ... if the translator is still alive, you know, better translate your own work than allowing it to be savaged by someone else.

M:          By somebody else later on.

O:           Yeah, I mean that’s what I thought.

M:          So ... that’s really interesting so the ... in the presentation of that work in China, the fact that it was a translation from an English original was again ... yeah, they don’t ... either they don’t care ...

O:           They don’t care.

M:          ... or is it the same kind of idea that you had here where if the person had to do it themselves it can’t be that good?

O:           I’d think he’s just ... they can’t be bothered with that fact. It’s not important, yeah.

M:          In the end we have a text ...

O:           Yeah, we have a text that we always can enjoy and exactly, yeah, that’s the most important thing.

M:          So I wanted to talk a little bit now about Otherland, the journal that you founded here in Australia for Chinese Australian writing or actually just Chinese writing from anywhere and I kind of wanted to ask you why you ... how that came about, why you decided to do it and how that happened.

O:           Yeah, I was in 1994 when a number of friends gathered together and we wanted to do a magazine, a literary magazine and that’s how we started and then the three of us started produce the first issue and then the other two decided to leave so I was the only who carried on. And by 2000 I decided to go bilingual, that’s one issue in Chinese, the other issue in English because by then I had realised that the Chinese community of people here, they were too busy. Migrant communities very busy, couldn’t afford time to read it and I had to open up to the general community in Australia, the English-speaking community, that’s how. And so I moved between these two versions.

M:          And is Otherland still ...

O:           It’s still, yeah, still alive, still going yeah.

M:          And that ... I suppose that work of assembling the Chinese poets for Otherland, did that feed then into your work producing books of translation of Chinese poetry into English?


O:           Yeah.

M:          Or did you do a separate kind of selection exercise or did they cross-pollinate slightly?

O:           No, again that had to do with the non-acceptance of Chinese poetry in English translation. I did ... I actually did a book of Chinese ... contemporary Chinese poetry in English translation and I submitted again everywhere, here and New Zealand, all knocked back until I decided to do an issue entirely devoted to the publication of that and I did that in 2002 and never thought or could imagine what happen ... what would happen afterwards because what happened afterwards was amazing. Someone wrote from Denmark because she heard about the Chinese issue, translation issue, she heard about it and she decided to buy a copy from Denmark and that copy became an opportunity for her to apply to the Danish Culture Council for 400,000 Danish krones and with that money she did Chinese poetry festival in 2004.

M:          All of that ...

O:           You never know that could happen but that was because of that, for someone in Denmark. Just so amazing, you know? Not here. Should have been here.

M:          It should have been here.

O:           Should have been much better you know so easy, you know? They didn’t have to spend all the money inviting me there, inviting me there because big savings.

M:          It could have happened here.

O:           Yeah.

M:          There’s so much more I want to ask you but I’m aware of the time, just going to kind of finish off. I suppose we’re all here because of the Celestial Empire exhibition and as someone who understands China both as an insider and as someone who can take the perspective of an outsider on China do you have a ... kind of a double reaction to the exhibition in any way? Do you find yourself looking at as someone who has that history but also someone who can stand outside that history?

O:           Yeah, no, this brings a personal perspective to the exhibition. I love the presentation and all the material presented and also when I look at that I thought of things that happened to me in relation to the Qing dynasty, for example I had an artist friend in the ‘80s in Shanghai. The only thing that he was passionate about was the Qing, the Qing material, the Qing court, so his oil paintings were all about the Qing court, emperors and concubines and ended up in New York and died a few years after he migrated to New York but he’s one of the artists who had connections with Qing. He never painted anything about contemporary realities, and he was from the Manchu background. And the other thing is with myself, I read a lot of Qing fiction written in Chinese. Two things stand out, one is their portrait of the white people, white visitors to China in the early days that represent ... literary representations of the westerners that, put it this way ...

M:          Speaking the red hair language.

O:           Yeah, it’s great and if you look at the terms they used to describe the English language, just one example of direct translation, it’s called ‘hongmao yuyan’ which means red-haired speech, English is the red-haired speech. That’s no longer in existence but how vivid that it when they first you know saw them come in, it’s all red-haired and the red-haired people speaking that so it’s red-haired speech. The other thing is much of the fiction that was written in the Shanghai or greater Shanghai area was based on the local speech so on the dialect which is beautiful you know it’s ... it has colour and has taste. Now everything is Mandarin, it’s like the received speech in the UK.

M:          Received pronunciation.

O:           Received pronunciation, that irons out the differences in accents. Yeah, but in the early days that was there in the Qing fiction.

M:          In Shanghai.

O:           Yeah and it’s all recorded like a tape recorder recorded in language and oh it’s beautiful.

M:          Fascinating.

O:           Yeah. Recently I know there is one novel written by Shanghai-based writer that is entirely based on the Shanghai dialect, which won a big prize.

M:          And is that a rare thing in China?

O:           Very rare, very, very rare, yeah, everything is Mandarin-based. Ninety-nine per cent, I think.

M:          And your own background in Guangzhou ... I'm sorry, I don’t ...

O:           Yeah, yeah, yeah, that sounds right, yeah, yeah.

M:          Is it ... is that dialect close to Mandarin or is it further away?

O:           No, vastly different which is why when I wrote my third novel, Loose: A Wild History, I used a lot of ... much of the writing’s based on the language and the words from my birthplace.

M:          That’s very cool. There’s one final thing ... I know that we’re kind of running a little bit late ... I want to ask you about rivers.

O:           Rivers, yeah.

M:          Rivers and ... rivers and nature as a source for poetic inspiration. If you look up Guangzhou on Google Earth you see the Yangtze River sweeping through it like this and a great big sand bar in the middle of the Yangtze River ...

O:           Oh ... oh yeah.

M:          I’ve never been to China but you can go anywhere on Google Earth now. And I suddenly understood some things that you’d said in your previous writings about how the rivers and kind of that riverine environment was an inspiration for your poetry and images from that still come out in your poetry many years later.

O:           That’s right, yeah.

M:          And I compare and contrast that to a poem you wrote a little while later responding to the Murray River which obviously would have looked very different. I’m just going to read a tiny little bit out of the Murray River poem. Where have I put it? Oh it’s alright, maybe I didn’t put it in here. Oh no, here we are. So the Murray in this poem that you wrote emerges from the monotonous kangaroo-coloured plain with its trees standing bare and lonely in the water looking like charred limbs which is you know fabulous accurate description of the Murray, I think everyone would agree but do you find now that having been in the Australian landscape for longer that you respond to it differently as a poet or do you not really feel that it informs your poetry at all?

O:           Always ... yes, good question ... I always think of the differences, more differences than similarity. And I grew up on the Yangtze, my early life was full of the Yangtze because I went swimming on a daily basis in summer and like I write about in The English Class, in summer I was suntanned but in winter my skin turned white again you know it’s like that always. And when I arrived in Australia I found that its landscape was so different, it’s ... even between Melbourne and Canberra you know the summer heat feels so different. Today when I arrived: hot. Three words: hot, dry and windy. And it’s the wind that really hurts a little bit, you know. I wouldn’t mind the dry, but it’s windy.

M:          It’s the wind.

O:           Yeah but that’s not something you get in Melbourne, it’s different. I notice the differences and then when I write I try to put those in my poetry, also because I read some early poetry in Chinese written by migrants, Chinese migrants from other countries, from Vietnam, from Cambodia and I found that their image of Australia is very much like China. Why? Because the linguistic and the culture baggage is very much with them and when they write unconsciously they are influenced by that so how are you going to do the portrait of landscape the way Sydney Nolan and other Australian artists did, discarding the European baggage and using the new eye so to speak to look at the landscape and then turn that into a different kind of language in poetry and paintings? That’s what I always wanted to achieve in my writings, still aware of what is there in China but more as a difference.

M:          Than as a similarity.

O:           Yeah and that’s what I have been trying to do.

M:          Thanks ...

O:           And by the way that one you chose was self translated from Chinese.

M:          From Chinese.

O:           Yes.

M:          So there you go.

O:           Yeah, in the early days when I was very much ashamed of what I did.

M:          So ...

O:           Sorry about that, still.

M:          No, it’s beautiful. Thank you so much for giving of yourself in all of those answers, thank you for being ...

O:           Pleasure.

[End of recording]

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