'The Pleasure Behind the Poem': Steve Bradbury, poetry translator

Bradbury is Associate Professor of English at National Central University in Taiwan. His publications include: 'Feelings Above Sea Level: prose poems from the Chinese of Shang Qin', 'Poems from the Prison Diary of Ho Chi Minh' and 'Fusion Kitsch: Poems from the Chinese of Hsia Yu'
By Owain Mckimm, Special to The Wild East

In the small circle of Taiwanese poetry buffs, Steve Bradbury must be the most talkative; and thankfully so, because if Taiwanese poetry needs anything at the moment, it’s a talker.

An associate professor at National Central University and editor of pan-Asian journal Full Tilt, he’s been translating Taiwanese poetry for over a decade. During that time he has seen poetry of the ROC undergo some significant changes. Once a staple of daily life, Taiwanese poetry has, in recent years, been slowly relegated to the back shelf, in the corner, furthest away from the door.

“Back in the early 1980s the newspapers were just 12 pages long,” Bradbury explains. The literary supplement was one whole page, “and had poetry every day.” As a result, poets who published in the literary supplements became household names, and their poems were put to music by the great singers and songwriters such as Chyu Yu and Li T’ai-hsiang.

“Then martial law ended in 1987, the number of publications and new media formats exploded exponentially, the Taiwanese went online, and by the end of the ‘90s, poetry was as cold as a fish, which is a pity, because the island has some of the best poets writing in Chinese today.”

It’s easy to become infected with Bradbury’s enthusiasm, with his often personal knowledge of Taiwan’s poetry and her poets. We meet at Mei’s Tea Bar on Yong Kang Rd, a comfortable spot which serves an international selection of beers and draws a big literary crowd.

“I meet most of my poets here,” he says, revealing that this face-to-face exchange of ideas is the key to a successful translation. Whereas other translators are happy to communicate briefly with their poets via email, Bradbury is careful to “clarify the doubtful points,” but also to discuss any liberties he feels he needs to take to bring something across.

“Most of the poets whose work I translate can read English fairly well, so I always show them my drafts when I’m done, and encourage their feedback. A lot of the time, as a translator there are three different ways to say something, and they’re all interesting. But each of them adds something that isn’t there, or loses something that is, so you sit down and try to imagine what the reader will think when they read it — the illusion, the suggestiveness of it. The feedback from the poets helps me figure this out.”

The group of poets he seems to have the greatest affinity with is the Poetry Now group which consists of the poets Hsia Yü (whom he describes as “the Joni Mitchell of her generation”), Ye Mimi (a young writer and the “Lewis Caroll” of Taiwanese poetry), Hung Hung (long-time curator of the Taipei Poetry festival) and a few others. In recent years the poetry of Mainland China has migrated to the Internet blog, he says, but in Taiwan “they revitalized publication and book design. Hsia Yü was the driving force behind that.”

'Pink Noise' by Hsia Yu
In 2001 this group of poets began a new kind of poetry magazine, with a different design for each issue. From this innovation came Taiwan’s design revolution in poetry publishing. Issues have ranged from giant wall-posters, which published poems in an at-times illegible but stunning array of concept art pieces, to Bradbury’s favourite Pink Phone Book issue, which was billed as a ‘Publication Guaranteed’, open-to-all mega-tome.

Tactile, surprising and innovative, these issues provide the spirit of experimentation with Bradbury feels is lacking from a lot of Taiwanese poetry.

“Poetry has been fragmented. What you really have are groups and coterie journals. Everyone who joins pays a certain fee, and everyone gets published at least once a year. It’s a club. The biggest thing about Poetry Now is that they’re trying to democratise poetry.”

The project he’s currently working on is the volume Salsa by Hsia Yü — the brainchild behind the reimagining of Poetry Now. After many years living in France, she returned to Taipei in the late 90s having designed and published some truly avant-garde poetry/art books, including the enigmatic Pink Noise which is printed on transparent, overlapping plastic sheets and mingles each poem into a series of parallel dimensions.

“A lot of people come to me asking to be translated,” Bradbury says, “but Hsia Yü never pushes me to do anything. She doesn’t really care about promotion. She thinks good work will speak for itself.”

And it certainly does. When Hsia Yü publishes a new volume, it sells out, fast – a rarity in the desperate world of poetry publishing. Bradbury’s take on her work is simple: “I think her work is about creating a relationship with her readers and encouraging them to read for the senses, for the pleasure. Her poetry is a stage for the reader’s relationship with this physical, visceral book and the pleasure of the reading moment.”

'Salsa' by Hsia Yu
Translating Hsia Yü’s poetry is, for Bradbury, a struggle to preserve the complexity and texture of the work.

“Hsia Yü’s work is very engaging in terms of its phrasing and musicality but it’s extremely open-ended. I have a good rapport with her, and she allows me to take certain liberties when I run into something that resists translation. But she’s very insistent that I preserve the interpretive space her works create. Whenever I ask her about a particular line, she says, ‘Well I’ll tell you what it means today, but tomorrow it’ll mean something different’. So it’s more about the sound and the form, to try and preserve the twists and the turns.”

“China and Taiwan both have an inferiority complex when it comes to literature. They want recognition, but they figure the way to get it is to buy it, rather than to cultivate their culture into something that produces work that would draw attention,” he says.

As to the general state of Taiwanese literature and its translation, Bradbury is often vocal in his frustration.

“China and Taiwan both have an inferiority complex when it comes to literature. They want recognition, but they figure the way to get it is to buy it, rather than to cultivate their culture into something that produces work that would draw attention,” he says.

He is referring here to the fact that there are hardly any creative writing programs on the island, and that most editors give little or no feedback to their poets. But he is also less than enamoured with the lack of high standards in modern translation, and feels that translators in the China field don’t get nearly enough rejection letters.

A lot of his frustration is aimed at Taiwanese organizations that blindly fund prosaic, dull volumes of translation, which are more suited to Chinese language students than interested readers. His feelings on this are not unfounded. In a recent interview with Taiwan Today the Editorial Director of Columbia University Press’ Modern Literature from Taiwan series, Jennifer Crewe, admitted their books do not sell enough outside of scholarly circles to make a profit, and the programme depends on substantial funding from Taiwan’s Chiang Ching-kuo Foundation for International Scholarly Exchange.

“I imagine myself as a reader,” Bradbury says, “who doesn’t know Chinese. I walk into a bookstore and pick up an anthology, and it’s an investment of my time. I want to think it’s something worth reading, something exciting and vibrant. And if you don’t try to produce that, you’re just wasting people’s time.”

Owain McKimm is a freelance writer based in Taipei, and can be reached at: owain.mckimm@googlemail.com

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