I had a great time in Guangzhou, it was sad to leave on Sunday. My thanks go out to Grace and Susan of The British Council, Professor Hu and all the other poets we met and worked with there.
I slept in on Sunday morning, I had stayed up late the night before watching a Poliakoff TV play called Gideon’s Daughter. Mainly because I thought Emily Blunt was foxy in The Adjustment Bureau, but it was shit. Not even Bill Nighy and Miranda Richardson could save it from its own self importance. Certainly not worth missing breakfast for, which I almost did. Thankfully Cesca had ordered a coffee for me and I got the last sausage.
We flew to Chengdu, another city of around 14 million people. Officially that is, that’s registered workers, there’s likely to be around 17 million. We ventured out on our own and went to a restaurant just around the corner from our hotel. There were no English menus, but the young waiter had a few words of English and we gestured and pointed with friendly smiles and had a great meal. No one made us feel stupid or impolite, there was a genuine desire to communicate on both sides and we came away feeling better about life and our fellow human beings.
Back in the hotel I tried and failed to watch the Grand Prix. We were now in a Holiday Inn Express and the wifi was a lot slower than at The Garden Hotel in Guangzhou. In the end I sulked on my bed and watched live timings on my iPad app. Very very sad.
Our restaurant experience was much more typical of the following two days than my lack of grand prix, a more accurate omen, as we have had an amazing time. On Monday we went to White Night bar. White Night is owned by Zhai Yongming, a famous Chinese poet, and wouldn’t feel out of place in Shoreditch, it has an art gallery/shop and small library attached, brown leather sofas and at the far end a stage.
We met Zhai, the event’s host Pan Libing and three translators. My translator was Erika. “I think I have to be drunk to translate your poems” she laughed as we met. We were the spend the next two afternoons working with the translators and three Chinese poets in sharpening up the translations of each others poems ahead of a performance on Tuesday night. The poet assigned to work with me, Liao Hui, couldn’t make most of these sessions so I worked with Erica and Pan.
“I’m worried my translations are like a primary school child is talking,” Erica said, “Pan will help make them more like poetry again.” We spent two and a half hours working on The Drunk Train. It is impossible for the metre and rhyme to be translated into Mandarin. They do use rhyme in Chinese poetry, but as the language is tonal and not accentual like ours metre is a different story. Still, we had great fun talking out the cultural references, images and meanings of the poem. Erica was brilliant and Pan did her best to impose poetry on my decidedly unpoetic style.
It was a fascinating process. Sure, I definitely enjoyed talking in great detail about my own work but it was mainly exhilarating to communicate so deeply with these Chinese people. Language is such huge barrier it’s easier to forget just how much we are alike. It was great to pick our way through difficult sentences; to laugh with them. And it wasn’t all about me – we also translated Liao Huis poems into English. There were calm meditations on inner life, often drawing on Buddhism. The trick was to communicate these feelings of emptiness and calm without drifting into the realms of English cliches. I was pleased with the results, adding a touch of the colloquial to them.
Later on stage during a salon Professor Zhao Yiheng said that the biggest problem with translation is that the metaphors become cliched in another language. As a total novice at translation (well, worse than novice, I don’t even speak another language) I felt qualified to half disagree. I said maybe you can never truly translate precisely and make the work good, but you can translate and re-create. Now that just seems obvious. Still, it was better than just shrugging which was the only other option I felt I had open to me.
Back at the hotel I showered and went to bed EARLY. Get me.
Tuesday was our last day in Chengdu, and indeed in China. We finished translating in the afternoon then went shopping for tourist tat. It turns out almost anything can be branded with a panda, so with a bags laden with panda tea sets, panda chop sticks, panda thermoses, panda fridge magnets, panda t-shirts and panda vegetable peelers we went off a for a final dinner.
The food has been superb. Chnegdu is in Sezchuan Province and the food is famously spicy. In our local restaurant we pointed as gorgeous looking dishes on other tables, our young waiter winced. “Too hot, I think,” he would say. I was well up for it, but Francesca and Aoife less so. The spicy food is not just chilli overdoses either. They achieve a hotness with pepper, celery, ginger and garlic. Your tongue vibrates afterwards.
Our trip ended with a performance, the three of us and the Chinese poets. Hosted by Pan, introduced by Zhai. Our new translations were on screens as we performed. Performance poetry as we know it does not really exist in China, when I launched into The Drunk Train there was a genuine buzz in the bar. It was really exciting for me. Some translations worked better than others. It was surreal to be referencing “Don’t mention the war” and Bhangra and Maidenhead in a back street of Chengdu.
After the gig we sat on the stage, drank beer and talked to Zhai about her travels around the world, her trips to Edinburgh. Taylor from The British Council translated. Her colleague Jenny told us about how she played Chinese harp with The Gorillaz in Hong Kong and Manchester. It felt exciting, 16 year old me would have been proud.