In a 2015 issue of the New England Review, I published two translations of poems by the excellent Sichuan poet Ya Shi. Like much brilliant poetry, Ya Shi’s work is impossible to paraphrase. My efforts feel incomplete, all my translations filled with infelicities, misinterpretations, and confusions. Still, though, in the translation of “Full Moon Night,” I made what feels to me like a mistake, a moment when my work as a translator loosened and a ghost slipped in. Here are the lines in question, as they were printed in 2015:
And shadows of branches steal in through the window the oak desk
that’s so fragile I am forced to love it has exploded just a little bit
The line is complex, untranslatable in a literal way. There’s that space in the middle of the line, for example, which creates uncertainty about the grammatical or logical relationship between the words on either side of the gap. There’s also the problem of the unique adverb qingcui 清脆, which has two clusters of meaning—either “clear and melodious,” often used to describe the manner of music, or “fragile,” “brittle,” even “crispy.” I last saw it on a packet of Taiwanese crackers. My version of the line, however, stretches the grammar without apparent rationale.
In April 2017 I went to visit the translation department at Sun-Yat Sen University, and was hosted by Professor Wang Xiulu and Professor Li Hongman. They grabbed on to the line right away. I had moved “the oak desk” into the emphatic space that qingcui should inhabit, and I’d missed the real subject of the verb shi 使—to make or force. A translation that rigorously preserved the grammar, sense, and word order would look something like this:
And shadows of branches steal in through the window fragilely
making my beloved oak desk explode just a little bit
Or like this, although a better translation would be some impossible superimposition of the two:
And shadows of branches steal in through the window clear and melodious
making my beloved oak desk explode just a little bit
The professors’ logic was quite clear. I knew they were right. I had inserted an entire concept, so fragile I am forced to love it. It’s not in the poem, I brought it into the poem, and I knew where it had come from.
In 1979, three months after I was born, my father Richard L. Admussen was admitted to the hospital with what would later be diagnosed as an incurable leukemia. He was a French professor at Washington University in St. Louis, where he wrote about French poetry and the work of Samuel Beckett. With four children to support, he returned to work with great difficulty for the 1979–1980 school year, won a teaching prize, and died on April 28, 1981.
My father was a defining element of my family’s life, but for me he was almost wholly absent: I didn’t know his middle name, or his favorite book, or which courses he taught. I knew that Richard Admussen was quite tall—my brother says 6′6″—and he struck an impressive figure with his large French Briard sheepdog, Hugo. A neighbor described the two of them as “the tallest man with the biggest dog.”
Without my knowing it, my father was everywhere in my life. We subsisted on his life insurance, and all the children received social security until we turned 18. My brother and I attended Washington University as faculty brats: I heard recently that Milica Banjanin, a family friend who was a professor of Russian, went in to the registrar’s office when each of us was accepted, and reminded them that they were to give us not just faculty child benefits, but the extremely generous faculty child benefits that had existed in the early 1980s. I never received a single bill for college.
Even before I got to college, much of my education took place seated at my father’s desk. At some point after the family bought its first house, he scrounged up enough material to put together a place to write that was more functional than beautiful. He sawed the tops off of two abandoned library card catalogues at a height of about four feet, and laid a hollow-core door across them. The drawers were shallow, designed to store index cards, so to make them functional, he pulled out the rod system designed to hold the cards and lined them with cardboard. He didn’t nail any of it together, just piled it up and painted it a kind of forest green: a perfect place to work for a very large man who needed to save money and would rather be outside.
When I was a boy, the desk was where we sat the computer, up in the attic where the sounds of the house receded, and for a long time it was one of my favorite places. When my mother remarried and we moved, my brother inherited the desk; then it came to me. Because the green desk came apart, it was easy to move. First it went to a student apartment in St. Louis, then into storage while I went to China, then another, cheaper apartment while I got an MFA in poetry writing. Then my first apartment with Emily, storage again, then to Princeton where I started graduate school in Chinese literature.
I never felt like I was following in my father’s footsteps, because he didn’t have any footsteps: it was my mother’s influence that mattered, and my mother’s voice that I could hear. My father had left me no advice or instruction, and I had never read his books. Rather than dreaming of becoming a professor, I hoped that my poetry collection would get picked up and magically obviate the need for the eye-crossingly large amount of language study that the PhD required.
Eventually, I did that language study at my father’s desk, seated on a barstool that my sister had gotten me as a gift (regular people could only sit at the desk by using especially tall chairs). The stool was one in a long series of subtle upgrades of too-small pants, tatty shirts, and broken furniture that she had undertaken since I was too young to remember. The desk was unreplaceable, even though thirty years and a dozen U-Hauls had not been kind. The wood-on-wood friction of the drawers was slowly splintering them, the metal drawer pulls were falling off, and the installation that had looked imposing and necessary in my barnlike childhood home was frankly odd in a 470-square foot apartment. I remember throwing a party for my first-year classmates: the Chinese mainland students marveled at the décor as they stacked up two and three deep on our couch. “It feels small in here!” Transnational relationships — poured through the simplifying and refining cauldron of translation into a non-native language — can be refreshingly direct.
Princeton wasn’t the place for me, and so when my much-loved advisor moved to California for a new job and Emily (who had by now spent years carrying pieces of the desk up and down staircases) got into a PhD program in Los Angeles, it wasn’t a difficult decision. The major concern was money: we had to move cross-country into a really expensive apartment, and survive on graduate stipends. The solution was to drive my advisor’s car across the US, get Emily settled, fly back, finish my own responsibilities in New Jersey, and then move for good. We could take only what fit in the car. Which meant no desk.
I called my brother, who was in no place to take it, and who pointed out how busted and impractical it was. I couldn’t imagine any place where it belonged except the attic in St. Louis. I was used to acquiring and getting rid of used furniture, though: I’d just give it away, and it would circulate through Goodwill and out into the home of some large person who wanted to write a book. As I had many times before, I emptied the desk, took out its drawers, and laid their wooden slides lengthwise inside them — the warping of the wood had made each slide fit only into its own particular drawer, so you had to make sure they stayed matched while you moved them — and put them in the truck I’d rented for a single night.
The staff at Goodwill took my mother’s coffee table with the knothole (through which we used to stick our fingers to play a dangerous game of whack-a-mole with the cat), but when I offloaded the desk into the fluorescent-lit warehouse, it reflected in the eyes of the furniture manager as a pile of garishly painted wood that had started as trash in the 1970s, and hadn’t aged well. Goodwill, for all they’ve done to keep me supplied with affordable couches and mattresses, does not exist to solve my psychological problems. The person in charge eventually said I could use their dumpster. I don’t remember feeling like I let my father down, or that it was a decision I’d regret. I remember that it was raining, and when I put the first card catalog cabinets into the water in the bottom of the dumpster it brought back a feeling from childhood, like when I spilled milk on a book I treasured. I was supposed to have protected it, but I’d destroyed it. It would be ruined forever, it would never be nice now, and this was something I had done.
I told this, more or less, to Professor Wang in Guangzhou, and although I’m sure she expressed herself in a complex way, what I remember is filtered through the limitations of my spoken Chinese: “Wow,” she said. “That’s really sad.” What she actually wanted to discuss was why I should retain the line as I’d first translated it, instead of changing it to be more faithful. This was a hard sell for me — first, because I have a responsibility to Ya Shi, who has entrusted me with his poetry, but second because I am supposed to be capable with grammatical math: I grew up as a poet between the dense, layered syntactical architecture of Carl Phillips and the liberated associative logics of Mary Jo Bang, and even when I have to sacrifice rhyme or rhythm, I like to think I can adapt to the hard and soft logics of the connections between words. I also had a desire to atone for something, and a bad translation seemed as good an opportunity as any; this was matched by my traditional unease at feeling like the shape of my experience, first in the family and then outside it, was completely out of my control, and that life and death and sorrow and joy all happen before I have the power to understand them. I wrote a poem of my own a few years ago about that kind of passivity, receiving a parent as numbly as one receives a dream:
When I dream, people turn into you
without changing their qualities and I feel towards them
as I did before they were you.
That is you. That is my experience of you.
I wanted to have something I made that was right, and I was going to make it right, revise Ya Shi’s poem (and all the other translations I had published—who knows what else had stolen in through the window?), and create a version that wasn’t sodden or spoiled. But Professor Wang was persistent—”but I like it this way, it’d be such a shame, it’s my favorite line”—and so, right before I started this essay explaining my mistake and why I made it, I emailed Ya Shi, paraphrased the different interpretations of the poem, and asked him what he thought. This is what he wrote back, in my translation:
In the line from “Full Moon Night” that you bring up in your letter, my original intention was to use qingcui to describe the shadows stealing in…this whole process of the desk bursting apart, which is to say the feelings that the process brings to the speaker, is qingcui. It’s best not to settle this word qingcui on either material object, “shadow” or “desk,” but to use it to describe the psychological result of the entire process. If this isn’t easy to handle in the translation, of the three options you give, I incline toward Minxuan’s original choice. Even though it appears to conflict with the surface of the original text, with regards to the experience of the texture of the poetry, it’s a bit closer to the original.
Minxuan is me, it’s my Chinese name. The response is absolutely characteristic of Ya Shi: gentle, supportive, and thoughtful. I have never met Ya Shi’s children, and I clearly have no grounds for comparison, but I imagine he is an excellent father. His conclusion will please Wang Xiulu: yes it’s grammatically wrong—there’s no possible interpretation in which the adverb qingcui can describe any noun, much less the desk—but that’s not really the point. In every object, the shadow of its loss; in every affection, the horror of its disappearance. The end of Ya Shi’s poem “Full Moon Night” sees the speaker pulling the desk out into the moonlight in the hopes that it will “gestate with deep, swirling waves / of blood,” the available solution being not immortality or escape, but rebirth. Because we own and exist in such a brittle manner, because all the hewn wood is swelling and bursting, because of the cancers of the blood, we have to keep filling ourselves up, making, being made, at least until we can’t anymore.
The translator regrets the error. I am especially sorry to admit that I still don’t know what the translation should look like or if there exists a version that will feel both stable and “right.” I’ll keep trying: perhaps my repeated mistakes will reveal as much about the poem as a translation could. I don’t know how to remember my father or how I should have acted in the Goodwill parking lot. The memorial, if it exists, seems to be happening outside what I think I am saying. All I can do for now is show you what I have done, to describe the psychological result of the process of translation, the experience of the texture, language to language, father to son, writer to reader: how qingcui it is, how fragile, how much like music.
Nick Admussen is an assistant professor of Chinese literature and culture at Cornell University. His translation of Ya Shi’s poetry collection, Floral Mutter, was awarded a 2017 PEN/Heim Translation Grant and is forthcoming from Zephyr Press. He is the author of four chapbooks of poetry, including Movie Plots from Epiphany Editions: the poem “Character Sketch” is forthcoming in the chapbook Neither Nearing nor Departing / 不即不离, which won the 2016 Two of Cups Press Chapbook Prize. You can read more about him at nickadmussen.com.
NER Digital is New England Review’s online project dedicated to original creative writing for the web. “Confluences” presents writers’ encounters with works of art such as books, plays, poems, films, paintings, sculptures, or buildings. To submit an essay to our series, please read our guidelines.