The art of translation: The Lantern and the Night Moths is Yilin Wang’s love letter to Chinese poetry

Ambiguity, silence and the unsaid — for poet-translator and UBC creative writing MFA graduate Yilin Wang, these are themes that can tug at a writer’s inspiration to delve into their craft.

In Wang’s freshly released anthology of contemporary Chinese poetry The Lantern and the Night Moths, it is in "Lantern" by famed Chinese poet Fei Ming (a pen name meaning "to be rid of a name"), translated by Wang in her series of ars poeticas, where these themes emerge and inform the overarching reflection of Wang’s artistry.

The title of her anthology is a marriage of two poems included in the work: “Lantern" and Dai Wangshu’s “Night Moths.”

“I chose this phrase to encapsulate and invite reflection on some of these themes in the book,” said Wang.

“The fish is actually the water in full bloom. / The lantern light seems to have written a poem; they feel lonesome since I won't read them.”

— “Lantern” by Fei Ming

The symbolism behind a moth to a flame is a “complex, nuanced relationship” — the death of a moth represents the metamorphosis of its new life. In Chinese culture, they embody the spirits of ancestors.

But for Wang, the moth’s vexed love of light also mirrors the relationship a translator finds themselves intertwined in with the different elements that constitute their intricate process.

“It is a dialogue between, say, the translator and readers or between the language that the text has been translated from what we call the source language, and the target language, the language the work has been translated into,” Wang explained.

Wang’s chosen poems are echoes from different points in 20th-century China. She carefully chose prose about topics that resonate with comtempoary readers.

Despite some of the writers drawing influence from different contexts, due to what Wang described as a “transitional period where people were really experimenting with what poetry could look like,” sinophone readers and bookworms from other diasporas alike will likely still be able to relate to writers’ discussions of the relationship with ancestors, gentrification and urban issues.

As Wang explained her process, she said that the initial research requires careful analysis of the text.

At this stage, she learns about the poet and the times the poet lived. This helps contextualize the motivations behind chosen references and allusions — rhetorics that define classical Chinese literature.

“There's really a lot of attention paid to alluding to other literature and other references,” Wang said.

Literary translation sits on a fine line between reinventing and recreating.

“There are a lot of phrases or words that are idiomatic or culturally specific imagery with connotations and associations that don't translate literally.”

When language-dependent concepts threaten to become lost in translation, Wang remedies this with a hefty thesaurus that allows her to play around with diction.

And when the pieces can’t possibly fit into the work itself, she finds solace in user-oriented footnotes and thoughtful personal essays to explain the untranslatable, practical elements that are generously sprinkled into her anthology to mend this gap and contribute to one of her ultimate goals behind The Lantern and the Night Moths — to make contemporary Chinese literature accessible and engaging regardless of readers’ “different levels of knowledge and pre-existing contact with Chinese literature or poetry.”

Some of the book’s commentaries also hint at the systemic underrepresentation and exploitation of many translators in the field, particularly those from marginalized groups and those specializing in minority languages.

“... a poet–translator of the diaspora is also a survivor; they have persisted against and even defied a publishing ecosystem with structural biases, rules, and hierarchies.”

— The Lantern and the Night Moths by Yilin Wang

Wang is no stranger to this system. She has witnessed her translations edited and changed without her input and her work published without her permission before. Art media talked about the bombshell case she was involved in against the British Museum, which used her translations of feminist writer Qiu Jin’s poetry in an exhibition on the Qing dynasty that Qiu lived through and mirrored in her texts.

Halfway across the world, and by complete happenstance, Wang found a photo of her translation of one of Qiu’s poems included in the exhibit — incorrect line breaks and all. Wang was not named as the owner of the contribution. Her translations were used without her permission, and she was shocked.

After a series of half-baked apologies, Wang’s work was removed from the exhibition. It took a fundraiser to help her take legal action against the British Museum and Wang’s intent to sue for the institution to settle the case with an apology for including her work without credit, consultation or compensation.

Eventually, Wang’s translation was restored to the exhibition with full credit and modest pay.

“The British Museum admitted in the statement that they had to issue it as a part of the settlement and that they have never had a process for getting permission clearance for translations. And they promised to make one,” Wang laughed.

The Ubyssey could not find any documents outlining this process published by the British Museum since the settlement in August 2023.

In light of the case, the International Federation of Translators (FIT) Standing Committee for Translating for Publishing Houses and Copyright took it upon itself to form and distribute new translation guidelines for museums in an effort to, as one post by FIT stated, “help cultural institutions make more informed and ethically sound decisions on how to proceed when they wish to use translated material in their exhibitions and other public-facing activities.”

It was in the same post that FIT explained that translators are the rightful copyright holders of their translations of intellectual property, not the original author.

“I think it’s very important for translators to be aware of their rights,” Wang said. “And it's also really important, I think, for us to form a community to support each other, to make the work less invisible and to work towards addressing some of the inequities and biases within publishing and museum spaces.”

At the forefront of translation is the creativity that honours the original work while showcasing thoughtful consideration of the target language’s conventions. It’s this dance of diction that reignites the flame of the original prose with new light — and the lantern, poetic curiosity, draws the moth in once more.

Wang framed it best during an interview with Stephen Quinn on CBC’s The Early Edition.

“I believe that poetry, despite it being difficult to translate, can always be translatable. I try to capture the spirit of the poetry, and the emotional experience of reading it rather than the literal words themselves.”

An earlier version of this article did not reflect that Fei Ming is a pen name, and did not refer to Qiu Jin by their family name. The Ubyssey regrets these errors.

Fiona Sjaus author

Features Editor

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