Joshua Freeman talks Uyghur Poetry, Part II

The endless choices confronting a translator constitute a great deal of creative freedom.

Our latest issue features three poems by the Uyghur writer Tahir Hamut. Here, the Asymptote Interview Features Editor Ryan Mihaly talks to the translator, Joshua Freeman.

When we first spoke in October 2015, you mentioned your excitement about translating Tahir Hamut. It’s wonderful to see these poems now. How long have you been working with Hamut? Have you worked with him on translation issues?

Tahir Hamut was actually one of the first poets I translated, almost ten years ago. I met him soon after I started translating his work, since I was also living in Ürümchi, capital of China’s Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region, at the time. He’s a terrific conversationalist with wide-ranging interests, and I’ve enjoyed exchanging ideas with him on all manner of subjects over the years. I used to ask him occasionally why he didn’t write much poetry anymore, since I regard him as one of the most talented living poets writing in Uyghur. (His poem “Returning to Kashgar” is perhaps my favorite.) Over the last couple years it’s been exciting for me that he’s suddenly reemerged with a torrent of new work, every bit as good as his work from the nineties.

When I translate work by a living poet—and most poets I translate are still around—I usually produce a semi-final draft of my translation, and then get in touch with the poet about any lingering questions of meaning or interpretation. Those conversations can be quite lengthy, and in fact I really enjoy them; as a non-poet myself, it’s a unique chance to have some access to the literary thought processes of poets I admire. Speaking with Tahir about his work, we’ll sometimes slip briefly from Uyghur into Chinese to discuss a word or a line from the “meta” level of a second language.

Interesting that you call yourself a non-poet. I wonder if you are of the camp that considers a translated poem a new poem all its own? Or do you think it is strictly a translation?

There’s lots of interesting theory on the subject by people who’ve thought about it longer than I have, so I’ll just share my own sense of it. A translated poem is not exactly a new poem, but it’s definitely distinct from the original work. The endless choices confronting a translator constitute a great deal of creative freedom, but the starting point of each choice is still the original poem, and in that sense translating poetry differs fundamentally from writing it. One analogy that comes to mind is music: different musicians will interpret a composer’s work differently, but their performance will still be guided by the same notes on the page.

You mention in your translator’s note that Uyghur is an agglutinative language, which “sometimes expresses with a single richly suffixed word what English takes a sentence to say.” Can you give some examples of this from the Hamut translations?

Like other Turkic languages, as well as numerous other languages around the world like Finnish and Quechua, Uyghur can build a great deal of meaning into a single word by adding multiple suffixes. The penultimate line of Merdan Ehetéli’s “Common Night” comes to mind: “to the only one who speaks” is only two words in Uyghur, birdinbir sözleydighinigha. The first word means “only” or “unique,” while the second means “to the one who speaks.” The root is sözle-, meaning “to speak”; -ydighan makes the verb into an adjective; the following -i- is a possessive suffix which in this case makes the adjective sözleydighan into a noun meaning “one who speaks,” and the final suffix -gha means “to.” And that doesn’t even approach the agglutinative acrobatics of which Uyghur is capable: barghuzalmaywatqanliqimizgha (“to our ongoing inability to cause [something/someone] to go”) comes to mind.

Tahir’s poems, at least in the nineties, tended to be a bit less ornate, but the compression enabled by Uyghur agglutination can still be hard to achieve in English. The first line of “The Border” is three words in Uyghur, but becomes nine words in English—though I managed to keep the syllable count almost the same.

There is marked difference between the poems from 1994 and the poem from 2015. The later poem is reverent and meditative, while the earlier poems take a much more absurd and humorous tone. For example, “The Border” ends with these surprising lines about “the Pharaoh’s midget servants”, “your odd pronunciation”, and “other extremely cute ideas”. What was it like translating these strange lines?

It’s true that “Road,” like much of Tahir’s later work, has a steadier tone than buoyant earlier poems like “Summer Is a Conspiracy” (also from 1994). One continuity that I see, though, is Tahir’s use of absurd or surprising images to throw serious subject matter into relief. The difference between his earlier poems and his later efforts, I think, is that these juxtapositions are more controlled in his later work, more seamlessly integrated into the poems’ structure.

“Road” is an enigmatic yet comforting poem, containing a mythical world all its own. Its imagesa farmer, an angel, a talking bird, a blue package, a tree that grows “just for me” that bears golden fruitare to me as innocent as they are mysterious. In your conversations with Hamut, did he reveal anything about the poem’s mysteries?

As I mentioned above, I generally have a “translate first, ask questions later” policy. With the exception of a couple minor issues, the translation of this poem was quite straightforward, and I haven’t discussed the poem in much depth with Tahir. I kind of like it that way: keeping the possibilities of the poem open.

What is the Uyghur word for “angel”? In English, I think, the word has Catholic connotations. 

The word used in this poem is perishte, derived from Persian firishta. It’s the most common term in Uyghur for angels. There are more arcane terms for angel that I’ve seen turn up in other contemporary poems, but not in Tahir’s. With occasional exceptions, he tends to prefer straightforward language. In the context of this poem, I don’t sense any particular religious connotations. But perishte certainly calls to mind an aura of otherworldliness, as “angel” does in English. Which is why Tahir is able to play around so effectively—and, to me, movingly—with different registers of sacredness and seriousness in this stanza. Angels apparently head out to breakfast, and send express packages; but the final lines of the stanza reimmerse the angel in the dreamy imaginary of the poem.

It’s a treat to hear Tahir read the poems in the original Uyghur. What can you tell from his readings?

I agree, it’s always cool to hear poets read their own work. I particularly like Tahir’s reading of “The Distance.” Something about it, a certain narrative propulsion, makes me feel that as he reads, he is inhabiting the mental space in which he originally wrote the poem twenty-plus years ago in Beijing.

Joshua L. Freeman completed an M.A. in Uyghur literature at Xinjiang Normal University in Ürümchi, with a thesis on Uyghur modernist poetry. He is currently a Ph.D. candidate at Harvard University, where his dissertation research focuses on Uyghur cultural history and literary canon in the twentieth century. His translations of contemporary Uyghur poetry have appeared in Crazyhorse, Words Without Borders, Hayden’s Ferry Review, The Harvard Advocate, and elsewhere. More of his translations are available at

Ryan Mihaly is an Anne Waldman/Anselm Hollo fellow at Naropa University, where he is pursuing an MFA in creative writing and poetics. Other interviews with translators can be found in The Massachusetts Review blog, Observator Cultural (Romania), Biblioklept, and Asymptote, where he is the Interview Features Editor.


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