Not Goats: On Translating "Views and Testimony of a Sheep"

Teng Qian Xi on translating Tan Chee Lay

Tan Chee Lay is a Singaporean Chinese-language poet in his thirties who has published three poetry collections and three collections of essays, as well as editing several literary publications and participating in various mentoring schemes for young Chinese-language writers. He received the Young Artist Award from the National Arts Council in 2004 and the Singapore Youth Award (Art and Culture) in 2006. He was educated in Singapore and Taiwan, and obtained his PhD in Oriental Studies from St John's College, University of Cambridge. He is now an Assistant Professor of the Chinese Division in National Institute of Education, Nanyang Technological University, Singapore.

I met Chee Lay when I was in junior college; at that time, he was still teaching GCE A-level Chinese literature at my school. He gave a lecture to my class on Chinese poetry, which first opened my eyes to the possibility for wordplay in Chinese; I still treasure the handouts he gave for that lesson. We became friends after I graduated from the school and became interested in translation and local Chinese-language poetry, and attended a couple of Chinese-language literary events, one of which was the launch of his poetry collection Zao Jian Di (Where Swords are Forged, firstfruits publications, 2002). It was this collection that made me an ardent admirer of his poetry, and when I presented my translations of four Singaporean poets at the 2002 conference on "Literatures of the Chinese Diaspora 开花结果在海外" organized by University of California (Berkeley), I chose to translate three poems from this collection into English. Since then, my interest in his work has continued, especially since I have obtained his official approval to translate a volume of his poetry into English.

I first read Chee Lay's "Travelogue" poem sequence in 2005, when I wrote to him asking for more of his work to translate. I chose to translate this particular section of this poem sequence for a translation seminar I took in my final year at Columbia University, because I feel that Chee Lay's superb employment of the metaphor of sheep to explore Singapore's political atmosphere fits Jane Hirschfield's idea of translated works as "Trojan horses, carriers of secret invasion [...] [opening] the imagination to new images and beliefs, new modes of thought, new sounds." His treatment of the Singaporean socio-political atmosphere is surrealistic and bold that, nonetheless, never descends into blaming Singaporeans for the state's repressiveness.

One of the main challenges of translating any Chinese poem is retaining some measure of the concision inherent in the Chinese language. I found this challenge to be less strenuous in this poem, because although it employs some features of the syntax of classical Chinese, it is not written in classical Chinese and does not employ traditional rhyme schemes. An example of the challenge of retaining the succinctness of the poem can be found in two lines of the final stanza:


In English, these 21 syllables became:

But whatever they are –
whatever their gaze –
I did not think of attempting to replicate the number of syllables or compress the meaning into two lines, let alone the quadruple repetition of 观 (guan1, lit: perspective or view; placed after an adjectival character, it forms di-syllabic phrases indicating attitudes) and the triple repetition of 视 (shi4 / gaze or look). I chose instead to focus on making the translation as musical as possible by using rhyming English suffixes where I could.

Another example which was picked up by several of my readers was from the fourth stanza of the section "Campaigning":


My first translation of these lines was simply wrong:

a lone sandal
on a tiny lorry
declares the need
to search for shoes

After consulting with Chee Lay, who, in an email, said that the last two lines was closer to: "announces a notice that reads 'sandal wanted'", I came up with an intermediate version:

a lone sandal 
on a tiny lorry 
announces the need 
to find a matching sandal

However, because Idra Novey, my translation teacher, felt that the last line was too crowded, I eventually altered the section to:

a lone sandal 
on a tiny lorry
announces the search
for its mate

On the other hand, something I particularly enjoyed about translating this poem is that whatever losses in rhythm or concision occurred, I had the chance to create music that was not there in the original in many other parts of the poem. The best examples of this would be in the first stanza of the first section. In Mandarin, the following lines were not in themselves particularly musical:

he2 qi2 jing1 zhun4 ru2 yi1 zhi1 wen1 xun2 de4何    其    精    准,   如    一    只    温    驯    的

duo1 li4 yang2
多     利     羊
In contrast, it could be translated into something more assonant:

and how these might be refined 
into the docility
of an ovine Dolly 

Many of my revisions were based on the suggestions I received during the translation seminar. One of the most obvious benefits of having so many other eyes and ears reading my translation was that they helped me spot the superfluous articles and pronouns I had added in my initial attempt to be faithful to the literal meaning of the text, but which marred the spareness of the poem. In the case of these two lines in the section "Election night":


I had initially translated them as

The moon and stars
assemble themselves on the national flag 

However, after getting feedback, my final translation was:

the moon and stars
assemble on the national flag

Feedback from Idra and my classmates also prompted me to re-examine the effect of certain word choices on English-language readers. For example, in the final stanza of the section "Campaigning", there is this line:

which I initially translated as:

but while idealists interrogate
However, after the final class session when we workshopped our translation in pairs, my classmate Natali Segovia said that she felt that "interrogate" had a very strident feeling that seemed incongruous with idealism,, and suggested that I might want to try a different, possibly less forceful verb since I used the word "interrogative" in the very last stanza of the poem. As a result, my final translation of the line was:

but while idealists question
Another line that I re-examined after the final class session was from the fifth stanza of the "Election night" section:

which in my initial draft, I had translated as:

a doggedly diligent cop from the opposition
But after hearing that both Maria Pereira and Natali were disoriented by the colloquial tone of "cop", I reflected on other possibilities and arrived finally at:

an assiduous policeman from the opposition
A problematic excerpt was in the final section of the poem:


I had translated this as:

is it a fruit-scented dream 
at the road's other end (which includes
both the adversary's side and mine 

Both Maria and Natali found the phrase in parentheses somewhat clumsy, which pushed me to think about it further. This had the effect of also making me realize that I had misread (and thus mistranslated) the second line – I read only 梦 (meng4, n: dream) when the actual phrase was 梦土 (meng4 tu3, lit: dream soil), so instead of "dream", it should actually have been something closer to "dreamscape" or "dreamland". Consequently, my final translation of these lines became quite different:

at the road's other end (containing  
our opponent's camp and ours) –
is it a fruit-scented dreamland

Another issue of word choice that came up in class was the way that I alternated between translating the character 羊 (yang2) as "sheep" and "lamb". Although there were suggestions that it be made consistent, I decided to keep the variation after some discussion over email with Chee Lay, because I felt that his choice to use the phrase一只羊 in the title but to end each section with another more childlike phrase小小羊儿 and the resulting differences in tone had to be respected in the translation. In the first place, the character 羊would have been explicitly referring to sheep if it had the prefix of 绵 (mian2, n: wool) and was part of the phrase绵羊. If, on the other hand, it had had as a prefix the character 山 (shan1, n: mountain), it would have been clearly indicating a goat instead. However, since goats are known for their independent and stubborn temperaments, I was quite sure that Chee Lay was not writing about goats in his poem.

As a result, when 羊 was used on its own, as in the case of the poem's title and subtitle, I translated it as "sheep". But I chose to translate小小羊儿 – a diminutive that added the prefixes小小 (xiao3 xiao3 / small, literally 'small-small') and the suffix儿 (er2) –  each time as "little lambs", because not only did it have an alliterative effect missing from "little sheep", but I also felt this effect was the best way to replicate in English the quasi-sardonic childlike tone of the original Chinese.

I must admit it was very convenient to be translating a living poet who is easily contactable through email; Chee Lay's help was instrumental in correcting my mistranslations of certain nouns, as well as clarifying the meaning of phrases I was unsure of. For example, there is the line:

Due to the fact that the character 铅 (qian1, li: lead) is most often seen in the phrase铅笔 (qian1 bi3, n: pencil, lit: lead pen), I mistranslated 铅体(qian1 ti3) as 铅笔 (qian1 bi3). I assumed that attached to the noun of 字 it would become an adjective, so I initially translated the phrase as "penciled letters". Thankfully, Chee Lay corrected me on this, saying in an email that the phrase "refers more to letterpress/typesetting", so in the end I translated the phrase as "typeface".

Another phrase which tripped me up was from the line:

I had no idea what the phrase卜基 (pu4 ji1) was, so I tried to deduce the meaning by looking up each of the characters. 卜 (pu4) means "to divine or deduce", and 基 (ji1) is commonly seen as the first morpheme of the phrase 基础 (ji1 chu3, n: foundation), so I initially translated it as "deduce the foundations of". Only after writing to Chee Lay did I find out that it was a transliteration of "bookie", the slang for bookmakers. My ignorance of this phrase can be explained by the fact that people usually mix English words into whatever other language(s) they are speaking, so I've only ever heard people refer to bookmakers in English, even if the conversation is in Mandarin.

One line for which I certainly needed Chee Lay's clarification was the last line of the first section:

I had initially translated it as:

all little lambs
must make their home 

However, Chee Lay wrote to me that "当家 refers to [being] the master of the household", so my final translation, despite a certain strangeness in English, was:

little lambs 
must rule their homes 

His response was particularly helpful regarding issues of punctuation and majusculation. Although Idra raised the majusculation as an issue during the first time this translation was workshopped, I decided to retain my original choice to capitalise only the first word of each stanza after Chee Lay preferred my decision. I also got him to vet the additional dashes that I felt were necessary to clarify the meaning in certain sections.

What I am most grateful for is the way that at every stage of translating this poem, I had the good fortune to experience what Hirschfield calls "the moment of union when the translator joins with the poem so intimately that there is no longer a sense of 'self' and 'other', and the poem emerges, as if for the first time, within one's own heart and tongue."

Click here to read Tan Chee Lay's "Views and Testimony of a Sheep"