The British Museum Stole Translations of Qiu Jin's Poetry ft. Yilin Wang
Today we are joined by Yilin Wang, a Demiromantic Asexual writer, editor, and Chinese-English translator fighting against copyright and moral rights infringement by the British Museum. Listen to her journey, the fight to #NameTheTranslator and the Queer significance of Qiu Jin's poetry.
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Courtney: Hello, everyone and welcome back to the podcast. My name is Courtney. I’m here with my spouse, Royce. And together, we are The Ace Couple. And today is probably one of the most important episodes of the year so far. It is very timely. So if ever there was an episode to send to your friends, send to other listeners and tell them, “Listen to this this week, right now,” this is the episode, because this is very timely. A lot of things have transpired over the last couple of weeks that are directly impacting a very talented member of our community today. So we are going to get right down to it. We actually have them with us on the podcast, so please introduce yourself to our listeners.
Yilin: Hello everyone. I’m Yilin Wang. She/her and they/them. I’m Chinese Canadian and a member of the AroAce community. I’m Demiromantic and also Asexual, and I’m a queer writer, poet, literary translator from Chinese into English, and I have a book of translations coming out next year called The Lantern and the Night Moths that features Chinese poetry in translation along with essays on translation. And I’ve also translated a lot of Chinese poets, including feminist poet Qiu Jin and some queer Taiwanese poets as well.
Courtney: And for all of our listeners out there, I will say, we have already preordered that book. We are very excited for it to come out. Our only wish is that it was coming out sooner. But once it’s here, we will get it. And for all of you out there who are interested, as usual, all of our links will be in the show notes, so the link to the preorder will be down there. So, Yilin, you’ve had a heck of a week, haven’t you?
Yilin: Yeah. Yeah, the last two weeks have been kind of wild.
Courtney: What is, for those — I’m sure, if you follow us on Twitter, you have probably seen a little bit of talk about the British Museum lately. But for those of you who don’t follow us on Twitter, you are in for a ride. So can you kind of tell the listeners who aren’t familiar with the situation what exactly happened and how it came to your attention?
Yilin: Yeah. About two weeks ago, I discovered that the British Museum had taken my translations of Qiu Jin’s poetry and used it in one of their major current exhibitions, called China’s Hidden Century, and used it in multiple formats as well as in a book with a print run of 30,000 copies without notifying me at all to get permission or crediting me or offering payments — just completely, basically, stole my translations. And I discovered this through several people who had been aware of the exhibition and knew my work translating Qiu Jin’s poetry and came to me and kind of notified me about this exhibition, and I started looking around online, and I was really stunned to discover this.
Courtney: Because this is such an enormously powerful museum. This is not a small museum. They have all kinds of funding for big exhibitions like this. It seems like such a gross oversight. I’m trying to wrap my head around how they got their hands on your translations and thought it was okay to use it without contacting you, without compensating you. Because, just to be abundantly clear, you have not been paid anything for this at this point.
Yilin: No. No. And I didn’t even know that they used it, and it had been in the exhibit for over a month by the time I found out. And recently, I’ve seen a video that someone has now sent to me as evidence where they used a full 23-line poem — the full translation that has been published. It’s not possible to just accidentally take a full poem. I don’t understand, and I’m still stunned as well.
Courtney: Well, because I understand as well that so much more goes into translating than just knowing the two languages. You have to have a tremendous grasp not only on the languages but the cultural references — in this case, also a historical figure, so I imagine there’s quite a bit of historical nuance to consider as well. So can you give us an idea about what your process is and just how much work it actually is to do this, and why it is so tremendously unfair that you have not been paid for your work in such a big exhibit?
Yilin: Yeah. Yeah, translation is its own art. It takes skills in terms of writing a poem in English, because I’m recreating a poem that I read in Chinese. So, I’m using the same skills that a creator, writer, a poet would use. And I’m also a published poet, so that is what I bring to my translations. There have been earlier translations of Qiu Jin’s poetry by sinologists and academics, and they’re very much focused on the literal words and not the poetry, and I’m kind of the first poet to actually attempt literary translations of her work. So there’s that aspect.
Yilin: And just to give you an idea, when I start translating a new poet’s work, I will find every poem that they have written — like, the full body of work — and read the full body of work to choose poems to translate. For Qiu Jin, this meant getting ahold of over 200 poems that were almost all published after her death and in different scattered, out-of-print editions, and reading all of those, learning about the historical period she lived in, which was very complex politically and had a lot of things going on in terms of changing gender roles.
Yilin: She also wrote about women from history and allusions to historical figures like Mulan, as well as poets. There was also allusions to events at the time, as well as her contemporaries, who were also involved in, say, activism or feminism or within the political community and revolutionary circles that she was a part of. So I had to research all of that, and also learn about her life, learn about her views on feminism, her views on cross-dressing. And she wrote poems that were coded as queer and trans, and kind of learning about her views on those issues. And all of that takes a lot of time and energy.
Yilin: And then I sit down to translate. And I’m translating the poem maybe 10 to 15 times, because I’m attempting literal translations. I’m attempting more creative translations. I’m finding ways to translate the imagery, the allusions, the emotional feel, the idioms. So it’s not as simple as just looking through a dictionary or replacing words. There’s a lot of art involved.
Courtney: Yeah, that makes a ton of sense to me. And it seems so vital that a poet is able to translate poetry, because so much goes into it emotionally, lyrically, the way it sounds, the way it flows, which is going to be vastly different when you’re translating between two very different languages. But it also strikes me as so significant that you are also a queer poet. You are a member of the Ace and Aro communities, and you’re taking a — is it safe to say that she is a queer historical figure? I think you used “queer-coded.”
Yilin: I would say that. Yeah, I think we can say that.
Courtney: So, tell us a little more about that angle and about Qiu Jin as the woman, as the historical figure, and what you can bring to the table from your own queer experiences.
Yilin: Yeah. So, Qiu Jin lived at a time when things were very difficult for women in terms of their gender roles. They were expected to stay within the home. They were expected to not have an education, and they had very little opportunities and resources. This was still when women had bound feet, when women couldn’t get a job. Women didn’t even have access, often, to education.
Yilin: So she wrote a lot about challenging the gender norms of the time, and also about cross-dressing and living in the space between female and male, and she wrote about occupying kind of multiple genders. So I think of her work as writing a lot about gender fluidity and about that space. And so, as someone who is also genderqueer, I really connect to that. And I tried to take a queer approach, as well, to queering my translations, and I really paid attention to that. And I think that is still very timely for discussions going on right now in feminism, even these days.
Yilin: And she also wrote a lot about queerplatonic relationships as well. Specifically, in Chinese culture, there’s a concept of zhiyin 知音, which means “the one who understands your music,” “the one who understands your songs,” and, specifically, is a phrase that stands for a deep kindred kind of spirit or someone who you really, really connect with, a deep kind of platonic level. And that is something that I think of as very much similar to the idea of queerplatonic relationships. And because of her struggles with gender roles and also at home, she really craved for that.
Yilin: And as someone who is in the AroAce community, I also really resonate with that as well. And I really appreciate her writing about relationships that are not romantic. And I really appreciate the focus on friendship and queerplatonic relationships. And I found that to be especially progressive in an era when ties were so much focused on patriarchal, familial kinds of ties. And she was making her own kind of found family and seeking out other kinds of relationships and connections with other women or queer folks.
Courtney: That does sound incredibly ahead of its time. Because even today, we have the AroAce community saying, like, “Why don’t people write about queerplatonic relationships? Why is every story a romance story? Why is every romantic relationship sexual?” Like, all these things that are so ingrained into our society — with amatonormativity, with compulsory sexuality. We are craving the work of queer thinkers, queer artists, queer literature that strays away from it.
Courtney: And without the important work of translators like yourselves, it would not be accessible to as wide of an audience. So, I want to really, really thank you. I really appreciate the work you do. And I’m sure you have been made to feel very underappreciated and undervalued with this whole debacle with the British Museum. Let’s get back to that for a moment, just because I understand you are planning to take action on this. So why don’t you tell us a little bit about what has happened? Have you talked to the museum? What are your actions going forward? And how can we, as the community, help you?
Yilin: Thank you. Yeah. So after I discovered that the British Museum had used my translations without permission, I went to Twitter and posted about this publicly, because how else are you going to seek accountability with such a big institution? And I received a series of emails that were quite disrespectful and mishandling the situation. Because, initially they tried to represent it as if they had just forgotten to list my name on a list of translators. And they were just like, “Oh, we’re just adding it to the list of translators. And, you, we had 400 people helping with this exhibition, and we’re really grateful for your help.” Which is very misrepresenting what had happened, because I clearly didn’t give any consent at all.
Yilin: Then, they tried to send me a permission form, which they normally do when they seek permission to use a contributor’s work. But in that same email, they kept emphasizing that, “Oh, like, other contributors, other academics let us use their work for free.” And then, before I even had a chance to respond, 24 hours later, they were like, “We have removed all your translations, and we’re not going to credit you.” And they just offered payments of £150 for the book that they printed 30,000 copies of.
Yilin: And… yeah, you know? And it just got increasingly more and more disappointing.
Courtney: [laughing] That’s an insultingly low amount.
Yilin: Yeah. Yeah. And I was really, really shocked by how they mishandled it. And basically, at this point, they’ve kind of declined to credit me at all. I’ve confirmed that both the Chinese and the English poetry of Qiu Jin have just been completely removed from the exhibition, almost as if they just don’t want people to know. And they’re refusing, you know, to issue a better apology that actually explains what had gone wrong and how they’ll do better.
Yilin: So now I’m fundraising to take legal action against the British Museum, because I’ve just been left with no choice after multiple rounds of discussion with them. And I really want to set a precedent in terms of holding them accountable and forcing them to do better in terms of respecting copyright and moral rights of all creators — you know, writers, translators, artists. Because it feels like if they are not held accountable, it’s something that could happen again.
Courtney: Oh easily. To me — I mean, as you said, it was on display for a month before you even knew about it. So how many others’ work has been used and just completely flown under the radar because the original creator had never known? It seems very possible that that could have happened.
Courtney: But I also — it’s a bit galling to me that they say, “Oh, all these other academics just, you know, volunteered their work.” I get where that’s coming from, because I have had museums try to pull similar things on me before. I’m an independent historian, so I do a lot of historical research on a very, very niche subject where there are not a lot of academics studying it. And it’s an art form that I also practice, so I have the practical experience as well as the historical knowledge.
Courtney: And I have had museums ask, like, “Can you write all of the placards for this upcoming exhibit we’re having, just for free, for volunteer?” And I’ve been to museums that have had horrible information about some of their exhibits. And I’ve spoken to them, and they’re like, “Oh, well, we’d be happy to correct it. Just send us those corrections and we’ll do that.” And it’s like, the thing is, [laughing] since I’m not affiliated with an academic institution, I don’t have anyone paying me a salary for what I do. And I imagine it’s probably the same thing with you.
Yilin: That’s right. Yeah, you know, I’m a full-time freelancer, so I write, I teach, I translate. I’m not an academic. And these academics — who they’re, quote, you know, considering as kind of “volunteering” or kind of contributing for free — are paid by their institutions, you know? They have jobs, often as tenured or tenure-track professors.
Yilin: And it’s an exhibition on China, and it’s a lot of white academics who have built their careers off of studying Chinese culture. So that is extra disrespectful — to say that, “Oh, they’re just contributing for free,” when it’s actually they’re benefiting in so many ways from, you know, other cultures and making a whole career out of that.
Yilin: And one of the folks who received the grants behind the exhibition is a white sinologist. And she sent me an email where she said she didn’t receive a single penny in association to this project. But she also wrote that the grant allowed her to take a full year of leave away from her university job —
Yilin: — at the same salary, to do research on this exhibition. So it’s very frustrating to receive this kind of messaging.
Courtney: Yeah. That is not in any way an apples-to-apples comparison, because this is your work, and this is… it should be a source of income for you, if people weren’t stealing it. But the… [sighs] because not every museum has British Museum money. There are genuinely some small museums that are constantly hard up for funding. They don’t have enough money to even pay their staff and curators well. So, there are small, struggling museums. And then there is the British Museum, who gets much more funding than the average museum, And I think I saw on one of your posts about this that they received, like, something over £700,000 in funding for this exhibit. Is that right?
Yilin: That’s right. So behind the exhibition is a research grant that two academics received over four years that was over £700,000 from the Arts and Humanities Council in the UK. So that is, you know, funding the exhibition, from what I understand. And, yeah, they’re also selling tickets to the special exhibit at £18 per ticket. They’re selling the books that they have printed — 30,000 copies — and they’ve also been selling an app with a audio tour. So, you know, they’re benefiting financially from it in multiple ways. And I’ve heard from multiple people that the exhibition is always packed and that it’s even hard to get tickets and it’s always very busy when people go. So, yeah, I wouldn’t kind of agree that the British Museum is a poorly funded institution.
Courtney: Yeah. And it’s a bit ironic, isn’t it, that the exhibit itself is called China’s Hidden Century. So their whole angle is, “This is the part of history that you haven’t seen yet. We’re bringing light to this hidden era.” And yet they’ve hidden your name from the credits. They’ve hidden the translator, the Chinese translator. And now, after being sort of exposed for infringing upon your moral rights, your copyrights, now, they’ve just taken down not only your words but also Qiu Jin’s words. And so that just seems like —
Yilin: That’s right.
Courtney: — you were trying to bring light to this “hidden century,” and now you’re just hiding it more, and you’re hiding the modern poet and translator who is giving us this gift of bringing all of your unique experience to these translations. So it’s just so incredibly frustrating.
Yilin: It is. And the word “hidden” actually has also been discussed as well by a lot of Chinese visitors and on Chinese social media, because this was actually a period of history that is really, really well-known in China, and specifically, in connection to British imperialism.
Courtney: Ah, there it is. [laughs]
Yilin: Yeah. It features a lot of items that were taken from China, you know, during various confrontations with Britain. And so, from a Chinese perspective too, a lot of the discussions of her are about “hidden” being such a euphemism, because it’s actually quite well-known, and people are actually quite upset about this period in history, but instead it’s being presented as something to be kind of revealed and discovered. You know, hidden for whom?
Courtney: Yeah, hidden from whom? Hidden by whom? That’s a really excellent point, and I am glad that you brought that up. Because the more we speak, the more it just sounds like so much of this was done with the intention of presenting it to a predominantly white Western audience, which, don’t get me wrong, [laughing] we love learning about other cultures, but there are so many just racial and colonial undertones to taking someone else’s work to present it to a white audience in probably a very white, sanitized way. As you said, the — were they the curators of the exhibit who were both white, or was that their title?
Yilin: Yeah. Yeah, the two folks who are named as the co-investigators of the grant are both white, yeah.
Courtney: So I would imagine there’s some amount of cultural nuance that maybe fell through the cracks, unfortunately. Every time I go to a museum or one of my local museums, I always — I don’t know if this is the case for this exhibit; I have not been to see it — but I’ll very often see old artifacts, especially from Asian countries, that will just say, like, “This is a ritual bowl.” And that word, “ritual,” is what they use all the time. “Ritual glass.” “Ritual chime.” And it won’t say what the ritual supposedly was or how it was used. So every time I see that word, my skeptic and racism bells start going off, because I’m like, “That kind of just seems like the catch-all word.” Like, “This was important! Look at how important it was!” without actually giving any real nuance or information to it.
Yilin: Yeah. Yeah. And from what I’ve heard, based on the people who have visited the museum after they removed Qiu Jin’s poetry, it sounds kind of similar to what you’ve described. Because she’s kind of been left as — kind of depicted as basically a woman who is cross-dressing, wearing suits. And there’s a piece of clothing with some signs, and, like, that is it for that section And the exhibition is supposed to be about creativity and imagination in the Qing dynasty, but, you know, where is the creativity? So she’s kind of become just represented as this figure that doesn’t have, you know, her own words represented at the exhibit anymore. Yeah.
Courtney: Well, because I imagine — not to put words in the mouth of the British Museum, but I imagine, once they got caught for using your translation, they’re like, “Well, we just got to take all of it down, because we can’t have, you know, these Chinese characters on the wall, because who’s going to be able to read them?” I can just kind of sense someone saying that. [laughs]
Yilin: Yeah, I also have wondered about that. Even though so many visitors seem to be Chinese, you know? But they somehow also removed the Chinese, which is in the public domain. And, you know, it’s really funny to talk about signs. Because when word spread about the fact that I wasn’t getting credited, someone also dug up a very old tweet from a few years ago by the British Museum — I don’t know if you saw it, Courtney — that said something like, [laughing] “Oh, we try to make our signs accessible to 16-year-olds, so we try not to have too many Asian names.”
Courtney: Oh no!
Yilin: Like, literally, that was a tweet from the British Museum. Yeah. You can go find it later if you haven’t seen it. And somebody literally dug that up, you know? Multiple people were notifying me of that tweet. And I rolled my eyes.
Courtney: That is so nauseating. And, again, the only reason why anyone might think that Chinese names would be quote “confusing to teenagers” is probably because they live in a society that hasn’t let them have exposure to Chinese names. It’s all been whitewashed.
Yilin: Yeah. It’s very… So, that really reminds me of the signs, you know, that really simplify and doesn’t actually give, you know, the full story. Yeah. And, you know, [laughing] there are lots of Asian 16-year-olds, so.
Courtney: Yeah! Also, that. [laughing] Not to erase the Asian 16-year-olds. But oh, oh, my goodness. That’s… [groans] That’s upsetting.
Yilin: Apparently, they have a history with Asian names.
Courtney: Well, and as this very well esteemed institution that is supposed to be here for public knowledge, it’s supposed to teach you about history, it’s supposed to teach you about other cultures, you’d think you’d want as many relevant names as possible. Because that’s just more accurate, for one; that’s better information. Because what do you — what does that even mean, “We try not to have too many Asian names”? Is that just… Do they have a quota?
Courtney: “Well, we already have five Asian names. We can’t have any more in this exhibit.”
Royce: Yeah, I couldn’t make sense of it, unless they’re treating their placards like Tweets or something and imposing a character limit.
Yilin: You know, they don’t limit white names, so it’s, yeah, pretty ridiculous. And I forgot who said this, but again, I saw it recently on Twitter in relation to the British Museum. And someone — like, a person of color — said, like, “It’s not that I necessarily want the artifacts back, but I want to rewrite the signs.”
Yilin: You know, “I want to rewrite the stories of how they’re being represented in the museum.” So this is very much a part of that.
Courtney: That is an excellent point. I’ve really — especially over the last 10 years or so, with all of my work with history — just really begun to get an incredibly critical eye for museum placards. Because it started with my very own area of expertise, where I would see how many museums had just wildly inaccurate information, and how a lot of the museums — since they either don’t have funding or they use their funding very sparingly, and try to take others’ work, apparently — they’ll often copy information from each other. So if you see a bad piece of information in one museum, you’ll probably see it in a dozen other museums, written almost verbatim the same way. So I started noticing that with my own niche area of expertise. And then I’m like, “Well, how many others are there out there?”
Royce: Particularly because in your area, too, it’s not even crossing a linguistic boundary. It’s white Western people reporting on white Western customs from 200 years ago.
Courtney: Yeah. Well, that kind of depends. So, Yilin, just to fill you in on what I do, I study the history of hair work, artwork and jewelry made out of human hair. And that primarily encompasses work from the Victorian era, the 1800s, and a lot of it was very Western — a lot of Scandinavian countries, and then England and America did a lot of this kind of work.
Courtney: But I have also just noticed, throughout my years of research, that nearly every culture has had some iteration of using human hair. And so it’s sometimes a lot harder to research these things — like Chinese uses of hair, for example. I know a little bit because I’ve been able to find some translations, so even in my work, I heavily rely on translators. Chinese examples: taking a baby’s haircut to make a calligraphy brush, is one of them. And I’ve seen some gorgeous, really elaborate pieces of embroidery that has been stitched out of human hair, just making beautiful, beautiful pictures. And I’m always so grateful whenever I’m able to find resources that have been translated for me, because this is my interest.
Courtney: But I’m going to challenge all of our viewers: next time you go to a museum, just see how many times an artifact from a different culture uses the word “ritual” in the placards, or something so vague and broad like that. Because every time I see that I’m like, “Um, who wrote that? Who’s the curator here? Who researched this?”
Yilin: Agreed. Agreed.
Courtney: My word. So, we’ve covered a lot of ground and got very, very off track here. But I do want to hear, is there any more that you can tell us about this amazing feminist queer figure of Chinese history? Because I am so enamored with the idea of having writing about queerplatonic relationships from so long ago, and even the cross-dressing element seems so progressive for its time — especially, even now, in our country, in the US, we have all these drag now. People are trying to literally criminalize cross-dressing. It’s just wild to me. So, I’d love to hear anything else that you’re able to share with us.
Yilin: Yeah. Yeah. So she was writing a lot about Hua Mulan, which is the full name for Mulan, which I’m sure everyone kind of knows of, and — even though maybe through the Disney version. But Mulan was very much known as a warrior who cross-dressed, and she was very inspired by that. And she herself started cross-dressing when she moved to the capital, and, later on, decided to become a revolutionary and an activist and feminist. And she wrote many poems about that. I actually — I think I have one that I have translated. If you want, I could read it for the podcast. Let me see if I can find it.
Courtney: I would love that! Yes, please.
Yilin: And then I could talk about it a little bit more specifically. Yeah. So I’ll just read the poem and then we can talk about it. So, it’s called “Inscriptions on my Tiny Portrait (in Men’s Clothes).” And this poem was written on the back of a photo of Qiu Jin that survives, that shows her wearing a very classy and kind of stylish suit, and she’s kind of grinning into the camera and kind of showing a lot of personality.
Solemnly, a gaze ahead: who is this before me?
The bones of a heroic spirit from a past life, resentful of this body.
The physical form of a deceased self is mere illusion,
but the broadening of future horizons can be a real possibility.
Regretting that we didn’t know each other sooner, let us unite:
heads held high, sighing at the times, our spirits emboldened.
In the future, when I meet my friends from bygone times,
I shall declare, I have swept the murky dust of the world away.
Yilin: So that’s the poem. And she writes about looking at the photo and looking at herself, and she writes about feeling as if there’s another — the bones of another heroic spirit in her body. And in a way, that feels almost like talking about dysphoria, and I found that, like, really resonates. And she writes about, you know, the physical form of the past, when she was dressing as a woman, being an illusion, and also the future, when she cross-dresses, as a possibility. And she was kind of dwelling in that space in between, you know, where she is, kind of, questioning maybe gender and sexuality and who she is. She also talks about the two meeting and uniting and joining with each other and thinking about what the future holds.
Yilin: So that’s an example of her writing on cross-dressing. And oftentimes, we also see her taking on a male persona in a poem or a female persona or kind of back and forth, and she inhabits kind of different voices, and also kind of do cross-dressing in terms of who she is as the speaker. So I find that very interesting about her poetry.
Courtney: Wow, that is so very, very cool. Because this happens with all historical figures, I think, where someone will sort of pick up on something a little bit queer, and they’ll almost always just default to gay. “They are gay.” “They are lesbian.” That’s just been the default for years. But we know there is so much more nuance to it. We have so much more vocabulary about it.
Courtney: But when it comes to something like translation as well, I’ve always been very fascinated with what queerness looks like in other cultures. Because I have definitely noticed that Western white queer people don’t have the best media literacy for picking up what queerness looks like when you put it in a different cultural context. Because it’s way too easy for someone who is white, who has lived in a white culture, to just sort of assume that queerness is universal and that it’s going to look the same in all cultures. But that is very, very much not the case.
Courtney: In fact, I remember when even Western-made media that attempts to get set in another culture — like Raya and the Last Dragon, there was a big sort of argument on Twitter of all these queer people being like, “This is a queer story, and here’s why.” And it’s because this one character has half her head shaved. And then I listened to hours of video essays and articles put forth by Southeast Asian queer creators who were saying, “This is what queerness looks like in our cultures, in our countries. You wouldn’t even know how to identify it. But we didn’t see these things that we would want to see for what queerness looks like in our context.” So I imagine there is so much cultural understanding that is needed in order to do justice to a historical figure like this.
Yilin: Yeah. Yeah. And in the Chinese context, too, because of censorship in China, feminism and also queerness are often also kind of erased and hidden in terms of the formation of literary canons and what gets taught in history as well. And so there’s this kind of erasure going on, both in terms of what is lost in translation, depending on who is translating it and who is reading it in the West, and also in the source country. And so I also find myself having to look harder and search in places that other people haven’t kind of considered to find these kinds of voices and perspectives.
Yilin: Because Qiu Jin, you know, was a household name. She has been very, very well-known for her revolutionary work. But all the textbooks gloss over her in terms of what she did as a feminist. So they don’t really go into the fact that she cross-dressed, or they kind of portray it in ways that are very much about her trying to just kind of fulfill certain… still kind of patriarchal, like, hierarchical expectations around becoming an acceptable hero in that time period.
Yilin: So, yeah, the queerness often gets erased. And the cross-dressing poem that I read recently — after I translated it into English, I had scholars of literature from this time period come to me and be like, “Oh, I didn’t know that Qiu Jin wrote that poem.” Like, even though they specialized in literature from that era and knew her work, they hadn’t encountered that poem. So, yeah, I find myself doing a lot of editing and curation as a translator as well.
Courtney: Yes! I mean, you are a researcher; you’re finding her entire body of work. You are a historian; you’re putting it in the historical context. You are a poet and an artist, trying to bring the life of the poetry along with the fresh translation. And it actually has me wondering, because, especially for the work of Qiu Jin, for this historical period, for the queerplatonic representation, it seems to me like you are just the right person for this job: you have the queer context, you have the cultural context, and, clearly, the poetry and language skills. So I’m curious about how you got into doing this work. How did you find her work, and how did it resonate with you, and how did you decide that translation was what you wanted to do as a career?
Yilin: Yeah. So, I started out as a writer and poet. I’ve been writing fiction and poetry for a number of years. And I actually got into translation partially because I was really dissatisfied with existing translations of Chinese poetry. There have been a lot of mistranslations — historically and also now still — and I wrote about this in an essay for Words Without Borders. If anyone is interested, they can check that out.
Yilin: In that essay, I talk about translation often — especially literary translation — being a privileged kind of work, because there’s a lot of overlap between who is doing literary translation, or who gets the chance to do literary translation, and academics. You know, graduates from Asian Studies programs are often the ones. The scholars, the white professors tend to become also the literary translators of these works, even though they don’t necessarily have the cultural background or the kind of knowledge as, like, a poet. Because of their degree and their access to that degree, they’re often seen as an expert on Chinese culture or Asian cultures. So I was very frustrated with that.
Yilin: And historically, there’s also been mistranslations by poets like Ezra Pound as well, who didn’t know Mandarin but translated Chinese poetry using notes that a white scholar made into a book called Cathay. And it’s kind of like his own imagination of what Chinese poetry is.
Yilin: So, given this history, I wanted to actually do translations myself, because I’ve always been interested in Chinese poetry. I’ve read a lot of Chinese poetry growing up. I just didn’t think of myself as a translator, initially, because I didn’t have that kind of academic education. But I have, you know, lived experience and poetry-writing skills and a more personal relationship with the work.
Yilin: So I started kind of translating Qiu Jin. I started to translate other Chinese poets. And I felt that it really resonated with a lot of readers, especially people in the diaspora who didn’t know about Qiu Jin before and didn’t get to read her poetry.
Courtney: Yeah, that makes a lot of sense. I’m glad you mentioned lived experience, because in worlds of academia and history and universities and museums, the degree is kind of like the end-all be-all for a lot of people. But lived experience is what the research is being done on, I find, and that’s true in cultural contexts, racial contexts. It’s also true in queer contexts.
Courtney: There are queer academics who are studying Asexuality, for example, and some of them are Ace themselves, but not all of them are. And for as happy as I am that it is getting discussed in academic circles as well, because I think we just need more representation in more areas of the world and in all conversations, there is sort of the same effect that’s going on with the “hidden century” and “look what we’ve unveiled” with a lot of Queer Studies as well.
Courtney: Because there will be academics, for example, be like, “This amazing thing I learned while studying Asexuality!” And they’ll come out with, you know, “Most Ace people don’t identify with gender, or they’re genderqueer, or Aces have a much higher percentage of being trans.” And it’s like, “Well, I know that because I have a ton of Ace friends!” Like, that is just my life and my social circle.
Courtney: So I think people need to really start reevaluating how they see and appreciate lived experience. Because often, once you get the academic paper handed to you, that was just sort of playing telephone. It’s a secondhand version of the original lived experience, as observed by an outsider, essentially.
Yilin: Yeah. Yeah, for sure. And with Asian poetry in particular, there’s this thing called bridge translation, which is someone who is monolingual — like a white scholar or writer — would find someone who’s actually bilingual, and they call them this phrase I really dislike, but quote, “native informants.” And the native informant is someone who will supposedly then provide a literal word-by-word translation of the poem for them. And then they would take it and rewrite it into their own poem, and then call it their translation. And sometimes the native informant gets credited as a co-translator. Sometimes you just get erased or just acknowledged as, “Oh, like, so-and-so helped.”
Yilin: And we end up with this quote “translation” that is much more, you know, creative rather than an actual translation, because the person who wrote the final poem didn’t even understand or know the original language. And this, believe it or not, still happens to this day with Asian poetry. And I can’t imagine that happening with some other languages, like European languages, for example. I don’t think people would tolerate that, you know?
Courtney: No, probably not — at least not as easily or as readily. Goodness. There’s just so, so much here. So is there anything that you wish to share with us about your own experience as a queer poet, with your Asexuality, Aromanticism, you mentioned genderqueer as well — what has that been like for you?
Yilin: Yeah. So, for me, it’s… I think about that a lot in, like, intersection with culture and race as well. So I find myself very much being inspired by stories and poetry related to queerness and genderqueer identity and also Asexual Aromantic representation as well. A lot of my fiction are speculative fiction short stories. And so I work a lot with retelling folklore. And I get inspired, again, by stories about cross-dressing in Chinese culture, stories about queerness.
Yilin: For example, we have a rabbit god who is queer. There’s a temple in Taiwan that you can visit and burn incense to the Tu’er’shen 兔儿神, who is a queer god. And it’s the rabbit deity, and we’re in the Year of the Rabbit, so there’s been a lot of jokes around this year — about the year being super queer because of that. So there are a lot of these sources of inspiration that I draw upon in my writing and in my poetry. And I also find myself, again, seeking these kinds of works to translate.
Courtney: Yeah. Did you start seeking this out because you were sort of experiencing and trying to immerse yourself in more queer work? Or did you sort of find the work first and then say, “Wait a minute, this is queer”?
Yilin: I deliberately tried to kind of seek them out. Because, as I mentioned before, like, there is a lot of erasure going on, both in terms of translation and also in Chinese publishing and education systems. So it’s something — as a part of my journey of coming out and realizing I’m queer and learning about, you know, Asexuality and Aromanticism and genderqueerness, I also started reading a lot more about this. Because I do feel like I have a different experience from folks who are white. And so I want to look at the topics in intersection with Chinese and East Asian experiences, too. So I found that to be really interesting.
Yilin: And then something else that’s been going on as well is that there’s been a revival and kind of emergence of interest in a Chinese… I guess a subgenre called danmei 耽美, which is boys’ love or girls’ love stories. And this is, again, kind of inspired by historical tales and folklore. So that’s something that’s become more well-known, and that’s something that, also, I’m, yeah, very interested in. And oftentimes, those stories are also kind of representing the relationships in an Asexual kind of way because of what they’re able to show on screen, and I find that really interesting.
Courtney: Yeah. We haven’t necessarily seen as much Chinese representation of sort of queerplatonic or AroAce relationships. But for more broadly just Asian media, we have found so much more there than in English. And it’s been really, really encouraging for us. And we want there to be more translations of these things. One of the best TV shows we’ve seen depicting an AroAce relationship was Koisenu Futari, which is phenomenal. But that has not been… it’s had fan translations. There isn’t a legal way to watch it in English [laughs], but there are all these just like really passionate fan translators who have subtitled things like that. So we’re always really encouraged when we see more of those things. But I always wonder, like, what do we have to do to get that to a wider audience in an accessible way?
Yilin: Yeah, for sure, I would love to see more of that translated, and I would love to translate more of that too.
Courtney: So, let’s dive into — because I am really passionate about history and cultural context and museum work, since I myself have done so much work with history, but also just to find out that something on this big of a scale has happened to a member of our community has just really gotten me all riled up, and we want to do anything and everything we can to help you out. So you mentioned that you are fundraising right now for legal action. How much do you have to make? What’s the lowdown on the lawyer you’re consulting? And what is the deadline? How can we help push you over this edge for our listeners?
Yilin: Thank you. Yeah. So I’m aiming for a deadline of July 10th, and I need to raise £15,000. From what I checked earlier today, we’ve made it to one-third of the amount, so we’re doing very well.
Courtney: Ooh, good.
Yilin: But I really urge folks to support by donating, by spreading the word, by sharing with folks they know. I’m really encouraging people to just spread the word in different circles, because it affects a lot of communities — academia, Museum Studies, queer and trans communities, and also writing, publishing, translation, of course. Yeah, and also Asian Studies and Chinese Literary Studies. So I’m really hoping that the word can get out.
Yilin: And this is the minimum amount needed to officially appoint a lawyer to represent me and file in court. So that’s the next step. If I’m able to meet the goal by July 10th, that’s what would happen. And it’s an all-or-nothing situation because the lawyer I’m talking to feels like that is the minimum amount needed for him to responsibly take the case forward. And then any more amounts we’re able to raise beyond that would help strengthen my position in terms of if we had to actually go to court.
Yilin: And right now, I can’t share anything about the law firm or the lawyer, because they are not officially, yet, representing me yet. But if I pass that goal, then definitely, everyone will know. And they are quite experienced, and the person specifically has already been helping me behind the scenes. And he’s an IP lawyer in the UK with a lot of experience. And he’s also been very supportive, and I really appreciate his help.
Courtney: Awesome. So that, along with every other link that we have mentioned, as always, in the show notes. Please, listeners, check it out. Donate if you can. If you cannot, share it. I would say, if you’re on Twitter, go ahead — and we will have all of Yilin’s social media information as well, so you can retweet some of her Tweets, engage with those to get more eyeballs on it. But especially if you’re in other places online, if you’re on Facebook, if you’re on Tumblr. Are people still on Mastodon these days? I know there was a big push to go on there at one point.
Yilin: I’ve been using Mastodon, and I’ve been getting some good engagement. Some folks have left Twitter for Mastodon, so definitely there. There’s been some Chinese TikTokers who have been posting, and I would love to see more posts there.
Courtney: TikTok, yes!
Yilin: A lot of critiques and discussions about the British Museum’s history happens on TikTok, so I would really appreciate that. And, yeah, Tumblr, Instagram, just all the different platforms would be great.
Courtney: Yes, let’s get the word out. And if, by the time you’re listening to this, if the fundraising period is still up, it sounds like £15,000 is the minimum, but more than that is still better, so definitely help donate and share if you can. And pre-order the book as well. When is that book coming out, by the way? It’s next year, right?
Yilin: The book is coming out in, yeah, it’s slated for the Spring 2024. It was originally actually not supposed to be ready for pre-ordering yet, but because of what’s happened with the museum, my publisher has been very supportive and wanted to get the word out earlier so that people could actually support my work in the ethical way instead of kind of what the museum has done. So, yeah, we kind of scrambled to put together a pre-order page. And a lot of people have supported by pre-ordering, and I really appreciate that.
Courtney: Good. I’m glad that your publisher did that. Because, yes, while you have the engagement, we want to support you as much as we can. And for those listeners out there as well, you have probably heard me mention our Discord server on a number of occasion, Aspecs Committed to Anti-Racism, also ACAR for short. I’ve often talked about it in the context of the anti-racism book clubs that we run and other events. But over the last couple of months, we’ve really gotten into doing more hands-on community projects, more hands-on activism.
Courtney: And, in fact, earlier this week, as of the time we’re recording, we had an activism and organizing night scheduled, slated for the calendar, and once all this popped up and we saw that a community member of ours was being affected, we really wanted to help out as much as we could. So we got together for a couple hours, and we all collaborated on just sort of finding names and contact information for trustees at the museum, ways to contact the museum and its sponsors of this exhibit, and just drafting example emails where we can send our concerns, and example social media posts, et cetera.
Courtney: So if work like that, for when major community situations like this come up where we want to support each other and we want to help each other out, definitely please do join us there. Because this fight right here is definitely not over, but we also never know when the next one’s going to come up. So we’ll also have a link to that Discord in the show notes if you want to join us over there.
Courtney: And before we wrap up for the day, is there anything else that you want to share with us about your work, your own identity, your favorite bits of representation, queer joy, anything?
Yilin: Yeah. So, I think, again, Qiu Jin is definitely one of my favorite Chinese women poets, queer poets, you know? So I highly recommend checking out her work if you read Chinese or in translation. And also, just, you know, support more translators of color. Support more queer, Ace, Aro translators. They all do really important work. And, name the translator, you know? Pay the translator.
Courtney: Name the translator. Yes, if you are talking about this on social media, I have seen that hashtag start to take off — more and more people using #NameTheTranslator. So that is a hashtag you can use to also just read what other people are saying about this as well and to join the conversation. Has there been a big history of this, of translators not being named and not being credited?
Yilin: Yeah. Yeah. Actually, that’s good context as well for this conversation. So, just a brief note about that. The hashtag #NameTheTranslator came up, I think, a few years ago as a result of discussions about translators keep getting erased and omitted. So this is why British Museum’s refusal to credit translators is especially problematic and upsetting a lot of translators.
Yilin: Because there’s a history of, for example, book publishers refusing to put translators’ names on the book cover beside the writer’s name, because they kind of want to hide — again, hidden — hide the fact that it is a translated work, and want to make it appear as if it were just written in English. So they try to not present the translator’s name, or kind of put it somewhere not noticeable. And reviewers, critics, people talking about translated literature will often leave the names of translators off when they’re talking about reviews. So instead of, you know, Murakami translated by so-and-so, they just talk about Murakami as if Murakami wrote in English. And similarly, literary contests, prizes, awards oftentimes gave awards for translated literature, world literature, but they would only again give the award to the writer, even though they were actually reading the translation.
Yilin: So this happens frequently, and that’s why that hashtag kind of popped up. And there’s been a movement to call on publishers and institutions and everyone to name the translator. So if you ever see basically any kind of translated work where the translator’s not named, you’re encouraged to use the hashtag #NameTheTranslator and ask for the translator to be named.
Yilin: And PEN America also published, recently, a manifesto on translation with some specific kind of calls to action that people can take to support translators. So I also recommend folks checking that out.
Courtney: Definitely. We’ll pop that in the show notes as well. Do we know why this is the precedent and so common? Because it seems to me like a translator is such a vital position. [laughs] We wouldn’t have so much media if we didn’t have translators. So, why? Why is this? Do we even know?
Yilin: Yeah, it’s very frustrating. And it seems to come from this very misguided belief of who is the reader — like, assumptions about the reader being white, being maybe of European descent, of kind of not being open to translation, of not wanting to read literature from other countries. Because the translator has to be hidden to kind of appease this imaginary reader that doesn’t actually exist.
Yilin: And publishing houses keep kind of using that argument of marketing. So they would make the translator’s name really small. They would put it only inside the book instead of on the cover, or they would just even put it at the end, like in… somewhere. So yeah, that is unfortunately happening a lot withing publishing. So the British Museum really has an opportunity here to set an actual example for treating translators well, instead of doubling down and refusing to credit.
Courtney: Yeah, absolutely. I mean, as you were explaining that, making it small print, putting it inside the book, not on the cover — like that just has the same vibes as “We can’t have too many Asian names.”
[Yilin and Courtney laugh]
Courtney: Like, that — it’s the same vibe.
Yilin: Very unfortunate.
Courtney: Very unfortunate!
Yilin: Yeah. Yeah.
Courtney: So, Yilin, I want to thank you so much for taking the time to talk with us today. This is obviously such an important issue, and you have had such a stressful couple of weeks, so we are happy to help get the word out as much as we can. Where are all the places that people can find and follow you?
Yilin: Yeah. So, I’m on social media. I use @YilinWriter everywhere I can, just to make it easy and consistent. So my main presence is on Twitter, but I’m also on Instagram and TikTok. And I’m also on Mastodon. I’m on the server Wandering Shop, which is a server for SFF writers, so @YilinWriter@wandering.shop on Mastodon. And then my website is YilinWang.com.
Courtney: Outstanding. So, before we wrap up, is there anything else? I want to make sure we didn’t forget anything important.
Yilin: I think we got everything. And I really appreciate it — you know, being able to talk to both of you. And just, yeah, thank you so much for having me.
Courtney: Yes! Thank you so much once again. Listeners, do go down to the show notes. Find those links. Share them out. Help support Yilin’s work. Help support the crowdfund. Pre-order the book. Do all of these lovely things. Share this episode, especially if this is the day it comes out, the day after it comes out, during the crowdfunding period. Share this with others in the Aspec community or anyone else who may be interested in the Chinese cultural context, the queer context, the poetry context — because we’ve got so much here, we’ve got a lot of interests to cover here. So let’s set a better precedent and treat our translators with the respect that they deserve.
Courtney: So, until next time, thank you all so much for being here, and we’ll talk to you all later. Bye!