Chinese Poetry Translations with an AroAce, Genderqueer, Diaspora Lens ft. Yilin Wang

We're rejoined today by Yilin Wang to give an update on the British Museum stolen translations debacle and to discuss their absolutely stunning new book The Lantern and the Night Moths.

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Courtney: Hello everyone and welcome back. My name is Courtney, I am here with my spouse, Royce, and together we are The Ace Couple. And today we have a very exciting follow-up episode for you all. Those of you who have been with us for at least a year may have listened to episode number 93, entitled: The British Museum Stole Translations of Qiu Jin’s Poetry ft. Yilin Wang. If you haven’t had a chance to listen to that yet, definitely recommend going back to it because we might have some references to discussions we had there. It was a wonderful talk, but we are so thankful to have Yilin with us here today to give us a little update on everything that happened. As well as talking about her beautiful new book of poetry translations, as well as personal essays, entitled the Lantern and the Night Moths. I’ve read it myself and absolutely loved it, and I can’t wait to get started on this conversation.

Courtney: So, Yilin, welcome back to the podcast. We’re so glad to have you here.

Yilin: Thank you, I’m so happy to be back.

Courtney: So, for our listeners who are aware of the situation with the British Museum, could you give us maybe just a quick little recap of everything that happened, and how that all resolved? We haven’t heard from you since July of last year, and I know a lot has transpired since then.

Yilin: Yeah, so last June – and we’re coming up on the one year anniversary here in a few weeks – I found out, when I was working on this book that has since then come out, that some of my translations of Qiu Jin’s poetry were stolen by the British Museum and used without credit, pay, and permission in their exhibit called China’s Hidden Century. And a bunch of stuff happened. There’s very detailed documentation of it on my website. But eventually there was a Crowd Justice fundraiser for legal representation and I nearly had to sue the British Museum before they finally settled and issued, like, an apology.

Courtney: Yeah, and for all of you who would like to catch up on the full story, as Yilin mentioned, it is all on their website. We’ll put a link in the show notes to that, as well as anything else we talk about in this episode, so you can all find it very easily, to follow up on that. But I do recall when we recorded we were sort of asking our community to help get the word out about the crowdfunding campaign. You were right in the midst of that. So I’m so glad to hear that you did reach a settlement that you are happy with. It’s just such a shame that you had to go through such lengths to get to that point and to be respected as a translator at such a large, well-known institution as the British Museum.

Yilin: Yeah, yeah. It was shocking and still shocking, and I really appreciate all your help, and also the Ace and Aro communities for all the organizing work. That meant a lot. And I mentioned, you know, the community’s kind of efforts in one of the personal essays as well.

Courtney: I did read that, yes! And I’m very excited to talk about the book, so maybe let’s just dig right into it. Because we talked so much in our last episode– and this is why I’d love all of our listeners who haven’t heard it yet to go back and listen to that one as well, because we talked at great length about Qiu Jin, and sort of the maybe misunderstood queerness in her words, in her poetry. And especially the significance that resonates with aros, aces, people in our community, folks who identify with genderqueer labels. There’s such a wide expansiveness to the queerness in her words. And so I’d love for everyone to hear more about that.

Courtney: And the very first section– Your book here is five modern and contemporary Chinese poets, selected and translated. And so you have broken it up into sections, where you go through each poet’s translation first. But at the end of each one you have your own personal essay, and I was so moved reading so many of these. The one as you mentioned, the letter to Qiu Jin, I was moved to tears. It took me a long time to read it because I found it just so beautiful. And in an era where we are still fighting to name the translator, when racialized writers and translators are fighting to get proper respect, I want to hear a little bit from you, in your own words, why you made the decision to not just translate the poems, but to include your own words, and your own perspective, and process alongside them.

Yilin: Yeah, that’s a really good and thoughtful question.

Yilin: Originally this book started out just with my selection of some Chinese poetry from the modern and contemporary times. And I started translating the poems individually and then it was kind of expanded out into the project it is today. And I specifically wanted to add essays to contextualize, because that’s a common thing that’s included in a lot of translated anthologies and collections. Where they include, like, a preface or like a translator’s note giving some kind of context and background and discussion of the translation.

Yilin: But I also wanted to go beyond that because I didn’t want it to just be like a dry kind of technical or historical, or kind of academic text. I wanted it to be kind of personal in some way, because I felt like I was trying to reach some specific readers, like Chinese diaspora readers, queer readers, readers interested in Chinese literature, readers curious about translation. So I wanted to, in a way, kind of write to them, and create personal essays that would help them kind of better understand and kind of introduce them to the poems and to the poets. And I tried to kind of strike this balance between kind of sharing, kind of, what drew me to the poets and kind of my personal interpretation to the text with kind of some cultural and kind of sociopolitical and historical context, along with like commentary on like the crafts of translation.

Courtney: Yeah, and I really sensed that. Especially in that very first essay speaking to Qiu Jin. In so many ways I could tell you put so much of yourself and your own emotions in. Is it fair to call this a letter, a letter to Qiu Jin?

Yilin: Yeah, yeah. I think it is, yeah, like an epistolary essay or like a letter.

Courtney: Yeah, absolutely. I could tell you put so much of yourself in it. And I will say, it was beautiful hearing not only what her words and her poetry means to you, but to see it contextualized in sort of a modern queer lens as well. It struck me– At one point, you actually in this letter used the word queerplatonic. And knowing you, having had conversations with you, I know you identify as aroace, so this is a conversation we have had, but it– So it wasn’t a surprise to me, until it occurred– I think this may be the first time I have read that word published in a book.

Yilin: Woah.

Courtney: We talk about it so much in our community. It’s in a lot of aroace discourse. Having been in a very meaningful queerplatonic relationship myself, I know how much meaning that word can have to so many of us, but seeing it written down and published in a book I thought was so amazing. And that’s why I would love to encourage our audience in particular to go out and purchase this book, read it, borrow it from the library, do what you can to read this, because it is so very, very meaningful. And to see it in the poetic context, with your insight as a translator, is so unique as well. Because as far as aroace representation, queerplatonic representation is concerned, it’s sort of a fictionalized story or telling sort of a nonfiction, almost academic, sort of queer experience, sort of vibe. So to see it in something as emotional and artful as poetry and translation was really, really something special, I think.

Yilin: Thank you, that means a lot. And, yeah, I think the power of translation is that it can give us new vocabulary and different kind of language for discussing some of these experiences that are kind of universal or kind of culturally specific. And it’s one of the words that I feel like kind of comes up again and again in Qiu Jin’s kind of poetry. And that really stood out to me as one of the reasons that kind of draws me to her work. And so I wanted to highlight that, especially in the letter.

Courtney: Absolutely. And in that letter, using words like queerplatonic, using words– asking Qiu Jin, when you wrote these words, is this something you were experiencing that we would now call gender dysphoria? Using this modern queer vocabulary that we’re so acquainted with, really made it feel like not only is this book able to reach across and span across languages, but it felt like connecting the threads across time and space and location, as well as language. And I just found it completely beautiful. I don’t know what else I can say. I can’t recommend this enough.

Courtney: But in some of the other essays, to round out the other sections for each of these poets, it really felt like you were taking us on a journey across all of these vast expanses. Because at some point you were able to touch on time period, you were giving us history. There were times where it did feel like a meaningful history lesson that was very accessibly written, as well as a lesson on what goes into translation, for those of us who are not bilingual, or maybe are, but don’t have the translation skills, or the poetry and artistic skills. So it felt like a very complete picture.

Yilin: Thank you. Yeah, I tried to give – kind of – people a range of kinds of approaches or like, kind of, yeah, to show kind of the different ways in which I’ve kind of thought about translation.

Courtney: And so, while we are talking about the five different poets broken up into these sections and concluded with a personal essay, since we did, in our last episode, speak so much about the queer significance of Qiu Jin’s poetry and your personal connections, I’d like to also hear a little bit about what drew you to the other poets represented in this book. Who are they, how did you come to find them, and why did it feel so important to include them in this five poet curation?

Yilin: Yeah. So the five poets, three of them are modern, from Qiu Jin being the earliest, and two other poets from the early 20th century, like 1920s to 1940s, and then two more poets who are contemporary. I wanted to choose a range both in terms of themes and both in terms of styles. And one of the things that kind of made me think about modern Chinese poetry specifically, as opposed to like older classical works, is that they get translated a lot. For people who have some familiarity with Chinese poetry, they always think of certain ancient Tang dynasty poets, like Li Bai, for example, who are kind of very well-known, very widely translated.

Yilin: So I wanted to give people, like, a picture of kind of modern Chinese poetry. And this was also happening at a time when actually a lot of Chinese classical poetry was being translated into English. Often unfortunately by white academics, and translators, and writers who don’t have much contact or familiarity with the Chinese language or culture, and creating a lot of mistranslations that then kind of strangely influenced the rise of modernism in English.

Yilin: So, for example, they identify some qualities of classical Chinese poetry and for, like, you know, Chinese– classical Chinese writing doesn’t have first person point of view or it often kind of omits kind of pronouns. This is very unusual in English, you know. Can we kind of experiment with that? So there were all these influences from Chinese poetry, both in terms of actual translations and mistranslations. And at the same time, Chinese poetry itself was going through this evolution where the language was modernizing. And I wanted to kind of capture what was going on in this kind of alternative, parallel journey that was happening, in contrast to English, where people are also drawing on classical Chinese poetry but actually just extending on it into the modern age. So Qiu Jin is part of that, and she specifically wrote about, you know, feminist queer themes, cross-dressing, gender roles, and things like that.

Yilin: And then the two other poets from that era: Fei Ming, he wrote poetry that was very elusive– So he was known as the poet who kind of no one understood, but strangely kind of compelling because of his beautiful language, and often drawing on Buddhist and Taoist philosophies and ways of thinking about the world. Which I think of as very interesting, not necessarily from, like, a religious or spiritual way, but from, like, a philosophical perspective, where they challenge a lot of the kind of binary thinking that exists sometimes in kind of Western culture. And then the last poet, Dai Wangshu, who actually was someone who traveled across many places, and lived in Europe, and translated a lot of European poetry into Chinese. And it’s very fascinating to me that he was doing this work and I’m now translating his poetry back into English, and it feels like this continuation, you know, again across kind of time and distance in some ways. Yeah, so that’s the three, kind of, modern poets.

Yilin: And then the two contemporary poets are both women writers who haven’t been translated before, and I consider them to be kind of emerging but doing a very boundary-pushing work that deserves more attention.

Yilin: One specifically writes a lot about gender, about relationship with land, with kind of ancestral homes. Which I think is really important to the diaspora. And then– Xiao Xi wrote about socio-political issues, the environment, and also art-making and poetry. Yeah, so I decided to put all of them kind of in conversation with one another in this anthology.

Yilin: And then I think there are, kind of, some common imagery that appears throughout that unifies the poems. For example, the moon and, like, flowers and mountains are, like, imagery that kind of show up again and again. And then also like the themes of, kind of, music and longing. And again the queerplatonic kind of kindred spirit idea, is one that’s kind of often showing up in Chinese poetry about friendship and non-romantic, non-sexual kind of relationships. So that’s one that also kind of shows up again in some of the other poets’ works.

Courtney: Yeah, I sensed as I was reading it there was a theme touched on at multiple points in different ways with a different focus and, of course, different words, but there was a feeling of yearning that I sensed in a lot of it. And I think it’s so fascinating to have someone like yourself, who identifies with the aroace community, putting a yearning like that with your own lens, in your own context. Because I think too often, in broader society, when we talk about poetry, and we talk about yearning and longing, the sort of default stereotype is, well, it’s romantic, yearning. This is the pinnacle of suffering and longing. And sort of the highest reason to have these deep, complex feelings. And so I think yearning for deep, meaningful friendship, queerplatonic meaning, even for – as you said, in the diaspora sense – longing for home, there are so many other important elements of our life that can bring that feeling here. So do you sort of agree with that assessment? Do you feel like, as an aroace poet, it’s maybe disproportionately focusing on romantic elements?

Yilin: Yeah, I feel like a lot of poetry I read, in English especially, and maybe there’s some stereotypes around, you know, queer poetry is that a lot of it tends to be focused on, like, yeah, romantic sexual relationships. And there are, you know, many different kinds of intimacies, right? So, like there’s, you know, longing for connection, you know, longing for friendship, like, longing for a place. And these ideas, like, show up quite a bit in Chinese poetry. And even when there is, say, like longing for, like, you know, romantic relationships, as I talked about kind of in the essay on Qiu Jin, often it’s written as, like, a stand in for some other kinds of longing. And it’s often true, like, this male lens, where they’re kind of imagining kind of women’s longing. So that’s kind of getting unpacked as well.

Courtney: Yeah, I really felt that. And one thing that occurred to me while reading, as well, not only was this sort of feeling of longing and yearning coming up time and time again, but there was an element – in several places – of ambiguity. Things that are not so easily said, the space between words. And it occurred to me while reading the poems, and then reading your essay assessments on them when you’re talking about this ambiguity and what it means to try to translate it without over-explaining and keeping that feeling, it occurred to me that romance is sort of the one thing that people say, “Well, you need poetry for it, you need music for it, because it’s the one thing that is so profound and yet still unexplainable.” And I had this revelation that it doesn’t need to be that way. And here we have evidence that it is not. So I thank you for that. I think it’s really lovely, and to be able to not only have that revelation, but to see it spanning time, with a queer lens, talking from your experience as well in the diaspora, I think it was all very, very beautifully presented in that light.

Yilin: Yeah, I think that is so interesting because– Yeah, I definitely think a lot about ambiguity when I translate. In terms of, you know, kind of language and things that are not said. And yeah, that’s like a theme, I think, that kind of runs throughout as well.

Courtney: Yeah, because I think about, you know, removed from the artistic and poetry element, just in our queer communities, in the aro communities, the ace communities especially, we often have such a fear of being misunderstood. And to some extent that’s warranted because we are so highly misunderstood in so many places. But there comes this almost community obsession to over-explain, or explain perfectly, or to use the right words, or if the right word doesn’t exist, we need to create the right word and make sure people know the right word. And I understand where that concern comes from. But in thinking about other - just - aspects of deep emotion, other human experiences that aren’t necessarily sexual or romantic but are complex and can be messy at times, it occurred to me that art and playing with words not necessarily to get the right definition, to be as clear as possible, with no gray area at all, isn’t always as freeing as I think we make it out to be. I think having sort of a comfort in the ambiguity and to be able to use the words for artwork, to express emotion as opposed to facts and definitions, I think can be equally as freeing if that’s something that we let ourselves do. So I think our community could really benefit not only from reading poetry like this, but creating new poetry as well.

Yilin: Yeah, yeah. And you know, within ace and aro communities, like there are so many individual differences as well, right? In terms of our experiences. And so I think having that space, and kind of room, you know, and expansiveness for people to share different kinds of understandings of identity instead of having it so kind of pinned down, I think that’s kind of really important.

Yilin: And in intersection with, kind of, Chinese diaspora communities and kind of writing, I think there’s been a lot of discussion in kind of racialized and BIPOC communities about kind of, you know, not always explaining everything. Like it’s okay to just write for, like, the BIPOC or the racialized or, you know, the Chinese diaspora reader and accept that people who are not part of the community might, you know, get part of it, or get most of it, or have a different reading experience, and it’s okay. That’s not everything is super spelled out. That you don’t have to be always, kind of, explaining your identity to, like, a reader outside of your community. Like, you could just kind of write it as you know it and explain when you feel like it’s necessary, but you don’t have to spell everything out if it’s, like, obvious to you or if it’s obvious to, you know, certain people who are reading it. So I think that’s also kind of where that is kind of coming from as well.

Courtney: There was also a theme that was presented in one of these essays of something neutral being perceived as negative when it doesn’t need to be and it is not. And that really, really did resonate with me, because I do find that a lot of times someone expressing sort of this lack of– A lack of something has a negative connotation, right? And I think about that when we talk about people who identify with agender identity, even asexuality or aromanticism, there’s sort of a focus on a lack and so there’s almost an over-need to correct. Like that is– it doesn’t have to be a bad thing, it’s not bad, because of the perception swinging in that direction. So I actually, while reading it, I thought very heavily to my own life and my own relationship and with you, Royce, and the way you have at times articulated thoughts about gender to me or thoughts about things that maybe just weren’t necessarily applicable in your life. Because I know for me, I have an abundance of emotion for almost everything, whether it’s a positive or a negative emotion, I have a lot of them.

Courtney: So when I met Royce, there was a very interesting thing where Royce was a lot more apathetic to more things than I was, and since I was not naturally hardwired that way, I almost felt it myself. I was like, “Well, how can you be apathetic to this thing?” When really it’s not like we were talking about societal injustices. They were very minor things that Royce was apathetic about. And I for a time did sort of perceive that apathy as something negative. But really getting to have more conversations, and learning more about the way your brain works, and now when you even articulate– And Royce maybe can throw in a few words about how you feel about the word agender, which you often say is correct but still not necessarily correct. There was a moment in your essays where I was thinking about that. How true it is that the empty space can still be meaningful, it is not negative, it sometimes just is.

Royce: I don’t know that you’ve expressed a sort of negative, knee-jerk reaction to general apathy before, but yeah, that’s the case. I’ve sort of struggled with understanding the opposite. I had just assumed for a while that everyone else was a bit extra, you know? Other people are just really expressive about things, sometimes to the point of hyperbole. It took a long time to realize that this was a difference in experience, rather than expression. But yeah, for example, for me most food is good, not great, not bad.

Royce: I’m not the type of person who talks about having a life-changing meal or will go out of their way to eat at a particular restaurant. I’ve known people who do that, kind of the same thing for most activities and experiences. They’re fine when they’re happening and that’s about it for me. I’ve often walked away from nights out enjoying the conversation, but kind of after the fact thinking, “Well, we could have just done that at someone’s house and skipped the travel and the loud environment.” The venue or the event itself really didn’t add much.

Royce: I think some of the early conversations we were having in our relationship were more about atmosphere, or ambience. You were talking earlier, Courtney, about how impactful it was to see the word queerplatonic printed in a book, and that made me think about some early conversations we had about mediums for literature. Because I’ve – for a while at that point – had been reading mostly on a screen instead of actual like physical printed material. And the conversation at the time was, “Well, what’s the importance of the physical book then?” And you were just mentioning the feel, or the smell. But I think there’s also something there for you where holding something in your own hands just feels more real, feels more permanent. Particularly considering how much just goes up and comes back down online and then is lost or buried.

Courtney: There were certainly just a lot of things like that that you made very clear are more important to me than they are to you. And I remember, at one point you said to me the line. Because this was the one thing where I was like, “Is this a bad thing?” No, I guess it’s not. But you said, “I’m generally apathetic about most things.” That was the line. And I was like, “Well, that– that sounds bad.” [chuckles]

Royce: So that’s a very– I think part of the struggle here, you mentioned the feeling, or fear, of being misunderstood, and for me that’s a very neurodivergent experience. And so I think oftentimes I try to cut to a very simplistic, if not overly simplistic, explanation, just to try to find grounding somewhere. And then, if we need to get into it further past that point, we can go from there. But language, whether it’s written or spoken, is a form of self-expression as much as any traditional art form, and it’s going to vary from person to person. And it’s just very difficult to perfectly articulate what’s going on inside your own brain in a way that another human brain is going to understand implicitly, unless you both have similar wiring and experiences.

Courtney: Yeah. Well, I think experience is another really important factor here, and I’d love to hear from you, Yilin, because, of course, not only are we talking about aro and ace experience here, but you’re also bringing your own cultural and racial background to these translations. So can you tell us just a little bit about how all of your own identities sort of intersect in your work and bring us all these different points of view?

Yilin: Yeah, so for me, I identify as like a part of the Chinese diaspora, being like an immigrant and settler who grew up in Canada, specifically in Vancouver, on the unceded Coast Salish territories, and then as a member of the ace and aro communities, and also as someone who’s genderqueer and still kinda exploring gender. And you know, we were talking a little bit about representation. So I think the first thing I’ll say is I feel like there’s a general lack of representation that I felt kind of growing up and even now. Because from the Chinese, kind of, cultural side of things, I think, kind of, asexuality is very kind of invisible as well. And especially for femmes who are like asian femmes, often in, like, a chinese kind of cultural context, you’re kind of seen as just there’s this kind of assumption that everyone is just like, “All the women and femmes are just not supposed to really be sexual.” Like there’s this erasure of, kind of, yeah, like asexual identity. So people don’t really understand it. They would just act as if you’re just kind of how you should be, and they don’t understand it to be, you know, a specific experience.

Yilin: And then kind of in North America, I feel like – in media and kind of in popular culture and kind of representation – often, kind of, asian women and femmes tend to be kind of sexualized and kind of exoticized. And historically there’s been kind of a lot of association with, like, orientalist tropes. An example would be something like a Memoirs of a Geisha, you know? Like that’s a common kind of representation of, like, asian women in media. So you’re kind of overly sexualized. And so I think I’ve always struggled to find a very good representation.

Yilin: And there’s kind of– It’s a situation that’s improving, and sometimes we see kind of pockets of it, especially, for example, into some kind of more non-fiction books coming out, or kind of YA novels can explore the topic. But still kind of pretty hard, I think, to find for me things that I find really reflective of my own experience and like literature, especially, at kind of the various intersections.

Yilin: So when I write, when I translate, I try to keep that in mind and I sometimes write about those experiences. And when I translate I try and look for texts that are speaking to, kind of, asexuality or aromanticism. And sometimes, you know, in Chinese they’re not necessarily using the same kind of language we do now, which is also why, kind of, my letter to Qiu Jin was kind of raised in terms of some questions and kind of discussion. Because I didn’t necessarily want to, kind of, force English labels onto her experiences. But I look for– Yeah, like, these kinds of threads and kind of texts – whether kind of modern or kind of ancient – and try to highlight that when I translate. And it’s been very meaningful to kind of find terms like zhīyīn and find kind of poetry that speaks to, like, this deep connection and kind of friendship and queerplatonic kind of connection with others, because that’s not something I see as much in English.

Courtney: Yeah, and I remember from our first conversation too. Because this is five poets, you’re really only able in a single book, to pick out a handful of their entire body of work for each of these sections. And I remember you telling us that when you choose your translations you really do your research, you read their entire body of work. If they come from a specific period of time, you try to contextualize it in the time and learn about the era in which they were writing. So it really makes sense to me that when you’re reading all of this poetry, when you decide how to curate it, which poems get put in in which order, how you’re thinking about it contextually in your translations and how that manifests in the final book, it seems to me that there’s just so much of yourself in these pages as well.

Yilin: Yeah, absolutely. I think letting my experiences and kind of tastes and also like my interest as a poet and as an editor kind of helped me kind of curate.

Courtney: And so, on that topic, I do have to ask, do you have any– Do you have a favorite translation in the book? I’m sure it’s got to be hard to decide.

Yilin: It’s really hard, it’s really hard. Yeah, there are kind of, you know, poems I like for specific reasons, and then there are kind of translations that stand out to me because, you know, they were very hard to translate or I kind of went through a lot of different drafts or or it’s kind of memorable in some way. Yeah, so, I have, like, those but not necessarily, like, favorites.

Courtney: I do want to hear about the ones that were especially difficult. And, whether it was the vocabulary or the time period or the ambiguity, what was the most challenging and what about it was that way?

Yilin: Yeah, I think some of the ones by Fei Ming, who was the one writing about kind of ambiguity, who’s– Yeah, the essay on translating his work talk a lot about kind of the negative space and like openness and ambiguity. So his poetry especially I found challenging. Because when you translate you’re kind of translating the text on the page but there were a lot of, kind of, ambiguous kind of spots within the poetry.

Yilin: So trying to figure out, you know, how do you kind of translate the implied, the unsaid, the kind of ambiguous, paradoxical kinds of lines and phrases…? That was quite challenging. Especially with Lantern, which I talk about in the essay. That one I ended up translating a lot of different times because there was so much kind of going on with, like, illusions and kind of stream of consciousness, kind of jumping around to different images and things like that. So that’s what that, kind of, really stood out to me.

Yilin: And then there were also others in some of the other poets’ work, like places where there is a repetition of one Chinese word over and over again for rhythm and repetition. But the Chinese word didn’t have an exact English match and you have to make a choice between preserving the repetition or coming up with various other kinds of words to kind of substitute for the one kind of perfect word that exists in Chinese. So there were a lot of those, kind of, word choice, kind of, struggles as well.

Courtney: Yeah, and I really enjoyed reading about your thought process. I know at one point you said there was a poem you went through over 50 times trying to get it right somehow in this ambiguous space where there isn’t a hard line, right or wrong. Because there is so much artistry to deciding on the words, not only for the original poet but for the translator too. And I loved being able to get an insight into why you made the decisions that you did. Because not only does it give us, the readers, a deeper appreciation for the kind of work that goes into it, but I think it also is really respectful to the original poet and the original language too, to explain to us who don’t speak the language, to know this word can be used in a lot of different ways, in the way that the English translation version of it doesn’t. So we’re able to expand our understanding on several fronts in that way.

Courtney: And I really loved this line from your final essay in the book, where you can almost imagine the poet reaching out and saying, “Don’t worry, poetry isn’t what is lost in translation, but rather what survives it.”

Courtney: I thought that was so beautiful. Because of all the different expanses we’re trying to achieve here: time, distance, language, that feeling of yearning, that ambiguity, and the queerness that underlies so much of your work here, where – especially in the historical context – not only are you translating the words but you’re also trying to translate the ideas with our modern context. So I thought the idea of poetry being what survives the translations, because, at the end of the day, it’s important that we have the translation, that we’re able to access it. Because you also put so beautifully in your book that there is a very real concern that beautiful, important, meaningful work that could have the ability to reach so many other people are at risk of becoming lost.

Yilin: Yeah, yeah. The line that you read by Dai Wangshu, I really like as well. And I kind of found that quote from one of his essays when I was writing that piece. And I really wanted to include it, because often people see translation as somehow, like, lesser than the original. There– there’s this idea of kind of translation as a kind of loss. You know, people talk about, like, what’s kind of gone missing in the translation. Or somehow the translation is kind of not as original or kind of in some way kind of things have faded or kind of gone missing, you know, in the translation.

Yilin: So there’s a lot of focus on, again, the translation as like not necessarily a kind of service or contribution, but rather something that’s kind of negative. Sort of like what we were talking about with the ambiguity and kind of, you know, the expansiveness and, kind of, people not being open to that.

Yilin: So I think there’s also, yeah, this concern that somehow things would not survive translation, and that gets said a lot about poetry, that somehow the beauty would disappear in the translation. But I think Dai Wangshu kind of argued that actually, like, there is this kind of universality that kind of exists within poetry. That, you know, good poetry when it’s translated well, like, what survives is the core part of the poem and that is the part that’s actually not being lost but kind of being carried over. There may be, you know, changes in terms of kind of the, kind of, exact kind of technical usage of language and like the linguistics and wordplay, but the spirit of the poem is still there and that’s kind of what survives. And what is, you know, in the translation that’s kind of very much a part of the original.

Courtney: Yeah, I found that absolutely beautiful, I loved that. And I thought it was a beautiful way to tie all these themes together. Which is why I said earlier it really felt like we went on an entire journey while reading this book. So I want to congratulate you on a beautiful, beautiful book. I really, really hope that more in our community will be able to read this. I want people to know more about the queer significance of Qiu Jin. I want people to know more about the diaspora experience. I want people to learn more about being able to take meaning in ambiguity and use words in a playful way and in an emotional way, and not necessarily always an analytical one, and what that means to us as a queer community. So I do want to ask, last time we had you on, you so generously read by Qiu Jin, Inscriptions on my Tiny Portrait (in Men’s Clothes), and I was very taken with it and I was happy to reread it again in your book. Are you willing to share another poem with us today?

Yilin: Yeah, I think I’ll share maybe one of the Fei Ming ones, since we’ve been talking about him, and I think I’ll share the one that’s page 45, The Floating Dust of the Mortal Realm. So I’ll read it.

Yilin: [reading] The Floating Dust of the Mortal Realm.

Yilin: Not to speak of timely and wondrous rain falling upon ephemeral mountains,

Yilin: nor to dwell on rare and unexpected footsteps echoing through nebulous valleys,

Yilin: here’s yet another predictable batch of grainy residue,

Yilin: still the mortal dust of the vast universe–

Yilin: Beyond the eaves, the lone call of a sparrow.

Yilin: Yes, pages of poetry, please become ashes and take flight.

Yilin: The nebulous, ephemeral world is a speck of the deeply cherishing heart.

Yilin: The universe is a particle of indestructible dust floating in the air.

Courtney: I love that one. Honestly, the entire Fei Ming section, as well as your essay to conclude it, I thought was really, really lovely. Did you see–? Since we do talk about you bringing your own intersectional experiences into the poetry, can you tell us a little bit specifically, since Fei Ming is the one who is known as being misunderstood, the one who has so many layers of ambiguity in the text, how do you, in all of your experiences, resonate with that ambiguity? How do you see some of your own experiences in it?

Yilin: So I think, as like an aro ace person and as like a Chinese diaspora femme and also a translator, I relate, you know, to this feeling of being not understood or being seen as somehow elusive and, you know, hard to grasp and somehow kind of puzzling to other readers. Because I think that is something that we experience in many different ways. I’ve had sometimes, you know, writing be called kind of inaccessible or difficult to understand or somehow not kind of being relatable, you know, to people with different lived experiences. So I found that kind of labeling of, kind of, framing, to be kind of fascinating but also frustrating. And when I read his poetry I did initially – and I talk about this in the essay – feel like this desire somehow to pin down meaning, to fully understand every line and every word.

Yilin: But kind of as I read more, I also talked to a scholar who knew a lot about Buddhist philosophy, who could explain some of the allusions are actually about just lived experience, and about not necessarily putting things into language but just being able to experience it and just understanding shui, like living shui.

Yilin: I started to try to think of a different way of approaching his work and more kind of connecting with it emotionally, you know. Kind of letting this mind, kind of, interpretation and, kind of, intuition kind of guide me. And like, look for connections and accept that, you know, I wouldn’t be able to necessarily translate, kind of, everything. And it is just like an interpretation and like a reading of the poems. And I feel that that was like a good way for me to, kind of, engage with his work. And I actually find it really, really beautiful and really, really moving. And I really appreciate what he’s doing with, kind of, ambiguity and, kind of, space and not selling out everything, and kind of just normalizing that.

Courtney: Yeah, because the concept of the blank spaces and, like we talked earlier, how it doesn’t have to be seen as negative, even though that often is the default assumption is that the blank space is bad. So I love the reframing that the blank space can say as much. What isn’t there can say as much about– What isn’t there can say as much, if not more, as what is. And that concept of the blank spaces, Royce to pull you back in for half a second, was– I think, what I failed to explain better earlier, but the concept of blank spaces as it was discussed sort of in the context of this poetry, was what really had me thinking to some ways that you have described gender. Because you say, “Well, I think of gender as a box and someone saying pick a box, but they aren’t my box and I don’t want them.”

Royce: Yeah, the attempted explanation is more restrictive than the reality. It’s just the reality is difficult to actually put into terms that someone who isn’t actively experiencing it are likely to understand.

Courtney: Yeah, and you’ve even recently articulated as well that, although you will say agender for the sake of simplicity at times, and that that might be technically correct, you say, “That also kind of feels like a box, and I still don’t want to pick a box.” So the concept of blank space, because since we’re so quick as a society to see emptiness as inherently bad, I think we’re really quick to want to fill it. And if someone doesn’t fill those blank spaces for us there’s sort of a like, “Well, you must pick. What is the word, what is the label, what is the pronoun? Give us the answer.” When sometimes the answer is not there, the answer doesn’t exist, you asked entirely the wrong question or the answer is just so ephemeral that there’s no way to explain it in a way that you will be able to now feel what I am feeling.

Yilin: Yeah, yeah, yeah. I kind of thought about that a lot when translating Fei Ming and when writing that essay. Yeah, because I started noticing, as I kind of was translating, some of the words that so many of the words in English associated with, like, emptiness, you know, are related to lack, right? Like, you know, void, you know, empty, kind of negative space, you know? Like, what’s so negative about it? Right, and yeah, hollow… You know, like, and same thing for a word that I ended up being– kind of ended up translating as ephemeral or kind of nebulous. You know, like, they’re– it’s describing a state that’s kind of like in between or kind of, you know, partially there. But a lot of the synonyms, kind of terms coming up in the dictionary, were things like, you know, kind of false, you know illusion, kind of unreal, and you know none of those were it. It’s just kind of space, you know, but like neutral space. And just because there’s not kind of a thing there, it doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist and it’s not a real thing that exists. Even if we can’t name it or identify it or box it in, it is still present and it’s also more like a spectrum rather than just either presence or absence, their kind of presence or absence.

Courtney: Yeah, absolutely. And I think that’s such a great way– I’m sure we have some listeners out there, just knowing our aspec community, I’m sure we have some listeners out there who just had an aha moment because we so often say like, “Well, we don’t want to be defined by what we lack.” And often those are, sort of, words we use. It’s a lack of sexual attraction, it’s a lack of romantic attraction, with all the additional caveats we put to include the spectrum of identities. But I think being able to sort of reframe and recontextualize it as the blank space is still a meaningful space, it’s something we can still notice, we can still bear witness to. It is still just as important, if not more so than what is physically or metaphorically there.

Courtney: And I find that resonates with me personally, on my– on my asexual side of my identity, because my– my aromantic side of my identity is more in the demi/gray area. It’s a little more complicated and messy. But my– my asexual side of things, it’s like there is nothing there, it never has been, it is zero. It has gone quite on the sex repulse side of things as well. So I have always been very comfortable saying, like, “No, it is a complete lack, there is nothing there.” I’ve even been comfortable explaining my own experience to say, like, “Yeah, it is a lack of sexual attraction, it is just gone.” Whereas a lot of people might prefer to say like– Well, or I’ll say a lack of sexuality, and some people will say like, “Well, asexuality is still a sexuality, it’s just a different type of sexuality.” But I– in my experience, I’m comfortable saying it is a lack of sexuality because that is how I experience it in my body, and I don’t think that has to be negative.

Royce: That’s interesting, to reframe the comment from earlier where you said that some of the early conversations we had had together had you pondering those negative associations. Because I’ve always felt very comfortable speaking of the absence of things. Apathy, void, stillness. I generally appreciate silence or emptiness. I’ve had times when other people would interrupt me while I was just processing things, because they couldn’t handle a moment’s silence. So needing to fill space to make other people feel comfortable has been a component of masking for me. Aside from that, when designing things, oftentimes white space, empty space, negative space it’s as much a part of the overall design as the content itself that’s framed inside of it. So I think this is a concept that we feel in a lot of areas. And I think it’s interesting that some aspects of that felt familiar to you, naturally, intuitively, and yet the way that I was experiencing it or expressing it was still foreign in some way.

Courtney: Yeah, because every experience is different, and so I found myself doing a lot of internal reflection as I was getting to know you, and I think anyone who has some sort of deep, meaningful connection with another person – whether it’s romantic and asexual, or completely queerplatonic, or aroace, or ever labels feels correct to someone – I think, a deep, meaningful connection, not only do you learn about the other person, but you come to learn so much about yourself. And I thought it was interesting, Royce, when you talked about design elements, because that actually gave me another question for Yilin. Is that another concept that you had to think about when translating, as the actual literal space on the page and the line breaks? Because when we see each of these poems, you have – correct me if I’m wrong – simplified Chinese on one side and then you have the English translations on the other. So we see them side by side even if we don’t speak both languages ourselves. So was the actual design of the page a really big element to you when you were also writing these translations?

Yilin: Yeah, so for me it was really important to have it in, like, a bilingual format for the poetry. I would say it’s fairly common for translated poetry to have the original, but especially in this case, given some of the themes, I think I don’t necessarily want to assume like a monolingual reader. I’m expecting some of the people who pick up the book, you know, might be fluent in Chinese and able to read the simplified and– Or maybe they have partial fluency, like maybe they learned a little bit or they’re part of the diaspora, they have some prior exposure or they’re learning the language, and I think they would have like a different kind of reading experience than someone who can only read the English. And there are, kind of, additional maybe, kind of, layers of meaning they might find, you know, comparing the Chinese and the English and seeing how translations were made. But also the translations kind of stand alone in English as well.

Yilin: And yeah– And definitely when I translate poetry I need to think about things like line breaks and space. Because that’s very much an element of poetry. And it’s very interesting because Chinese poetry it’s very traditional in terms of the actual usage of the page. Schools of poetry, like concrete poetry or visual poetry, where they play a lot with how the words look on the page. And then also there’s in general much more freedom in terms of leaving gaps or having a layout where there are unique line breaks and stanza breaks and adding lots of blank space in between stanzas or between words, like that’s quite common in English poetry, but that’s not really a thing that happens to Chinese poetry on the page. It’s more just, like, laid out as text, with line breaks, without really kind of that layer. But it doesn’t mean that there’s no silences or a space or ambiguity, because, as I mentioned, like that shows up a fair bit in some of the poet’s work.

Yilin: So when I was translating, I also had to kind of make decisions around if I just wanted to, you know, keep the exact line breaks or if I wanted to introduce space and pauses in certain places. And I would say I mostly tried to follow the layout of the original, just because I didn’t feel like the style required a lot of experimentation with, kind of, the space visually. But there were definitely places as well where I added space where I felt like it was needed. And there were also sometimes changes to line breaks as well. Especially because Chinese is more concise so that I would have all these overflowing lines, where one line of poetry might have become two and things like that. So yeah, that’s like an interesting thing to think about. And even if people can’t read the Chinese, they can kind of see how it’s visually laid out and if there are, kind of, similarities.

Courtney: Well, I want to say once again, any listeners, especially if you’ve made it this far, I hope you are fascinated enough to go out and purchase this. I know during the first episode we recommended everyone pre-order it, and I know a few of you did. So I hope those of you who have already received your books have started digging into it, and I hope you love it as much as I did. We usually like to end our episodes by featuring a marketplace vendor of the week, but, Yilin, your book is now on the marketplace, so you are our featured vendor for the day, as is fitting. And so, of course, to all of our listeners, we’re going to have a link for where you can purchase this book down in the show notes. But let’s hear from you, Yilin. Where can the people buy your book? Where can people find and follow you? And do you have any other projects you’re working on that you would like to plug for us? Let’s hear it all.

Yilin: Yeah, thank you so much for everything and for all the support. I recommend buying the book from indie bookstores. They’re the best in terms of both supporting authors and translators, and also in terms of, kind of, curating good, kind of, queer books as well as, kind of, caring more about representation oftentimes. I have a local indigenous bookstore in Vancouver here, called Massy Books, and they have some of the books in stock. And I also sometimes go by and sign copies and leave them the signed copies and they do ship kind of everywhere. So I like to recommend people to check out Massy Books.

Yilin: Alternatively, I would say, look at maybe your local queer or BIPOC owned, indigenous owned bookstore. And then people can definitely follow me on social media at yilinwriter (y-i-l-i-n writer.) I’m still on Twitter, but I’m trying to get off it. So maybe–

Courtney: Aren’t we all…

Yilin: Exactly, exactly. So, if you can, you know, try to find me at Instagram and Blue Sky. That’s kind of where I’m trying to relocate to. And also, I have a website as well where you can, kind of, check for information. And then in terms of projects, I’m slowly working on more transitions of Qiu Jin, so hopefully that will eventually finish. I’m kind of taking this low because I’m kind of resting after putting out this book. But I’m slowly kind of working on that and I’m excited to share more.

Yilin: Courtney

Yilin: And we are excited for it as well. So, before we completely wrap up, is there anything else you want to talk about or touch on that we haven’t had a chance to speak to yet?

Yilin: I think that’s everything. Thank you so much. This has been really great.

Courtney: Awesome. Well, thank you so much again for being here, Yilin. It is always a pleasure to speak to you.

Courtney: Once again, all of you listeners, find your local bookstore. Check out the link in our description. Whatever you do, please purchase this book. As I said, you can find it on the marketplace, but we’ll have direct links in the show notes, which might be faster and save you a couple of clicks in the meantime.

Courtney: So, all that said, thank you all so much for listening. Thank you all to our listeners as well. I know from our first episode with Yilin during the British Museum debacle, I know that there were a few of you who helped donate to the legal funds. I know there were a few of you who helped, at the very least, share the link and get the word out, and that community support means so much, and so I am so happy that each and every one of you also helped. So, thank you so much. And on that note, we will talk to you all next time. Goodbye.