Monday, December 4, 2017

Aren’t We All Accomplices (Book Review)

In May 2012, a stranger contacted me through my website. A professor of cultural psychology at Hampshire College, Q.M. Zhang was interested in talking about Chongqing, the city I grew up in. What triggered her request for a meeting, apparently, was my article titled “Another Kind of American History in Chongqing,” which had appeared on the Atlantic website the previous year. She was writing a memoir about her relationship with her father, who had worked for the Kuomintang (aka the KMT or the Nationalists, the ruling party of China from 1928 to 1949) in Chongqing during WWII.

By contrast, my own parents were underground Communists in the 1940s. So her father and mine, though unknown to each other, had literally been enemies in the same city.  (Read the rest of my review on LARB China Channel)

Saturday, August 19, 2017

Sketches of Boston's Counter-Protest Today

A group of my Chinese American friends and I joined Boston's counter-protest today, because we feel that increasing racism, encouraged by Donald Trump, has become a significant and ever-dangerous trend in America. We were all outraged by Heather Heyer's murder a week ago, and shocked that Nazis could openly stage such a comeback. Is this America??  Is this still the America we immigrated to?

So as soon as we heard about the so-called "free-speech rally" in Boston, we felt the need to show the world that we are with the majority of Bostonians who have no tolerance for bigotry and hatred. "作为少数族裔,我感到义不容辞,需要现身表明立场" — "As a minority member, I feel duty-bound to show up and take a clear stand," was how one friend put it.

A little after eleven this morning, when my friends and I arrived at Boston Common, the police had fenced out a large area around Parkman Bandstand (see photos below).  From a distance, only a few, hardly discernible small shadows could be seen on the Bandstand stage; otherwise the protected area was completely deserted.  And so the scene of a sea of counter-protesters —thousands?  tens of thousands? —outside the fence looking into a largely empty ring was kind of funny, but in a good way. Apparently, the police were determined to make an effective firebreak between the right wing speakers and counter-protesters, but with the unexpectedly tiny size of bushfire, the firebreak seemed oversized. It worked though. Where were the thousands of attendees the so-called "free speech rally" organizers said would be there? Had their rally petered out before it even began?

Some of us thought those racists might show up at noon, the scheduled time of their "event," and that would be our time to confront them.  A few minutes before noon, I managed to squeeze through the counter-protesters to a gap in the temporary fence, in time to see an array of policemen walking out. I asked one of them if more of the "free speech" guys were going to arrive. "That's it," he said, refereeing to the sparse grouping of figures on the stage.

Later, after the "event" ended early, before 1 pm instead of the scheduled time of 2 pm, I asked another policeman guarding the Common how many people were there; he said about two dozen from the "free speech" side, and 25k counter protesters.  I asked why he thought so few of the former party showed up.

"Because they are idiots," the police said with apparent scorn.

I was actually not that surprised by the faltered "free speech rally."  Yesterday, a friend had found this on Facebook:

What does this mean?  Go figure.

So the counter-protest, for which we had worried about Charlottesville-like violence, turned out to be a largely fun outing.  Here are a few anecdotes from today.

Shortly after walking into the Common, we heard a thunderous chanting echoed by what must have been thousands of people: "Fuck Donald Trump! Fuck Donald Trump!"

One of us, a photographer, saw a number of men who claimed they were "free speech" members and wanted to join those on the stage.  Police guarding the entrance told them their names were not on the list given by the organizer, and refused to let them through the fence. Our photographer followed those guys, escorted by police, moving around the big circle, and saw that at every entrance they met with rejection.

My husband, an American who had lived in Canada in his youth years, was dismayed to see a Canadian flag on the Bandstand. Some Canadians came to Boston to be racists? He wondered aloud.

People were booing someone waving a Sickle-Hammer Soviet flag. It was too far from where I stood and I could only see the flag swinging in air. Couldn't figure out the motivation of the flag-holder.

At one point, the crowd before us cheered loudly. I then heard that someone had turned on the sprinkler in one area of the Common, and a few "free speech" members passing through got a free shower.

An old couple, who held an American flag and said they supported Trump, were arguing with some counter-protesters. I got there at the end of the arguments, when the old couple were leaving. A bystander who looked like had been in the service was helping the old lady, carefully and correctly folding her flag for her so that she could carry it more easily.

Here are more photos from today, some taken by myself, some by my friends. I got a kick out of the many creative signs.

(Police blocked vehicles from entering the Common)

(when we walked in the Common)

Counter protesters:

(a friend)

(another friend)

Sunday, August 13, 2017

Another Opinion on Ezra Pound's Translation

Just saw in a Reddit discussion an interesting comment related to my post "On Ezra Pound’s Translation of Ancient Chinese Poetry" (this is an example where the pronoun "he" is blatantly wrong in a comment, but the commentator still makes a good and on topic point 😊) .

Here is the gist of the comment (emphasis mine):

     This is an example where one of the poets is blatantly wrong in his translation, but he is still the best poet out of all of them. Even though the blogger tried to come up with his own style that is above the other two, he misses out on a lot of the subtle modernist poetic rhythms that Pound pulls in his. Pound, of course, misses out on the folk-song repetitive & rhymey quality of the original, but makes up for it in his skill.
      For example, in the first line of Pound’s poem, he builds up softer sound through “picking the first fern-shoots”, and uses more ‘o’s when the later part comes. The 3rd translation has the rhyme, but lacks this nuance. Pound’s version is lingering throughout because of his superb manipulation of sounds.

(Complete comment embedded below)

Friday, July 28, 2017

Chinese Translations of the Atlantic's Cover Stories

Translating the Atlantic's cover stories into Chinese is a project that my friends and I started in March, motivated by a feeling of responsibility to help serious journalism reach a broader audience.  In today's internet jungle that can readily swallow (and has swallowed many) uninformed readers, there are time-honored trustworthy publications that stand out by providing people with truth and perspective, and the Atlantic is one of those.

Fortunately, our attempt received support from the Atlantic's editorship led by John Gould, who had the courage and foresight to let us start this experiment.  Since then, our translations have been widely praised by readers; people are saying things like "翻译得真的很好,感觉不到翻译“ (meaning: "the translation is so good it does not feel like a translation"), "非常流畅的译笔" ("very fluent translation "), and "译文像是中文书写的一样" ("the translation is like ​original Chinese writing").

Some of our work, such as the translations of "How to Build Autocracy" and "My Family's Slave​,​" has generated a huge readership, and stayed on top of's "Popular" list for weeks. We are very encouraged and truly appreciative of the editors, supporting staff, and readers. We have worked hard, and the project has been intellectually rewarding.

Here's the list of our translations so far, in reverse-chronological order:
  • July/August:  
How to Deal With North Korea
  • June:
My Family's Slave
  • May
Alec Baldwin Gets Under Trump’s Skin
  • April

Tuesday, March 28, 2017

On the Intent of Translating

I'm fascinated by the assertion in Walter Benjamin's "The Task of the Translator" (in Theories of Translation) that "No poem is intended for the reader, no picture for the beholder, no symphony for the listener." Is this a philosophic contemplation, or the writer's belief of the highest state of art, or his belief of reality? He seems to be using this as a premise to derive a conclusion that, because the original art doesn't take the receiver into consideration, the translation can't either.

However, there exist several different approaches to translation, as pointed out in "On the Different Methods of Translating" by Schleiermacher. As far as I can tell, the need for more than one approach arises precisely due to the consideration of the receiver. Creation of art, in my view, is complete only after the receiver receives the art. In other words, art is co-created by the author and the receiver. Without the receiver, there is no art.

I would think that, in most cases, the aimed readership dictates the translation method. One example I'd like to cite is the Chinese translation of Finnegans Wake, which I've talked about before. I was visiting China when the translation was published, and I went to a bookstore to see what the book looked like. On each page there are more footnotes than text proper. This, clearly, is not meant for casual readers. The translator said in an interview that "I thought my readers would be scholars and writers." In this example, a scholarly, academic style was chosen. When I translate Chinese literature into English or vice versa, I would definitely consider my target readership's cultural exposure in regard to the source language. Is this not the right way to approach a translation?

Even were I to accept Benjamin's premises for art and literature in general, the above example convinces me his conclusion does not apply to translation. While translation is a creative and artful process, the very act of translation requires that the art has already been received. Moreover, the people who receive the translation want to do so often because they believe there is something special, based on the reactions of others who have already received it. A key motive of the translator is to have translation receivers share the experience, though necessarily in approximation, of the direct receivers, whether it be lyrical, sensual or intellectual (or all three).

So even if Benjamin is right about art, his claims do not seem to translate. 😃

Monday, January 30, 2017

Flash Nonfiction: "A Memory of the First Battle"

min words | max heart

   A Memory of the First Battle

     Xujun Eberlein
At first our city’s two Red Guard factions engaged in “civilized struggle”—using brush pens and words, big-character posters and leaflets, high-pitched broadcast and public debates, loud diatribes and, occasionally, fists to attack each other—until one side started to frequently parade the streets, shouting insulting and damaging slogans such as “Blah-blah is doomed,” and that nettled the nerve of the said faction, middle and high school and college students who had successfully forced the city government to stop classes, so they could carry on the Cultural Revolution, and so they charged into the city’s firehouses, where fire-fighters had been told not to resist the Red Guards, filled fire engines with sewage from big cesspools of communal toilets, drove to the streets, and sprayed their parading opponents—who might have been able to stand up against water cannons but ended up fleeing helter-skelter from the overwhelming foul smell—making the streets stink for days, so badly that stores stayed closed. That was how piss and shit and fire engines became the first real weapon in our city’s “armed struggle,” preceding steel rods and spears, which would, in turn, be replaced by rifles, machine guns, tanks, even warships, all supplies from arsenals stocked to aid Vietnam’s resistance of the U.S., and when those weapons drew blood we’d hear stories such as friends of an injured student tying a towel below his leg wounds, a first-aid method they thought they had learned from war movies, until the boy shed all his blood and stopped breathing.

Thursday, January 26, 2017

Old Adage, New Translation: Calling Deer Horse 指鹿为马

(Note: Zhao Gao (258-207BC) was the highest official under the Second Emperor of the Qin Dynasty.)

[in translation]

Aspiring to gain complete control of power, and anxious that others might not obey him, Zhao Gao set up a test. He led a deer to the emperor and said, "This is a horse." The emperor laughed. "Are you mistaken? Calling a deer a horse?" When the emperor asked the other officials in the court, some remained silent, some followed Zhao to say the deer was a horse, and some said it was a deer. Zhao then back-stabbed those who said the deer was a deer, causing them to be punished under the law. From that day forward everyone feared Zhao and repeated his alternative fact

[Original text] 赵高欲为乱,恐群臣不听,乃先设验. 持鹿献于二世,曰:“马也。”二世笑曰:“丞相误邪?谓鹿为马。”问左右,左右或默,或言马以阿顺赵高,或言鹿者。高因阴中诸言鹿者以法。后群臣皆畏高。(司马迁《史记·秦始皇本纪》)

This is what Trump voters said when asked to compare his inauguration crowd with Obama’s

Saturday, January 21, 2017

Interesting Photos from Boston Women's March

The following photos were taken by Chinese Americans who also participated in the march today. (I've posted on Facebook a short video I recorded.)

(Photographer unknown)
This photo of a Chinese American woman goes viral on WeChat. Her poster reads "Trump get out!" using a northern Chinese idiom. For more Chinese American photos, see 

photo by Audrey Wu 
photo by LZ
(photo by Yan)

photo by Yan
photo by Ying

photo by Xia Yu

Friday, January 20, 2017

On Day One of a Prolonged National Mourning

What do we start mourning today then? You tell me.
I will join Boston Women's March tomorrow, but I feel the need to do something on this Friday as well. Not watching anything live on TV–I couldn't stand it. So I am posting a flash fiction piece I wrote right after Election Day, 2016.  I did not post it then, because I was held back by my outrage, disbelief, sorrow, anger, loathing, disappointment, anguish, disgust, trepidation, yet clinging to the constant wishful thought that something would happen to stop the catastrophe, to settle into a resolution.
But settle it never did.  I don't know how we, Americans, got into this muddle. It has started to feel like 1966, in China.  That was also a regime with broad, in fact much broader, popular support.
It doesn't take a sophisticated mind to see how wrong it is to let Trump get into the White House. The following story is not one of reason or morality; it simply reflects the emotions of an ordinary mother, emotions many of my friends experienced.

How to Be a Good Parent in 2016

Xujun Eberlein

You have told your 8-year-old son not to watch TV, but you are intent on seeing the first presidential debate, so you allow him to sit by you on the couch for an hour and a half before going to bed.

            You have taught your son not to interrupt when others are speaking; on the TV screen the red-faced man cuts off his opponent at will, or otherwise hovers around to intimidate her.

You have again told your son not to watch TV, but you are anxious to see the second presidential debate, so you allow him to sit by you for 60 minutes.

            You have taught your son that America is a democratic country which, unlike China, doesn't hold citizens as political prisoners; on the screen the red-faced man is threatening to send his opponent to jail.

You know you can't tell your son not to watch TV again when the third presidential debate begins, so you allow him to sit by you for 30 minutes.

You have taught your son that people in America, regardless of their ethnicity, race or gender, are all equal; on the screen the red-faced man calls immigrants "bad hombres" and, a while later, squeezes two fierce words out of his fat lips to the other candidate, "Nasty woman."

After that you can no longer be noncommittal in your comments, so you tell your son this man is unfit to be the American President, and he nods hard. "This man will not be elected," you say, and he replies, "FR."

The evening of November 8th, you don't turn on the TV until your son falls asleep.  You turn off the TV at midnight.  Then you stay awake through the long dark night, having no idea what to say to your son in the morning. #