On reading Ouyang Yu’s note to his poem “B” from his August 2017 draft of “Darker,” he was invited to elaborate upon the theme of non-translatability and immediately replied at the beginning of the next month with the following response:

1. My face remains untranslatable to this day (after 26 years in Australia) to the degree that no-one would recognize me wrongly, that is, a Chinese in the eyes of Chinese and a non-Australian in the eyes of Australians of Caucasian origins.

2. What would a face-reader say about the untranslatability? And what language would he use?

3. What is sequential in one language is non-sequential in another. See this: “I stood in Emancipation Park at 9:15 a.m. Saturday,” part of an article** I got my students to turn into Chinese. The question I asked was “What happens to the sequence of time and place when this sentence is turned into Chinese?” Only one out of a few others got it right. She said, “In Chinese, time precedes place and time goes from big to small.” “Exactly,” said I. “Everything works in reverse.” And I showed them my translation: “……就于星期六早上9 点15 分,站在解放公园…” (literally translated, it goes thus: On Saturday, 9.15am, standing in Emancipation Park…).

4. I heard myself say, years ago, that, for a Chinese person to live in an English-speaking
country, he or she has to live the new culture and language upside down.

5. And I now revise that by saying that the most untranslatable is in fact the most superficial, the facial; it is the skin that refuses to be ripped off this untranslatable face.

6. Can one translate this Chinese character into English: ?, pronounced ‘shi’ and used as a place name, a character that consists of three characters, each representing the word “mountain,” almost like heaping three English words “mountain” in a heap, like the following:
Spacer20mountain mountain

7. Do three words “mountain” make a new word “mountain” in English? If it is not acceptable, what is it that makes a foreign word acceptable in English? What level of creativity is found acceptable in English?

8. Similarly, there are many other Chinese characters that are formed of three same words, such as 惢 (with three “heart” in it), 骉 (three “horse”) and 猋 (three “dog”), arranged in the same way as the previous three “mountain” words.

9. Perhaps a friend was right when he said that the best translation is not to translate but give the original as it is?

10. Or re-create something totally new, to the point of unacceptability, and untranslatability?

11. And what is “unacceptable” anyway? And who says so? Who has the authority to say so? And how long does that “authority” last? Until one language overrides the other, the others? Or another language does the same?

12. Then how would you translate a poem of mine based on such word-formations and character-formations? See the poem below:


13. Is machine translation the future, the only possible solution to the untranslatable at the expense of accuracy?

14. Does one need any more translation when multilingual robots are available?

15. And with that will the untranslatable disappear altogether from the face of the earth?

16. Can one translate mistakes? What about the mistakes found galore in the letters convicts sent to and from Australia in The Fatal Shore by Robert Hughes that I translated into Chinese and published in China in 2014?

17. And what about the mistakes found galore in The Man Who Loved Children by Christina Stead, with Sam mimicking children’s talk that I translated and published in 1999 in China?

18. My 1999 approach to Stead was approximation in translation. But my 2014 one was non-translation. Instead, I provided a note where necessary to the effect that there is a certain number of grammatical mistakes made, e.g., up to 10.

19. Do we need to bother about the translatability of mistakes? Think about the untranslatability of the face, my Australian-Chinese face.

20. What about careless mistakes made in poetry? (See the poem below)

Reading Dana Gioia, Wrongly That Is **

I thought I saw
Peel pain

But I was disappointed

To see

“feel pain”

when I read it again

21. What about creative mistakes?

22. See my talk about “creative mistakes” in English (in a 2011 interview with Ryan Van Winkle in the Scottish Poetry Library Podcast, EP #9, “The Line Break” Series), at: https://player.fm/series/scottish-poetry-library-podcast/linebreak-ouyang-yu-creative-mistakes-6WyFTRgJHlCZ3deL

23. See my talk about “creative mistakes” in Chinese, at: http://blog.sina.com.cn/s/blog_489db0970102dtz9.html

24. If you don’t understand the Chinese language, should I blame myself or should I blame you?

25. If you don’t even understand Chinese, the number one most spoken language how am I going to talk about the untranslatability to you or with you?**

26. Isn’t creativity the least translatable?

27. Or perhaps words are limited in their power to translate creativity?

28. Or, for that matter, words will eventually give way to everything picture-based, or number-based, without any more need for translation?

29. If one sets one’s goal in writing to be that of being unpublishable and untranslatable, will that render the writing itself dead as death defies translation?

30. What if that is a different kind of death, a death that is also creativity?

31. A death that is also life? And alive? Like those untranslatable Chinese characters?


* See Hawes Spencer, “A Far-Right Gathering Bursts Into Brawls,” The New York Times, vol. 166, 13th August 2017, at: https://www.nytimes.com/2017/08/13/us/charlottesvilleprotests-unite-the-right.html?hp&action=click&pgtype=Homepage&clickSource=story-heading&module=b-ledepackage-region&region=top-news&WT.nav=top-news
Spencer’s report begins:

Charlottesville is the place where Thomas Jefferson and James Madison talked about freedom of speech. But this was a day of shouting, not listening.

Assigned to cover the “Unite the Right” rally of white nationalists, I stood in Emancipation Park at 9:15 a.m. Saturday and looked out at the gathering in front of me…

** First published in Cordite Poetry Review, posted in Issue 20 [“Submerged”], 7th December 2004, at: http://cordite.org.au/poetry/submerged/reading-dana-gioia-wrongly-that-is/
** See James Lane, “The 10 Most Spoken Languages in the World,” Babbel Magazine, 24th April 2016, at: https://www.babbel.com/en/magazine/the-10-most-spoken-languages-in-the-world