Where poetry and translation intersect

Poet, visual artist, and essayist Shin Yu Pai read from her work “Virga” during the online event “Asia Pacific Expressions: The Power of Poetry and Translation” on Sept. 29. PHOTO COURTESY OF SHIN YU PAI

USF Master’s in Asia Pacific Studies (MAPS) welcomed poet, essayist, and visual artist Shin Yu Pai and MAPS faculty member, Chinese literature scholar and translator, and poet Andrea Lingfenfelter, to participate in the Sept. 29 online forum “Asia Pacific Expressions: The Power of Poetry and Translation.” The event was held to celebrate the launch of the poets’ recent literary works. 

After meeting in 2008 at a Chinese poetry contest at Simmons College in Boston, Pai and Lingfenfelter reunited for this conference orchestrated by MAPS Director of Administration Brian Dempster.

“Their pairing was natural. Each writer/translator provides a window into our understanding of the Asia-Pacific,” said Dempster in an email to the Foghorn. “While Andrea offers us a lens into the Asia-Pacific through her translations, Shin Yu Pai’s poetry offers a nuanced, multidimensional portrait of the Asia-Pacific American experience.”

In celebration of releasing her 11th collection of poetry, “Virga,” Pai discussed the main themes presented in the work, which Dempster described as honoring intersectionality through a multifaceted poetic voice that intertwines “issues of race, gender, history, and spirituality.”  Some of the ideas highlighted by Pai are her relationships to the concepts of parenting and domesticity and her 20 year spiritual practice of Buddhism.

 “A spiritual and personal crisis required me to turn towards reflecting on identity, self, and community – these themes are the interconnected threads of my new collection. Underpinning the entire project is my lived experience as a Asian American woman (of the diaspora),” Pai said.

Pai did not explore her identity explicitly in the beginning of her career. However, she framed her reading through her experience as a Chinese American, and her collection of poems in “Virga” include references to her identity and upbringing. In her poem “Superstitious Asians,” she addresses stereotypes of Asian Americans and reflects on her roots.

The poem closes with the haunting lines: 

I have looked upon my shadow,

argued with the ancestors, 

peeling back the edges of my own heart 

to show us both what’s inside.

Though also a poet, Lingfenfelter highlighted her translation work with “Ghosts City Sea” by Wang Lin. The collection begins with ghosts, or darker subjects of repressed memory, with mentions of summer as a time of mourning. 

The city section is in reference to Shanghai, where Lin grew up, and the sea section is influenced by Lin’s international residency and follows the darker sections with a spirit of hope in the form of birds. Shanghai, directly translating to “on the sea,” reveals how the two sections of city and sea are interconnected.

Speaking on her role as a Chinese literature translator, Lingfenfelter said, “[It’s] sort of re-embodying it essentially and trying to reproduce it or kind of create a native version of it in English, but it’s like acting in a way, you have a role to play.” She continued by saying, “It’s a persona. And what you try to figure out is what’s going on in this form, what’s the point of view, what are the poetics, what are the priorities of this poet, what’s the rhythm?”

When she got into translation, Lingfenfelter enjoyed seeing what was in between the lines through communicating with living poets and understanding historical context in combination. It was through this curiosity that Lingfenfelter fell in love with translation and began to understand how place impacts people and the words on the page.

 “You have to do a lot of reading between the lines so that that’ll sort of guide the word choice, so this is like this act of empathy,” Lingfenfelter said. “You…want to be as true as you can to the person that wrote it, but you know that it’s always going to have you in it as much as you’re embodying someone else.”

Pai and Lingfenfelter display the care and craft that goes into creating impactful poetic works. “These authors demonstrate the power of poetry as a medium: to reveal complexities of identity, culture, and history,” said Dempster. “Their work also humanizes those who are marginalized and deemed the Other. With the history of racism against Asian Pacific Americans, and recent surge of anti-Asian sentiment and violence during the pandemic, these authors share a needed perspective: the rich tapestry of who we really are.”

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