I met writer and translator Eleanor Goodman when she gave a reading at Denver’s BookBar this past September. She read from her debut poetry collection Nine Dragon Island (Zephyr Press, 2016) and her translation of Iron Moon (White Pine Press, 2017), an anthology of Chinese migrant worker poetry. Her poetry is elegant, its power forged from her attentive ear to the nuances of everyday interactions, be it a love affair or exploring a new city and language. And her translations center people who live and work in the shadows of international capitalism.
Goodman’s many honors include a Fulbright Grant, a Henry Luce Translation Fellowship, and a PEN/Heim Translation Grant. Her work has been the finalist for the Cliff Becker Book Award twice. She is currently a Research Associate at the Fairbank Center for Chinese Studies at Harvard University.
I spoke with Goodman over the winter. – Teow Lim Goh
During your reading at BookBar, you talked about how a childhood friend sparked your interest in Chinese language and culture. How did you become fluent in Chinese?
After college, I moved to Shanghai, thinking I spoke a lot more Chinese than I actually did at that time. It was a humbling and difficult experience, and I became more and more certain that to access Chinese culture in any serious way, I needed to learn as much of the language as I could, as deeply as I could. So I set out to do that, with tutoring sessions and so on, but more importantly by spending a lot of time in China and with Chinese people and Chinese-language texts. Translating was one important way to study, practice, learn and relearn. It still is.
Chinese and English are wildly different languages. What are the pleasures and difficulties in translating Chinese poetry into English?
I could spend an hour on this question, so let me approach it through a metaphor. I used to row in college, and for me, translating is a lot like being in a boat. In a shell, you have to be exactly coordinated with your fellow rowers. Your hand position, the angle of the oar coming in and out of the water, where your arms are relative to the gunwales, your timing on the slide, how quickly you push and ease back – everything must be in alignment with the woman in front of you. At the same time, your stroke is your own stroke. No one rows exactly like you do; no one’s body is exactly like yours. So rowing is also incredibly freeing because your oar belongs to you, it is your tool to make something wonderful happen. And when a crew is in synch, it is a truly magical feeling. You really do feel like you’re flying. So translating between Chinese and English is like a small 5’2 woman rowing behind a burly 6’4 man. It takes intense concentration to coordinate and sometimes it’s messy and feels unnatural. But when it works, it’s like flying.
Has your work as a translator shaped the way you approach your own poems?
My work as a translator is inextricable from my work as a poet. I think of them as the same pursuit. I don’t know when or why poetry became extricated from translation, but I think it’s fairly particular to this historical moment. Many of the poets I admire are also very serious translators. It’s all working with language. To experience another poet’s psyche in the incredibly intimate way that translation necessitates is inspiring, informative, revealing, challenging, and that feeds back into one’s own poetry. As a friend of mine put it: Translation lets me get out of my own voice.
You translated Iron Moon, an anthology of poems by Chinese migrant workers. How did you get involved in this project?
I got involved through the documentary film of the same name, called 我的诗篇 in Chinese. I was asked to do the subtitles and ended up working very closely with the directors. When they asked me if I wanted to translate an anthology of poetry connected to the film project, I jumped at the opportunity.
Who are these Chinese migrant workers? Why do you think they chose poetry as their genre and medium?
There are at this point nearly 300 million people in China who have left their hometowns and moved to cities, construction sites, coal mining areas, and so on, to earn money for themselves and their families. The countryside has largely been emptied of young people because of this mass internal migration–one of the largest in human history. I think these workers, like anyone else, choose to write poetry for many different reasons. Perhaps some are attracted to the intensity of the emotional expression involved, and many have read both much of the classical canon and the work of their contemporaries. But I think there are also some very practical concerns behind the decision to write poetry: it’s quicker than prose and doesn’t involve as much extended concentration. Several poets in the anthology write about scribbling poems on the back of order forms or scraps of paper. It’s more amenable in some ways to their highly transient and insecure lifestyle.
What surprised you most when you were translating Iron Moon?
I was surprised by how original and relevant so much of this poetry is–to my own experience, but also to experiences that underpin living in a globalized world. Many of these poets are very aware of the outside world: they know their bosses are making a lot of money off of their very cheap labor, and they know that the products they’re making are being shipped off to the US or Europe to be sold to people who enjoy a completely different standard of living. There’s a keenness to their awareness, a sophistication, that I didn’t expect. Many of these poets are autodidacts, and although on paper they may have only an elementary school education, they are well read and highly skilled. This is, of course, in addition to having work and life experiences that not many of us in the West have. It’s a powerful combination.
The poems in Nine Dragon Island span a childhood in the Midwest to an adulthood of wandering, especially to China. In the poem “Outside Muncie, Indiana,” you write:
This itch to desert
what we’ve known,
the barrenness of home,
earth resisting all
but violence to bear more fruit
each fall, a blankness that looks lush
from a distance.
I feel that in many ways, these lines encapsulate the themes of the book. Can you tell us more about it?
I guess the idea of “home” has long been fraught for me. I’ve never entirely trusted the idea of a physical place being a “home,” and people can come and go from your life as well. And throughout my life I’ve certainly had the urge to leave the familiar, to explore something new, to find new challenges to surmount. I don’t think I’m unusual in that, especially perhaps not for people who grew up in a seemingly safe, dull suburb with all of the complex human undercurrents that exist everywhere. It’s those interactions – what happens under the surface, or the contrast between what appears to be and what is – that really interest me.
Where do poems begin for you?
I’m going to sound flippant probably by saying this, but my poems generally start in pain. Something hurts, and I want the relief of expressing that pain, and a poem happens. I’ve made it a goal moving forward to try to write happy poems, or funny poems. I really admire poets who can be honestly funny in their work. That’s extremely difficult for me because in a certain sense it contravenes what poetry fundamentally is for me, at least in a certain sense. When I’m happy I’d rather be living my life; when I’m unhappy, there’s really only poetry to turn to.
When I injure you, as I must someday do,
my silence will be like a poison drained
from a wound, and like a hummingbird,
a desperate hour short of starvation,
whose wings are incapable of rest
though small, I will dart away
so you may heal from my absence.
And in your blame, which is right, which
is fitting, think back to the first spark
of encounter, the moment you sensed
with our still-palpable animal sense
that I have always been poised for flight
and to clip these wings is to kill
the iridescent body they keep aloft,
and the heart, frailest of birds,
despite love, despite all, still longs to beat.
– By Eleanor Goodman. From Nine Dragon Island, courtesy of Zephyr Press. First published in New Delta Review, vol. 14 (Spring 2008).
Eleanor Goodman’s Website.