2017 saw the publication of Feather, the stunning picture book collaboration between author Cao Wenxuan and illustrator Roger Mello [you can read Minjie Chen and David Jacobson’s post about Cao and Mello at the USBBY conference in Seattle here]. I was delighted to discover that the translator was Chloe Garcia Roberts, poet (The Reveal, 2015), translator and managing editor of the Harvard Review. I know her better for her translations of poetry by the Tang dynasty poet LI Shangyin 李商隱 (813-858), and was keen to learn more about Chloe’s work, and how she came to translate Feather. She very kindly agreed to an interview.
Thank you for agreeing to this interview, Chloe! Please tell us about yourself!
Thank you Helen for the invitation, I am in the middle of reading your beautiful translation of Cao’s Bronze and Sunflower and just loving it. It’s really a pleasure to connect with a translator working on a different facet of Cao’s work.
About myself, I am a poet and a translator. I have always been interested in languages, having grown up between English and Spanish in my own family, and all of my very favorite writers were and are also translators. So doing both has been a natural evolution. I see translation as a necessary complement to my writing, which is very insular and solitary. Translation feels like a way to connect and be of service even if the author I am working with is no longer alive.
I began studying Chinese in college, continued my studies in Beijing and had the good fortune of getting my MFA at the University of Oregon where they allowed me to focus on translation alongside my own poetry. I started researching and working on the poetry of Li Shangyin while I was there. After graduate school, I was a contract translator for an academic publisher for a few years and then slowly started exclusively working on literary translation. Over the past several years, I’ve published one book of translations of Li Shangyin’s work (Derangements of My Contemporaries, New Directions, 2014) and have another coming out this summer (The Selected Poetry of Li Shangyin, NYRB). Currently I am the managing editor at Harvard Review where I do try to do what I can to help include and support other literary translators. We have an online column, Omniglots, for example where each month we feature a new project in translation. I also occasionally teach or give workshops on poetry and literary translation. Finally, I have a few possible projects in the works now, but nothing definite so I am thinking a lot about a new translation project!
How did you come to translate the picture book Feather by Cao Wenxuan and Roger Mello?
Serendipitously, this project came to me by invitation through Archipelago editor, Kendall Story. I had of course been a fan of Archipelago for years and am so excited to be a part of their brand new imprint of children’s literature in translation, Elsewhere Editions. Kendall sent me a copy of the original book and I fell in love with it immediately. Working on it was such a pleasure, and I would love to do more.
I’ll admit to being surprised to see you leap from writing and translating in a more adult world to working on a picture book, a genre more usually associated with younger readers. How did you go about translating Feather?
In all areas of my life I strive to keep trying new things and when I received Kendall’s invitation to translate the text I was immediately curious. It’s true I hadn’t thought of doing this type of translation before, but at the same time I have a six year-old son and a two year-old daughter and realistically, between bedtimes, and homework, and just reading together on the couch, I am probably reading more children’s literature at this point than any other type. It’s been an interesting journey to return to this genre as a parent now instead of the child, as the reader and not the listener. I really tried to apply my new parent knowledge in my translation, and thought about both the children who will be listening to the words, and the adults who will be reading the book out loud. I know if we forget the latter with a book aimed at younger children, the book won’t become a favorite. And interestingly, I found that there is a lot of overlap between translating poetry and translating children’s literature, both must sound graceful in addition to presenting their subject matter in a new, or exciting way. Throughout the process I read my drafts out loud to my son so see how they felt, and how we both connected to the subject matter.
Recently, in Seattle and Shanghai, Cao Wenxuan has talked about the importance of philosophy in literature. Did you sense this as you were translating “Feather”? Or anything else?
I knew that Cao Wenxuan was a professor of Chinese literature and had a strong interest in philosophy, and he emphasizes the connection between philosophy and children’s literature in his introduction, so from the outset I knew that was the lens that I would translate through. With this in mind, I strove for consistency in my language and worked to keep the author’s expansiveness of meaning. A big part of the translation work was solving what the repeated language would be so that these phrases and points could be touchstones for the reader as Cao Wenxuan takes us through the various phases of feather’s journey. For example, I tried out various renditions of the repeated, “Am I yours?” line until I found the line I thought would both sound the best, but also echo Cao’s stated parallels with the human search for understanding. In other words, I wanted the line to feel familiar, almost something that the reader has already said to themselves many times. In that same vein, I translated feather as both a description of what the main character was and her name, so that her search for meaning could really be inhabited by the reader. Finally, the push and pull between Feather’s will and the force of the wind was also something that I really focused on, Cao uses some repetitive phrases in regards to the wind, but the instances of the wind taking control of Feather are themselves repetitive interludes that punctuate all of the conversations and stages of Feather’s journey. I wanted to make sure that these points, like in the Chinese, had an inevitable and natural feel like the drawing back and crashing of a wave.
Above: Feather, read by Chloe Garcia-Roberts
Finally, a word or two about Roger Mello – what was it like to translate Cao and Mello’s collaborative work? Is there a page/part of the book that particularly sang to you?
I immediately connected with Roger Mello’s illustrations of the book, and the harmony between the words and his magical images definitely drew me to the project. As is the case in other great children’s books Cao and Mello’s contributions resonate against each other in new ways every time I read the book. There is always something more to find here in both the words and the images. Personally I particularly loved Mello’s interpretations of the Ming blue and white vessels. Mello’s renderings are fresh, playful, and personal (you can see the roughness of his strokes in some places) and yet they reference a recognizable formal tradition very clearly. In terms of the text, I loved Feather’s time with the kind-hearted skylark. Those moments in the book channeled a pure and present joy, a kind of reveling in journey, that I really appreciated.
Thank you, Chloe, and many congratulations! Feather has already received some excellent reviews, including the ones below: