2 May 2016

Best NZ Poems go bilingual

From Voices, 3:30 pm on 2 May 2016

Poetry happens where the wind blows, and Wellington is such a place - Liang Yujing translator for Best NZ Poems 2014.

Wai-te-ata Press : Te Whare Tā o Wai-te-ata is tucked at the back of Victoria University's campus, fortunately sheltered from the worst of Wellington's wind.

The publisher was founded in 1962 by the late Professor Emeritus D F McKenzie. It boasts one of the finest collections of historic letterpress printing equipment, metal and wood types and industrial realia (objects in real life used in classroom instruction) in the southern hemisphere.

I'm attending the launch of a new bilingual publication called Best NZ Poems 2014.

The invite spoke of bilingual readings, calligraphy and a tea ceremony for the auspicious occasion. Calligraphy artist Zhang Chen is underway creating a scroll that stretches from one end of the room to the other, for a Chinese scroll it's strikingly long.

Poet Marty Smith and Calligraphy artist Zhang Chen

Poet Marty Smith and Calligraphy artist Zhang Chen Photo: RNZ / Lynda Chanwai-Earle

Research and publications assistant Meredith Patterson shows me around as we wait for the launch to begin. Some of the typography equipment looks like it dates back centuries. Meredith says that it all works perfectly when printing runs of hand-made books.

Head of the Press Sydney Shep explains that Best NZ Poems 2014. (A Bilingual Edition) was a joy to create because of the new literary worlds these kinds of publications open up for readers of Chinese and of English. Suddenly the Press is surrounded by people and the tea ceremony begins. The audience is delighted by the bilingual poetry readings in English and Chinese (Mandarin, Cantonese and Taiwanese).

The newly launched publication is a collaborative project between International Institute of Modern Letters (IIML), the Confucius Institute and the New Zealand Centre for Literary Translation – of Victoria University. The book was translated by Liang Yujing, designed by Ya-Wen Ho and edited by Vincent O’Sullivan.

Dr Luo Hui is a Lecturer at the School of Languages and Cultures at the Centre for Literary Translation. Luo Hui  explains that Zhang Chen has painted the 25 titles of each poem onto the scroll from each poet represented. The lengthy scroll has been placed underneath the teapot and cups for the tea ceremony, a ritualised blessing celebrating this new publication and performed by Huang Lihong.

Tea ceremony performed by Huang Lihong

Tea ceremony performed by Huang Lihong Photo: RNZ / Lynda Chanwai-Earle

Poets from across the country - including Chris Price, Helen Rickerby, Dinah Hawkin and Marty Smith - read from their work. The bi-lingual readings come from some of our best literary talents along with some very cool emerging NZ Chinese writers like Nina Powles and her poem Volcanology. Nina won the IIML poet of the year for her own collection of poetry too.

Director of the Confucius Institute of Victoria University, Wen Powles is also the proud mother of poet and contributor Nina Powles and both are bilingual Chinese New Zealanders, so the appreciation of literature runs deep in their family. Wen tells me she is thrilled to be able to read Chinese interpretations of these quintessentially New Zealand poems and voices.

Translator Liang Yujing is a poet himself, something that helped when it came to understanding the 25 New Zealand poets in depth. Yujing explains that he was driven to create this bilingual book because of his love of poetry but he cannot emphasise how difficult it is to translate English poems into Chinese. Yujing explains that the two languages originate, geographically, from the two poles of the human language map - the westmost and the eastmost - just like the north and south poles in the earth's magnetic field.

Translating the poems was both challenging and joyful, but more joyful were my interactions with people doing the work.

This marks the first time that the best of our country’s literary talents will be published in Chinese and will make our literature even more accessible to readers in China. Luo Hui and contributing poet Dinah Hawken are excited that this book will act as a bridge between poetry lovers here and the huge audience of poetry lovers in China.

It comes as no surprise that the book designer Ya-Wen Ho is a poet too – she cleverly uses Chinese typography within the cover design. The arrow-like symbols are punctuation marks common within the Chinese writing system - indicating pauses or a kind of visual "bridge" that supports the concept of the book being a literary bridge itself.

Tea ceremony

Tea ceremony Photo: RNZ / Lynda Chanwai-Earle

Attending the book launch, Mr Guo Zong Guang, (Director, China Culture Centre) and First Secretary, Director of Culture Section at the Chinese Embassy Mr Shen Ming agree that Best NZ Poems 2014. makes a great inaugural 'literary bridge' towards better cultural understanding between China and New Zealand.

New Zealand's literary icon Damien Wilkins is also the Director of the International Institute of Modern Letters. Damien tell me that they are looking forward to this publication being the start of future bilingual literary publications and also potential exchanges between writers from both countries.

We are exporting our poetry to China but it's not like exporting sheep. Poetry when it travels, travels very mysteriously.