Poet and editor Jeffrey Yang spoke to PW about translating Nobel Peace Prize–winner Liu Xiaobo’s groundbreaking book of poetry, June Fourth Elegies, which mourns those who died during the Tiananmen Square protests.
How did you end up taking on the project of translating June Fourth Elegies?
Larry Siems, the director of the Freedom to Write Program at PEN, visited Liu Xiaobo’s wife, Liu Xia, in the summer of 2010. Liu Xia gave him two books of Liu Xiaobo’s poetry, one of which was June Fourth Elegies. When Larry returned to New York, he passed the books to me. I found the Elegies as moving as any poetry I’ve ever read, and started to translate a few. At that time, Liu hadn’t won the Nobel Peace Prize yet, but was already serving his fourth prison sentence.
A big part of this book’s importance is political rather than aesthetic. Do you have any suggestions for how readers should approach it?
Well, in art, in literature, I don’t think the political and aesthetic are separate. The poems aren’t polemic—they are political in the sense that everyday life is political. People of different cultures and of different experiences within cultures bring different values to their art. You’d think this would be obvious by now, but it seems few in the U.S. really acknowledge it, which is partly why translation itself is still looked on with suspicion. Liu’s poems feel like a solitary cry in the wilderness of oppression—they carry that spiritual weight.
It must have been extraordinary to learn the Dalai Lama would write the preface. How did that come about, and how did it feel?
Yes, that was a total shock. I had discussed possible people with my publisher, and the Dalai Lama was at the top of our list. We never thought His Holiness would actually do it, but then Graywolf inquired, and he eventually sent the preface to them on his personal stationary, which now hangs framed in their office. It felt exactly like what it represented: an enormous blessing.
Are there things you hope the publication of this book will accomplish?
It was a humbling experience to be part of such an extraordinary book. When June 4 ended in violence, I was finishing my freshman year in a public high school in Escondido, Calif. I had no idea it was even happening. I only later learned about it as history in college, and translating this book has been like learning a more human and alive level of that history. If this book could somehow contribute to Liu Xiaobo being released and pardoned, or if it might help ease the suffering of his wife—these would be my greatest hopes.