Georgie Fooks (Trinity College, DPhil Modern Languages) interviews Winner in 18-and-under category of the 2022 Stephen Spender Prize, Olivia Tredre, for her translation from the classical Chinese, Old Dust, of 拟古 by Li Bai (701–762 AD).

Submissions to this year’s Stephen Spender Prize are open from 12 May to 14 July.

When did you first become interested in translation? 

What first lured me into translation was an edition of Jorge Luis Borges’ poetry, which specifically had both the Spanish and English versions included and detailed Borges’ thorough collaboration with multiple translators. Noticing the liberties taken in the translations, I found myself interpreting both texts differently, and became absorbed by the idea of translation as an inclusive, creative act. At the same time, I was looking into linguistic anthropology, which spurred an interest in translation’s cultural intersection – where two cultures acknowledge the existence of the same thing.

What drew you to translating Li Bai’s poetry?

As a child studying Chinese, learning to recite Li Bai was an essential step. I was always struck by precisely the opposite beliefs that ‘Old Dust’ questions; in the mystical power of the moon and nature-embodied immortality. More recently, I experienced a resonant dream in which the goddess Chang’e (嫦娥), who is accompanied by the Moon rabbit, announced to me: ‘I will invoke the gods to knit a path of fortunes, so that every time you notice a strange coincidence, you’ll know that’s me, watching over you with my blessings’. That really made my exploration of Li Bai’s lesser known work a matter of emotional urgency.

What do you find most challenging about translation? 

For me, this very much depends on the language. When translating from Ancient Chinese, for example, deciphering the author’s intended meaning is particularly tricky as each character is so ambiguous, yet holds so much weight. For most languages, however, ensuring the translation doesn’t read like a translation is the key part – the poem must be written the same way from scratch, in a sense. 

What do you find most rewarding about translation?

Feeling that the source text has genuinely been done justice: that its spirit has merely been channelled through a different medium. 

Could you tell us about a translation problem you encountered in the poem and how you solved it? 

The penultimate sentence describes the ‘whistling of the deep sighs’, or ‘前後更叹息’, which translates literally as ‘before after more sigh’. Not only is this ungrammatical in English, but the image is complicated by the ‘sigh’ lacking any obvious origin, leaving the translation very insecure. Although I took it to be Li’s personification of the pines’ movements in the wind, I decided to retain its disembodied, atmospheric quality, while giving it an action to ensure that it became a full sentence and fitted with the rest of the poem.

How do you approach ambiguity in the source text as a translator? 

In ‘solving’ the problem above, I most likely overlooked Li’s intentions. This must be translation’s unavoidable plight, however, which might only be alleviated by giving the poem time, consideration, and others’ readings, to form as well-rounded an understanding as possible.