Repetition and Literary Translation:
Ming Di and Jennifer Stern’s Translation of Liu Xia’s Empty Chairs
(Graywolf Press, 2015)

At the University of Wisconsin, I was required to take Classical Chinese, my favorite undergrad course, which was largely on translation. Our professor required us to perform a literal dissection of each piece, a word-for-word translation, something that felt almost mathematical. We suspended our beliefs in English grammar, syntax, punctuation, and style in order to immerse ourselves in foreign literature that was written hundreds to thousands of years ago. It’s likely I’ll never forget those all-night study groups under the florescent lights of Helen C. White’s College Library. Amidst our exhaustion, dissecting the Classical Chinese piece-by-piece was a panacea of sorts. The pleasures, however, were all ours. Our dilettante efforts were self-indulgent, as these translations were meant only for our own discoveries. Even our encouraging professor, who had been teaching this same material for over forty years, was merely an overseer, not an audience, of our end products.

Perhaps these engraved memories of metaphrase translations are part of the reason that the liberties Ming Di and Jennifer Stern have taken in translating Liu Xia’s Empty Chairs are striking to me. While we pieced together characters like bricks, an important practice for undergraduates studying a language, Ming Di and Jennifer Stern paint, blending together direct translation with poetic craft. Within each spread of Empty Chairs, a bilingual edition, readers can see both the Chinese and English. By juxtaposing the Chinese and English and, therefore, presenting and honoring the original work, perhaps the translators have been given a full license to most artfully reconstruct these poems in English. Regardless, one of the first aspects that I noticed about Ming Di and Jennifer Stern’s translation was their omission of certain repetitions. Chinese, English, and bilingual readers alike might, with a naked eye, witness these visual disparities.

For example, in the opening of the collection’s title poem, the translators have paraphrased in order to preserve the tone of the Liu Xia piece. The title, “空椅子,” has been translated as “Empty Chairs” (56-57). 空 means empty, and 椅子 means chairs. Similarly, the first line of the poem appears as follows: “空椅子空椅子.” Ming Di and Jennifer Stern have, however, translated this opening line as “Empty empty empty,” omitting the chairs altogether. In addition, the English repeats empty three times instead of two. If the translators were to practice what John Dryden labels metaphrase, the first sentence might read as follows: “Empty chairs empty chairs / so many empty chairs / everywhere.” Standing alone, the syllables of empty most likely read as stressed + unstressed: empty. When read together with chairs, however, some of the emphasis on the first syllable of empty seems to fade away. The results? We find something more like an anapest metrical foot, unstressed + unstressed + stressed: empty chairs. If you’re left with a familiar feeling after reading this aloud, it might be because the triple-meter anapest is the foot often found in Dr. Seuss books. This impression would hardly be appropriate within the desolate atmosphere of the elegant Liu Xia poem.

The omitted repetition in the collection’s only untitled poem is notable, as well. The opening line, “你说話你说話你说實話,” has been translated as “You speak and speak and speak the truth” (96-97). While 你 is repeated three times in the Chinese, its translation, “you,” appears only once. Moreover, 说話 is often translated as to speak or talk. In English, you talk and you talk and you talk carries a negative connotation. As stated in the epigraph, the poem is for the poet’s husband, who is a poet, an activist, and an imprisoned Nobel Peace Prize recipient. Liu Xia’s opening line is meant to be one of praise. Ming Di and Jennifer Stern were undoubtedly right in their decisions to employ speak, versus talk, and, moreover, to omit the repetition of you.

These selected poems contemplate imprisonment; love; a coexistence of the two; and which, if either, might prevail. They brim with emotional consequence, and they carry the promise of historical significance, as Liu Xia exists as the wife of an imprisoned dissenter in contemporary China. Her voice, that of both a loving spouse and a supporter of her husband’s political efforts, could be silenced at any time. These translations carefully observe the emotional core of the original poems, and, through purposeful consideration of their poetic devices, their more literal meanings, as well. For instance, Ming Di and Jennifer Stern have translated the title of the first poem, “一隻鳥又一隻鳥,” as “One Bird Then Another” (2-3). Piece by piece, 一 translates to one, 隻 is a measure word or classifier, 鳥 means bird, and 又 is translated as then another. In the English title, one and bird appear only once despite their repetition in the original Chinese. In English, one bird then another one bird sounds unnatural. One bird then another bird, omitting the second one, is more palatable to the native English speaker’s ear. Perhaps this translation would have sufficed; the number of syllables would have been identical. However, as a poet who writes in English, it’s my sense that this repetition of bird might add undue emphasis to the animal, which is, within the poem as a whole, a correlative to the couple’s relationship. The core of the poem is not truly about birds. Rather, they serve as a device, and perhaps the repetition would have brought excessive weight to the more literal birds.

English readers who are unfamiliar with the Chinese language might notice pairs of identical characters throughout the collection. In “One Bird Then Another,” “小小的影子” is translated to “small shadow.” 小 means small, 的 is a particle used when modifying nouns, and 影子 means shadow (2-3). In the case of adjectives, such as 小, the reduplication strengthens the feeling of the word. Perhaps in the English we could add very or extremely before small, but these intensifiers are weak in artistry, as they offer the reader no sort of sense impression: we cannot see, smell, hear, taste, or touch the word very. Perhaps Ming Di and Jennifer Stern could have employed a more extreme form of the word small, such as tiny, but then the alliteration of the original phrase would be completely lost. According to pinyin (the romanized spellings of Chinese characters), 小小 is pronounced as xiǎo xiǎo. Although there is no equivalent to the Chinese x- sound in the English language, this fricative consonant sounds most like an ‘s’ or an ‘sh’ to the majority of native English speakers. Therefore, Ming Di and Jennifer Stern’s translation of “小小的影子” to “small shadow” flirts with the 小小 (xiǎo xiǎo) of the Chinese. Small shadow offers at least a quasi-alliteration, whereas tiny shadow, for example, would do no such thing.

We might study adverbs, as well. In English, “Just Waking Up” closes as follows: “Wind has been blowing the curtains, / but who can prove / it’s just the wind?” (66-67) Ming Di and Jennifer Stern have translated the closing line, “它僅僅是風呢,” as “it’s just the wind?” Regarding the final line, 它 means it, 僅僅 means just, 是 means to be or is, 風 means wind, and 呢 can be used at the end of a rhetorical question. Although true adverbs cannot be doubled up, many adverbs are already composed of two identical characters. The effect is similar to the reduplication of adjectives, as we can feel the emphasis on the word. 常常, always, is another example: “we were always talking / about the bird” (2-3). Viscerally, and even measurably, as we are forced to spend twice the amount of time, the repetition of the character elongates the ongoing quality of always. If we were to observe a word-for-word translation, there might not be an appropriate English equivalent. Always, however, makes for a beautiful phrase.

Ming Di and Jennifer Stern’s sophisticated translations of these heartbreaking Liu Xia poems skillfully demonstrate the importance of literary, versus literal, translation. In both languages, the lines are brilliant and brim with significant imagery and remarkable lyricism. This study, an investigation of the translators’ handling of the repetitions in the Chinese, provides only a peek into the masterful literary translations that Ming Di and Jennifer Stern have provided. Unlike the pedagogical metaphrase of my undergraduate years, these transformations are gifts to their readership. In Empty Chairs, the English versions of the poems, like the Chinese, bind literal meaning along with and directly through poetic sound, granting English readers access both to the music and to the power of Liu Xia’s endangered voice.

• Dryden, John. “On Translation.” Theories of Translation. Ed. Rainer Schulte and John Biguenet. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1992. Print.
• Liu, Xia. Empty Chairs. Trans. Ming Di and Jennifer Stern. Minneapolis: Graywolf Press, 2016. Print.


Heather Lang is a poet, literary critic, editor, and adjunct professor.
Her poetry has been published by Architrave, December, Diode, The Normal School online, PleiadesWhiskey Island, and others. Nevada’s NPR member radio station interviewed her about her writing twice this year, and she served as the Las Vegas Poets Organization's featured poet in June. Heather’s a Fairleigh Dickinson University MFA graduate and an editor for both The Literary Review and Petite Hound Press.