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Cover > Thoughts on translation > The Farther from Motherland, the Closer to Mother Tongue

The Farther from Motherland, the Closer to Mother Tongue

by Bei Ling
In my many years of exile, and also in Taipei, writing this speech in the campus library of the National Taiwan Normal University in Gongguan, two poetic quotes from ancient Chinese sources have kept on coming up in my mind. 2300 years ago in the state of Chu, the great poet Qu Yuan exhorted himself in this way: "The road is endlessly far, but I am striving for truth above and below." This is from his most famous work, the Lisao, which could be translated as Parting Grief, a Raving Grief of Parting. And from Qu Yuan's fate we can see that he was maybe the earliest model of a poet in exile. He was sent away by King Huai, first to another city, then further away south of the Yangtze river. In exile, Qu Yuan wrote his famous works, seven long poems, one of them the Lisao I have just quoted.

It was in 278 before the start of our present calendar, at the end of the period of the Warring States, when the Kingdom of Qin attacked and conquered the kingdom of Chu. This was described by the great historian Sima Qian 200 years later. Qu Yuan, who was in exile, heard of the demise of his country. It was the fifth day of the fifth lunar month, some day in June in our modern calendar. Mad with grief, Qu Yuan took hold of a large rock, jumped into the Miluo river and drowned himself. When the people of Chu heard of his fate, they all flocked to the Miluo river, young and old, rowing in dragon boats, bringing rice cakes and feeding the fish with these rice cakes wrapped in bamboo leaves, so that the fish would not eat Qu Yuan's body. And more and more people kept on doing this through the years and centuries, and all the dynasties and regimes had to tolerate this custom in the end. And so the Dragon Boat Festival came about, also called Poet's Day.

The road is endless. My own road into exile was longer than Qu Yuans.

At this moment, I am also thinking of the words of another great figure in exile - Confucius. He kept roaming and wandering many different states with his disciples, camping out in the countryside, scrounging for food, our great thinker and educator. In the Gongye Chang chapter of the Analects, Confucius said: "If my methods are not working, if the way has no chance, I will board a raft and float over the sea." In my life in exile, these words that Confucius spoke to himself have staid in my heart. Just like him, I have to keep wandering and floating.

At the beginning of the 1980s, at the start of what the Communist rulers called our Reform and Opening period, when Western literature could finally be translated into Chinese again, I went to the Red Cross four times a year to give blood, and so I had money to buy books. And the first translated novel that I bought was Hermann Hesse's Unterm Rad, which came with a selection of his poems. This was a great treat for me, I kept reading deep into the night with a flashlight, in my bunk bed in my eight-person chamber in the male student's dormitory.

?So as I kept reading deep into the night, I sank into Hermann Hesse's world, and in my heart, there was no distance between Hesse and myself. Only when I looked away from the book, the geographical and physical distance became just as far as before. Exile made me overcome this distance not only in my heart, but still through the world of books. Reading Hesse was a preparation for exile.

As I have kept writing in Chinese, no matter where I was going, it was my mother tongue that occupied my thinking, and my subconscious. This makes me remember another part of my journey.

I was editing the Chinese translation of Wolfgang Emmerich's Paul Celan biography. I had to add some footnotes, and it was then I discoverd that Suhrkamp held the final copyright to Celan's complete works. Tendency, my small publishing house in Taiwan, had already been trying to contact Suhrkamp for the rights to Celen's poems, because we were planning a big selection of his poetry. Four years we tried to contact Suhrkamp. but we never got any answer. We are a small exile publishing company, and therefore Suhrkamp probably didn't think we could ever bring out an authoritative translation of Celan. But as the gods would have it, this book I have mentioned, the Chinese edition of Wolfgang Emmerich's biography of Paul Celan, was the only book I carried with me when I came to Frankfurt in September 2009, to the international symposium on China in preparation for the Frankfurt book fair of 2009. I wanted to track Celan's steps in Germany, that's why I brought it. In my essay from September 2009 that was printed in the FAZ, I described how I arrived at the symposium, carrying this book. In October 2009, I was invited to the Frankfurt Book Fair, and there I walked around with my Chinese translation of the Celan biography, and found the Suhrkamp stand. I didn't know anybody at Suhrkamp, so I went up to a woman working there and told her: "Because of Celan, I want to publish at Suhrkamp." She called Mr. Thomas Sparr, and I received an appointment for the next day at 11 o'clock to meet with Thomas Sparr at the Suhrkamp stand. And fate would have it that Mr. Sparr had read my article in the FAZ. And now the great Chinese edition of Paul Celan's poems has come out in Taipei.

I still remember very vividly how Susan Sontag once told me: "The first duty of a writer is to reveal the truth, not to express an opinion." And so I have tried to reveal the exact conditions in Chinese prisons in my memoirs. In the details of my descriptions, you can discover human evil and human warmth going on together at the same time.

My prison experience was the part of writing my memoirs that I was least ready to face. Especially the moment when the police wanted me to become an informer, they said I could choose between ten years in prison and being set free immediately, and they gave me eight hours, one night to think it over. It was only ten years later that I finally felt strong enough to write about this, it was always much harder than I had thought. It was in my little workshop in Taiwan, in January 2010, that I finished the first draft of this part. It kept raining for ten days. I sat on a red sofa and recorded my voice, and in this way I could finally approach those interrogations again. These memories had kept coming up deep in the night, swallowing me, making me slip into nightmares, waking up in starts.

?From February 2010, at the invitation of the Heinrich Böll Stiftung, I staid at the Böll Haus until summer, and in this atmosphere, free from worry about my living conditions, I was able to concentrate on writing my memoirs. After Heinrich Böll's death, Mrs. Böll set up this arrangement, and many exiled writers have already profited from a stay at the Böll Haus. It is very quiet there. I often sat in the back in the sun under the glass roof. Outside was an old cherry tree, which flowered and bore fruit while I staid. I watched the cherries changing from?green to red, and I also looked at the pictures of Heinrich Böll together with his friends at his country house. Those were photos, but I also discovered in storage an unfinished oil painting that shows Heinrich Böll together with Alexander Solzhenitsyn. The background is in green; the two profiles are painted in dark grey. I moved this double portrait into the kitchen of the rooms where I lived, and so all through the time I was writing my memoirs, when I would take a break and eat, I would exchange glances with them. In half a year, while I staid there, I had almost ceased floating and drifting. You could say I was writing in a place imbued with the souls of writers.?

Let me go back to recent conditions in my native country. Four months ago, I wrote about Ai Weiwei, first in FAZ, and later in Der Spiegel. I wrote that China has been going through a dark period this year. This darkness is, at the surface, not directed against most people, it is a darkness directed against thinking, against different ideas. And there is a recent grammatical phenomenon in Chinese that has reflected this overwhelming darkness, it is a domination of the passive voice, we talk of civil rights lawyers, of intellectuals, writers and artists "being disappeared", "being detained", "being silenced", and first and foremost "being frightened", and it is in this way that this dark era has manifested itself against thinking and spirit, against intellectuals, writers and artists, and all kinds of citizens. Maybe you have not forgotten Liu Xiaobo, the imprisoned Nobel Peace prize laureate of last year, and his wife Liu Xia, who is still kept under strict house arrest. She cannot receive telephone calls, she cannot go online, she is denied any contact with the outside world. And she has to keep observing these rules, just to be allowed to visit her husband in prison once a month, six hundred kilometres away in the northeast. Liu Xiaobo still has nine years of imprisonment left, and Liu Xia can only see him half an hour at a time, and if she protests against her own confinement in any way she loses her priviledge of seeing her husband for half an hour once a month. On the other hand, there was one instance of humanity in all this evil, because when Liu Xiaobo's 80-year old father died, they let Liu Xiaobo visit his family on the seventh day after his father's death, and stand at his coffin, observing Chinese custom. So I can say this regime had not lost all humanity at this instant. But still, if I can only go home to Beijing when my parents are dead, if the only way for me as an exiled writer is to return to China for a funeral, I would much rather witness the funeral of this regime.

I have talked at lot, let me return to my memoirs. This book tells my readers about four things I have done in life: reading, writing, editing, publishing. You could say these four things have brought me to Suhrkamp, they are the main reason I have been granted the honour to publish at Suhrkamp. At this point, I want to pay my respects to a few great writers, all of them writing in other languages, who have influenced me throughout my life. The first is Susan Sontag, my mentor and friend, who was always there to help me, but who also spurred me on and exhorted me, like a true friend should. This book of memoirs is dedicated to her. Another very good friend was Czeslaw Milosz, who invited me to San Francisco in October 1989, in that terrible time for my country, to hold a vigil for the dead killed by the Chinese army in Beijing. To commemorate him, I have organised a Night for Milosz in Taiwan at the end of November this year, for his 100th birthday. Another important influence for me was Seamus Heaney, we had a series of talks together over ten years ago at Harvard, especially what he told me about Joseph Brodsky has kept coming up in my mind. And then there are the older writers, who have always been guiding lights for me ever since I first heard of them, like Osip Mandelstam, Marina Cvetayeva and of course Paul Celan.

In my years of exile, my native country has been slipping further and further away from me. But my mother tongue has been the one piece of luggage I have always carried with me. And so in a very broad sense, I have already vanquished the depression and dejection that threatens a writer in exile. I will not go back to China earlier than my books. If my writings cannot be published uncensored in my native country, what is the point of my body being allowed to enter?

Being in exile, but carrying my mother tongue, I have led a vagrant life, but I have enjoyed complete freedom - even freedom to come and go as I please. It is exactly how my good friend and fellow poet Hu Dong once told me: "The further you go from your native country, the closer you come to your mother tongue.

Meeting of the Translation and Linguistic Rights Commitee, Barcelona, April 21th to 23th, 2015

Isabel Banal: Llapis trobats, sèrie iniciada el 1999.

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