Eleanor Goodman started to learn Chinese when she was "four or five," she says. A family friend spoke to her in Chinese, and she absorbed the language through the "amazing stories" she'd hear as a child. "I really wanted to see it all for myself," she says over the phone. Though it wasn't her major, she studied Chinese in college and soon after "I moved to Shanghai thinking I knew a lot more language than I did."
Goodman writes poetry in English, and she says her life as a poet "deeply informs my translations." She firmly believes that "if you want to translate poetry you should have at least the potential to be a poet in your native tongue. It's the same skill set."
When she prepares to translate a poem into English, Goodman tries first and foremost to preserve the structure of the poem. "As a translator, I already feel really beholden to the structure of the poem, including delineation," she says. From there, she scours every word and phrase in the poem for definitions and context. "Even if the poem looks very simple, I look up every single character," she says. Goodman surrounds herself with Chinese-to-English dictionaries, and apps, and online dictionaries. "I kind of get lost, being a word nerd," she admits.
"Every time I translate a poem, I learn something new," Goodman says. "That's really not an exaggeration. I'll encounter something that interests me — a word or character that I don't know, a word or phrase that I don't understand."
"I'm very fortunate to be working in this particular tiny field," Goodman says. She translates a lot of prose, and the demand for Chinese-to-English translation is very high. But she says "the translation of contemporary Chinese poetry really is a field of about seven people who are working very seriously."
The act of translation has taught Goodman a great deal about writing poetry. In Chinese poetry, she says, "the second line will often recast the first line entirely," changing the meaning of the line (often multiple times) as the reader makes her way through a poem. Additionally, she says, "I used to be really attached to punctuation, and now that's something that's not very obligatory to me."
Goodman translates the work of our June Poet in Residence, Natalia Chan (who publishes under the pseudonym Lok Fung.) So what is it about Fung's work that appeals to Goodman as a translator? Goodman says Fung is "a really interesting poet. She is not just a poet but also a serious thinker about cultural studies, cultural issues, pop culture, the influence of high literature and also popular literature and music on a population."
"She's also very feminist in a very interesting way," Goodman says. "A lot of her poems are love poems about failed love. She writes about makeup, about getting her hair done, about fashion." Fung, she argues, focuses on these "quintessentially girly or feminine or seemingly frivolous sort of things" and uses them to discuss "how women function in society and how women think and feel and reflect on their own lives."
Lok Fung's book of poetry, Days When I Hide My Corpse in a Cardboard Box, will be published by Zephyr Press later this year. Even over the phone, it's clear that Goodman is audibly proud to be her translator. Lok Fung, she says, is "important not just in the Hong Kong poetry scene but also in the wider sense of poetry."