Written by Canaan Morse

Four years ago, International Poetry Nights Hong Kong commissioned me to translate a packet of song lyrics by Cui Jian, the undisputed godfather and original megastar of Chinese rock ‘n roll. Cui Jian is a bona fide rock artist of international quality whose voice embodied a cultural moment – the wave of experimentation and rebellion in mid- to late eighties in China, when in students sang Cui’s ballad “Nothing To My Name” in Tiananmen Square – to a degree that no international renown could match. Yet instead of quitting, self-sanitizing, or repeating himself after that moment was forcibly ended, Cui kept evolving, as so many great artists have done (I think of the changing work of Robert Plant, Prince, Stevie Nicks, et cetera). So, while I would like to talk generally about rock ‘n roll and being on the other side of the freedom conundrum in translation, I have to say what little I can about Cui Jian’s music first.

I’m no historian, and so don’t feel qualified to represent Cui’s decades-long career in a fully accurate fashion, but I will say that his music immediately evinces the stubborn roughness of an artist determined to push an individual voice against the more polished mainstream. He is tonal but growly, melodic but also chuggingly rhythmic, his lyrics both personal and intensely abstract or thematically charged. One old example might be the beginning to “A Strip of Red Cloth,” the 1994 song that got his first post-Tiananmen national tour cancelled:

That day you covered up my two eyes

Covered the sky with a strip of red cloth

And then you asked me what I saw

I told you I could see happiness

Oh this feeling is so positive

Makes me forget I’ve no place to live

You asked me where I want to go

I say I’m on the road to you

I can’t see you, I can’t see the road

My hand in your hand is tightly held

You ask me what I’m thinking of

I say I want you to take the lead

Sing along here (the translation is crafted to fit the melody). See how the darkness in the lyrics changes the feel of that pastoral guitar? This isn’t John Denver. A newer example is “Frozen Light,” from 2015-16:

On that evening with the sun and the moon

We froze together in one line

Light was heavy flesh was too soft

And my breath came shallow

I closed my eyes moonlight passed through ice

And twisted on my body

It was covered in a hardened shell

That made air feel like a prison

(first refrain)

Open your eyes open both eyes

Come to the core of the light

Now close your eyes now close both your eyes

Here is the heart of the ice

The 2016 concert version (a duet with the utterly badass Tan Weiwei) begins around 1:30 here. Again, Cui crafts a song directed at the typical rock ‘n roll romantic thou into something much more emotionally and intellectually difficult. He builds up a grim energy that carries him from one album to the next (of which there have been seven so far, plus multiple films). The fact that I am contractually prohibited from saying anything further should suggest that said energy has not yet diminished.

I mentioned wanting to discuss the process of translation and what I call the freedom conundrum of translating for music, in which one finds liberty amid stricture. We often think of freedom as a state of non-restriction – no rules, no boundaries, no limits on capability. In literary translation, this sort of freedom often manifests itself to the translator as an electric anticipation (or anxiety) over the immutable choices we must make in order recreate a thing made of writing across cultural boundaries. When translating contemporary literature – poetry especially – that courts ambiguity, plays with unwritten space, or resists a unifying voice, the vastness of the translator’s field of choice can be paralyzing if no lightning-bolt answer arrives. It might feel like staring down a whole aisle of nut milks at the grocery store – that is, if every carton was the painstaking work of a respected artist who was offering it to you for free.

After years of translating written poetry, I discovered that working with rock ‘n roll was utterly different, for the obvious reason that the music held me to a clear and unbending standard. Formal poets and art teachers are already nodding in anticipation of my point, namely, that formal restrictions bestow a different kind of freedom on the creator by establishing a clear finish line, but let me suggest – even to them – that song is significantly more difficult. Even the most ornate metrical schemes in poetry (and most are not that ornate) are regular, involving lines of repeated feet that guide the reader’s outer or inner voice. The translator of a song, however, has another voice to follow. That voice has arranged stress and non-stress, syllabification and elision in a certain way across a web of tone and beat that can’t just be translated; it has to be mirrored. The nine “beats” of the first line of “A Piece of Red Cloth” mirror the nine characters of the Chinese source, which look regular enough on the page, but then shrink or expand as the music dictates. I make no pronouncement on whether it’s permissible to, say, translate a snappy ten-beat lyric into a four-beat lyric of stretched syllables – perhaps a more talented musical translator than I could justify it – but to do so with Cui Jian’s music would be an affront to his style.

And the task was exhilarating. I stomped my feet, strummed an air guitar, and crooned lines over and over in the living room of my ground-floor apartment. Sometimes I started crafting a line with the words, sometimes with the melody, or the rhythm. More often than not, I found myself letting go of my conceptual intellect and seeing what the music drove out of me. I did that over and over until I got an accurate and musically acceptable version of the line. I’m not sure I’ve ever had so much fun doing my job as a translator. The whole project f—ing rocked; that’s the only way I can describe it. It rocked.


Canaan Morse is a literary translator, poet, and Ph.D. candidate at Harvard University, where he researches ancient Chinese vernacular fiction and oral storytelling. His translations of contemporary Chinese prose and poetry have been featured in Kenyon Review, Southern Review, The Baffler, and many other journals, while his poetry has been published or is forthcoming in No Contact, The Curator, and Subnivean. His translations of the novels The Invisibility Cloak (winner of the 2016 Susan Sontag Prize for Translation) and Peach Blossom Paradise by Ge Fei are available via the New York Review of Books Classics Series. Image credit: “Cui Jian” by courambel is licensed under CC BY-NC 2.0.

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