Trailers from Hsia Yü's New Volume of Poetry: Pink Noise

A Weng/ Zona Yi-Ping Tsou/ vivienjames

Hsia Yü 夏宇 (sometimes spelled Xia Yü) is one of the most exciting and innovative poets writing in Chinese today. Her newest volume, a bilingual artist's book she designed and self-published in late August 2007 under the title Pink Noise 粉紅色噪音, may be her most innovative work to date. It is—as far as we know—the first transparent book of bilingual poetry and the first creative collaboration between a Chinese poet and a machine translator. Hsia Yü composed the poems in English (and in one case French) by culling words and phrases from the Internet, and then had her machine translator (the Apple Macintosh web and search program called Sherlock) render them into Chinese, which the program dutifully did but not without reinventing the Chinese language as we know it. There is hardly a line in the Chinese version that is not estranged from its source text, so much so that one could argue that half the poetry in Pink Noise lies in the difference between the two versions. In addition to the 33 English poems and machine-generated Chinese "translations," Pink Noise contains an interview of Hsia Yü by A Weng in which the poet discusses the circumstances and rationale behind Pink Noise and the process by which she made the poems. What follows are select excerpts from that interview and a sample English poem and Chinese "translation" from Pink Noise together with an English "back-translation" for the benefit of readers who cannot read Chinese.

[Editor's note: A Weng's 阿翁 interview of Hsia Yü originally appeared in Xianzai Shi 現在詩, or Poetry Now 4 (2006). Unless otherwise indicated, Zona Yi-Ping Tsou 鄒怡平 made the translations. vivienjames took the photos of the book, Thierry Cuvillier the photo of Hsia Yü.]


On the origin of Pink Noise and its sources:
I had been listening to all these great noise and low-frequency acoustic art CDs and wondering what would result if that concept were applied to words when I came across this translation program. I dumped a bunch of stuff into the program—Shakespeare, Poe, Pushkin—to translate into Chinese and it set my head whirling: Yes, this is the word noise I've been looking for! Why not do a poetry volume filled with lettristic noise? For a year I played with the translation program as if I were stoned out of my mind and composed the 33 poems [in Pink Noise]. My sources for a lot of the lines in the English-language text were phrases I'd found in the endless chain of blogs and the many websites that popped up when I clicked the hyperlinks in spam. I lineated the texts to look like poetry and ran them through Sherlock and then revised the English and ran it through again, often repeating the process many times depending on the translation's frame of reference . . .
On machine translation:
You know what amazes me most about this automatic translation program is its carefree mindlessness, which is utterly unconscious. This is the absolute liberation of language, a liberation theology of language/language's theological liberation. It is a kind of consciousness that, apart from insanity or a powerful drug, can never be achieved. It "translates" word-for-word, closely following the letter of the text, and yet the translated version provides no secure meaning. It makes no commitment; it doesn't flow: words keep coming but it doesn't move forward. Nor does it take you anywhere; it persists in place even as it relentlessly crumbles, sentence by sentence it crumbles, and then suddenly [you find] it has arrived somewhere. . . Don't forget it is a product of translation, with a fairly articulate source text; it is not made out of nothing, like the notion of "creation" we cling to . . .

On "Sherlock":
It does away with all connections; it flickers and scintillates; it breaks out in bouts and every now and then it distorts; it flaunts the boldness and self-confidence of someone who is always in the right, but it doesn't intervene. It races, never stopping to think. It simply reacts, reacts automatically. You can't blame it for a being rough around the edges . . .

You know, I've never really cared that much for computers or the Net. No consensual hallucination induced by virtual reality can hold a candle to even the most rickety sentence precariously contrived. But now I feel a new romance coming on with this automated translation software, my machine poet. And what really turns me on is that, like any lethal lover, it announces from the very beginning that it is not to be trusted . . .

On the construction and form of Pink Noise:
I came up with the idea of presenting the poems and translations in a bilingual format. It took me forever to find these particular words and phrases and fit them together until they clicked like a music box. I used a cut-and-paste technique, just as I had in making my third volume, Moca Wuyimingzhuang [摩擦 無以名狀 "Rub Ineffable"], but instead of the scissors and paper and an occasional contribution from the wind, I did everything with the computer. When it was busy processing, I'd watch that [Apple] gear-wheel icon turn like clockwork. How I loved to watch it turn . . .

On the future of machine poetry:
Software is evolving every day and will eventually acquire all the logical faculties and thought patterns of the human mind and become part of our daily reality in all its mediocrity and immaculate continuum. There'll come a day when [machine] translations won't read like translations anymore and will cater to people's expectations. So I'm anxious to consummate this romance before my machine poet evolves into an all-too-prosaic fluency . . .

Hsia Yü on the romance of translation:
The books that illuminated my youth were by and large translations. I've always loved those sentences that are rendered with a clumsy fidelity, those adorably literal versions that are virtually indifferent to Chinese grammar (which reminds me of Nabokov, that extreme literalist), and all those second- and third-hand translations from Russian via English and Japanese and who knows what else . . .

This “translator” is so preoccupied with fidelity, so infinitely faithful, that it radically estranges everything. The original and translation are supposed to complement each other and create a shared meaning, yet all those faithful, declarative fragments often take on a different shape when glued together. Note that every sentence in the source texts has a clear structure and is thoroughly translatable, whereas in the adjacent translations, every word and phrase is a linguistic entity, with all the characteristics of language in its totality, each driven to engage in an equivalent exchange and winding up physically united but spiritually apart (or is it spiritually united and physically apart?), cleaving like a shadow yet drifting farther and farther away, estranged beyond recognition but with every detail infinitely magnified . . .

Nabokov insisted on literal translation. He thought a translation ought to come across like a translation. The deconstructionists believe the best translations are ones that “alienate rather than naturalize.” But this machine poet's approach is even more radical (albeit completely unconscious): it feels accountable only for providing a word-for-word or phrase-by-phrase equivalence without regard to any underlying ideas or meaning, which is, in itself, already poetry for me . . .

Hsia Yü at Cafe Jamaica, Taipei, August 2007

If not quite a harangue, at least a little discourteous

You work all day, and get half-drunk at night
A little chaos every now and then seems necessary
When it comes to a matter that's close to your heart
You're addicted to excitement
You'll love these easy recipes
And the kids will adore this crafty activity

But now it's time to clean everything up
Especially if it involves your living space
Have you noticed something strange going on?
Either way, dance around to some silly music
And don't be afraid to mingle in a room full of strangers
They came to the meeting unasked, with rumors spreading unchecked
The food has not been taken, the love not given, time
Torn off unused

Living with perfect attention to the present moment
Became impossible
It's hard to understand how far astray they've gone
They'd need to go much further back—
To a time before the first word was said







If the not quite warm discussion, at least a spot does not have politeness

You will serve all day, with obtains one partly drinks in the evening
A spot chaotically frequently as if is essential
When it will arrive is tightly suffers your heart
You is gets hooked to is excited
You to love these easy recipes
And the child worships this crafty activity the matter

But the present is the time cleans all
Especially maybe if it involves your existing space
To let you note the matter strange continuation?
How no matter, danced to some silly musics
And do not have to be afraid the intensive mixing they to come in the room stranger
Not to invite to the conference, propagated has not been
Adopted without inspection rumor food, likes not giving, the time
Is torn has not used

The housing with changes
Is impossible
It is the difficult understanding to the current moment
Perfect attention far becomes lost
They is they meets needs to be further returns—
Is front states to the time in the first word

The English poem and Chinese translation originally appeared in Pink Noise 粉紅色噪音 (2007). Many thanks to Hsia Yü for allowing us to reprint them. The back-translation originally appeared in Zoland Poetry 2. Our grateful acknowledgments.

English and Chinese texts copyright © 2008 by Hsia Yü. Photos copyright © 2008 by vivienjames. All rights reserved.