Throughout the years, tons of poems had been written in commemoration of the June-fourth protests. With the leading of chief editor Jiang Pinchao ( 張 品 超 ) and an unnamed student leader in the June-fourth event, followed and part by a group of other editors, a poem collection, “Collection of June Fourth Poems: Commemorating the Tiananmen Square Protest” ( 六四詩集 ), had been compiled and scheduled to be published in Los Angeles during May 2007. The collection was to mark the 18th anniversary of the June 4th crackdown through compiling a series of 385 poems written by victims, exiled activists, and international supporters, documenting the history and cultural impact of the movement. In late April, the news was out that the collection was confiscated by officials in China before the book was even published, with the advanced drafts of the book only being reproduced in pirated editions. Although successfully published in Los Angeles on May 26th, 2007, the collection was since known as “the banned June-fourth poem collection”.

With the Chinese versions rarely seen, English versions of some poems had been officially translated by Caitlin Anderson, an American doctoral candidate in pre-modern Chinese literature at Princeton University as well as one of the contributors of the collection. Same translations can also be seen on the official website of Human

Rights In China (HRIC) but with no comparison and explanations of the translated works. Just as every translated work, no matter how professionally translated, there might be cuts or add-ons to accentuate the original work in hopes of having it sound pleasant and poetic, as well as staying true to the original author’s thoughts. Focusing on the translation for Liu Xiaobo’s “For Seventeen” (「給十七歲」 作者:劉曉波 ), through analyzing and reviewing the translated works, one could possibly see the difference in tone and relevance between it and the original work.

Despite successfully translating most of the poem and expressing some emotions, the translation failed to carry to the same tone as the original poem. The translated version is celebratory and empowering but lacks the very important humility and guilt from the original version. The poet is writing for the 17-year-old martyr in the June-fourth incident, expressing his admiration and remorse towards the boy, having shared the experiences of the June-fourth crackdown as part of the activists. The poem is mournful and ballad-esque{1}, simple, serious and calm. In the inscription of the poem, the poet wrote “給你寫詩,我不配。(To write you a poem, I am unfit.)”, showing guilt and humility on him being older and having fame on his side, yet not being as heroic as the boy was. In the Translation, “That I should write a poem for you!

I am unfit.”, has a more celebratory tone before the humility, which failed to express the admiration the poet has for the boy. The admiration from the translated version comes from a celebratory sense, expressing that the poet “want(s) the courage or the quality.”, while in contrast to “我沒有勇氣和 資格 (I do not have the courage and the quality)”, which accentuates on the poet’s guilt on not having the same virtues the boy had. The use of exclamation in “That I should write a poem for you! I am unfit.” and the dashes in “– well, it was like a miracle–” also made the translated version sound casual and light in contrast to the heavy tone in the original poem. Similarly, despite both being empowering on their own, the translated poem has a more empowering tone compared to the original version’s warming admiration. The ballad-esque tone of the original version did not come through the translation since the translated poem shows more empowerment than admiration. By the end of the poem, the poem described the 17-year- old’s influence and emotional impact on his own mother, expressed how he “ 喚 醒 (enlighted)” her and how he “用亡靈的氣息 / 把她扶住 (holds her up through the essence of your spirit )” when she was to fall. The mistranslation and misuse of diction “with your ghostly breath/ you brace her up,” did not essential how his meaningful death influenced his mother but instead changing the focus to the empowerment he gave his mother.

The age, “ 十 七 歲 (17 years-old)” is one of the most important elements of the poem, the boy’s age was supposed to be a point of admiration and contrast but it became a repetitive reminder of his age and innocence after the mistranslation. The original poet used “ 十 七 歲 (17-years-old)” as a name of reference, directly mourning for the martyr through the name. Though the name of reference, the poet reminds himself and the readers that the boy was only seventeen but had the courage and virtue above even the poet, a person famous for, in his worn terms, something less heroic. The translation did translate the use of “seventeen” as the name of reference but sometimes also used it simply as an age. This mistake turned“seventeen” into a constant reminder of the martyr’s age instead of focusing on its contrast on the age and the act. A similar mistake made during the translation was the translation from “你把未完成的愛 / 交給滿 頭 白 髮 的 母 親 (You gave your unfinished love to your white-haired mother)” to “Take the love you never spent, give it to your mother; her hair is white now.”. The translation reversed the role of the poet and the martyr, in which the poet is teaching the martyr what to pass the passion he died for to his mother instead of the poet being inspired by the boy’s influence on his mother. The translation also misunderstood the line “ 什 麼也不依戀 / 除了潔白無瑕的年齡”, translating it to “you clung to nothing, nothing but your pure, white, spotless youth.”. The translation loses focus on the boy’s heroic move being in contrast to his pure passion and instead mistaken it as being about his innocence.

Through the review and analysis above, the translation of the poem showed the difference in emotion, mood and tone of the original poet and the translator. The clear difference is on one being directly related to the situation written, and the other as a bystander. This translation error is related to how the poet and the translator had a difference in experience and perception on the June-fourth incident. This also reflects the overall differences on how Chinese and foreigners see the June-fourth incident, to Chinese, the incident is an emotional event filled with pain and devastation; while to foreigners, the incident is a sign of the Chinese’s awakening on their political situation. Looking and experiencing it up close, June-fourth event is a very surreal incident for people who were involved in it due to all the shock, let-down and devastation they have to take it. In comparison, foreigners had always been looking at the issue from afar, the June-fourth incident is a celebratory event to them since the Chinese can finally see the problems with their government and was willing to fight and even sacrifice for it. The mistranslation of the poem shows exactly the difference in view and emotions for the incident, in which the original

poem is a mournful ballad that shows admiration for a young martyr while the translated version is a celebratory poem that aims to empower and inspire more to fight for their freedom. This raises the interesting question on whether the protection and promotion of the such translated literatures in foreign countries sacrifices or added certain impression and meaning of the original works. While it might empower and promote participation in such activities and ideals, misinterpreted or mistranslated works might affect how both native and non-native readers see the incident. Thus, not only should works be carefully translated, it’s best to ensure a translation or adaptation loyalty and truthfulness to its original work, especially when they contain serious topics or heavy emotions towards historical events.

[1]A poem narrating a story, often on romance and appreciation


題 記: 你 不 聽 父 母 的 勸 阻, 從 家 中 廁 所 的 小 窗 跳 出; 你 擎 著 旗 幟 倒 下 時, 僅 十 七 歲。 我 卻 活 下 來, 已 經 三 十 六 歲。 面 對 你 的 亡 靈, 活 下 來 就 是 犯 罪, 給 你 寫 詩 更 是 一 種 恥 辱。 活人必須閉嘴,聽墳墓訴說。給你寫詩,我不配。你的十七歲超越所有的語言和人工的造物。















































1991 年 6 月 1 日深夜於北京

【For Seventeen (Commemorating the Second Anniversary of 6/4)】

(You didn’t listen to your parents’ warnings, jumped out the bathroom window, snuck away. When you fell, holding up a banner, you were just 17. But I lived; I am already 36. In the presence of your shade, to survive is a crime, and to give you a poem is even grosser shame. The living ought to keep their mouths shut, ought to listen to the mur- murs from the grave. That I should write a poem for you! I am unfit. Your age, 17, is worth more than any word or work—more than any thing that can be made.)

I live,
even sustain a certain notoriety.
I want the courage, or the quality,
to proffer a handful of flowers and a poem,
to come before a seventeen-year-old’s faint grin, though I know— I know—
Seventeen doesn’t carry the slightest grudge.

Your age (seventeen) tells me this:
life is plain. It lacks splendor,
like gazing at a desert with no borders: with no need for trees, no need for water, no need for the dappled touch of flowers, you take the sun’s malice; that is all.
At seventeen, you fell on the road, and so the way was lost. At seventeen, eyes open in the mud, you were peaceful as a book.
Here, in this world,
you clung to nothing,
nothing but your pure, white, spotless youth.

When, at seventeen, your breathing stopped— well, it was like a miracle—
you had not lost hope.
The bullets ripped through the mountains, convulsed the seas,

as, for a time, all the flowers in the world took on one color only.
Seventeen, you didn’t lose hope, couldn’t lose hope.
Take the love you never spent,

give it to your mother; her hair is white now.

Your mother, who once locked you away. Her line was broken
under the red and five-starred flag.
High and fine,

your mother,
your own blood,
shout-roused by your dying glance. She carries with her your last will, walks among all the tombs.
When she herself is ready to fall, with your ghost breath you brace her up,
you set her on the road.

Past age or youth, past death, Seventeen, already forever.

(June 1, 1991, late at night in Beijing.)


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.