Tuesday, 3 August 2010

Poetry without borders: translating Macau

Poetry without borders: translating Macau*

A decade after the handover, it is encouraging to see that the question of Macau as a literary space, is becoming a point of discussion and debate, and all the more so in the place where it matters most: Macau itself. The Association of Stories in Macao is a non-profit making publishing operation, the aim of which is to disseminate the fiction and poetry of Macau-based authors in English or in translation. Many of the works published so far are by young writers attached to the creative writing programme of the University of Macau's English Department, a programme that has been developed and led by Christopher (Kit) Kelen. Kelen is an Australian poet, artist and critic, who has lived in Macau and in Hong Kong for over ten years, and is a leading light in this latest editorial initiative, having published some of his own work in the series, including his beguiling collection of stories and poems, Macao: a Map of the Seasons (2006). But it is in his coordination of a team of translators that Kelen has sought to bridge the gaping abyss between the linguistic communities in Macau, namely those who write in Chinese, in English and in Portuguese. Two recent anthologies of Macau poetry, I Roll the Dice – Contemporary Macao Poetry (2008), and Portuguese Poets of Macau (2010), are testimony to these efforts. To these, one should add Kelen’s own City of Poets (2009), in which he dons his scholar’s hat to write the first interpretative study of poetry produced in Macau, a kind of companion volume to the anthologies. In the study, he sets out to explore common themes and concerns suggested by authors from different linguistic backgrounds, but who are drawn together by the fact that they inhabit the same geographical space and experience the same everyday preoccupations, but from different cultural perspectives.
There have, of course, been concerted attempts to evoke Macau through literature before. During the ten years leading up to the handover, there was a considerable amount of literary activity in the city, and even one or two attempts to cross the linguistic divide by producing anthologies of poetry containing the work of both Portuguese and Chinese poets, such as that organised by Jorge Arrimar and Yao Jingming under the title of Antologia de Poetas de Macau, and published in 1999. But what proved to be quite a prolific period in the emerging literature of Macau came to a sudden end after the handover for a number of reasons, not least of which was the scaling down, if not outright disappearance of subsidies for publication. Literary movements that seek to evoke a particular place tend to mirror and reflect upon issues of profound change. Macau during the late 1980s and 1990s was on the cusp of such change as Portuguese rule drew to a close, and the city skyline began to emulate that of Hong Kong during what, in retrospect, was a modest construction boom. The decade since 1999 has seen even greater change with the arrival of unbridled casino capitalism, even more spectacular building on ever larger areas of land reclamation, and genuine examples of Macau’s UNESCO-protected architectural heritage rubbing shoulders with postmodern kitsch, whether in the form of lotus-shaped casinos or re-creations of Venetian waterfronts backed by proliferations of mosaic pavements in the Portuguese style. The time has come for literature again, and Kelen and his group are showcasing it through the intermediary of English.
At the same time, there has been a subtle change in approach since the publication of I Roll the Dice. The particular focus for this first anthology was the work of contemporary poets in Macau, most of whom were Chinese, some from Kelen’s creative writing programme. Other poems were by Portuguese or English-speaking residents of Macau. As the editors explained in the introduction, ‘… this is an important book for Macao poetry – precisely because it is in English, because it thus introduces a wide range of current Macao writing in the genre to an international audience’. The confident assertion is true, of course, but not unconditionally so. There is the small matter of distribution and marketing, which plays its part in determining readership. Internationally known lusophone writers such as José Saramago, Mia Couto and José Eduardo Agualusa have undoubtedly broadened their readership by being translated into English, but they are probably read more consistently by greater numbers of lusophone readers in the world than they are by anglophones, and one should not forget their popularity among readers of their work in French, Italian, German, Spanish and other translations. Ultimately, the English-speaking world is still a linguistic prison, if only larger and with more inmates than most others.
This brings us to the position of English in Macau, where it is understood and spoken more widely than the region’s second official language, Portuguese. As we all know, the encroachment of English gathered pace with the expansion of British and American commercial power into the Pacific and South China Sea in the Nineteenth Century. There is nothing new here, for English has been familiar to the Macanese ever since the establishment of the East India Company in their city over two hundred years ago. But what seems to be happening now is that the special Luso-Cantonese character of the city is being squeezed, on the one hand by China’s main dialect, Mandarin, and on the other by the pan-European dialect of English. Yet it is precisely the Portuguese heritage that gives Macau its specific character in relation to other cities in China, and its linguistic complexity is far richer than, say, Hong Kong, its postcolonial neighbour. With Portuguese, Cantonese, Mandarin and English, and a creole language of long tradition, which, even if no longer spoken, is still a mark of Macanese identity, Macau is a peculiarly multi-lingual space. Nor have we even mentioned Thai, Filipino, Tetum, and languages from the Indian subcontinent, that are spoken by minority communities. Macau is a place of translation in more ways than one, but for its writers to have any hope of dialogue with one another, there must be a to-ing and fro-ing between and among its constituent linguistic parts. In this sense, English should just be another tool for expressing Macau rather than the language of coalescence. Kelen and his team seem to have sensed this: it is, for example, no coincidence that the latest anthology, Portuguese Poets of Macau, features the Portuguese original alongside the English translation. Containing examples of poems by early writers to have left their mark on Macau, such as Camões, Garrett and Pessanha, the collection also covers a broad range of contemporary poets who have resided in the city, or others who were born and raised here. In all, the anthology contains work by over forty poets, rendered into English by a team of fifteen translators. At the same time, single-author collections published during the last two years include Kelen's As from the Living Page – One Hundred Poems for Yao Feng, in English, Portuguese and Chinese, John Mateer's Republic of the East, featuring Portuguese translations alongside the English originals, and Agnes Vong's Glitter on the Sketch, in English and Chinese. The overall effect is of poetry being relayed from one language to another and back again in an exercise of poetic give and take.
It has often been argued that multi-cultural, and pluri-lingual environments have a special role in equipping people for the challenges of globalization. Mia Couto, the Mozambican writer, claimed in a speech to an international conference in Stockholm, that Africans 'may be better suited to modernity than even they themselves think' because of their ability to speak more than one African language in addition to a European one. In reality, many Mozambicans speak excellent English in addition to Portuguese, and the country’s recent adherence to the organization of francophone countries, suggests that some, at least, will be adding French to their linguistic repertoire. What could be said for Couto's native country, with its long coastline, and its openness to outside influences from the Atlantic world and from across the Indian Ocean, could be articulated with even more certainty for Macau, which was born out of international trade, and has never quite lost the cultural personality that goes with that position. The Association of Stories in Macao reflects this personality in literature, enabling, as it does, writers to acknowledge each other across linguistic borders, and to understand both their common experiences as well as their differences in relation to the city they inhabit. As Kelen so aptly states in his study, the new Macao poetry ‘reveals a place-based poetics deeply concerned with Macao identity, its evolution and potentials’. Part of this potential surely lies in the very languages used to express its poetic self.


*Published in the Macau Daily Times (Weekend Magazine), 19 June, 2010.

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