“Vice-royal-ties”, poetry by Julia Wong Kcomt, translated by Jennifer Shyue

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Chifa. The word may not immediately register with visitors, but once said out loud, the origins of the term for the ubiquitous Chinese restaurants in Peru are obvious to anyone with even a smattering of Cantonese. Arroz chaufa soon becomes recognizable (if somewhat redundant) as fried rice. Once the surprise wears off, it is of course entirely natural. There is a large Chinese diaspora in Latin America for much same reason as there is in the US, UK and Australia.

Nevertheless, the idea of Asian writing in Spanish still seems exotic. It isn’t, of course, or at least no more so than it intends to be. Very little however makes it into English, and the rare examples that do still generate (at least in me) a frisson of at least curiosity if not excitement.

The title of Julia Wong Kcomt’s 2009 collection Bi-Rey-Nato is a very clever pun.

Vice-royal-ties, Julia Wong Kcomt, Jennifer Shyue (trans), (Ugly Duckling Press, December 2021)
Vice-royal-ties, Julia Wong Kcomt, Jennifer Shyue (trans), (Ugly Duckling Press, December 2021)

Translation is always to some extent an exercise in reinvention, perhaps especially so with poetry. A translated poem must work in the target language as well as maintain fidelity with the original: exactly what kind of fidelity is something the translator must work out. The mere title of Julia Wong Kcomt’s 2009 collection Bi-Rey-Nato illustrates the point. “Said aloud,” explains translator Jennifer Shyue,

 

it sounds indistinguishable from “virreinato,” or “viceroyalty,” or the administrative units that Spain and Portugal’s rulers carved out of the Americas.

 

But in pieces, it becomes “bi” (“two”, as in English), “rey” (“king) and “nato” (“born”)—“of two Empires born”, perhaps, (my gloss, I should say, not Shyue’s). The Sino-Latin diaspora in a nutshell, one might think. And untranslatable. Shyue settled on Vice-royal-ties, itself multilayered word play, different, but compatible.

This particular volume is very short, too short really, with only a handful of poems, but enough to give a flavor (“flavor” being an apt term) of both Julia Wong Kcomt’s work and the translation. Shyue employs a light touch: “Café con leche” starts one poem. She leaves it as is. The original text is laconic and rhythmic, attributes Shyue has captured in English.

Se muere el Perú” starts “El gallo rojo” (“The Red Rooster”): “Peru dies”. It continues with imported antagonisms grafted onto local ones:

 

Papá told me to detest the Japanese
like everyone says to hate Chileans.

 

But then:

 

I find no difference
between the cherry tree, the sakura, the lotus flower, and the
olive bush …

 

… all I remember is what you said about my aunt:
“She was hot, your aunt Carmen,
she didn’t look Chinese.”
I smiled unoffended, because in Peru nobody
looks like anything.

 

And of course “There was a chifa restaurant” (“Había un chifa”, the “restaurant” being redundant):

 

You ate wonton soup
with your Chinese friends,
and as we searched for an emblem
to overcome the centimeter and a half of
difference in our eyelids,
a red rooster
loosed a sound louder than nothingness.

 

It’s hard to quote more without spoilers. Much of the meaning (or perhaps context) is in the few lines left out. You’ll have to read it yourself.

Here’s hoping that this small volume makes it across the Pacific.

Language play is perhaps inevitable in the English version of a collection titled with a pun. But Wong Kcomt’s poetry contains almost as many references to language and languages as it does to food. One poem starts

 

If I possessed the freshness of twenty madreselva blooms
I would start over with my love in Macau and in
Portuguese.

 

This poem is peppered with (sometimes imperfect) Portuguese; Shyue has to choose what to leave and what to translate and when to do both. When a phrase repeats, this time in Spanish, she leaves the second one alone

 

(I am not from the sierra,
I don’t speak Quechua,
it’s all the same
to be from Chepén or the Himalayas,
but you only get one mother.)
Madre
hay una sola.

 

The poem concludes

 

That ought to be enough for the sea to part in two
so I can walk all the way to Macau.

 

… something that those of us who live in Hong Kong might also wish, under the circumstances, to happen.

 

Shyue is, in her translator’s note, lucidly transparent about the process, her process, of translation. This is a bilingual edition: the Spanish is also transparent enough that it can be worked out with only a little effort and the two compared.

Asian-Latin American ties go way back. Spanish America had Chinese immigrants from the early 17th century (if not earlier), while the founding capital of many a 19th-century Hong Kong enterprise was denominated in “dollars Mex”. Here’s hoping that this small volume makes it across the Pacific where, arguably, it’s true audience mostly lives.


Peter Gordon is editor of the Asian Review of Books.