Singapore Shelf: Tan Swie Hian's Chinese poetry gets a major English translation

The most significant translation of Tan Swie Hian's work into English to date, the book includes more than 80 poems from across his poetic career. ST PHOTO: DESMOND WEE

SINGAPORE - In this monthly feature, The Sunday Times lines up five hot-off-the-press home-grown poetry collections for readers to dive into.

1. Tan Swie Hian: Selected Poems 1964 to 1997

By Tan Swie Hian, translated by Tee Kim Tong
Candid Creation Publishing/Paperback/156 pages/$21.40/Available here

Cultural Medallion recipient Tan Swie Hian is no stranger to translation.

Across a storied literary career, he has rendered works by other greats such as English author Aldous Huxley, French poet Jacques Prevert, Romanian poet Marin Sorescu, Malaysian artist Latiff Mohidin and many more into Chinese.

Now, it is his turn.

Tan, who turns 79 this year, has had a large swathe of his poetry translated into English in the volume Tan Swie Hian: Selected Poems 1964-1997.

The most significant translation of his work into English to date, it includes more than 80 poems from across his poetic career.

The translation is the fruit of 10 years' effort by Malaysia-born poet Tee Kim Tong, 65, an associate professor at National Sun Yat-sen University in Taiwan.

"I was very touched," says Tan.

He adds that reviewing and revising the translations was a "painstaking process" for him as the original creator of the poems.

"Translation of the poem is not the author's job, it is the job of a translator," he says. "My poems are difficult - they have many layers. They were written originally as creative pieces in Chinese, but they also have to work as creative pieces in the English language."

Eventually, however, he reached the stage where he was pleased with the translated works. "Without translation, how can we communicate?"

In his studio in Telok Kurau, surrounded by portraits of famous writers such as Lord Byron and Jane Austen that he did in ink on newspaper for the Bodleian Libraries of the University of Oxford, he jokes that he is a "newcomer in the English arena".

But in the arena of Singapore Chinese literature, he may be said to be a "giant", to quote his poem of that name.

The Giant was also the title of his debut poetry collection in 1968, published under his nom de plume Mulingnu and regarded as a landmark in Modernist Chinese literature of the region.

Tan is perhaps best known to the English-speaking public for his artworks.

Singapore's most expensive living artist, he broke his own record in 2014 when his ink-on-rice paper work, Portrait Of Bada Shanren, done in 60 seconds, sold for 20.7 million yuan (S$4.4 million) at a Poly International Auction sale in Beijing.

Yet, it was in the literary arts that he first made his mark in the 1960s, with works like The Giant and The Amra Gardens, a long poem that was previously translated into English by Malaysian poet Moy Sook Ching.

The translations of the new volume span from The Amra Gardens, which Tan wrote when he was 24, to later works such as The Silver Spoon, which he penned in memory of his mentor, French poet Eugene Guillevic, who died in 1997.

Tan was born on Pulau Halang, an island near northern Sumatra, Indonesia. His father, a fisherman, went on to become the richest man in the city of Bagansiapiapi, Riau. He intended for his son to take over his business empire, but Tan, who began writing poetry at the age of 15, had other ideas.

"My mission was to become a poet," he recalls with a laugh. "So I ran away."

Tan majored in English language and literature at Nanyang University in Singapore, where he became a citizen in 1973.

After graduation, he joined the French embassy in Singapore as a press attache. He would go on to translate many French poets, such as Alain-Robbe Grillet and Henri Michaux.

He is fluent in English, Chinese, Malay and French. While speaking, he often breaks off to recite snatches of poetry from memory, from Austrian poet Rainer Maria Rilke to the Persian Sufi mystic Rumi.

"Poetry is a secret code," he says.

Tan is a practising Buddhist who meditates daily and seeks above all to have a "free mind".

He likens this state of freedom to the flight of the hummingbird. "It is a small bird which can fly long distances across the world. It can perform a somersault or remain stationary, hovering in the air."

He adds: "My creations all reflect reality. But they have many, many layers.

"There are many ways of presenting reality. We take a different path but we come to the same place. And it's good that it is so, otherwise the whole garden will be full of the same type of flower."

2. Picking Off New Shoots Will Not Stop The Spring

Edited by Ko Ko Thett and Brian Haman
Ethos Books/$22.47 as paperback from Books Kinokuniya/Free as e-book from Ethos' website

Put together to mark the anniversary of the Myanmar military coup d'etat on Feb 1 last year, this not-for-profit project brings together publishers across borders - Ethos in Singapore, Gaudy Boy in the United States and Balestier Press in Britain - to collect the poetry and prose of a country in brutal chaos.

Written in English or translated from Burmese, the works here range from those by major writers to newer voices, many of whom have emerged online to bear witness to the ongoing Civil Disobedience Movement.

Several are works by poets who have been jailed or killed, including K Za Win, who was shot dead at a protest in March last year, and Khet Thi, who died in police custody last May and whose wife said his body was later returned to the mortuary with the internal organs removed.

The book also includes writing from the Myanmar of 2010 to 2020, a transitional period in which much of the censorship regime was lifted and Internet freedom increased in the country, and poems by dissidents from 1988 to 2010.

3. This Floating World

By Gwee Li Sui
Landmark Books/Paperback/232 pages/$24.91/Available here

"A poem begins," goes the last poem in this volume. "You wait for some deep meaning./ Suddenly, it ends."

This bumper collection of 392 haiku ranges from the romantic to the comedic, satirising everything from Singapore politics to social media shenanigans.

4. Random Walk

By Madeleine Lee
Firstfruits Publications/Paperback/96 pages/$38 (inclusive of local mail postage)/Madeleine Lee's website

This collection is the fruit of Lee's time as poet-in- residence with the Nature Society (Singapore). Her poems of birds, trees and sea creatures are illustrated by nature photos.

5. Flinch & Air

By Laura Jane Lee
Out-Spoken Press/Paperback/51 pages/$15.28/Available here


Lee, a Hong Kong poet based in Singapore, charts a lineage of Chinese women in her poetry, from an intrepid migrant who marries a sailor to a marine biologist "armed only by her wits in the fight against the tide of time, humidity and men". She moves from the private to the political, with poems that touch on the Hong Kong mass demonstrations and the 2019 Extradition Treaty.

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