Nothing's lost in translation for this poet

US woman based here has translated works by Cultural Medallion winners, China writers

Ms Shelly Bryant at her "office", a Woodlands coffee shop, with books by You Jin and Chew Kok Chang that she translated into English.
Ms Shelly Bryant at her "office", a Woodlands coffee shop, with books by You Jin and Chew Kok Chang that she translated into English. ST PHOTO: YEO KAI WEN

American Shelly Bryant, 44, is a regular at the coffee shop at Block 166, Woodlands Street 13.

A familiar Caucasian face there now, she has been living in the neighbourhood for more than 20 years since moving here from her hometown in Alvin, Texas, in 1993.

The teacher, poet, writer and, recently, translator of Chinese literature - including those by Singapore writers - into English, she is usually seen in one corner of the extended seating area outside the coffee shop alone reading, writing and sometimes doing translation on her laptop.

"This is like my work place or office," said Ms Bryant, who lives in a three-room flat with her Singapore family friend just a few blocks away. "And I like coming to the coffee shop because it is usually quiet in the afternoon and the people here all know me," she added.

Ms Bryant became well-known on the local literary scene after she translated local writer and Cultural Medallion winner Chew Kok Chang's short stories about Singaporeans' experiences abroad in Other Cities, Other Lives for Epigram Books in 2013, followed by In Time, Out Of Place, a collection of travel stories by You Jin, another Cultural Medallion winner, earlier this year. They came after her successful translations of three novels by Chinese writer Sheng Keyi, namely Northern Girls and Fields Of White for Penguin Books, and Death Fugue for Giramondo Books.

She is also author of two travel books on Shanghai and Suzhou, published in 2010 and 2012 respectively, and has produced six collections of her poetry since 2009.

Her other well-known work is her translation of famous Chinese tennis star Li Na's memoirs published in China two years ago.

In an interview with The Straits Times at the coffee shop in Woodlands recently, the daughter of a preacher said she went into translating Chinese literature quite unexpectedly.

She said: "I am first a poet, then a writer. But a few years ago at a literary festival in Suzhou, China, a senior executive from Penguin Books asked if I would like to translate Sheng Keyi's works into English and I agreed."

She explained that as a poet and writer who reads Chinese and speaks Mandarin as well, it was natural for her to want to translate works from Chinese to English, and not the other way around, because she writes only in English.

Requests for her services poured in after her translation of Sheng Keyi's Northern Girls was put on the long-list for the Man Asian Literary Prize in 2012, though it did not win in the end.

So busy is she that she now spends her time between Singapore and Shanghai, where she also has a place to work on her projects with partners there.

She first came to Singapore in 1988 on a Rotary Club International student exchange programme. During her six weeks' stay, she also visited Malaysia and was hosted to lunch by the Sultan of Johor.

"I liked Singapore the first time I came here because of the cultural diversity and had wanted to return to live and work here," she recalled.

The opportunity came two years after she graduated with a degree in theology from the Oklahoma Christian University in 1991, when there was an opening for her to teach in the Church of Christ churches in Singapore.

Then, she met the Loh family, an elderly couple and their five children, and began to learn Chinese from them. She calls the couple her godparents and she got along with their children so well that she has been living with them in their Woodlands flat for the past 22 years.

"My godmum and her three daughters are all linguistically gifted people, able to speak several languages and dialects, and so I benefited from them all these years," she said.

While learning Chinese privately, Ms Bryant also studied part-time and graduated with a master's in English literature from the National University of Singapore in 2003. After that, she lectured part-time at SIM University until two years ago, when she was overwhelmed with translation projects.

Singapore, she said, has an excellent environment for learning languages, especially English, Chinese, Malay and Tamil.

"If I have children, I would like them to learn all four," added Ms Bryant, who is single.

Her Chinese is so good that she even translated classical Chinese poems of Khoo Seok Wan in conjunction with an exhibition of the late Singapore pioneer poet's art collections and other treasures at the National Library two years ago.

"I enjoyed translating those poems because I am a poet myself," she added.

She is now busy translating two more books by You Jin and even an economics textbook written by a Chinese scholar, among others.

Singapore writer You Jin, 65, said: "I am very surprised by her command of the Chinese language, though she studied it only informally. She is the best translator for local Chinese literature because she has been living here for the past two decades and she is a writer herself."

Ms Bryant said: "I enjoy translating the local Chinese writers' works because I can help them reach out to those who don't read Chinese, especially the young."

Join ST's WhatsApp Channel and get the latest news and must-reads.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on October 05, 2015, with the headline Nothing's lost in translation for this poet. Subscribe