Translations of Ephemera

Mackenzie Duan

The movie Blue Gate Crossing (藍色大門), directed by Yee Chih-yen, opens with teenager Meng Kerou watching her best friend, Lin Yuezhen, describe her life in ten years, narrating the scene of her husband returning home, eyes shut, blushing, her voice whimsical and full of bliss. Kerou listens, teasing her. Yet the two drift apart when Yuezhen asks Kerou to help her confess to Shihao, the boy she likes, and he misunderstands Kerou’s intentions, leading him to pursue her instead. In a twist of irony, one night at the empty swimming pool—their school uniforms awash in blue—Kerou tells Shihao that she might like Yuezhen. Their voices are muted, echoing lightly across the tiles and back. The entire film fans out like that. According to critic Mique Watson, it’s “as placid as a billowing cloud; you see it, and it leaves just as soon as it comes.” But at the nucleus of that cloud is an unsayable sadness, an insistence on a transient life: like the fleeting shot of Kerou and Yuezhen slow dancing, swaying in a circle with their heads on the other’s shoulder, a paper cutout of Shihao taped to Kerou’s face. Light powders the backs of their necks.

Late summer. A deeper, bluer light. B & I were sprawled in a deserted baseball field, doing nothing, twilight turning like a stone in our palms. I could just barely see her face. We spoke of everything friends did: small injustices and banal plans and the economy, how little we understood it & how flush we still felt it against us, even now—a thousand invisible hands circulating our bodies. No contact. Cicadas simmered. In theory, that night should’ve felt monumental, its tender trickling neatly packaged into some broad statement about youth or love or not going gentle into that good night. Instead, the clouds kept billowing farther apart, each moment dragging us toward the normalcy of daylight. There might have been some stray, sweet pang, some charged phrase, but who knows. You see it, and it leaves just as soon as it comes.

I first met B in school. She was Chinese, but not in the way that I was Chinese, which was hyphenated and a little stilted, like a last-minute, low-budget actor. She was born in Beijing, like my mother, and was therefore infinitely cool to me: a value which compounded as I learned that she practiced competitive fencing, loved the stock market, and updated her Letterboxd religiously. One summer, we spent a hot, sluggish eternity watching films, soothing our suburban boredom with killer reality TV, absurd horror flicks, bizarre Hong Kong arthouse movies. I could never remember the characters’ names and she could never remember the intricacies of the plot, so we clued each other in. The summer was shifting or ending. Later, we’d drift apart: we had no classes together, other friends, new attention spans too low to wholly and earnestly believe in the brief, imaginary world of a movie. I asked my mother for advice. She said I was so young.

At night, Kerou crawls into her mother’s bed. The mother, keeping her eyes closed, scolds Kerou for coming home so late. After a moment, she guesses that Kerou is heartsick, and asks if its source is Shihao. Kerou does not reply, and instead asks her mother how she survived after Kerou’s father died. The mother answers, “就是这样活过来的.” I try to translate it into English: You survive just like this. Just like this, you live through it. You survive like you have been. We survive like this. We come through the same way. But there is no “you” nor “we,” only an implied command, the subject both universal and nonexistent. No arrangement sounds right. No sentence has the same gravity. But it’s passé, at this point, to lecture about how connotations never survive translation.

Silence passes between Kerou and her mother. Against the deep blue pillows and sheets, their moonlit faces remind me of a Ming vase: fragile yet ancient, casting a net of shadows, leaking into the night. Still, dissonance is inevitable. The mother’s questions go unanswered, Kerou’s answers are questioned, and the mother’s eyes remain shut, oblivious to Kerou’s gaze. I imagine a chasm opening between two synonyms. Once, in a fight with my mother, I accused her of being scared of what I was becoming. I resented her for not being more cruel. I was very juvenile. She raised her eyebrows, all disdain, and said, I crossed the ocean into a new country. What could I be scared of? No answer. In this way, she remained, always, impossibly distant, impossibly brave—a defense buttressed by childhood stories of meat rations and murders, lost chickens and beloved pens, innocence and death and damage more true and terrible than any watered-down pain I’d ever encounter. I imagine an uncrossable gulf. I imagine my mother when she was younger and forgive her all over again.

In fewer words: my country is not my mother’s country, although I so want it to be. I recall the protagonist in Chu T’ien-hsin’s 1992 novella, “A Story of Spring Butterflies,” a man who discovers that his wife has been exchanging letters with a female lover. Instead of battling for his wife’s affection, he accepts tragic defeat, comparing her to someone yearning for a now-dormant childhood home: “By adulthood, it’s gone forever. Do you miss it? Do you long for it?”  With misery, he laments the wholeness of the past that contained first love: uncertain and strange, defying reconstruction and yet demanding it relentlessly. I sympathize. I still daydream about subway lines, dirty snow in the courtyard, clean shapes, my uncle’s refrigerator stocked with Beijing yogurt. Yet these images have, by now, accumulated an orange, loveless sheen, as if the affection in the memory has since stopped being manufactured, the entire business discontinued. Sometimes I pray, Please God, don’t let me be a tourist.

Now, I daydream about blue light, fever, freak weather. Once, it rained in late August and for several miles I walked beside B, both of us sharing an eggplant-purple umbrella, untouching except for when she’d wander past the umbrella’s brim and I’d tug her back into its orbit, its purple bruise. When we ran past a line of broken sprinklers, the water drilled holes in our chests. Back then, I believed that I’d meet her again and again, like a wave crashing into shore, or a call breaking into static. Borders collapsing, tangled in hair.

Years later, I discover via Instagram story that B has moved back to China. To be honest, I can’t be bothered to care; call it cold-blooded, but I only feel relief. I resume my Tuesday and continue browsing the pins on Queering the Map, a geographical archive of memories crowdsourced from queer people throughout the world—it’s fascinating, heart wrenching, real shit. An anonymous dispatch from Fujian: [W]e walked down this road every day after school. I was hopelessly in love. From Taiwan: 我還認為另一個輩子中我們是在一起的. / I still believe in another life we would be together. It’s hard to explain how the message is tinged with doom, yet the possibility of a second life is still closer than anything. Meaning is sometimes subsumed by translation—a process Ken Liu describes as the “breaking down one piece of work in one language and ferrying the pieces across a gulf to reconstitute them into a new work in another language.” The gulf has no dimensions: the waters are x wide, y deep, the resulting journey full of miscalculations and storms, losses after losses. Languages can decay this way, especially first languages, which contain the cadence that cradled you, as did one side of the bed, as did an endless mist. On my phone, I listen to a Beijing ferry announcement, rocking back and forth; a phantom engine rattling through a phantom gulf.

Clicking through the map, I’m reminded of the ache of inaction. Of letting a fever pass, of a chasm opening, of untouching, unlooking, of questions ferried like foam across a wave of mouths, of that stranger from Fujian, telling no one: we walked down this road every day after school. The most frequent shot in Blue Gate Crossing is composed of two teenagers sitting next to each other, gazing at something indistinguishable in the distance. Low light, cicadas simmering. Outside the frame, the clouds are billowing farther and farther, soft and blue and indifferent.

(I try again to translate what Kerou’s mother says. These are my rules for the translation: it will not include personal pronouns, it will not sound blunt or pithy, it will not preserve English grammar conventions at the expense of reversing the order of the phrases 就是这样 and 活过来 although that is what translations often attempt to do, and it will be as simple and wondrous as it is in Chinese. Finally, it arrives on the opposite side of the gulf. I arrive, after everything—not yet comprehending the impossibility of understanding my mother’s life and the improbability of predicting what mine could be—)

Just like this, surviving. What else is there to do?