We introduce our Humboldt Fellow, Dong Li, and ask him 3 short questions about his moving between the cultures of Germany, China, and America.
Dong Li is a Humboldt Foundation Fellow at the Institute for American Studies Leipzig during the academic year 2015-2016. Dong’s poetry and public performances seek to bring together the cultures of China, America, and Germany in many different ways, including “translating between cultures”. He has received several awards and studied at renowned universities, including Brown University. American Space asked him 3 compact questions.
Dong what does a Humboldt Fellowship and a year in Leipzig allow you to pursue that would not be possible otherwise?
The German Chancellor Fellowship from The Alexander von Humboldt Foundation with its attendant prestige and financial security allows me to work on ambitious projects and bridge various literary, artistic and academic disciplines and communities. Currently I have been working on a trilingual anthology of contemporary American, Chinese and German poetry. All the participating poets over a few generations will respond to a poem by the late great American original C.D. Wright on the state of poetry and its direction in our time. This project gathers an army of poets and translators and would give us an urgent glimpse into an increasingly isolated and isolating art form. To field the feelings, to move the immobile again, again, nothing like the pull of poetry. With this anthology, we are intensity-bound for a ride through different language landscapes. The local and international resources will be pooled. Poets and translators in a dialogue, languages in a clash. The collaborative potential of new literary forms will be explored and paired with other disciplines. The impact is still unknown, possibly explosive. A likely symposium on the agenda, on the crisis of literary arts and how it reconnects and sings. How wonderful it is to work on these in exciting and literary Leipzig, a city on the brink of grand possibilities and small miracles.
You were born and raised in the People’s Republic of China, studied in America, and have dived into European and German culture. What have been a couple lasting lessons that you have collected during this voyage?
The strictures of a Chinese upbringing led to my deep appreciation of an American liberal-arts education. I was not a tame student even then. At the tiny student-run college in the Californian desert [editor’s note: Deep Springs College], I learned to milk a cow and hire incoming students and faculty members; I had a true taste of democracy operating on a small scale and its faults. In the desert, I learned to take responsibilities for my own education, to marry learning with action. If I do not milk the cow, its stomach will rupture. My preconceived notions of who I was and what I valued were examined and broken apart and I stood up again and failed better. Exposure and openness to different cultures, by choice or by circumstances, build characters and sharpen sensibility. We are the same and not the same, the recognition goes deep. In-between lies the migratory force that translates the world into its painful splendors.
Your work involves importantly trying to translate between China, America, and Europe both literally in terms of written works and more broadly in terms of between cultures. What are a couple lessons that you have learned along the way about “the art of translation”?
I believe words are gold. No word is more poetic than another. In literary translation, attention is required and the labor full of love, thus the work shines thus the nights talkative. I translate and hope to add new pressure and perspective to the receiving language and culture. A proliferation in expressive forms is paramount against the increasingly standardized use of media and internet language. Words are individualistic as we are. I hope my words would incite people to sing out loud their own curdled songs. I hope to become a little bridge between cultures, a bridge of words to retrieve the irretrievable, to translate the unspeakable and unspoken poetry and stories and keep them from falling into oblivion. With a bridge, torrents of conflicts and unfounded antagonism will be crossed and we will not drown in disrespect and misunderstanding of other peoples and species with whom and which we share the planet and its blue. Empathy is the word, to ensure love will not leave the page or the planet, thus I pursue my art.