A Writer’s Insight: Joshua L. Freeman

Joshua L. Freeman’s translations of five Uyghur poems by Tahir Hamut and the late Ghojimuhemmed Muhemmed appear in the winter 2020 issue of The Southern Review and have been recorded in both English and Uyghur for our audio gallery. Here, he discusses his interest in modernist poetry, unique challenges of translating from the Uyghur language, and literary translation as a form of social and political engagement.

Preety Sidhu: Out of the body of Uyghur literature, what draws you to translating modernist poetry—and the works of Tahir Hamut and Ghojimuhemmed Muhemmed—specifically?

Joshua L. Freeman: While the history of Uyghur prose fiction is relatively short, poetry has been happening in Uyghur (and its linguistic predecessors) for many centuries. Poetry is part of everyday life in Uyghur society in a way it isn’t in the U.S., and, in fact, poetry is a key medium in which Uyghurs have worked out their modern identity over the last century—that’s something I’ve focused on in my historical work. During the years I spent living in Xinjiang (the Uyghur region), many members of my extended circle of friends wrote poetry, and all of us read and discussed and debated it. I found that really invigorating.

For whatever reason, I tend to be drawn to modernist poetry in any language, whether English or Uyghur or Russian. In the Uyghur context, modernism largely refers to an innovative and at times irreverent literary movement that emerged in the mid-1980s and remains vibrant today. Uyghur modernist poets draw on the riches of the Uyghur literary heritage while challenging existing poetic conventions, and are often deeply influenced by other literatures: Arabic, Western, Russian, Turkic, Chinese. Ghojimuhemmed Muhemmed and Tahir Hamut have very different poetic profiles, but something that connects their work is a sense of literary freedom. If you read their work over the decades, neither seems bound to any particular school of poetry, and both draw on whichever poetic and cultural resources they choose. Ghojimuhemmed, who passed away in 2018, wrote free verse as well as classical meter; Tahir’s poems include allusions to Uyghur folk mythology alongside references to Anne Sexton.

PS: Examples of evocative language that really jumped out at me from these poems include “the red-blooded” and “the black-blooded” in Tahir Hamut’s “Unity Road” and “life-sharpened sword” in Ghojimuhemmed Muhemmed’s “I Cry.” Were these relatively straightforward translations from the Uyghur or was it more challenging to find an English approximation for the original words? Do you think “red-blooded” and “black-blooded” have the same connotations for Uyghur speakers as they do for English speakers?

JLF: “Red-blooded” and “black-blooded” were pretty straightforward to translate, and have more or less the same connotations in Uyghur as in English. “Life-sharpened sword” was more of a translation challenge, simply because Uyghur is a more grammatically versatile language than English: you can do things with suffixes and word order in Uyghur that an English sentence just can’t pull off. A more literal translation of that line might have been “I cry on a sword that has been sharpened on life,” but that would hardly have conveyed the feeling of the original line, which is four elegant words in Uyghur. I tried out a few variants before settling on “life-sharpened sword.” Readers can decide whether it works.

PS: Are there allusions or references to Uyghur culture in these poems that were difficult to capture for English speakers who might not be very familiar with the culture? If so, how did you handle these?

JLF: “I Cry” definitely stands out in this respect. Each of this ghazal’s couplets references places, events, or beliefs that are resonant for Uyghurs, but which are not familiar to most English readers. And yet, I feel the poem works well in English, in part because Ghojimuhemmed Muhemmed’s images are so universal: a pigeon with bound wings, a poet’s executioner, stones splitting apart. I think an English reader can appreciate this poem even without knowing that Atush is located in a rocky, mountainous area, or that trips “round the homeland” likely refer to circumnavigations of the Tarim Basin, where the bulk of Xinjiang’s Uyghur population resides in oasis towns ringing the Taklamakan Desert.

PS: Do you think there are unique challenges in translating from Uyghur to English more broadly? If so, what are these, and what work-arounds have you developed?

JLF: Probably the most significant challenge is the one I alluded to above: Uyghur is a highly agglutinative language (i.e., lots of suffixes), which allows poets much more freedom with word order than is possible in English. “Lost in Paris” was quite a challenge in this respect, with its long sentences and complex enjambment. I usually try to reproduce a poem’s original lineation as much as possible, though I make compromises if needed for the translation to work as a poem.

PS: Given the current political situation facing China’s Uyghur population, what role do you think literary translations can play? In this context, what do you hope English readers will take away from the works you’ve chosen to translate?

JLF: Over the last year or so, the world has begun paying more attention to the catastrophe unfolding in Xinjiang. The scale of what is happening, however, is beyond comprehension: How can one imagine a million or more people in internment camps? We need to help the world see some of the individual faces behind these horrifying statistics.

Likewise, more and more people around the world are aware of the Chinese state’s campaign to systematically erase Uyghur culture, but we need to help the world understand what is being destroyed. The world should know the richness of Uyghur culture, language, literature, music: the world should know what it is losing.

Uyghur poets have long been some of the foremost voices of their people, and literary translation is a way to make these voices heard in other languages and places. I hope readers enjoy these poems as I enjoyed them: as great poetry. And I hope they also come away from the poems with a sense of urgency about the people and the culture that created them. Over the last three years, most leading Uyghur poets—Chimen’gül Awut, Perhat Tursun, Adil Tuniyaz, and others—have disappeared into the camps. We should raise our own voices until they, and all of the countless others, are free.

PS: What resources or concrete action items would you recommend to readers who want to raise their voices about this?

If your legislator hasn’t signed the Uyghur Human Rights Policy Act, call their office and ask that they sign it. Another major initiative is the Xinjiang Victims Database, which is doing important work to document the tragedy and needs donations and volunteers. The Uyghur Human Rights Project maintains a list of ways one can get involved, as does the website Art of Life in Chinese Central Asia. And you can help raise awareness in your community as well as on social media.

PS: What are you working on next?

JLF: Tahir Hamut, thank goodness, managed to leave Xinjiang with his family in 2017, and he has continued his poetic work in exile. He has some new poems I intend to translate soon, and eventually I’d like to publish a book-length collection of his work.

Joshua L. Freeman is a historian and translator, and is currently a Cotsen Postdoctoral Fellow at the Princeton Society of Fellows in the Liberal Arts. He received his PhD at Harvard University, where he focused on Uyghur cultural history in twentieth-century China. His translations of contemporary Uyghur poetry have appeared in CrazyhorseGulf Coast, and Hayden’s Ferry Review.

Preety Sidhu is the editorial assistant for The Southern Review and an MFA candidate in fiction at Louisiana State University. Originally from the eastern shore of Maryland, she earned a BA in Astronomy at Swarthmore College before working as an independent school math teacher in the New York and Boston areas. She is currently hard at work on her thesis, a novel.

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