Canaan Morse ’07 is a devoted translator of Chinese literature. His work has been published in the Kenyon Review, the New York Review of Books, and other leading publications. His most recent translation, Peach Blossom Paradise by preeminent Chinese author Ge Fei, was selected among hundreds of books as a finalist for the 2021 National Book Awards.
In addition to novels, Morse translates poems, plays, and even song lyrics by people like Cui Jian, the leading figure of Chinese rock and roll whose songs were sung at the 1989 Tiananmen Square protests. Morse, an East Asian studies major with a Chinese concentration and a Greek minor at Colby, is currently a Ph.D. candidate at Harvard University. There, he’s studying traditional Chinese performance. In a Zoom interview, Morse answered questions from Staff Writer Kardelen Koldas ’15 about his journey to learning Chinese and translation work.
I’m curious, what piqued your interest in China and Chinese?
I fell in love with China when I was five. My mother taught Latin and Greek in high school, and my father was deeply involved in East Asian studies, esthetics, and art history. They read a lot of myths to me, and among those were Tolkien novels, the Lord of the Rings trilogy. I fell in love with this old-equals-cool, age-equals-power thing, which is J.R.R. Tolkien’s sort of equation: “The old that is strong does not wither.” Finding Greek myths so cool, my parents told me about Chinese ones too and how China was the oldest continuous civilization in the world. My father had a couple of classical Chinese dictionaries on his bookshelf, and I used to pull them down and copy the characters. I rooted for China during the Olympics and all that sort of thing. So I really fell in love with it.
How did you formally start learning the language?
My parents discovered that I had a particular aptitude for foreign languages. When I was 10, it was clear that I wanted to learn Chinese. So they looked around [for an instructor]. I grew up in Manchester, Maine, which is half an hour from Colby, and they found [Associate Professor of East Asian Studies Hong] Zhang laoshi (老师) [Chinese word for teacher]. She started to teach me Chinese using Colby’s curriculum. And I loved it. I was good at it. In Chinese, we have the term qimeng shi (启蒙师), which means the teacher who opens your eyes for the first time. Zhang laoshi was very much that for me. In my senior year in high school, I designed an independent study, did another two, three semesters of Colby Chinese, and applied to Colby. She became my advisor. The rest is history.
Did you start translating at Colby too?
No, I first started in high school, when I was learning Spanish. It was just a natural activity. At Colby, Jin laoshi [Kim Besio, the Ziskind Professor of East Asian Studies] helped me get started in the world of Chinese literary translation, and my honors thesis with her was translating a novella.
Later in Beijing, I cofounded a magazine called Pathlight specifically for English translations of Chinese literature. I was its first poetry editor. But my first publication was a translation of a Chinese essay for the 2010 winter edition of the Kenyon Review, which was a really lucky thing and really got me going.
Tell us about your translation process. What’s your approach?
Some people translate as they read without knowing what’s happening next. I’m certainly not one of those. I read the work multiple times before I ever set pen to paper. As someone said: “One hundred percent of the words in my translation aren’t the words in the original.” What I’m attempting to reproduce is the feeling that texts make on a native reader. So when I read the original Peach Blossom Paradise, what are the images that conjure in my mind? I want to recreate that effect using English.
But it’s only the feelings you recreate.
Yes, translation is a process of co-creation—not a re-creation or imitation. You’re standing next to your author, and a good reader will hear you next to them. If you stand too far behind, the text comes out stilted. If you stand too far in front, while you’re doing something unethical, you’re also muting their voice. So it’s a process of immersion and then reflection. And you need a good editor along the way.
How did you start translating Ge Fei’s work?
In 2010 I went to the Beijing Book Fair, essentially with a bag to fill up with books. When I met one of my contacts at People’s Literature Publishing House, she said, “Ge Fei has a new book out, and it’s kind of weird.” When I heard that, I said, “I want that book.” She gave me a free copy of The Invisibility Cloak. I took it home, and I stayed up reading it, which is something that I hadn’t done since high school. I just devoured it. So I pitched it, and one editor, Jeffrey Yang at New York Review of Books, picked it up because he liked Ge Fei. And I got this book deal for The Invisibility Cloak. This was an opportunity to build trust and prove to Ge Fei that we can be good to him. We communicated a lot during the translation. And the translation has done really well. That was how we landed on Peach Blossom Paradise.
Which is his most well-known book. What is it about?
In terms of the Chinese contemporary canon, it’s a book you have to read. It tells the story of a time in history that most of the world, including China, has forgotten. Everyone “knows that” in 1911, [Republic of China’s First President] Sun Yat-Sen convened the nationalist movement, overthrew the Qing Dynasty, and established Republican China for a short time before war broke out.
But very few people know that in 1898, for 100 days, a group of Western-trained intellectuals, who were also palace officials and were deeply, deeply engaged with traditional Chinese governance and culture, attempted to turn China into an egalitarian paradise basically overnight. They believed that they could achieve a great unity based on equal rights, science, and democracy in a Confucian model. And it was this unbelievable experiment that failed utterly. But people forgot about it, and Peach Blossom Paradise is very much a snapshot of that incredible time.
Why did you want to introduce his works to an English-speaking audience?
Ge Fei is a very famous writer in China. There’s a sharp-edged beauty to his writing born of deep esthetic seriousness and maturity as well as an appreciation for mystery that I have found to be unparalleled in contemporary Chinese literature.