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The Lantern and the Night Moths: Five Modern and Contemporary Chinese Poets Selected and Translated by Yilin Wang

by Yilin Wang

Yilin Wang (Divya Kaur)

The Lantern and the Night Moths is an exceptional book of translations and literary criticism by poet-translator Yilin Wang. Wang’s original translations of five Chinese poets and her accompanying essays (one per poet) make for a rich but accessible reading experience.

At just over 100 pages, this slim anthology offers up a fair bit of variety. Two of the five authors (Zhang Qiaohui and Xiao Xi) are still alive and publishing today; one (Qiu Jin) was active in the late 1800s, and the two others (Fei Ming and Dai Wangshu) in the early- to mid-20th century. Xiao Xi and Zhang are direct in their verse, anchored by concrete details that are tethered to the everyday. Conversely, Dai’s poetry is dreamy, and Fei Ming’s particularly enigmatic, a trait analyzed in Wang’s essay on the author. Throughout the book, recurring images – the moon, stars, mountains, mist, and flowers – and a consistent note of longing provide for a kind of cohesion despite significant differences in style and subject matter among the poets.

The book opens with Wang’s elegant translations of Qiu Jin, a feminist, writer, and revolutionary from the 19th century. If readers are already familiar with Wang, it is likely from her previous work on this author; Wang made international news in 2023 when her translations of Qiu were used without permission, attribution, or compensation by the British Museum in its exhibit “China’s Hidden Century.” (Since then, Wang and the museum have come to a settlement.) These translations of Qiu’s confident, probing verse are in many ways the crowning jewel of the entire collection.

As a poet with some translation experience, I admire Wang’s limpid style in both poetry and prose, as well as the artful way they weave together historical and linguistic context with reflections on their own lived experience in the book’s essays. Wang, who has previously published their own poetry and fiction, is a talented translator and offers up remarkably fluid versions of the selected poems, as in their translation of Xiao Xi’s “the infinite possibilities of trees”: “sometimes, two just-awoken people made of paper / shouldering a wooden coffin / on their way to heaven, they encounter bright flames.”

Wang doesn’t hesitate to write about their personal feelings toward the poets they translate. This affective approach to their subject matter leads to refreshing insights. Wang finds in Qiu a zhīyīn (“close friend” or “kindred spirit”), relating to the 19th-century author’s cross-dressing and defiance of gender norms, as Wang is a genderqueer femme themself.

The impressive essays that accompany each translation are erudite and capacious, blurring the line between art and criticism. Though more personal than academic, these pieces nevertheless address common questions and challenges of translation, such as form, literary allusion, differences in grammar (as Wang reminds us, Mandarin does not have verb conjugation), and historical context. I appreciated, for example, the illuminating endnote on Wang’s decision not to attempt a rhyme scheme in one of her translations of Qiu, despite the presence of a rhyme scheme in the original. In reading this comment, I thought of Vladimir Nabokov’s reflections on the impossibilities of translating Pushkin’s rhymes into English, while elsewhere, Wang’s statements on the dearth of English-language translations of poetry by racialized writers of marginalized genders call to mind post-colonial theorist Gayatri Spivak’s writings on translation. The Lantern and the Night Moths is a wholly impressive work that is sure to appeal to many audiences.


Reviewer: Annick MacAskill 

Publisher: Invisible Publishing


Price: $23.95

Page Count: 108 pp

Format: Paper

ISBN: 978-1-77843-038-1

Released: April

Issue Date: March 2024

Categories: Poetry, Reviews