Singapore arcade

On November 2, Marco Polo Project ran a fringe event to Singapore Writers Week. In partnership with Books Actually, we brought together young Singaporean poets writing in English and Mandarin for an afternoon of collaborative translation, and a discussion on the pleasures and challenges of living across languages as a writer.



Below is a selection of the poems translated into Chinese during this event.


New Eyes (by Alvin Pang, English original) 

When you look at the world through new eyes,

like a mother on her newborn, or a man

in the pride of his first work,

nothing comes to you without promise;

everything asks: what would you make of me?


The heart learns to speak itself aloud.

Your voice unlearns its meekness,

because the world is waiting for you

to give it a name.


Answer it boldly. Let your eyes

rest on this, the fetal incompleteness

of thins, the deep pull of a world

unfinished. Where you stand, grounded,

is how everything will fall into place.


一双崭新的眼瞳 (冯启明)

















Translation by Ang Lai Sheng


所有的等待 (孤星子)





All our waiting


for lovers, for tests

for the doctor, for the bus

for taxes, for weddings

for success, for banalities
for glory, for vanities

for children, for some to come out

for the microwave’s ding, for the beer in the fridge to chill

for life, for work, for the unforced waking

for the garden of the spirit, for the mortal (un)coil

for such and such and so on

for the vacancy of patience, every chance we get

besides the shuffle towards death,

stalling for incarcerated sunflowers

to smile: please hold.

– lonestar (andy ang)
march 26, 2014

(translation by Alvin Pang)


左边 (贺尔)





















The Left Way (Seow Joo Chuan)
— After Szymborska’s “Possibilities”


I prefer the sound of grinding coffee beans in the morning

I prefer the melody of gentle rain on leaves

I prefer the surprise of meeting friends around the corner

I prefer the expression of people when they open a lunchbox


I prefer looking back

I prefer a window with a view

I prefer back profiles, but I don’t like shadows

I prefer to chat with people older than me, except children

I prefer people’s complexity, but not their deceit

I prefer majority rule, but not when minorities are bullied


I prefer to be in balance

I prefer the left way to the right way

I prefer when people are not sure of answers

I don’t like an answer to be the only answer.


(Translation Jin Yong, Ian Chung and Julien Leyre)


停诗间 (张国强)


































Poet Mortem (Teo Kok Keong) 


The policeman was delivered





The young man’s Ferrari

too fast too fierce

for a poem’s body to dodge


The middle-aged man was delivered





The middle-aged man’s store-room

too small too narrow

to contain

father’s collection


The child was delivered



to breakthrough


The child’s heart

too pragmatic

to accomodate

the body of a poem divorced from exams


Those anxious to get in

tomorrow please note

we’re closing early


(Translation Jin Yong, Ian Chung and Julien Leyre)

In June 2014, we ran a series of collaborative translation events in China and in the UK. Our events invite small bilingual groups to translate a text English to Chinese or Chinese to English, and are organised on a competitive basis, with two kinds of prizes – one for speed, and one for quality. We announce a winner for the most characters translated on the spot, but quality takes more time to judge.

Over the coming weeks, we will post here the best translations produced during this first Marco Polo world tour. The series starts beautifully with this paragraph translated during our first event, at the School of Oriental and Asian Studies in London, by Ibtehaal Mukhtar Manji. The piece is set in Xinjiang, and describes the experience of a Han Chinese person travelling on a bus to Kashgar.

“几经折腾终于坐上了去喀什的长途汽车,踏上客车,一眼望去,都是一样的面孔,说的是一种语言,好像只有我是一个外来人,显得格外分明与另类,周围的眼光都投向了我,那些异样好奇的眼神,看的我心里一阵颤栗。偏偏我的座位是最后一排,等我走到座位的时候,座位上已经坐了一位维吾尔族的老奶奶。白色的头巾,一身黑色的长衣,两鬓的皱纹一轮高过一轮,我想和她说话,可是不知道怎么说,因为为不会维语,她也听不懂汉语。 ”

“After much frustration, I could finally board the long distance coach to Kashgar. I stepped on the bus; as far as the eye could see, all the faces were the same, speaking one language. It seemed as though I was the only foreigner. I looked particularly distinct and unusual. All the surrounding eyes were cast on me, those unusually curious eyes saw the trembling in my heart. Unfortunately my seat was in the last row. By the time I made it to my seat, an old Uyghur woman was already sitting in it. A white headscarf, a full-length black coat (abaya), two wrinkles on her forehead, one higher than the other. I want to talk to her, but I don’t know how to, because I can’t speak Uyghur, and she doesn’t understand Chinese.”

And here is a self introduction by Ibtehaal: ” My name is Ibtehaal, and I’m currently studying for a degree in Chinese and Economics at SOAS, London. Less than three years ago, I didn’t know a word of Chinese, but I didn’t let that stop me from pursuing my interest in languages. I have since developed a particular interest in China’s Xinjiang, having read extensively about the region’s rich cultural heritage, and witnessing her beautiful landscapes.”

In June 2014, we ran a series of collaborative translation events in China and in the UK. Our events invite small bilingual groups to translate a text English to Chinese or Chinese to English, and are organised on a competitive basis, with two kinds of prizes – one for speed, and one for quality. We announce a winner for the most characters translated on the spot, but quality takes more time to judge.

Our Shanghai event was very special for two reasons. One, we partnered with United Verses, and translated poetry – including micro-poems by Kate Larsen. Second, we partnered with Fudan High School, and some of our translators were teenagers from their International Baccalaureate stream. This is the case of our winning team – Edwin, Erika and Blair -selected for their translation of a poem by Yisha, which we will publish here in its entirety. We wish to particularly underline the apt translation of ‘降龙十八掌’ as ‘eighteen dragon fist’ – and remember fondly the discussions and gestures that accompanied the explanation of this Kung-Fu position.

三个死囚 / 被反剪双手 / 跪在战壕中 / 等待行刑 / 蒙面刽子手 / 立在其对面 / 马步蹲裆 / 运足了气 / 大喝一声 / 忽然使出 / 降龙十八掌 / 三个死囚 / 三声惨叫 / 呜呼哀哉 / 当场毙命 / 变成了 / 三股青烟 / 直上云天

我就在现场 / 目击到这一幕 / 作为一名神甫 / 为死囚的灵魂 / 祈祷 / 并聆听他们的 / 忏悔 / 此刻 / 我安慰下一组 / 将要受刑的一位毒死 / 对其长年施暴的丈夫 / 留下一个儿子的女囚道:/ “忏悔吧 / 你会重生 / 投胎转世 / 与你儿子重逢”

“拉倒吧 / 下辈子谁知道 / 投胎成啥玩意” / 刀条脸

Three of the condemned
With their hands bound
Kneeling in a trench
Awaited execution

The hooded executioner
Standing in front of them
Going into the horse stance
Breathed deeply
And cried out
Suddenly striking out with
His Eighteen-Dragon Fist

Three of the condemned
Three great shrieks
Oh, the pain
Killed instantly
Becoming three puffs of smoke
Floating up to the sky

I was there
And witnessed the scene
As a priest
For the souls of the condemned
And hearing their
At this moment
I was comforting the next prisoner
A female prisoner who would receive punishment
For poisoning her husband
Who had abused her for many years
Leaving her son alone
And you will be born to new life,
You will live again in the next world,
You will meet your son again.”

“Save it,
Who knows about the next life,
And what you will become.”
The female prisoner with high cheekbones
Said indifferently
But then became full of longing
And said, “If there really were a life after this,
I want to be a cricket,
And be trapped by my son……”

Many of our users are native Mandarin speakers practicing translation into English. This post is for them – pointing out a few difficulties of the English language. But hey, if you’re a native English speaker translating into Mandarin, some of these may be problems for you to! 

Bilingual stone

1. Focus on word-level translation rather than sentence or text level.

This one is the worst killer. Translators often try to seek word-for-word equivalence, i.e. match each Chinese word with an English word or vice versa. As a result, the translated text may sound like a machine translation. The reader can get the general gist reading is difficult, and the actual meaning may be lost.
2. Figures and digits

Isn’t it annoying? When a figure exceeds 10 thousand (which is in Chinese expressed as 1 ), digits between both language no longer align. The reason is that in Chinese, people often organize 4 digits as a unit, while in English, the arrangement is 3 by 3 – i.e. one million will be written as 1,000,000 in English, but 100,0000 in Chinese.



You know that, unlike their Mandarin counterparts, English verbs come in different forms – look, looking, looked; do, doing did, done. The tense of verbs in English indicate the specific context when the event happens. Consequently, when translating into Chinese, the translator should not only translate the word meaning but also the tense, i.e. complement the time element.

Example  We were best buddies.

“Were” cannot be just translated to “是” (“are”) but should indicate that this event happened in the past. The translation should be “我们曾经是最好的朋友”, which employs “曾经” to translate the past simple tense “were”.
4.Negative word/sentence

Sometimes in English negative sentence can convey positive meaning.

Example 1:  I could not agree with you more.

It means “I totally agree with you”. In Chinese 我完全同意你的意见(我简直不能同意更多)

Pay attention to the difference with “I couldn’t agree with you any more”. This sentence indeed expresses negative meaning.


Sometimes in English negative words should be translated to Chinese as positive to make sense.

Example 2:  -You don’t know I love you, do you? (你并不知道我爱你,是吗)

– No, I don’t. (是的,我不知道)

Can you think of any other common mistakes? Please share them in the comment section! 

This post was prepared by Jingzi Li, Master student in translation and interpretation at Monash University, currently completing an internship with Marco Polo Project as Education Officer and Editorial Scout. 

In June 2014, we ran a series of collaborative translation events in China and in the UK. Our events invite small bilingual groups to translate a text English to Chinese or Chinese to English, and are organised on a competitive basis, with two kinds of prizes – one for speed, and one for quality. We announce a winner for the most characters translated on the spot, but quality takes more time to judge.

This translation comes from a Chengdu team, consisting of Grace Luo, Yi Wong, 孔垂, Paola Campanelli and Dorothy Yang. They translated a piece by Melbourne writer Philip Thiel about Nanjing, into Mandarin. In this opening paragraph, the author explores the Avant-Garde, China’s largest independent bookstore. This is an Australian look at literary China, brought back to the Chinese language through one of our events.

“这边”朱利安带我走上水泥坡道。我们朝书店走去,先锋书店几个大字闪闪发光,下面还配着法语 Librairie Avant-Garde。“它看起来像个停车场”朱利安说它曾经是。被书布置过后的隧道,地上的路线与箭头依然清晰可见,同时还有个发光的十字架,看起来是那样的格格不入。我随意地挑了本济慈的书。“他们真的会读济慈吗?”我问,但朱利安没听见,因为他已经走到了读书区,那里人们正坐在扶手椅上沉浸在书香中。这是我在南京的第一天,但我已经窥见了一座文学城市。

“Down here,” said Julien, stepping onto a concrete ramp. We descended toward immense Chinese characters glowing above a French translation: Librairie Avant-Garde – the Avant Garde Bookstore. “It looks like a carpark,” I said. “It once was,” Julien replied. Inside, books decorated tunnels still marked with lanes and arrows; also, incongruously, an illuminated cross. I picked a book at random: a translation of Keats. “They read him here?” I asked, but Julien had wandered out of earshot toward an area where people sat in armchairs reading to themselves. It was my first night in Nanjing, but I already saw a literary city.”

The Marco Polo Project is looking for partners to organise all-you-can translate events in and outside China.

Translation events bring together native speakers of Chinese and/or English for a 2h30 translation race, followed by discussion. They’re a great opportunity to read good writing, improve language skills, and make new friends.

All-you-can-translate events are extremely cheap to run – you just need a space with good WIFI, a few computers or tablets, and a small group of people willing to spend time together reading and translating Chinese. If you’re interested in organising your own, send us an email at, post a comment on this page, or contact us through facebook, twitter or weibo. We will send you a full event pack, including pdf handouts, and help you set up your first event.

The video below introduces our event – if you can’t access it, this link will take you to the youku version, accessible in China.

At our last workshop, we had a wonderful discussion about the translation of the Chinese expression ‘没办法’, which opened a real new understanding of Chinese values and attitude for all participants. So we thought it may be the opportunity to launch a new column on this blog: ‘highlights from our translation workshops’, which we will write in English and Chinese.

We were debriefing the translation of a text about the proposition that ‘There’s too many Chinese people‘. ‘没办法’ appeared in the first line of the first paragraph, and as the table in charge read through their translation, there was disagreement about the translation. Someone proposed the usual ‘there’s no way’, but another participant insisted ‘that’s how it is’ was a better translation. Now that got me interested, and I thought there was something really worth pursuing there.

Anyone who’s lived in China will know the expression ‘没办法’ – pinyin ‘Mei Banfa’ – generally uttered by Chinese colleagues or friends whenever they’re confronted with some sort of administrative or bureaucratic obstacle.

Here’s the more interesting bit: I’ve always interpreted ‘没办法’ literally, as an expression of fatalism in the face of higher powers – ‘there is no way, I can’t find a way, I am unable to think of a method to solve this problem, and I have given up’. I also developed a certain irritation when confronted with this (repeated) expression of helplessness, and thought ‘surely, there is a way, couldn’t we just sit down and find how to solve this?’

But here I was confronted with another interpretation of the same expression: ‘没办法’ doesn’t mean ‘I am unable to think of a method that would solve this problem’, but rather ‘let’s not this problem get at us, and since that way seems blocked, let’s focus on something else’. I tested this assumption – and got confirmation from Chinese participants in the workshop.

This interpretation of 没办法’ as a kind of Chinese ‘c’est la vie’ suddenly brought back to mind a number of instances when I heard this expression – and revealed a new angle on my memory. My Chinese friends were not defeatist, but wise – and trying to cheer me up, inviting me to be philosophical, and accept the little annoyances of life in community with a smile.

Pasted here is the text of an interview that I did with James Friesen, student of translation at Taiwan National University and active translator on Marco Polo Project. James contacted me for an interview to discuss what the work of a translator can be like. This was a great opportunity for me to reflect on the Marco Polo model for collaborative translation, and what might have inspired him – and I had a great time chatting with James!

James Friesen

I read a news article this year on why women in China do not divorce their husbands, even in the face of infidelity and flagrant mistreatment. The piece, actually a vignette of sorts, was aptly written from the perspective of a divorced Chinese woman; the piece was written in translation. She argued that saving face and fear of losing economic status stave off divorce; there was no mention of love. This seemed to me a rare and fascinating insight into the mind of a character that Western readers are not often privy to. The link at the bottom of the page accredited the story to ‘’. Following the link lead to the source of the translation and a somewhat unpredictable resource – a vibrant online community of voluntary translators. On the Marco Polo Project one can find many other insightful articles on topics ranging from city life in China, Buddhism and homosexuality in Taiwan, and other short stories. I contacted the founder and CEO of the project, Julien Leyre, as I thought the website was a brilliant idea. I wanted to pick his brain on some issues relating to the project and translation in general. He was kind enough to respond to me, and our exchange eventually culminated in the interview you see below:

JF: For starters, can you briefly share your background, and how you came to the field of translation?

JL: Sure, I would say my background could be separated into two aspects: cultural and intellectual. I am Frenchman who grew up close to the German border; my family is Mediterranean with Italian ancestry. Living in a multicultural environment I developed an interest in language and cultural differences from a very young age and gained an understanding of multiple languages. In university I specialized in languages, majoring in English and Classics at Ecole Normale Superieure, my Masters is in linguistics, and I passed an exam to be a high school and University teacher. I have also been interested in writing from a very young age – things like short stories, poetry, collaborations with filmmakers; I also published a short novel in Paris and have been involved in various writing projects over the last ten years.

JF: Growing up in a linguistically rich environment, was doing translation an intentional decision or something you just fell into?

JL: I guess I fell into it speaking and reading seven languages to various levels; it is common for continental Europeans to speak three or four languages. One of the key things that drew me to translation was my training in classics. One of the things you do when you study classics is translate or re-translate texts from the Greek and Latin. The way I learned how to think in this regard was largely by close reading of Plato and Aristotle while doing a translation. Translation for me is conveying meaning from a certain language to those who cannot access this language. This involves closely reflecting on the way a meaning is constructed in a text – in a word it’s philology. Which is closely reading a text in order to understand what it actually means, and it often involves a process of translation as well.

JF: Can you share a little about the Marco Polo Project?

JL: It’s a website where users can read and translate contemporary writing from China. There are two aspects to it. It’s a collaborative online magazine that proposes Chinese writing in translation by crowd-sourcing the translation, delegating the translation process not through one specific person but to whoever comes and does it. The other way to look at it is a platform that encourages translators and advanced language learners to come and practice translation. It is something that we do anyway as a part of our learning so doing it in collaboration is a good motivation; it is more fun and gives meaning to what we do, essentially the more we do it the more and better we learn.

JF: What does the process of translation look like for you?

JL: It depends on what I translate. On the Marco Polo Project, I translate in layers. I start translating as I go, which is not what I was trained to do – I was told to closely read a text numerous times before starting. I start with a quick translation as I go, using google translate on the side, anything that is simple, to get an overall idea of what I’m translating. A rough patchy draft, let it rest, and come back to it to fill in the blanks, and improve what I had translated the first time, and finalize it, looking for consistency – also sometimes, consulting a native speaker to confirm doubtful passages of the meaning of idiomatic expressions.

JF: Does translation theory enter into the picture? For example, do you apply what you learned in your classics training?

JL: I would say it is in the background. What I mean is, because I spent time lecturing and doing research in linguistics in semantics, of which translation theory was a part, I completely absorbed it. It has become a part of the way that I think and not a conscious process anymore, almost like breathing. Secondly, it’s about how you relate as a mediator between the original text and the audience, which are two different worlds. You will position your translation in between these two worlds. The type of text determines the type of audience and how they relate to the text. In translating a vacuum cleaner manual you will not care so much about the way the original text is structured, rather you will care more about the meaning. Translating poetry however, you will stay much closer to the structure of the original. Texts on the Marco Polo Project are creative non-fiction, essays, blog posts, and so they sit somewhere in between.

JF: What draws you to a given piece? What makes you say, “I want to translate that”?

JL: The simple answer is gut feeling, but the gut feeling has something behind it. I look for a piece that is original and well structured. By originality I mean the content of the piece is something I have never read about before. Generally the more specific a piece is, the more likely I am to translate it. For example there is a piece called ‘The Tears of Animals’. I thought, wow, a Chinese person is speaking about how they relate to animals crying, I had never heard about that before, I want to translate that. I also choose pieces that are clearly articulated, ones that you can follow the construction. If you choose a piece based only on style, there is often a big distance between Chinese and English which makes translation very difficult, but a structured piece translates relatively well.

*Link to ‘The Tears of Animals’ (

JF: What are some advantages/challenges of having a ‘living online community’ collectively translate something?

JL: There are two main advantages to this type of platform, and I will start with the more cynical one. It makes translation cheap. The problem that we have is that there is a growing to demand to understand China; content written in Chinese is a good way to address this demand. But if you use the old model of sending a work to a professional translator with a high level of quality control etc. it’s really slow and there are not enough translators to meet the need. By crowd sourcing you can reduce cost. Translating collectively can help people to do better work and give them a sense of accomplishment through collaboration, for example if you translate a small part of a large piece. Translators can help other translators, it gives a sense of meaning and community. Are they actually good and accurate? To an extent I think people undervalue the quality of translations by people who are not professionals. As a language teacher, I thought the translation of my students were not too bad, however you do need to monitor that a little bit. The other challenge is keeping the good translators interested because a native English speaker who is also fluent in Chinese is hard to keep, there is lots of demand on their time, so it’s about finding ways to encourage people and keeping them engaged. A living online community requires moderation, giving feedback to people, providing new content, etc. so it takes a lot of work, it doesn’t do itself.

JF: Blog translation seems like it is becoming an independent genre, and beyond that, a mouthpiece for censor-dodging Chinese users. What implications does this have?

JL: The question of censorship is something we’ve thought about from the start of the project. We want to bring across a diversity of voices from China, which may include some sensitive material, but we do not want to be blocked from China as that would defeat the purpose. We want the material to be available for Mainland Chinese; we want to stay out of trouble but at the same time avoid just replicating government speech, there’s no point in that. So we have to play it by ear, but we basically try to focus on some good non-sensitive material. Sensitive areas include Taiwan, Tibet, Xinjiang, demonstrations against the government, some comparatively non-sensitive areas for example are gay rights, feminism, love relationships, and the way technology is affecting the life in big Chinese cities. Western media happens to be, in my perspective, obsessed with sensitive topics, Ai Weiwei and Chen Guangcheng are all over the news. But there are other intellectuals who do an insiders view on China, for instance Li Yinhe, who studies gender issues, is not popular in Western media but also not censored in China. Topics like these are less covered and, quite possibly, more original and more interesting because of it.

JF: What are your goals for the future of Marco Polo Project?

JL: I would like the project to show up on the list of the top 20-25 major reference websites on China. I would like it to be on the radar of translation students and people doing research and analysis on China, in terms of language learning and practice, as well as reporting, media, etc. I would like to build a bigger and more active community than we have at the moment, and there are a couple ways of doing that. We are doing a campaign right now to pay for a few improvements on the interface, to make it more user-friendly. The other way is to build partnerships with institutions, especially language learning institutions, translation centers etc. We believe that if teachers recommend the platform to their students and possibly even integrate it into their curriculum, We will be trialing that at La Trobe University in Australia, so we can refine the idea of how to put it in a workshop etc. and hopefully in the future we can take that model elsewhere.