Translating Ai Weiwei

Ai Weiwei is one of the most famous and/or infamous artists on the international art scene. The designer behind the bird's nest at the 2008 Beijing Olympics, the subject of the 2013 Oscar-nominated documentary, Never Sorry, and a regular in museums and biennials, in China he is a controversial presence. 

The artist's show, "According to What?" just closed at the Hirshhorn here in DC and I thought it would be the perfect opportunity to take another look at the artist's work and at Lee Ambrozy, the translator of Ai Weiwei's Blog, published in English by MIT Press in 2011. 

While Ai was already a well-established artists, in 2005, his celebrity began to take off and saturated the Web and Twitter as he started churning out a zealous steady stream of social and government commentary, calling for the Chinese government to be held accountable for events, such as the "tofu-dregs engineering" that led to the unnecessary deaths of schoolchildren following the Sichuan earthquake.

In 2008, Ambrozy, who has translated Chinese for MoMA in New York and the China Pavilion at the Venice Biennial, and now oversees Artforum’s Chinese language website and maintains her own blog, Sinopop.org, received a call to collaborate with Ai and produce an English-language print edition of his political writings.

Ambrozy has produced a formidable translation--walking the fine line between staying true to the Chinese source text and maintaining a smooth and readable English translation.  She has taken the angle of preserving the literal meaning and tone, rather than making Ai's writing easily digestible and transparent, a particularly difficult task when considering that many of Ai's entries verge on the academic and blend musings on his artistic practice with uncensored political critiques. One such entry reads:

"China still lacks a modernist movement of any magnitude, for the basis of such a movement would be the liberation of humanity and the illumination brought by the humanitarian spirit. Democracy, material wealth, and universal education are the soil upon which modernism exists. For a developing China, these are merely idealistic pursuits."

Yet, Ambrozy also noted the difficulty translating Ai's blog as a print compilation, "his writing is completely erratic, it’s all over the place. Different styles. You know, various levels of cynicism, irony, sort of literati language, and then he’ll just starting cursing. He’ll just let loose a stream of curses in the same paragraph."

For more insight into Ambrozy's experience translating the blog and collaborating with Ai Weiwei, I recommend listening to the hour-long interview by Endymion Wilkinson of New Books Network that I have posted below. She further details her experience creating the volume, the challenges and joys of the translator’s practice, and the story of the Grass Mud Horse, among many other things.