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Last Modified: March 18, 2024
Illustration of a crow sitting on a book, with the following text to the left, "Crow Reads Podcast"
Crow Reads: Leilei Chen

In this episode of Crow Reads, Rayanne Haines speaks to poet, scholar, and translator Leilei Chen about her 2023 poetry collection, I Have Forsaken Heaven & Earth, But Never Forsaken You (Frontenac House). They discuss Chen’s history as a writer, translator and scholar, the act of betrayal in translation, the unknowingness and ambiguity of translation, publishing and editorial work, and the hopes for the future of translation in Canadian Publishing.

The collection includes seventy poems by Leilei Chen translated from MA Hui’s rewriting of Tsangyang Gyatso’s poetry. Gyatso was Tibet’s sixth Dalai Lama and is well known for his love poems. Chen’s translation recognizes the universal nature of these subjects and anticipates their resonance with many who wish to savour the beauty of love, to meditate on the complexities of the human condition, to feel both perplexed and enlightened in paradoxical moments, and to envision connection and spiritual kinship across national, religious, and cultural borders.

For Chen, the act of translation means oftentimes “to betray the original text’s linguistic form in order to stay loyal to the text in terms of its content.” Leilei Chen has translated everything from poetry, short stories, creative non-fiction, and academic essays. She is a celebrated scholar with an historical background in researching Asian American Literature and the pedagogy of teaching English as an additional language. Invited to do her PhD at the University of Alberta, Chen found her focus in travel writing while writing about new China. In 2017 she was invited to take part in the WGA Borderline Writers Program (now titled the Horizon Writers Circle) and it is there where Chen says she began to seriously envision herself as a writer.

With the publication of I Have Forsaken Heaven and Earth but Never Forsaken You, Chen says, “the wisdom of MA Hui’s poetry allows me to envision a point of connection between the seventeenth-century Tibet and post-socialist China, between China and the West.” She notes in her foreword that MA Hui’s translation was a type of reproduction of Tsangyang Gyatso’s poetry to indicate the difference between his work and the kind of translation she aimed to do in this book. Says, Chen “my translation mirrored MA Hui’s creative spirit, not in the sense that I rewrote MA Hui’s version like he did with Tsangyang Gyatso’s poetry, but in the sense that the creative process is intrinsic to my translation, like it is to any kind of literal translation.”

When asked about how one works with or translates ambiguity in the original text, Chen offers, “I would say it’s a process of moving from something that is inarticulatable, or confusing–something that is not clear to something that can be clear in the future . . . as poets, we often ask people to come away with that unknowability, right . . . in that sense, ambiguity probably gestures toward productivity or comprehension or enlightenment.”

Staying with the unknowingness of this, I asked Chen to talk about how one considers translation when the religion or spiritual path one is translating is outside their own. Is it less about understanding the nuance of Buddhism and more about understanding the act of spirituality itself in feeling comfort with translating the work? As Chen herself is not a Buddhist, she says translating the book required her to consult from the dictionary of Buddhism to comprehend its terms and concepts, so in this sense it deepened her understanding of the religion. But more so, “it was the magic of connection I identified with the aesthetics and concepts embodied in the poetry that has driven me to pursue this work and gives me contentment about its completion.”

When searching for a home for I Have Forsaken Heaven & Earth, but Never Forsaken You, Chen submitted the manuscript to five publishers. Three, she says, rejected the text before Frontenac took it on. The manuscript underwent two major editorial processes, often involving hours spent on a single word or line that didn’t sound right. Of the publishers that rejected her work, Leilei says she was told they found it difficult to promote foreign-language poetry and that they only published Canadian poetry. This may showcase a system slow to change, one that is heavily risk-averse.  Chen’s sense is that despite the success of a book like Egyptian-Canadian author Iman Mersal’s Griffin-nominated Threshold, which was originally written in Arabic and translated by Robyn Creswell, it is important to note that the book was not published in Canada. Here, she says, “publishers, readers, and even academics still have a lot to learn about literary translation as an art form that is no less creative than other artforms such as writing, painting, photography, etc.”


You can hear more of the conversation between Rayanne and Leilei at:



Headshot of Leilei Chen

Straddling between Canada and China, Leilei Chen lives her life learning the philosophy of the in-between space and its potential contribution to social progress. She translates Margaret Laurence’s short stories, Steven Grosby’s Nationalism: A Very Short Introduction, and contemporary Canadian poetry and essays. She is the English translator of contemporary Chinese ecological writings, and modern and contemporary women writers and scholars such as Ling Shuhua, Liang Hong, and Zhang Li. She has published poetry, short memoir writings, and a scholarly monograph, Re-orienting China: Travel Writing and Cross-cultural Understanding. She is an associate lecturer of English at the University of Alberta.


Book Cover: I Have Forsaken Heaven and Earth, but Never Forsaken You

I Have Forsaken Heaven & Earth, but Never Forsaken You

MA Hui, translated by Leilei Chen (CA)

Published: Oct 6, 2023 by Frontenac House Ltd.
ISBN: 9781989466643



Rayanne Haines (she/her) is a pushcart nominated author, educator, and cultural producer. She was the 2022 Writer in Residence for the Metro Edmonton Federation of Libraries and is the author of three poetry collections. She is an Assistant Professor at MacEwan University and the President of the League of Canadian Poets. Her collection, Tell the Birds Your Body Is Not a Gun won the 2022 Stephan G. Stephansson Award for Poetry and was shortlisted for the ReLit Award and the Robert Kroetsch Poetry Award. A new hybrid collection is forthcoming in fall 2024.

Tell the Birds Your Body is Not a Gun

Rayanne Haines (CA)

Published: Apr 15, 2021 by Frontenac House Ltd.
ISBN: 9781989466216