By Lin Yi (林儀)
Translated from the Chinese by May Huang
ㄅ is but, ㄅ falls lightly you say but no, but you can’t read but ㄅㄆ is bravely practicing bravely practicing words that look like snakes prowling on walls, ㄆ is prowl ㄇ is mystery, mum’s the word you practice reading in private eyes miniscule, much like a cat ㄈ is flickering ㄉ is dear brother, deciphering and do forgive me so ㄊ is taking to him and not to her her turn will be skipped her task will be tending to domestic life ㄋ is no, followed by ㄌ someday you will no longer be little you say the factory gears are ㄍ always making ㄎ ka ka ka ka sounds you caress the sewing machine ㄏㄐ is the hint of a gesture is how gentle ㄑㄒ is cheery, teary letting each feeling be once married, ㄓ is just cooking ㄔ is chopping, blanching but ㄕ is not sharing recipes you shake your head, say you can’t read ㄕ is she should have children you remember every ㄖ every riveting hour ㄗ is a zillion children no one realizes you don’t know words ㄗ is zero words the Ziqiang Express, visiting kids the train that zooms past your stop, unknown zones so ㄗ is a stain that zigs and zags while ㄘ is to conceal how the seasons pass with a ㄙ the mother tongue's initials end here you recite the rest of the bopomofo still hard to understand like a string of spells: ㄧㄨㄩㄚ (eventually, I too, will commute, alone) ㄛㄜ (I’ll, be able) ㄝ ㄞ ㄟ (to not fret, feel slighted, like a weight) ㄠ ㄡ ㄢ (I’ll mail out letters, own a license, scan the news) ㄣ ㄤ (henceforth, I want) ㄥ (to hum my dreams like I hum and hum) ㄦ (nursery rhymes)
n is no, n falls lightly you say you're not well, not literate but n, w is not worried not worried your words look like snakes scaling walls, w is walls s is strange, secret you practice reading in private you slowly squint your eyes like a cat g is glowing b is brother, books and being sorry so h is he and not her her who has to be skipped her who helps with family finances y is you, followed by l you’ll follow her who has lost her youth you say the industrial plant is p always making k ka ka ka ka sounds you caress the old sewing machine t, q is traces, quiet tranquility f, d is feelings, disposition letting feelings dwell once married, c is cooking v is frying veggies but r is not recipe you say you can't read the recipe r is rearing children you remember every x every exciting experience m is many children no one knows you don't know what words mean m is the missing words the metro, meeting children, missed stops and misdirections so m is a mark, you say while j is just hiding how the years zoom by with a z the mother tongue's consonants end here you recite the rest of the vowels still hard to understand like a string of spells: ay oo ae oh (one day, I too, can travel, alone) ou ee (I would, not feel) oi er i (paranoid, inferior, or difficult) ie eh ew (I’ll get my license, send letters, peruse the news) ow ah (from now on, I want) uh (to hum my dreams like I hum and hum) aw (a toddler’s song)
ㄅ是不，ㄅ很輕 妳說不安、不識字 但ㄅㄆ是不怕 不怕字寫得像蛇 在爬，ㄆ是爬 ㄇ是陌生，是祕密 妳偷偷練習讀字 妳慢慢瞇起眼是貓 ㄈ在發亮 ㄉ是弟弟、讀書 還有對不起 所以ㄊ是他不是她 她要被跳過 她要幫忙貼補家用 ㄋ是妳，接著ㄌ 妳是接著老去的她 妳說工廠是ㄍ 持續發出ㄎ 喀喀喀喀的聲響 妳撫摸舊針車 ㄏㄐ是痕跡 是很靜 ㄑㄒ是情緒 讓情緒棲息 婚後，ㄓ是煮飯 ㄔ是炒菜 ㄕ不是食譜 妳說看不懂食譜 ㄕ是生小孩 妳熟記每個ㄖ 每個熱鬧的日子 ㄗ 是子女成群 沒人知道妳不識字 ㄗ是字的空白 是自強號，探望孩子 是坐過頭是走失 所以ㄗ是漬，妳說 ㄘ 是藏起 歲 月ㄙ的過去 聲母就到這裡 妳背誦剩下的注音 還難以被聽懂 像一串咒語： 一ㄨㄩㄚ（以後、獨立、去、搭車） ㄛㄜ（我、可以） ㄝㄞㄟ（別擔心、矮人一截、累贅） ㄠㄡㄢ（考駕照、郵寄、看書剪報） ㄣㄤ（今天起、想這樣） ㄥ（哼著夢想就像哼著哼著） ㄦ（兒歌）
Bopomofo, also known as Zhuyin, is a phonetic system used in Taiwan. The 37 symbols in the Bopomofo comprise of 21 initials (consonants) and 16 finals (vowel sounds) that can be combined to “spell” out the pronunciation of Chinese characters.
In the first stanza of Lin Yi’s stunning “Bopomofo Practice,” almost every line starts with an initial that alliterates with some of the following words, e.g. ㄅ 是不 = “b shì bù.” In the second stanza, the finals that begin each line correspond to the vowel sounds of characters inside the parentheses, e.g. ㄧㄨㄩㄚ（以後、獨立、去、搭車）= i u ü a (yǐ hòu, dú lì, qù, dā chē).
My priority when translating the poem was to maintain this alliteration and assonance, but I couldn’t do so unless I replaced the Bopomofo or changed the meaning of the poem in some places. Translating ㄅ是不 as “ㄅ is no,” for example, would lose the alliteration between ㄅ (b) and 不 (bu). So, I ended up with two versions: “Phonics Practice” uses the 21 consonants of the English alphabet in place of the Bopomofo’s 21 initials (e.g. “n is no”) and replaces the 16 finals with English vowel sounds. “Bopomofo Practice” preserves the Bopomofo, even if it means “mistranslating” other parts of the poem. Instead of “ㄅ is no,” for example, the first line of the Bopomofo version reads, “ㄅ is but.” Which one is the “truer” translation: the version that translates everything into English, or the one that holds onto the phonetic blueprint of the original?
Neither translation fully closes the gap between how words sound in Chinese and English. The sounds of ㄑㄒ(qi, xi) are not found in English, so I compromised by choosing words that could mimic the rhyme scheme of the original lines—“cheery, teary… feeling / be.” Moreover, whereas each Bopomofo initial has a distinct sound, the consonants k, c, and q sound similar in English, such that their placement in the poem depends more on their appearance than pronunciation.
As a translator, I was intrigued by the challenge that translating this poem presents. But as a Taiwanese woman, I was also moved by the poem’s commentary on womanhood as it describes a mother’s experience learning Mandarin through Bopomofo. The Chinese word for initials is 聲母, and contains the character for mother, 母. So, it was important for me to include “mother” in my translation, which I was able to do through “mother tongue” and, by happy coincidence, “mum’s the word.” Despite the differences between the two translations, and the distance between the translations and the original, the story they all tell nonetheless describes a universal experience: that of learning a language, sound by sound. Whichever version readers prefer, I hope both may resonate with anyone who has a complicated relationship with language and identity.
Lin Yi (林儀) is a Taiwanese poet who discovered her love for poetry while studying in med school. Her poem “Bopomofo Practice” won first place in the New Poems category at the 14th Lin Rong-san Literature Awards in 2018, and is forthcoming as a picture book from Kido Family Time (Kido 親子時堂).
May Huang (黃鴻霙) is a writer and translator from Hong Kong and Taiwan. Her work has appeared in Circumference, InTranslation, Asymptote, Words Without Borders, and elsewhere. She graduated from the University of Chicago in 2019 and was a mentee in ALTA’s 2020 Emerging Translators Mentorship Program.