Bopomofo Practice: Two Translations

By Lin Yi (林儀)
Translated from the Chinese by May Huang

Audio: Lin Yi (林儀) reads 注音練習
Audio: May Huang reads “Bopomofo Practice”
Audio: May Huang reads “Phonics Practice”
Bopomofo Practice
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)
Phonics Practice
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
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)

注音練習 林儀
ㄗ 是子女成群
ㄘ 是藏起
歲 月ㄙ的過去

Translator’s Note

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.