The Unlikely Meeting of Poetry, Translation, and Technology

Justin Eure, Worldwide Communications Manager

Nancy Liang had been traveling all day. Flight delays pushed her arrival in China past midnight, but she drove through fatigue to honor dinner plans with newfound friend and collaborator Chen Xianfa. The nicer restaurants closed hours earlier, so they chose a humble hole-in-the-wall with no formal menu. Faced with limited options, Liang and Xianfa ordered the fresh-looking fish they spotted laid out on open ice at the counter.

Liang, ravenous from traveling, devoured the fish.

“I couldn’t stop eating it!” Liang recalled with a laugh. Xianfa, marveling a bit at this surprisingly fresh and delicious meal, asked the owner to prepare another fish in the exact same way.

The meeting—aside from the hour—would be unremarkable if not for the strange pairing of the two diners.

Liang is Lenovo’s executive director of strategy, planning, and communication; Xianfa is a renowned, award-winning poet in China—a “genius of language” in Liang’s estimation. He also happens to be one of her childhood idols, a man whose work helped inspire a lifelong love of literature. They met to discuss their shared passion and a new book of Xianfa’s poetry to be published with each line printed in both Chinese and English. Liang would provide the English translations.

How did this come about? A Harvard MBA working for a FORTUNE 500 company devoting her limited spare time to translating for one of China’s most celebrated living poets? In a way, it started with a stanza, burned into Liang’s memory:

A knife blade
the night before it becomes rusted
suddenly starts to cherish its light

Executives and Transcendentalism

Liang, who carries an endless and unmistakable curiosity, read those lines in 1991 when they ran in a monthly poetry magazine. They resurfaced 23 years later, on a weekend working out of the Crown Plaza Hotel in Beijing as the executive assistant to Lenovo CEO Yuanqing Yang—a position earned through, among other things, her passion and mastery of words.

Earlier, while working as Lenovo’s director of internal communications in Morrisville, NC, Liang often translated Yang’s letters and speeches into English. She spent one weekend painstakingly reworking an email.

“He didn’t know me at all,” Liang said, “because I worked in North Carolina. But somehow my words caught his eye, he shared his gratitude, and when he needed a new EA, I got the call.”

A friend who works in a publishing house knew Liang’s talents and thought of her for an upcoming project—a completely new Chinese translation of Henry David Thoreau’s Wild Fruits. Thoreau wrote the original manuscript, a dense exploration of divinity in nature, in the 1850s, but it sat unpublished for 150 years. Liang embraced the challenge.

“The project demanded eight months of work nearly every weekend, often broken by travel between China and the U.S.,” she said. “In the end I created over 400 footnotes—I was obsessed with locating the origin of any quote, and Thoreau used so very many.”

Recreating Beauty

Somehow, during those weekends of pinpointing 19th century references and working through transcendental takes on botany, Liang remembered that poem about a knife on the edge of rust.

“I wondered, is this guy still writing?” Then came a twist only possible in the digital age. “I actually found him on Weibo and left a comment with those lines from the 1991 poem. So he sent me a book of his from 2014 and we started to chat casually.”

Xianfa seemed at first a bit aloof and inaccessible, Liang recalled, but that quickly gave way to warmth and humility. And the foundation of poetry—of countless words shared across decades—cut through all that. He told her people have two ways of encountering him: in life or in words. He did not feel comfortable opening up much in life, but through literature felt completely exposed. And literature was the shared foundation.

Xianfa discovered her talent shortly thereafter. Liang, recovering from jet lag at 4:00am, posted a set of translations of another Chinese poet to Weibo. Xianfa saw them and suggested a partnership. He would share a new collection of poetry as it developed, and she would provide the English translation—opening the work to new audiences and anchoring it in an active collaboration.

“This was amazing, almost unbelievable,” Liang said. She was struck by both the poetry and the opportunity. “As we were halfway through, I said this book is going to win a huge literature award.”

The result was Poems in Nines, which did, in fact, win the prestigious 2018 Lu Xun Literary Prize.

Poems in Nines cover

This stunning collection of poetry—sets of nine poems each exploring a different theme—is fundamentally more bilingual than a typical translation. No edition exists exclusively in just English or Chinese. Consider this passage from “Butterfly’s Fatigue,” one of Liang’s personal favorites.

Butterfly's Fatigue - Poems in Nines

The process was fundamentally different than the work on Thoreau, not least because the living author closely reviewed and consulted on Liang’s work.  Also, going from English to Chinese was easier for Liang as a native Chinese speaker than the reverse—though her English is flawless. Above all, the central challenge lay in working with poetry.

“It’s a recreation,” Liang said. “You want to recreate that beauty through your mastery of a language. I want people to appreciate the beauty of the poem, losing nothing in the act of translation.”

The duo met in person for the second time a few months ago for a book signing in Xianfa’s hometown of Hefei in Anhui Province.

“Everyone at the event—the Light through a Crevice—was thrilled! It was my very first time signing books, and I signed more than 300 times in just one hour.”

Nancy Liang and Chen Xianfa signing Poems in Nines

Creativity in Technology

This all unfolded while Liang directed the strategy and communications for a visionary tech giant operating across 160 countries. And while she concedes that the creative release of translation does offer a respite from the demands of corporate success, Lenovo actually benefits from an artist hunting for an elusive and precise turn of phrase.

“As a strong business leader or executive, the ability to express your ideas well, to find the right words, is essential,” she said. “And creativity is becoming extremely important in business. We have to imagine worlds beyond the normal boundaries of what is possible, combining all these floating pieces in new ways. Any training as an artist will give you that creative lens. The technology is so strong now that we are only limited by our imagination.”

Writing also develops deeper empathy and sensitivity, she added, which fuels strong management and opens the door for more intuitive insights. These days, as artificial intelligence transforms the way we work and strives to take over certain tasks, artistry remains essential.

“Human expression of real human emotion cannot be replaced,” Liang said. “This is why we train voice assistants like Alexa and Cortana with artists, writers, and poets–to bridge that divide in ways only we can.”

She thrives in Lenovo’s global culture, one that celebrates different perspectives and values. “Lenovo does an incredibly good job of encouraging diversity among people and thoughts. I can’t think of another Chinese company that has embraced globalization so well. I’m very lucky to be in my position.”

Indeed, the dual-language approach for Poems in Nines aligns almost perfectly with Lenovo’s dual headquarters and global identity.

Liang still writes when she can, taking the occasional distance learning class on poetry and creative writing to flex those muscles and stretch her imagination.

“Any kind of artistic talent is incredibly precious,” Liang said. “Decades into the future, this keeps us human.”

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