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Mainer turns passion for Chinese culture into an award-winning career translating literature

Canaan Morse grew up in Manchester. When he was young he became obsessed with Chinese culture. He now translates Chinese poetry and prose.

MANCHESTER, Maine — It’s been said that translation is a journey over a sea, from one shore to another. A man who grew up in Maine has made that journey many times.

Canaan Morse is an award-winning translator of Chinese literature, and that line of work brings a world of challenges. 

Morse grew up on a farm in the rural town of Manchester. He became obsessed with Chinese culture when his parents introduced him to mythology as a young boy. By the time Morse was 10, with his interest in China unwavering, his parents searched for someone to teach their son Chinese. They found professor Hong Zhang at Colby College, who would teach Morse Mandarin and later become his advisor when he was getting his undergraduate degree at Colby. 

"It was really under her tutelage that I was able to turn this interest into passion," Morse said. 

At 19 years old, Morse moved from his quiet Maine town to one of the largest cities in the world. It was there, in Beijing, that he started to draw many parallels between the Chinese people he was meeting and the Mainers he knew. 

"There's this kind of dry, sardonic humor that ... rang so true to a Mainer ... that kind of like self-deprecating but also good-natured humor," Morse explained.

As Morse's mastery of the Chinese language developed, translating became a natural use of his talent and one he had been practicing since he was a high school student, translating Spanish poems into English.  

"There is nothing mathematical about translating," Morse said. 

Translating poetry and prose into a different language can be challenging, in part because words so often reflect the culture and society that uses them. Morse doesn't try to capture every word. Instead, he tries to give context and translate a feeling that the Chinese author intended. 

"Peach Blossom Paradise" is the second novel by the popular Chinese author Ge Fei that Morse has translated. It was named a National Book Award Finalist for Translated Literature in 2021, an honor that is not lost on Morse, who is currently a Ph.D. candidate at Harvard University. 

Morse also translated Ge Fei's novel "The Invisibility Cloak" and wants to bring more of the author's work to English readers. 

"[Fei] is one of the most succinct Chinese writers that I have come across. He is capable of weaving multiple threads of sensory information into an incredibly small amount of texts, which results in a sensually rich experience," Morse explained.

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