International PEN Poem Relay

As part of the International PEN China Campaign, PEN centres around the world have translated and recorded translations of a poem by an imprisoned Chinese poet and journalist, Shi Tao. The poem, JUNE, which alludes to memories of the Tiannamen massacre, has been translated into a variety languages, ranging from Adnyamathanha (an Australian indigenous language) to Tamazight (a Berber language spoken in Algeria). Using the internet as its main vehicle, the poem virtually ‘travelled’ around the world, from centre to centre, language to language, adding new translations as it went and ending up back in Beijing for the 2008 Olympics.

The website,, launched on 25 March 2008, presented a map of the world showing the progress of the poem relay, which takes its cue from the Olympic Torch Relay itinerary. As the Olympic Torch was lit and began its journey across Greece towards Athens, the poem ‘virtually’ left Taiyuan City, Shi Tao’s hometown, and travelled towards Greece. On 30 March, the poem ‘arrived’ at the Greek PEN Centre, at the same time as the Olympic Torch arrived in Panathinaiko Stadium in Greece. Visitors to the website were able to track the poem’s progress around the globe, from Greece back to China, while reading and hearing new translations as the poem ‘arrived’ at each new centre.
The poem ‘arrived’ in London on Sunday 6 April, the same day as the Olympic Torch.  The English translation of JUNE was read by British actress Juliet Stevenson, and there was also a new Welsh translation.

In a last minute push to the finish line, the PEN Poem Relay reached a total of 127 different translations of JUNE into 100 different languages! After a journey that took it around the world and to more locations than any torch has ever been, ‘June’ arrived in Beijing on 8 August 2008, where it returned to the original Mandarin Chinese version.

Nevertheless, despite the promises made during their Olympic bid concerning improvement of human rights and freedom of the press in particular, there has been very little notable improvement in the lead up to the Olympics. In fact, writers and activists continued to be detained right up until the last minute, with Zeng Jinyan disappearing on the very eve of the Olympic opening ceremony. At this moment Shi Tao and a further 42 other writers of concern to PEN are being held in prisons in China, whilst  numerous internet sites, including  that of the Pen Poem Relay, remain blocked.

To read the BBC Chinese Section coverage of this event, including an interview with Zhang Yu of the Independent Chinese Pen Centre, please click here.

To read the joint press release issued by English PEN and Scottish PEN about their contributions to this project, please click here.


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