Paper Republic: Chinese Literature Matters

On two recently released novels by Chinese American authors

By Alice Xin Liu, published

I was really excited when I saw the title Girl in Translation (published by Penguin), but I didn't know it was going to be a book of literal translation.

The author of Girl in Translation is Jean Kwok. The description on *Girl in Translation is as follows: "When Kimberly Chang and her mother emigrate from Hong Kong to Brooklyn squalor, she quickly begins a secret double life: exceptional schoolgirl during the day, Chinatown sweatshop worker in the evenings."

But what becomes nagging after a while is then obvious - the author translates literally:

"The white disease" for leukemia," “small-hearted" for be careful and "release your heart" for don't worry. Asked about this in the Danwei interview, she said that the reason was this: “It took me ten years to write this novel and one of my goals was to develop a technique that would show English-speaking readers what it was like to be a native speaker of Chinese. I wanted to put the reader into the head and heart of a Chinese immigrant. English comes in garbled and incomprehensible, while the beauty of the Chinese language is easily understood.”

I wonder if when Chinese people say 小心, they really think of small hearts, or when they say 放心, they think of release. With no disrespect for the Kwok, these are just general questions that are interesting.

Deanna Fei’s A Thread of Sky (also published by Penguin) raises some interesting questions. She wants to separate herself from Amy Tan, which she says ruined her generation of Asian Americans (and then as writers) because whenever someone called them up, it was with references to Tan and her depiction of Asian American characters.

In her Huffington Post article she writes: “But for my generation of Asian Americans, widespread ardor for Amy Tan dovetailed with the fetishization of Asian women, the denigration of Asian men, essentialist ideas about Asian cultures, the abiding preference for preconceived notions of who we are.”

In her novel, there is the distinct sense and idea of exoticization, especially when she describes the Wall Street heroine Nina who through her own resilience to stereotypes went on to be an over-achiever, at the same time shrugging off male colleagues' sexual assumptions left and right about her Asian ‘hot-babe-ness.’ Is Fei directly addressing the problem of Asian fetishization? Or building on the image in order to revert it or implode it? Whichever way, she builds them around the crux that these women are all high-achieving, who all go off to find their roots in China, with a revolutionary grandmother to boot. It seems to me that whilst the representations of Chinese women are trying to be unconventional, it always arrives back at the same place.


# 1.   

Maybe the 小心 as "small heart" thing does a better job of illustrating how someone struggles to communicate in English as a second language than it does of showing what it's like to be a native speaker of Chinese.

To think of it in reverse, every native speaker of English remembers some moment of realization that a word they've been using for years is actually a perfectly transparent compound like, uh, I don't know, like "crestfallen" or "driveway" -- your mileage may vary.

Syz, July 14, 2010, 5:22a.m.

# 2.   

We may certainly have those revelations from time to time, but I wouldn't say it's an essential part of being an English speaker. I am generally unaware of the connection between the words "homestead" and "instead", just as I would guess most Chinese are unaware of the roots of 小心.

In the context of fiction, it seems like it would actually create an inaccurate impression of what it's like to "be a Chinese speaker", particularly when there is another whole class of words and phrases (chengyu, etc), where Chinese speakers are very aware of etymology.

On the subject of Chinese speech habits I wish could be put directly into English: terms of address. If I call you 老兄 but you call me by name, there's a wealth of information about our relationship right there, and it's very hard to get into English. I wish that we could translate that sort of thing directly, and English-speaking readers would grasp the implications intuitively.

If we're going to talk about the "beauty of the Chinese language", I think there's far more beauty and subtlety conveyed in that sort of thing than there is in the (probably apocryphal) roots of a common term like 小心.

 Eric Abrahamsen, July 14, 2010, 2:27p.m.

# 3.   

The author does a number of things to illustrate the struggles of learning English as a second language. In conversations with Americans, the narrator's English proficiency starts out at a rudimentary level and gets increasingly fluent as the book progresses. And in the English she hears, she fills in known words and guesses for words and phrases she can't catch:

We showed her the letter from school. "Go downda hall, two fights up, classroom's firsdur left," she said, pointing. [24]

But the way that some Chinese expressions are rendered seems more like the sort of thing that a someone learning Chinese as a second language would pick up on, and their presence in what is ostensibly fluent Cantonese dialogue seems unnatural. For example, one three-page scene has the following lines: "I never realized what fine human material you were made of", "You must be talking the big words", "You have such good mouth skills", "Nobody call a lifesaving-car", and "My ma is getting the needle-rescue treatment for her pain". They're marked in a way that they wouldn't be to native speakers.

The same scene also has references to the "Liberty Goddess" (the Statue of Liberty) and to someone being a lightbulb, but I don't find those quite so jarring, perhaps because one is a back-translation, and the other is a more tactile image than the examples above.

(I'm also unsure about whether the "rescue" "needle-rescue treatment", which I'm guessing is 针灸疗法 "acupuncture", mistakes "moxibustion" for "rescue", both gau3 in Cantonese, or if it's a gloss of another Chinese term.)

 jdmartinsen, July 14, 2010, 11:03p.m.

# 4.   

Sounds like the first book is trying to emulate the awful forced "pidgin" English of The Concise Chinese-English Dictionary for Lovers

quby, July 14, 2010, 11:29p.m.

# 5.   

I should mention that I found the techniques the author uses to convey the difficulty of learning a second language to be quite effective, actually.

 jdmartinsen, July 15, 2010, 12:10a.m.

# 6.   

Timothy Mo, in "Sour, Sweet" does some fascinating things with English in his depiction of the life of Chinese immigrants into the UK. As you might expect, the two sisters, Lily and Mui, talk "pidgin" English when they talk to their neighbours and customers. Between themselves, they speak perfect English - as sisters, they are unhampered by the need to communicate in a second language. However, the family sometimes use a strange form of Chinese-English when talking between themselves about concepts which are culturally-specific. In particular they miss off the article, and use the Chinese form of address ("Husband!" - note the capital H, indicating his role in the family). As an example of the perfect English, Mui says to Lily: ""That idea of yours, you know, going into business by ourselves, it's absolutely ridiculous, of course. Absolutely ridiculous, Lily." But when they quarrel over the son getting into trouble at school for hitting another child, Mo has Lily say: "What is this, Son? You hit bad boy and make his nose bleed?". It's all quite subtle but Mo makes different forms of English work beautifully as a way of showing how the protagonists relate to each other and within two different cultures.

 Nicky Harman, July 15, 2010, 9:23a.m.

# 7.   

That "Sour, Sweet" sounds like it provides a much more interesting and nuanced view on language and culture than the other books. That whole thing with "Son" and "Husband" was exactly what I meant by "terms of address" above! If that sort of thing was accepted and understood by western readers, we could retrieve so much of the flavor of Chinese dialogue in translation…

 Eric Abrahamsen, July 16, 2010, 4:06p.m.

# 8.   

I've heard of Alice about a decade and a half ago while trying to avoid a party at the high school campus full of Russians carrying Turgenev, a copy of Lolita hairstyles for Stalin, and questions for the Red Book, which my Prime Minister of a retired father asked me to go to, if only to spy and lose Austrian citizenship. Books on American retaliation were not for the faint-hearted in 1990's late America. Alice may have taught me a different, more conciliatory take on "xiaoxin", transforming most commemorative school-girl exceptions to the lilt of her colloquial style and prose literature. I was skeptical about her novel when I met her, but I hope she has found France to her own citizenship now; as there is nothing except the relief of a party when someone kind-hearted took some heat for my once then closet Tibetan but not academic prose style leniencies. I am now an anthropologist who loves those parties.

Austria at anthropology, Age 530, July 3, 2015, 7:06p.m.


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