I think with the
proliferation or at least a growing number of works of literature that expand
and test and push against the boundaries of what we consider to be standard
American English, we might also question what it means to translate literature
from another language into English.
Whose English? Who is the ideal reader? For many people, and for many years, I
think, maybe this universal reader has been some sort of hazy specter of a
well-educated, upper-middle-class, middle-aged white person. What would it mean
to translate a text into English with the idea that many of its readers might
be, for example, Chinese Americans, readers who may have some knowledge of the
We can continue to push for thinking about language less monolithically, a move toward more open acceptance of the multiplicities in any one language. Think of: Sandra Cisneros incorporating Spanish in her stories, or Esmé Weijun Wang incorporating both Chinese characters and pinyin in her novel The Border of Paradise. Any one language already is full of other languages. Might we work toward translating for a reader who embraces mystery and uncertainty and illegibility and unknown words as part of the experience of living in our world today? Might this reader have knowledge of multiple languages, and even multiple Englishes? Just because the United States Citizen and Immigration Services changed its mission statement in early 2018 and eliminated the phrase “nation of immigrants” does not change the fact that we are very much a nation of immigrants. I suspect that for many Chinese American readers, for many readers who are immigrants, whose parents or grandparents are immigrants, encounters with language and literature are often riddled with moments of uncertainty, of mystery in the face of the “universal” reach of the literary imagination. Beth Loffreda and Claudia Rankine write in the introduction to The Racial Imaginary: Writers on Race in the Life of the Mind:
If we continue to think of the “universal” as better-than, as the pinnacle, we will always discount writing that doesn’t look universal because it accounts for race or some other demeaned category. The universal is a fantasy. But we are captive, still, to a sensibility that champions the universal while simultaneously defining the universal, still, as white. We are captive, still, to a style of championing literature that says work by writers of color succeeds when a white person can nevertheless relate to it—that it “transcends” its category.
Perhaps the act of translation can be an escape from this captivity. Perhaps I might work toward an escape from my own captivity, which whispers that anything I translate from French will have a universal appeal to an Anglo-American readership, whereas the Chinese will not. Perhaps my mission will be for the literature I translate from Chinese to be productively illegible to that “universal” reader.
Read the rest of Bonnie Chau’s essay in Two Lines 30: The Future of Translation.