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CAT Book Club: Translating Crocodiles

An interview with Bonnie Huie, translator of Qiu Miaojin’s Notes of a Crocodile.

In the last post for the CAT Book Club, we talked about the author of Notes of a Crocodile, Qiu Miaojin. This post, our attention turns to the translator, Bonnie Huie, who agreed to answer my questions last month via email.

Sarah Coolidge: A lot has been written of the fragmented, genre-bending nature of this novel. What was your experience of first reading Qiu Miaojin? How does her style compare to other Taiwanese writers from that time?

Bonnie Huie: Postmodernism, particularly its manifestation in the experimental aesthetics of the ’80s and ’90s, is fundamental to Qiu’s style. Because I was a fan of essay-films like Chris Marker’s Sans Soleil and Derek Jarman’s Blue, I immediately recognized the interdisciplinary nature of her writing, which assimilates the theory behind auteur cinema, where one’s style can essentially be expressed through formalism, including the sequential and rhythmic arrangement of images. While there are other important works of Taiwanese literature from the same period that could similarly be described as nonlinear or allusive or cosmopolitan, these commonalities seem superficial considering how abstraction is always in the service of emotional truths in Qiu’s work.

SC: Something I noticed while reading the book was that, while this novel deals with homosexuality and gender nonconforming characters, the author avoids using labels, which I found both confusing and liberating at times. Do you see this omission as a primarily literary choice or more as a reflection of the culture at that time?

BH: My hunch is that the book’s omission of labels is a political choice. The debate between Pro-Croc and Anti-Croc presents a no-win situation for crocodiles, who are exposed and made vulnerable by labeling on both sides, when in fact they would occasionally like to reserve the right to remain closeted. The terminology used to empower marginalized peoples has a limited reach, and words like “queer,” with its positive as well as negative connotations, have the most currency among in-groups based on age and socioeconomic class. But these identities, whose individualist underpinnings give rise to segmentation, are no longer distinct in a world that normalizes so-called queerness as an original state of being, and in the book, that world is a fleeting utopia. And so the book has one foot firmly planted in the realist camp of the underground, which does not seek acceptance by the mainstream, and it’s a place where straight characters noticeably don’t get speaking lines—except in the alternate dimension of satire.

SC: The scenes with the crocodiles were delightfully unique. At first, I expected the animals, who go out into the world disguised as humans, to be a relatively simple analogy for queer existence, but they really take on a life and personality all their own. What do you make of the crocodiles? Why introduce this fantastical element into the novel?

BH: In the dimension of the surreal, social reality can be portrayed in all its grotesqueness, Kafka’s The Metamorphosis being one of the best literary examples. The crocodile is a kind of Other, simultaneously feared and fetishized. What it sees in the mirror is no longer human, as it has become what it has internalized. But the book, with its acknowledged debt to another great surrealist and social critic, Kobe Abe, is about transforming the face one sees in the mirror into one’s own vision, in a devious act of self-creation. And that gradual process manifests itself in a series of masks, from an awkward box over the head as a symbol of shame, as in The Box Man, to the facial bandages needed after the affair with Xiao Fan, which both scarred Lazi and allowed her to finally act on her sexuality. That difficult experience pushed her to choose something healthier for herself—and abandoning Xiao Fan became the moment when she discovered her own will. Much like in Genet’s The Thief ’s Journal, the crocodile is a stigmatic self whose inner soul has been wrought through exposure to the extremes of beauty and ugliness, and the process documented as a testament, hence the conceit of nonfiction in the title Notes of a Crocodile.

SC: The book has been called a Taiwanese “cult classic” and was published by NYRB Classics. What makes this book a “classic” in your opinion? And how do you think it reads today compared to when it was first published?

BH: Leaving your mark on popular culture is no small feat, and to do so through literary fiction is even more impressive. Notes of a Crocodile is the origin of a slang term for “lesbian”—it’s the protagonist’s name, lazi, in Taiwan and lala in mainland China, where the book circulated underground and via word of mouth for years before it was officially published in 2012. The name Lazi is a bold, if tongue-in-cheek, statement in itself: the suffix zi is an honorific reserved for canonical philosophers such as Lao Tzu, Sun Tzu, and Confucius. Self-anointment on this level is simply audacious, like Napoleon snatching the crown at the coronation and crowning himself Emperor. Even if she hadn’t been a woman or a lesbian, Qiu would still be considered an extraordinary iconoclast in Chinese literature. But she was, and that’s why she’s legendary.

The book, which is annotated with locations and dates, is intended to capture a watershed moment in Taiwanese history. Consequently, the social, political, economic, and cultural conditions should become a more significant part of the interpretation, and that burden of research is on the reader. The subject matter at the heart of the book, on the other hand, remains timeless. Since it was published in 1994, the ways in which we document our lives and correspond with one another have changed, but the experience of alienation and the longing for intimacy and consolation through words have not. The book has much the same resonance today, insofar as there are young people who seek wisdom and validation in books, and in doing so, hopefully become more mature, and older people who want to be reminded of their ideals and life choices, and in doing so, hopefully stay young.

SC: Before your translation was published, were there specific things you worried wouldn’t translate well across language or culture? Have you been pleased with critics and readers’ responses?

BH: One of the pitfalls of allowing translated works to be perceived as accessible is that the common reader, who passes leisure time on the couch, not at a desk, won’t expend the effort to understand the cultural context. My views on the response of critics and readers surely entail a whole other discussion, as the more innocent misunderstandings involve confusion over the author’s surname, and from there, we only enter the dark world of prejudices.

You have to have a meticulous eye in order to read traditional Chinese, as characters can contain a high degree of detail that must be apprehended at a glance, and on top of that, on a per-syllable basis, Chinese is quite information-dense compared to other languages. English, in contrast, lends itself to skimming, but this becomes a hindrance to reading comprehension if it’s assumed that this approach can be applied to translations. How many people see a foreign name in a sentence and instantly skip over it? These habits, once ingrained in monolinguals, beget a kind of linguistic xenophobia. In the case of Notes of a Crocodile, which is loaded with cultural references, even minute details can have a political undercurrent. For instance, the flower in the song “The Wild Lily Has Its Spring, Too” has its namesake in the pro-democracy Wild Lily movement that began in spring of 1990 with protests led by students from the university depicted in the book. That’s the generation that Lazi and her friends represent.

And so a reader who ignores every signpost to the book’s structure and lineage in modern Japanese literature might walk away shaking their head, thinking the book is unfocused. And that reader, despite having been offered a detour that would allow them to see a more authentic side of the local culture, is ultimately going to be seen as a voyeur.