“Birds Eye View” by Weng Fen
The translator of two novels by Lilian Lee, The Last Princess of Manchuria and Farewell My Concubine, and more recently the novel Candy by Mian Mian as well as a new book-length selection of work by the poet Zhai Yongming, Andrea Lingenfelter is one of America’s most seasoned translators of contemporary women’s writings from China. In this essay she reflects on the ways in which gender filters through the prism of different languages, cultures, genres, and idiosyncratic styles to inflect the process of translation itself.
When I was approached to write an article on gendering in translation, my first thought was: What an interesting topic! My second thought was: I don’t actually give it a lot of thought; it’s automatic. Being invited to think about something I do every day but don’t dwell on has given me an opportunity to examine the unexamined. I don’t mean this essay to be the final word in translation theory or practice, and much less do I intend this to be a definitive theoretical statement about gender. I can only write from the standpoint of my own experience as a translator and poet. (And, yes, I also write from the point of view of a woman whose experiences have been shaped by the places and societies in which I’ve lived.)
It might come as a surprise to some that one who has devoted years to the study and translation of women writers such as Zhai Yongming 翟永明, Mian Mian 棉棉, and Li Pik-wah 李碧华 (Li Bihua, or Lilian Lee) would not have spent a lot of time thinking about the expression of gender in writing.
But let’s break it down. What is gendering? And if I don’t give gendering per se conscious thought as I work, what does guide my practice as a translator?
When we talk about gendering in translation, what are we talking about? Is it different from gendering in writing? For my purposes, it’s essentially the same. But is gendering in writing different from gender in writing? I’m inclined to think so. “Gendering,” as opposed to simply “gender,” suggests the placement or creation of gender in a piece of writing, the process of putting gender, as one element among many, into a written work. It implies a certain consciousness on the part of the translator. When I translate fiction or poetry or an essay, I listen to the voice of the original and strive to create an analog in English, but because it’s part of the act of writing, it’s largely unconscious. Poets and fiction writers talk about voice—something that encompasses the personality of the narrator, manifested in tone, register, and diction. Voice is one of many overlapping elements of style along with sentence and paragraph length, grammatical formality, fragments, and the presentation of dialogue (whether embedded in paragraphs or free-standing, whether set apart with quotation marks or not). We can easily quantify the second group of elements, but the first group is more subjective, and objective analysis can only take you so far. At some point, intuition takes over—because translation is an art.
I know I’m not alone in this, but for a long time I’ve thought of translators as actors. We wear masks—the personae of other authors; we speak as others would speak; and we tell stories or relate constellations of images and rhythms that others have laid out for us in great detail. A good translator can embody many different kinds of people; a less-skilled translator, like certain actors, can only play himself or herself.
In terms of process, just as there are different kinds of actors, there are different kinds of translators. I work from the inside out, internalizing the point of view, emotional states, and linguistic register of the narrator of a text. The first thing I do is identify the voice the author is using in a piece. The voice is what I hear in my head, it’s the author speaking to me as I read the text. I can hear her or him relating a personal story, conveying an experience or an impression in prose or poetry, sometimes with passion, sometimes with humor, sometimes quietly, sometimes insistently.
Is the voice gendered? I’ll save that for later in this essay. First I want to talk about point of view.
Her Point of View
From one side of the bed, her point of view
Looking through to the opposite side watching
Emerging from a heap of clothing cell phone
. . .
Turn out the lights The climax of
repeats ad nauseum:
What you’re about to offer up tonight
Isn’t that important as far as she’s concerned
From the title on down, Zhai Yongming presents in this poem a gimlet-eyed view of sex that is both overtly and intrinsically gendered. At the same time, a reading of the piece doesn’t unearth any clearly gendered language per se. As Zhai wrote in her 1984 manifesto, “Black Night Consciousness”:
I’ve finally become aware of the world around me and of the implications of my place in it. An individual and universal inner consciousness—I call this Black Night consciousness—has ordained that I be the bearer of female (nüxing 女性) consciousness, beliefs, and feelings, and that I will directly take that charge upon myself, and put it into what I see as the best work I can do on behalf of that consciousness. Namely, poetry. . . .
From the moment of her birth, a female faces a completely different world. Her first glimpse of this world is of course colored by her individual spirit and sensibility, and possibly even by a psychology of private resistance.
More than a stylistic fillip then, gender in literature is largely a point of view. Writers may reveal gender through how and what they see, because gender gives us access to different experiences. Our experiences of life are in many ways—some of them highly important—conditioned by our sex and gender identification. Cultural norms related to gender affect how others perceive and treat us, and the interplay is dynamic.
We all come up against that brick wall at some point in our lives, frequently or rarely, depending on how mainstream our identity is and how simpatico our immediate circles of friends, family, and colleagues are. The brick wall is somebody telling us how we should speak, think, behave: who we should be, simply because of our gender. The wall rises up when others tell us where we may go and what we may do because of gender, and, just as important, what we are not permitted to do.
There are writers whose personae are more gendered than others. When the translator’s task is to embody another, the translator’s ability to do so depends on her or his empathy and imagination. The more closely a translator identifies with the personae manifested in a text, the smoother the translation. When Zhai Yongming writes about reclaiming her place in what she refers to in her essay as the “black night,” I feel her passion. When Mian Mian writes in Candy about the narrator’s first traumatic sexual experiences, I go through these experiences too. In that sense, translation is reading. As Howard Goldblatt once remarked to me, the translator is “the best reader” an author will ever have.
But how does this relate to writing, beyond subject matter? As a translator, I am more concerned with craft, with the technical details of writing than some might assume. Does gender affect the words themselves—not just the words chosen but also their arrangement and the overall tenor of the writing?
A bit over a decade ago, Francine Prose published a compelling and impassioned essay about gender in writing, “The Scent of a Woman’s Ink.” It bears rereading. Taking on the notion that linguistic and stylistic gender differences were quantifiable, she wrote:
It’s not at all clear what it means to write “like a man” or “like a woman,” but perhaps it’s still taken for granted, often unconsciously and thus insidiously, that men write like men and women like women—or at least they should.
Making the point that women’s fiction and poetry was still being looked down on by the literary establishment, she quoted Norman Mailer’s particularly over-the-top and offensive characterization of women’s writing, alongside Theodore Roethke’s backhanded praise of the poetry of Louise Bogan as being unhampered by typical female faults such as “lack of range—in subject matter, in emotional tone—and lack of a sense of humor . . . hiding from the real agonies of the spirit; refusing to face up to what existence is; lyric or religious posturing.”
Faced with this sort of prejudice, Prose set up “the equivalent of a blind tasting” and invited readers to “examine a series of passages [by well-known men and women writers] for the telltale bouquet (sentiment, self-absorption, self-pity, humorlessness, narrowness, triviality) by which we might sniff out” what Norman Mailer had disparagingly referred to as “the ink of the women.”
Not surprisingly, Prose found examples of men’s writing that were sentimental and overdone, and writing by women that was forceful and succinct, thus discrediting the notion that women’s and men’s language could be easily distinguished and pigeonholed. Some of the most overwrought writing samples were written by macho icons like Hemingway, while women like Flannery O’Connor had spare, “masculine” styles.
In my work on Chinese-language women’s poetry of the twentieth century, I found that some writers write in what one could call a traditionally feminine style—indirect and soft (Bing Xin 冰心, Xiong Hong 夐虹, Rong Zi 蓉子, and Shu Ting 舒婷 come to mind)—while others, such as Hsia Yü 夏宇(Xia Yu) and Zhai Yongming use blunt and forceful language to project a highly female point of view.
Like Prose, I did not find that poetry by women shared some universally constant feminine style. Rather, as a product of social forces and individual temperament, some writers were more at home in traditionally feminine personae.
But the story doesn’t quite end there. Some time after I had filed my dissertation, I was speaking with a cognitive linguist who told me about a research project that had analyzed samples of women’s and men’s writing and had quantified the differences between them. The researchers found there were differences (women used more intensifiers, for example), and yet in literature, this finding is counterintuitive and debatable. So where does that leave the translator? Ultimately, does it matter?
Gender is but one piece of an authorial or narrative persona that the translator must embody. I do gravitate toward women writers; but when I think about translating any piece of writing, I look for something in it with which I feel a kinship. There are two factors that tend to determine that sense of kinship: point of view and sensibility. Point of view is something that I’ve found can be clearly gendered; sensibility is more fluid, and affinity between writer and translator based on sensibility is what allows us to or prevents us from translating outside of our own gender identification.
If you connect with a writer’s work deeply enough, if you can fully empathize with another, internalize that other, then gender differences between you and that writer may not be an obstacle. However, when a translator cannot relate to or feel an author’s point of view or affect as if it were her or his own—for any reason, but gender differences can be one of them—the chances for a successful or convincing translation diminish.
Clearly, though, this is not a non-issue. Looking at the authors I’ve translated, I’ve been drawn more often to women writers—but not exclusively. The male poets I’ve most enjoyed translating tend to write in a more lyrical style. Chen Dongdong 陈东东, Wang Yin 王寅, Yang Mu 杨牧, Liu Kexiang 劉克襄, Chen Kehua 陳克華, and Lin Yaode 林耀德 come to mind. This writing hasn’t struck me so much as masculine or feminine, but rather as the expression of sensibilities with a certain kind of heightened perceptual awareness. The women I translate often write of the female experience: in these cases, gender is ineluctable. But there have been exceptions, such as Lin Huiyin 林徽因. A contemporary of Xu Zhimo 徐志摩 and Bing Xin 冰心, Lin Huiyin is less histrionic than the former and less sentimental than the latter. Is there anything gendered in this poem, “A Day”?
Today, twelve hours
Are my twelve guests,
Each one comes, then goes.
And finally the setting sun, trailing shadows, goes
Before I have time to look deep into my own heart.
Dusk steals in on tiptoes, nosily!
I say: I may not talk to you this time, my friend,
Whenever I do, it wounds my pride.
Dusk leaves in secrecy, without a word.
In solitude and silence, I throw myself into night’s
Before readers pounce on Lin’s use of exclamation points, we might want to consider this passage by Xu Zhimo from his “Elegy for Mansfield”:
Last night in my dream I entered a dark vale
And heard cuckoos crying tears of blood amid lilies.
Last night I dreamed I ascended a mountain peak
And saw a gleaming tear falling from the sky.
It’s also worth comparing Xu’s feverish take on Death with Lin’s rather quieter one. Xu’s is by far the more self-dramatizing of the two pieces; he turns his mourning of the death of Katherine Mansfield into his own heroic journey. This sort of posturing is in contrast to Lin’s piece. While noting the dramatic qualities of her despairing tone, we should also bear in mind that Lin suffered from tuberculosis, a disease that would eventually claim her life. In other words, Lin’s shadowy dialogue with the symbolic figure of approaching Death embodied by dusk and nightfall is not mere posturing.
If a writer’s work strikes a chord with me, I am eager to translate it; but I would and have readily passed on work with which I don’t connect—by writers of both genders.
I do believe there are lyrical or poetic states of mind that transcend gender, that are a place of poetry, pure and simple. The more a piece of poetry or fiction is anchored in gendered experience, the harder it is for a translator to sidestep gender. Translation is a form of empathy. And a translator’s ability to empathize varies from work to work. Ultimately, a translator has to ask herself or himself: what is being communicated in this piece, and can I express that gesture in its fullness? It will always come back to that.
As a poet, I have always needed to keep a safe distance from theory and ideology, lest they hamper my imagination and the music of words—an essentially inside-to-outside process—with their top-down, outside-to-inside dicta. There are people who devote their lives to discussions of gender—that is their métier, but for me it’s too meta. I’d rather dig around in the dirt of my literary garden, a world of the concrete and tactile. This essay will doubtless strike more theoretical minds as naïve and unlettered. I have no conclusions to offer, only practical advice. So be it. I must get back to my work now. Other minds await me, familiar or new voices, with new thoughts to share, and a consciousness that my conscience and intuition direct me to re-embody in my native language.
1 Zhai Yongming, “Her Point of View,” in The Changing Room: Selected Poems of Zhai Yongming, trans. Andrea Lingenfelter. (Brookline, MA and Hong Kong: Zephyr Press & The Chinese Univ. of Hong Kong, 2011), 139.
2 Zhai Yongming, “Black Night Consciousness,” trans. Andrea Lingenfelter, in Chinese Writers on Writing, ed. Arthur Sze (San Antonio: Trinity Univ. Press, 2010), 158.
3 Francine Prose, “The Scent of a Woman’s Ink,” Harper’s Magazine, June 1998, archive accessed April 5, 2012, http://harpers.org/archive/1998/06/0059591.
5 Lin Whei-yin 林徽因, “A Day” (“Yitian” 一天), in Lin Huiyin 林徽因, ed. Chen Zhongying 陳鍾英 and Chen Yu 陳宇 (Hong Kong: Joint Publishing, 1990), 239. Poem translated by Andrea Lingenfelter.
6 Xu Zhimo, “Elegy for Mansfield,” in Anthology of Modern Chinese Poetry, ed. and trans. by Michelle Yeh (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1992), 5.
From Chinese Literature Today Vol. 2 No.2