[Musings] Make It Make Sense

  • onJune 11, 2020
  • Vol.48 Summer 2020
  • byJeremy Tiang

One of my many lockdown projects, begun in the hope of giving my life some semblance of structure, is regaining my Cantonese. I say “regaining” because my parents tell me I spoke it as a small child (I don’t remember this, though at this point I don’t remember things that happened last week), but lost it when I had to switch to Mandarin for school, Singapore having decided that Mandarin is the only version of Chinese that qualifies for “official language” status. My parents still speak it to each other sometimes, reminding me of a world that is now closed off to me, a niggling voice in my ear. And so I am attempting to find my missing language via an app (not Duolingo, which only has Mandarin, though under the name “Chinese”—as if other Chineses do not exist).

Singapore’s reinforcing of Mandarin as a main language has been more or less accepted by the populace, by some more grudgingly than others, but this shift left a mark. In her book Living in the Era of Lee Kuan Yew, Lee Hui Min describes turning on the TV one day in the early eighties, only to find Chow Yun-Fat and Carol Cheng suddenly speaking mellifluous Mandarin, instead of the Cantonese they’d been using just a day before. I think of how wrenching this must have been when I hear Cantonese now, and also Teochew, Hokkien, Hakka, and the other tongues now reduced to the status of mere “dialects,” while also marveling at their persistence, decades after the official policy, and indeed two thousand years after the First Emperor imposed his language across the whole of the newly unified (aka conquered) China.

(Apart from English and Mandarin, Singapore’s official languages also include Malay and Tamil, which I hope to someday learn. All four languages intermingle to an extent—the Singaporean Chinese word for “market” is “basha,” which comes from the Malay “pasar,” which in turn has the same root as “bazaar.”)

This language story comes from my upbringing and background, but I daresay all languages and places have one as complex, and many individuals too. Language is a messy business, which is what makes the business of literary translation so endlessly fascinating and impossible. A common misunderstanding about translation is that languages map neatly onto each other, and that translation is simply a matter of bringing each word across a boundary, with perhaps some light rearranging or choosing of synonyms. The gaps are actually far vaster than that. There are, for instance, no tenses in Chinese, so when bringing a text into English, there is immediately the choice of whether to use the past (more conventional), the present (more propulsive), or a mixture of the two (if the story takes place in more than one time period, say). A straightforward transfer is not possible; a decision has to be made, and this decision will be determined by the translator’s point of view—where, as they say, one is coming from.

The act of translation lends itself to a variety of metaphors, among which the bridge is one of the most persistent: the translator as a bridge between one language and another, between cultures and places. This never felt right to me, having grown up somewhere that already contained many languages and cultures, and somewhat adrift ever since—for me, there is no clear “here” and “there.” And even if there were, isn’t this image somewhat imperialist? A place that was hitherto closed off to you is abruptly rendered accessible, and you are free to stroll right in. 

It makes more sense to me to think of literary translation as an act of artistic creation—with the translator at the intersection of the original and new text, interpreting it as an actor does the lines of a play. Give a hundred different translators the same poem, and you’d get a hundred very different translations, because everyone brings their subjectivity to the task, which is as it should be. The best translations come when the artistry of the translator engages with the artistry of the author in thoughtful, exciting ways, producing work of merit in its own right, not a pale imitation. 

This may all seem a bit like insider baseball—does it really matter how we choose to think of the translation process? Well, yes, because the way we understand the process affects the way we go about it. Languages are not coherent, contained entities, and translation is therefore not merely a matter of moving content from Box A to Box B. One frequently encounters the pernicious idea, from readers, reviewers and, sadly, even some translators, that the main criterion in literary translation is “accuracy,” “fidelity,” or whatever we’re calling it today. Of course everyone is free to take whatever they like as the center of their translation practice or reading, I just question, given the tangles that languages get themselves into, whether such a thing is possible at all. 

For myself, I traffic in effect—the reader’s response being the only measurable outcome of a text. “This phrase evokes a certain feeling in me when I read it in Chinese; what form of words elicits the same emotion in English?” “This sentence has a certain resonance for the Chinese reader, what is necessary to make it chime with the English reader in the same way?” (And yes, by “the Chinese reader” and “the English reader” I do often mean myself; I am the only reader whose brain I have access to.) This is a different type of fidelity, a sort of faithfulness to particular elements of a text, the ones that feel most important in the rendering, rather than the mere surfaces of the words.

Sometimes this means not translating—I may end up, for instance, using the word “hutong” throughout a translation, because the English word “alleyway” conjures up something far removed from the reality of a Beijing hutong, which to my mind justifies the importation. (You will also notice I have not italicized “hutong,” because please let’s not go down the road of deciding which words are “foreign” and which aren’t.) Perhaps this is idiosyncratic to me, in that my multilingual, peripatetic life has given me particular associations with these words that others may not have—and I’m certainly not saying that my choices are the right ones, only that they’re right for me.

Translators aren’t just observers of language, but active users—perhaps the most active—which means we have the power to shape language too, in however small a way is within our power. If the English language at my disposal does not contain what I need to re-fashion the world I am translating from, it is a simple act of magic to invent it. Rather than bend myself and the text into an existing lexicon, I would rather expand this lexicon. The English language, after all, is marvelously flexible and accumulative, and will stretch if you need it to.

I choose to center subjectivity rather than pretend to neutrality, because the viewpoint I inhabit is the only one I have. Like writers, translators have distinctive voices; some may be more adept at shaping or manipulating them than others, just as some actors are more transformative than others—but it’s important to recognize that the raw material we are working with is our perspectives, our experiences, our idiolects, our voices, and that these are the means through which we interpret the translated text. This is also why it’s necessary to have translators from a range of backgrounds and experiences in the profession—it’s not just a matter of justice or fairness, of giving everyone a fair shot (though this is, of course, vital), but also to ensure a diversity of viewpoints and ways of working, which can only enrich the community as a whole.

Languages are messy because people are complicated—and it’s near impossible to truly understand the human beings in our own household, or even ourselves, let alone people using different words than the ones we know. And yet, we try. As translators, we pick our way through the mess of language, seeking connections and correspondences where they can be made, finding equivalencies or ingenious alternatives if not. Acknowledging this messiness seems more productive to me than pretending it is somehow possible to be objective, to stand completely outside both ourselves and the text. Relearning Cantonese is my way of re-connecting with a part of my brain that I’ve lost touch with, and also of increasing the mess, throwing yet another ingredient into my already multiple sense of self, to see how that affects my way of working. What previously unheard echoes will become audible to me? I can’t wait to find out.

The myth of meaning being “lost in translation” only makes sense if you think of words as discrete units of sense, rather than the closest approximation we have to pinning down the seething chaos we carry around inside ourselves. It is not the text that is lost in translation, but the translator—and that’s a good thing. By allowing ourselves to become lost, and embracing the possibilities of confusion, we hopefully achieve the state of freedom in which creativity can take place, and find our way to where we need to be.

Jeremy Tiang


Jeremy Tiang is a translator, novelist, and playwright based in New York City. He won the Singapore Literature Prize in 2018 for his novel State of Emergency, and has translated novels by Yeng Pway Ngon, Zhang Yueran, Chan Ho-Kei, Su Wei-Chen, and Lo Yi-Chin, among others. His most recent translation is Strange Beasts of China by Yan Ge (forthcoming from Tilted Axis Press).