Guanglin, Wang. Translation in Diasporic Literatures. Palgrave Pivot, 2019. RRP: €49.99, 144pp, ISBN: 9789811366086.
Xuehai Cui and Jiao Li
The award-winning Translation in Diasporic Literatures, by Wang Guanglin, is a welcome contribution to translation studies and the study of diasporic and transcultural literature. Winner of the Biennial Australian Studies in China Book Prize 2020 for an Original Work in Scholarship (English), the book is one of the few works that investigate the relationship between world literature and translation through a combination of Western and Chinese theories on translation. Here, translation is figured as ‘survival’ in a double sense: in the metaphorical sense of transfer as well as ‘border’ writing that echoes the hybrid space, which the diasporic subject inhabits. Both ‘transportation’, which ensures the survival of the source text in altered forms in the new context, and the ‘in-betweenness’ of translation, which allows the ‘silenced other an opportunity to be represented’ (101), are mobilised as ways of literary reinvigoration.
Regarding the metaphorical sense of translation, Wang notes that the original text transposed into the new context is not an extension of life but is itself re-configured with the infusion of the discursive codes of otherness. For Wang, a piece of literature ‘has a past, present and future, which are manifested in translation across histories and geographies’ (124). Such translative performances by the writers under investigation—for example, Nicholas Jose’s re-contextualisation of the classical Chinese text Six Chapters of a Floating Life in his novel The Red Thread, Brian Castro’s ‘borrowing’ of Ming dynasty poetess He Shuangqing in The Garden Book, and Maxine Hong Kingston’s rendering of the ‘talk story’ in The Woman Warrior—invariably confirm translation as the medium to recover, retain and renovate otherwise in-articulated narratives across time and space. For Wang, the goal of translation performed in these works is not to achieve cultural communion with the source text, but to ‘name death’s continued existence’ (101) and to signify life-empowering acts, ‘where it [translation] assumes the role of writing […] continuing the life of the literary canon’ (23).
Wang also reads these writers’ translation acts as transgressive ‘border’ writing that reflects the writers’ hybridity (10), which is used as a trope for resisting Western binary oppositions. Radically reviewing the polemics between literal and free translation (as seen in the translations of Chinese culture in the literary writings of Maxine Hong Kingston and Frank Chin, respectively), Wang relates ‘the centrifugal and centripetal forces that are inherent in [Chinese] diasporic writers’ (1) to the blending of cultures in Kingston’s The Woman Warrior and Gus Lee’s China Boy through their efforts of cultural translation, which ‘is a deconstruction of the monolingualism of US culture’ (12). In chapter five, Wang deconstructs the binary of Western aesthetic ‘division between writing […] and visual aesthetics’ (89) by introducing the notion of inter-semiotic translation in reading the photographs interspersed in Shanghai Dancing ‘with linguistic units transmuted into meaningful mental images of fragmentation and multiplicity’ (73). A similar point is made in chapter six relating to B. K. Zora’s artistic work, where an English alphabet is juxtaposed with a Chinese character. Echoing the writers’ hybridity, translation is posited as Benjaminian fragments of a vessel (chapter four), in which ‘unity is represented in diversity’ (11), and Homi Bhabha’s ‘third space’, as resistance against the ‘hegemonic control of discourse’ (112), and hence ‘contributes to the diversity and vitality of world literature’ (xvi).
Nicholas Jose would seem to constitute an unusual case in a book discussing works from linguistically and culturally displaced writers, yet holding the set of texts together is the notion that translation is thematised as the driving idea and is no less concerned with Jose’s insights that China is ‘in the same boat’ as Australia (Jose 12). By this, Jose is referring to Australian and Chinese forms of literature that are impacted by the ‘traditional idea of untranslatability in the West’ (107) and thus equally marginalised, with Chinese pictorial language deemed ‘inscrutable and difficult to Western readers’ while Australian literature features ‘a rich translation of Aboriginal cultures’ (107). Hence, untranslatability is what Wang comes down upon forcefully throughout the book by mobilising translation in its various forms. The book culminates in chapter six when Wang re-evaluates the Babel paradox and Jacques Derrida’s deconstruction of linguistic universalism and relativism. He criticises the idea of untranslatability that ‘highlights the fixity of language’ (116) and the ‘absolute incommensurability of languages’ (117) as well as their underlying ‘linear mode of thinking’ (118). In a potent response, Wang engages the allegorical interpretations of Chinese philosophies and Western philosophies in a dialogue, to illustrate ‘the metonymic, intertextual nature of translation, a transference of one kind of state into another, away from narrow-minded provincialism and critical paralysis’ (122).
For Wang, translation is a cultural phenomenon, a transformation and the staging of difference, rather than an empirical linguistic manoeuvre. He considers an array of writers in the diaspora, a term which, despite its old reference to the paradigmatic Jewish case, is conceptualised here as people who cling to their homeland for the formation of their cultural identities and self-representation. Translation, with its points of contact with the migration of diasporic writers to justify Salman Rushdie’s provocation that diasporic writers are translated men (Rushdie 17), is taken up by Wang to shed light on the study of diasporic and transcultural literature within the theoretical and critical literature in Translation Studies. For Wang, ‘unity in difference provides the very foundation for translatability across cultures’ (127) and it is because of translation underpinned by the concept of translatability that the classic or the canon, which is subject to historical changes as a non-essentialised concept, ‘is constantly renewed’ (124).
Jose, Nicholas. ‘Damage Control: Australian Literature as Translation’ in Christopher Conti & James Gourley (eds.), Literature as Translation/Translation as Literature. Cambridge Scholars Publishing, 2014. 1–15.
Rushdie, Salman. Imaginary Homelands: Essays and Criticism 1981–1991. New York: Granta, 1992.
Xuehai Cui is a PhD candidate at the Western Sydney University with professors Anthony Uhlmann, Nicholas Jose and Jing Han, supported with the ACIAC scholarship.
Jiao Li is a PhD candidate at UNSW under the supervision of professors Andy Gao and Sue Starfield and is fully funded by the University.
The authors are grateful for the helpful and constructive comments from Professor Nicholas Jose and Dr Josephine Taylor concerning this review.