Lost and Found in Translation: Contemporary Ethnic American Writing and the Politics of Language Diversity / Edition 1

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Overview

Starting with Salman Rushdie's statement that even though something is always lost in translation, something can also be gained, Cutter examines the trope of translation in twenty English-language novels and autobiographies by contemporary African American, Asian American, Native American, and Mexican American writers. She argues that these works advocate a politics of language diversity—a literary and social agenda that validates the multiplicity of ethnic cultures and tongues in the United States. She concludes with an analysis of contemporary debates over language policy, such as English-only legislation, Ebonics, and bilingualism.

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780807829776
  • Publisher: The University of North Carolina Press
  • Publication date: 10/24/2005
  • Edition description: 1
  • Edition number: 1
  • Pages: 336
  • Product dimensions: 5.60 (w) x 8.60 (h) x 1.00 (d)

Meet the Author

Martha J. Cutter is associate professor of English at Kent State University and author of Unruly Tongue: Language and Identity in American Women's Writing, 1850-1930.

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Lost and Found in Translation

Contemporary Ethnic American Writing and the Politics of Language Diversity
By Martha J. Cutter

The University of North Carolina Press

Copyright © 2005 University of North Carolina Press
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-8078-5637-6


Introduction

Translation as Transmigration

"It is normally supposed that something always gets lost in translation; I cling, obstinately, to the notion that something can always be gained," remarks Indian writer Salman Rushdie in Imaginary Homelands (17). The topic of cultural translation has been extensively assessed in postcolonial writing and criticism, yet few scholars have acknowledged that a wide variety of contemporary ethnic American writers from diverse time periods deploy questions of literary and cultural translation in their works. Although most of their texts are written in English and the ethnic language is most often transcribed into English words, ethnic American writers maintain a constant preoccupation with questions of cultural translation: Who can be a translator? What can be translated? When a second- or third-generation child no longer speaks the parent's ethnic tongue, what gets "lost" in translation? And what might be "found" in translation? Finally, as Gustavo Pérez Firmat phrases it in a clever linguistic wordplay, how might "translation [take us] to a place where cultures divide to conga" (Life 21-22)-where they mesh, mingle, and re-create themselves in a border zone or even border dance of linguistic and cultural free fall?

Through analysis of twenty works of fiction and autobiography written by contemporary ethnic writers, this book examines the simultaneous loss and gain of translation. I demonstrate that there is a trope of cultural and linguistic translation specific to this body of writing and distinguishable from the treatment of this topic in Anglo-American literature; this trope involves transcoding ethnicity, transmigrating the ethnic tongue into the English language, and renovating the language of hegemony. I contend that the trope of translation recurs in the twenty works of fiction and autobiography discussed in this book as well as in many other works of ethnic American literature because it presents a central methodology for reformulating and reconceptualizing the relationship between the American and the ethnic, the child and the parent, the dominant discourse and the marginalized one; translation typifies, then, a remaking of not only language but also racial, generational, and cultural identities.

Debates about translation in these texts often reflect questions about the feasibility of inhabiting multiple linguistic worlds and creating multiple ethnic cultures. An effective translator can creatively mesh languages and worldviews so that the spiritual, cultural, and social values of the original or parent culture are not lost as the translator moves into a new culture and language. For these writers, translation entails moving the ideas and values of one culture to a new context, but it also involves transplanting, transmigrating these ideas-making a new location for them in the new world and the new language they must inhabit. Literary and cultural translation also divides and unmakes separate languages to "conga" them-to both conquer and remake them; translation entwines these languages in a syncretic linguistic whole that is still marked by difference, that is still (and always) divided by conga. Pérez Firmat argues that over the past several decades in the United States, Cuba and American have been on a "collusion course"; the best products of this collision/collusion display "an intricate equilibrium between the claims of each culture" (Life 6). As he notes, however, equilibrium does not necessarily mean stasis-it also involves the "freedom to mix and match pieces from each culture" (7), to combine cultural and linguistic entities into balances that are more than the sum of the parts. The conga as a dance form can appropriate aspects of past and present, of Latin, Hispanic, and Anglo cultures; it can incorporate cultural forms and then evolve again into something new. Similarly, I argue that the translator may achieve more than synthesis between cultures (A + B = AB); instead s/he may enable the emergence of new and unique cultural and linguistic formulations (A + B = C). I also hypothesize that there is a trope of translation specific to ethnic American literature that crosses boundaries of diverse ethnic identities and therefore may be considered "transethnic." In this trope a new mode of voice, language, or subjectivity may be formulated that meshes-but also exceeds-prior subjectivities or languages.

The parameters of this trope can be briefly elucidated through an example, discussed in more detail in the next chapter. Initially the translation conflict seems to center on language, with the protagonist of the work of ethnic literature refusing or resisting translation and seeking instead assimilation to the dominant norm, to the language of hegemony, English. There is also a concomitant rejection of the parent or ethnic culture. In Maxine Hong Kingston's The Woman Warrior (1976), the young protagonist's mother demands that she return some medicine that a pharmacist has erroneously sent her family-a bad omen in Chinese tradition that only candy (or "sweetness") can amend. The protagonist does not think she can translate this Chinese custom, and indeed she does not believe this custom is worthy of translation, of transmigration or relocation within a new context, as the following conversation with her mother reveals:

"You say, 'You have tainted my house with sick medicine and must remove the curse with sweetness.' He'll understand." "They don't understand stuff like that. I won't be able to say it right. He'll call us beggars." "You just translate." She searched me to make sure I wasn't hiding any money. (170)

The protagonist's tone-calling the custom "stuff like that" which will mark her family as "beggars"-signifies a derogatory stance toward the ethnic culture of China, which is often depicted in Kingston's work as "alien" or "other." The custom itself appears to be well on its way to being lost in translation. So perhaps it is predictable that the protagonist then refuses even to attempt to translate this tradition to the druggist:

"Mymotherseztagimmesomecandy," I said to the druggist.... "What? Speak up. Speak English," he said, big in his white druggist coat. "Tatatagimme somecandy." The druggist leaned way over the counter and frowned. "Some free candy," I said. "Sample candy." "We don't give sample candy, young lady," he said. (170)

The protagonist falls into child-speak ("tatatagimme somecandy") or falsehoods ("sample candy") that elide the real significance of the Chinese tradition. In the course of the work, however, Kingston's autobiographical persona develops facility as a translator. As argued in Chapter 1, she transmigrates her mother's language and customs to a new context, but Kingston also transcodes the meaning of her own ethnicity: it no longer functions as "baggage" she must "discard" but as something that can give her "ancestral strength" in the difficult world of America. So the work ends fittingly with Kingston's re-creation of one of her mother's Chinese stories about a woman translator and the following three words: "It translated well." The trope of translation is fundamental to Kingston's ability to transcode ethnicity so that she can be both American and ethnic; this trope also allows her to transmigrate Chinese language and customs into the English language and into her new cultural context. What appears to be "lost" in translation is finally "found" through an act of metaphorical translation itself.

Kingston's text, for the most part, only rarely includes Chinese words and their English translations, but it is nonetheless preoccupied with a series of translation dilemmas written into the English language of the text. Other texts are more multilingual. Effective translations are often created by a translator who moves between different dialects, speaks several languages, blends languages, or "codeswitches"-moves back and forth between different languages. Therefore I also consider the role bilingualism, intralingual translation (translation within a language or between different codes or dialects), codeswitching, multilingualism, and other related linguistic phenomena play in the trope of translation as it is presented in these texts.

It should be emphasized that these struggles over translation are often transcribed into English and only textually represented-that is, a parent and child may have a debate in two languages about which language one should speak in the home, yet within the text itself this debate is transcribed into English by the author. In the above exchange from Kingston's text, for example, Kingston's mother speaks Chinese, as she does throughout the text, yet the Chinese language is not used to represent this conversation. The struggle over translation, then, is not represented lexically or linguistically in this passage but rather thematically. As I will demonstrate, often translation is not an actual lexical practice in these texts but rather a trope-a metaphorical construct utilized to constellate a series of questions about ethnic identities, language practices, and the way tongues from other cultures can (or cannot) be preserved within the linguistic domain of the English language.

Translation as trope also concerns a struggle to transcode the meaning of ethnicity itself so that one can be both ethnic and "American." Historically, forgetting the parent language (whether it is Chinese, Dakota, Mexican Spanish, or African American Vernacular English) was sometimes understood as facilitating the assumption of an assimilated "American" identity. According to Werner Sollors, in the early history of this country some individuals believed that "'American' meant 'white'" ("National Identity" 93), and even today the "inclusive use of 'American' remains ambiguous" and does not include all languages and cultural traditions (115). Standard definitions present ethnicity as a form of bonding between peoples structured around languages, ancestry, and other symbolic elements: "An ethnic group is defined here as a collectivity within a larger society having real or putative common ancestry, memories of a shared historical past, and a cultural focus on one or more symbolic elements defined as the epitome of their peoplehood. Examples of such symbolic elements are: kinship patterns, physical contiguity, ... religious affiliation, language or dialect forms, tribal affiliation, nationality, phenotypical features, or any combination of these" (Schermerhorn 12). However, as Stuart Hall notes, ethnicity is constructed culturally, historically, and politically through a politics of "difference." Hall and others suggest that in a discourse of racism, the "ethnic" was often set off against the "mainstream" group as the Other who is of the nation but not quite part of the nation (162). Hall argues that we must "transcode" ethnicity-disarticulate the term from the discourse of racism. For the writers discussed in this book, the trope of translation is fundamental to their attempts to transcode ethnicity-to recuperate it so that it no longer signifies an "alien" or "excluded" Other but rather a plurality of interarticulated subject positions within the discourse of the "American."

In the works I discuss, a refusal to translate is often allied with an attempt to assimilate into an identity as a white American and a corresponding refusal to transcode ethnicity and create an identity that is multicultural and multilinguistic. Still, I do not maintain that in these texts translation as trope resolves the tensions of multicultural and multilinguistic identities. Indeed, struggles over translation can be violent. White settlers, for example, used Native American translators to gain access to indigenous cultures of the United States. Once this access was acquired, they attempted to force their ideology, religion, language, and culture down the throats of Native Americans. Translators who resisted this imperative often suffered a dire fate: death or the silencing of their voices. But death does not always mean that the translator stops her rebellious translations and transmigrations, as argued in the discussion of Susan Power's The Grass Dancer (1994) in Chapter 3. Translation as trope often signifies a process of continual negotiation and renegotiation between languages and an ongoing struggle between conflicting and often clashing cultures and ideologies.

In some of the works discussed, however, translation creates a syncretic reconciliation between competing cultures, languages, and ideologies; translation, in other words, enables the coalescence of varying, often contradictory systems of language and culture into a new conglomerate that is itself (often) still marked by internal inconsistencies. The languages and cultures are not merely blended so that differences disappear or are washed away; in fact, differences between languages and cultures remain within the new linguistic and cultural formation. To use a metaphor, two different roses (a red one and a white one) might be hybridized in such a way that differences disappear (a pink rose is produced). Or they might be hybridized in such a way that differences remain (the red rose and the white rose produce a new type of flower that is red with white streaks, markings, or even dots). I argue that translation as trope, in its most radical moments, can produce a text in which differences remain or undergo change, but they do not disappear.

Translation as trope transcodes ethnicity, but it also transcodes the meaning of the ethnic tongue so that it is no longer a disenfranchised dialect but rather part of the very texture of American speech. Translation may also create a new mode of speech that exceeds the original dialects or codes of which it is comprised. Translation theorists have argued that a good translation is a new work of art that both embodies and surpasses the original text. A successful translation takes account of the "source text" (the original world and language) but also re-creates this source text so that it admits of a new reality (the "target" world and culture). A good translation of Crime and Punishment, it might be argued, is no longer purely English or Russian but both. Raskolnikov's and Sonya's names should not be transformed into "Ray" and "Sue," for example, because the translator must maintain a sense of another language's and culture's presence, even while writing in English, the target language. As a trope in the works discussed, translation evokes a crossing of borders, a permeation of barriers erected between what seem to be separate and disjunctive cultural and linguistic terrains (the ethnic and the American). Therefore in these texts, translation literally enables communication between the different generations, but more symbolically it produces a new intercultural, interlinguistic entity that ultimately transmigrates tongues and transcodes ethnicities.

Some of the characters who are translators, then, may achieve an ethnic identity and mode of voice that is more than the sum of their parts. As one linguist has recently suggested, codeswitching (the use of two languages within a single communicative episode) is emblematic of a dual identity (Poplack, "Contrasting Patterns" 237). But at times this dual identity and speech, this codeswitching, becomes integrative and syncretic. In the example presented above from The Woman Warrior, initially the protagonist sees her mother's Chinese traditions as alien and refuses to translate them. But because she does not deny the contradictions between being Chinese and being American, she eventually creates a methodology of storytelling that goes beyond biculturalism and bilingualism. As illustrated in Chapter 1, Kingston's protagonist finds a creative syncretism that through collision and collusion enables the emergence of innovative forms of language and identity. In so doing she becomes more aware of how she can inhabit an identity as Chinese American-in short, she transcodes herself. Similarly, in Leslie Marmon Silko's Ceremony (1977) the medicine man Betonie speaks English but gives certain words a distinct Native American meaning. For instance, Betonie speaks the word "comfortable" in English, but by the way he uses it, the protagonist Tayo knows that Betonie intends a distinct Native American meaning-the comfort of belonging to the land rather than the more Anglicized notion of the comfort material wealth can provide (117). Betonie does not simply move between the native tongue and English; instead, he transmigrates both tongues until "marginal" and "majority" discourse cannot be disentangled.

(Continues...)



Excerpted from Lost and Found in Translation by Martha J. Cutter Copyright © 2005 by University of North Carolina Press. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
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Table of Contents

Introduction : translation as transmigration 1
1 An impossible necessity : translation and the re-creation of linguistic and cultural identities in the works of David Wong Louie, Fae Myenne Ng, and Maxine Hong Kingston 31
2 Finding a "home" in translation : John Okada's no-no boy and Cynthia Kadohata's The floating world 65
3 Translation as revelation : the task of the translator in the fiction of N. Scott Momaday, Leslie Marmon Silko, Susan Power, and Sherman Alexie 89
4 Learnin - and not learnin - to speak the king's English : intralingual translation in the fiction of Toni Morrison, Danzy Senna, Sherley Anne Williams, and A. J. Verdelle 137
5 The reader as translator : interlingual voice in the writing of Richard Rodriguez, Nash Candelaria, Cherrie Moraga, and Abelardo Delgado 176
6 Cultural translation and multilingualism in and out of textual worlds 216
Conclusion : lost and found in translation 244
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