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Translating the Postcolonial in Multilingual Contexts

Judith Misrahi-Barak
Srilata Ravi

The Americas in Translation

Mother Tongue-Mother’s Tongue. The Lost and Found of Translation in Amy Tan’s ‘Two Kinds’1

Lynn Blin


Though the question of translation in Amy Tan’s novel The Joy Luck Club has been treated by several critics, the process itself of translation is never developed. Through an analysis of ‘Two Kinds’, taken from the novel, I will demonstrate how Tan, who holds a Masters degree in Linguistics, works with language in order to translate the high context Chinese culture of Chinese born Suyuan as it enters in conflict with the low context culture of her daughter, Jing-mei.

After examining some of the criticism waged against Tan, we will look more closely at how the translation of the Chinese culture is subtly woven in to the narrative through Tan’s careful choice of language. This dexterity enables her to render what Jean-Jacques Lecercle has termed ‘the remainder’—the part of language that goes beyond all theory. For Lawrence Venuti, for a translation to be a success, the remainder, which in fact is the culture of the source text, must be present. Working also with Benveniste’s theory of language, we will see how both mother and daughter, receiving each other in translation, reveal what is lost in the act of translating, but also what is found.

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  • 1 This essay is the result of two papers given on the translation of English to English. The first on (...)

1In a 1999 interview Amy Tan commented that many critics dealt only with the ethnicity question in her works:

The main issue seems to be the ethnic identity, and not the gender ones —and not even the literary issues so much.... I rarely get asked about my literary aspirations—what I intend to do with language, for example. I think that every writer who’s serious has strong feelings about language—voice or story or the importance of narrative versus characterization. This is never asked of me. (Adams 2005: 25)

2This essay, though of course dealing in part with ethnicity, will do so by examining Tan’s use of language in regards to the translation of culture and how she transcribes China into her story. In so doing I hope to show that a keener, more theoretically informed understanding of the dynamics of translation in the story reveals the portrait of the mother and her relationship with her daughter to be more complex and subtle than previous critics have recognized.

3 As translators we are constantly called upon to negotiate culture. Lawrence Venuti contends that for a translation to be effective it must contain what Jean-Jacques Lecercle calls the ‘remainder’. The remainder is what is left out of linguistic theories. It is what renders the poetry of language. And for Venuti it is the cultural dimension of the source text—the untranslatable—which is rendered in the target text to ensure that the translated text not be transformed into a simple foreign version of the original text:

In current practices, a translation of a novel can and must communicate the basic elements of narrative form that structure the foreign language text. But it is still not true that these elements are free from variation. Any language use is likely to vary from the standard dialect by sampling a diversity of substandard or minor formations: regional or group dialects, jargons, clichés and slogans, stylistic innovations, archaisms, neologisms. Jean-Jacques Lecercle calls these variations ‘the remainder’ because they exceed communication of a univocal meaning, and instead draw attention to the conditions of the communicative act, conditions that are in the first instance linguistic and cultural, but that ultimately embrace social and political factors. (Venuti 2010: 484)

  • 2 All references to ‘Two Kinds’ are from Beverly Lawn’s, 40 Short Stories, 2013.

4Though ‘Two Kinds’ from Amy Tan’s The Joy Luck Club is not a translation in the literal meaning of the term, it is in the figurative sense. This paper will examine how the complexity of the story resides in Tan’s dexterity and subtlety in translating not only the Chinese culture into her story, but also the American middle class conservative culture of the 50’s. It will also examine how the translation of English into English is at the source of misunderstanding and tension. The fierce love that Jing-mei’s mother feels for her daughter, compounded by her firm belief that ‘you could be anything you wanted to be in America’ (Tan 446)2 misdirects her energy into trying to produce a prodigy. She dictates her terms in the fractured syntax of a broken English which is in tension with the daughter’s fluent colloquial expression. The narrative voice of the adult Jing-mei intermingles with the more unreliable one of Jing-mei as a child, adding an additional element of narrative tension. ‘Two Kinds’ illustrates Jacobson’s idea that something is always lost in translation; but it also illustrates Venuti’s idea that when a translation is carried out with aplomb something is also found.

5Beginning with a brief discussion of the debates and criticism lodged against Tan for the subaltern and stereotypical representation of both the mothers and daughters in The Joy Luck Club, I will argue that those critics have neglected to take into account the specific translation strategies linked to the translation of culture. I will then examine some of the specific language questions Tan tackles working essentially with Benveniste’s theory on language, which will enable us to look into the emergence as subject of Jing-mei, confronted with a mother, who herself never uses the pronoun ‘I’. But if the mother/daughter relationship is damaged because of what is lost in the translations of the different Englishes, ‘Two Kinds’, is a story of what is found in translation, and what is ultimately a source of growth for Jing-mei.

6 The Joy Luck Club, the novel from which ‘Two Kinds’ is taken, is composed of alternating Chinese American mother/daughter narratives relating the inevitable emotional tug-of-war between a generation of mothers who all fled China in dramatic situations, and the Americanized daughters in whom they have placed all their hopes. Suyuan Woo, Jing-mei’s mother, had arrived in America in 1949, ‘after losing everything in China: her mother and father, her family home, her first husband, and two daughters, twin baby girls’. (446)

  • 3 Adams however takes issue with this depiction: ‘It is also the case that The Joy Luck Club promotes (...)

7Though this critically acclaimed novel was a best seller, translated into seventeen languages including Chinese, and sold 2,000,000 copies, it was also the target of severe criticism for what some considered a subaltern portrait of the mothers and/or the assimilationist pull of the narrative.3 Tan has been criticized by some for being an Orientalist constructionist. Sau-Ling Cynthia Wong, for instance, comments that the broken English in which the mothers express themselves, along with the other linguistic devices—epideixis, italicized words, and pidginized Chinese English—create ‘the Oriental effect’:

An effect of this kind uses ‘broken’ English gratuitously developing neither plot nor character, but functioning instead to offer a reassuring affinity between the given work and American preconceptions about what the Orient is/should be. [...] This affinity happens in a discursive rather than referential dimension. (Wong in Adams 10)

  • 4 Tan’s reaction to such criticism is summed up in the following quote: ‘Placing on writers the respo (...)

8 As Adams explains, the Orientalist ideology has its basis in language as opposed to nature, but she goes on to argue that to tax Tan of simply creating an Oriental effect is not to recognize, that in so-doing, she is also de-naturalizing and, ultimately undermining Orientalist ideology (10).4

9It is the linguistic dimension of her text that is of interest to me. Tan not only holds a master’s degree in Linguistics, she started a PhD in the subject. Her attentive ear to language steers her characterization clear of stereotyping, while at the same time giving echo to the gap created by the two different levels of English—the fractured English of the mother and the fluent expression of the young daughter. Critics who charge Tan of ‘subaltern representation‘ do not take into consideration how the translation of the Chinese culture as experienced by the American born daughters into the text is an integral part of the narrative tension. For Walter Benjamin:

The task of the translator consists in finding the particular intention toward the target language which produces in that language the echo of the original. This is a feature of translation that basically differentiates it from the poet’s work, because the intention of the latter is never directed toward the language as such, at its totality, but is aimed solely and immediately at specific linguistic contextual aspects. Unlike a work of literature a translation finds itself not in the centre of the language forest, but on the outside facing the wooded ridge; it calls into it without entering, aiming at the single spot where the echo is able to give, in its own language, the reverberation of the work in the alien one.
(Benjamin 259)

  • 5 Tan explains: ‘I decided I should envision a reader for the stories I would write. And the reader I (...)

10Tan is at the same time translator and poet. She is at the centre of the forest and at the ridge. The single spot that she aims at, the intention toward the target Englishes that she uses is to portray the repercussion of the linguistic hiatus on both mother and daughter.5

11 Translation in The Joy Luck Club has been discussed by critics. Wong taxes Tan for mistranslation. The romanized Chinese words in italics ‘providing Chinese exotica’, and (though not the case in ‘Two Kinds’) mistranslated by the younger generation are there ‘to placate the American born reader and by extension to popularize The Joy Luck Club’. (Wong in Adams 61) For Adams, this is unwarranted criticism as the daughters clearly state that they are no experts in Chinese. Tan, according to Wong, in not allowing the mothers to translate, runs the risk of sanctioning a violent hierarchy. Tan herself agrees to this possibility:

One language [English]... is used as the standard, and the benchmark for a logical form of expression. And so the other language [Chinese] is in danger of being judged by comparison deficient or superfluous, simplistic, melodious or cacophonous. (Tan in Adams 61)

12The mother’s use of Pidgin English is at the heart of the translation of English into English. It is not that Jing-mei does not understand the words, what she cannot understand is the cultural context from which they are issued. As I will explain, it is the Chinese cultural context that is in part responsible for the syntax of this English. Similarly, the American cultural context—California in the 50’s—which is the nesting ground of Jing-mei’s fluent English, is not completely intelligible to Suyuan Woo. To blame Tan of being assimilationist, as does Wong, is to fail to discern what Tan has admirably translated into her text. As Yuan Yuan explains:

Tan’s China narrative emerges in the ‘other’ cultural context informed by a complex process of translation, translocation, and transfiguration of the original experiences of China. The Chinese experiences are transfigured into Chinese narrative only after they have lost their reference to China; thus they are related more to the present American situation than to their original context in Chinese society. The present American context provides meaning and determines the context of the Chinese narrative. (Yuan 292)

13The outcome is that for the ‘China’ narrative, Tan has incorporated only fragments of the Chinese culture. It is fragmented because it is being filtered through the American experience of the mothers. This too corresponds to Benjamin’s idea of the task of the translator. In ‘The Task of the Translator’, he likens translation to that of the gluing together of broken fragments of a vessel:

  • 6 Benjamin’s extremely complex text was translated into English by Zohn, but both De Man and Jacobs h (...)

Just as fragments of a vessel, in order to be articulated together, must follow one another in the smallest detail but need not resemble one another, so, instead of making itself similar to the meaning [Sinn] of the original, the translation must rather, lovingly and in detail, in its own language, form itself according to the manner [Art des Meinens] of the original, to make both recognizable as the broken part of a greater language, just as fragments are the broken part of the vessel.6
(Jacobs 1975: 762)

14If for Asian-American scholars like Wong, Tan’s use of translation is misguided, it is perhaps that they have not taken into account her intentional irony in her use of mistranslation. They fail to take into account Benjamin’s idea of the inherent fragmentation of translation. As Adams very accurately points out:

Following Walter Benjamin’s argument, a translation simultaneously de/canonizes an original. It comes after and continues the ‘life’ of the original via a popularization that ironically kills it. As ‘afterlife’, translation is ‘derivative’ and destined to fail, not because it badly reproduces the (stable) original in terms compatible with mimesis, but because the original is really already unstable. (Adams 62)

15The original is already unstable because for Benjamin, poetic language is itself unstable. The challenge of translation comes from the difficulty in capturing the manner of meaning:

In “Brot” and “pain” what is meant is indeed the same, the manner of meaning it, on the other hand is not. [...] (Benjamin 257)

16What Benjamin is expressing here is that even if the two words mean the same, they signify different things culturally to a German and to a French person. The translator will thus be confronted with the insufficiency of his own language to convey the cultural heritage of the word. I argue that what Tan does in introducing the different Englishes into her text, is to give voice to this instability. Her text, as Adams points out, is a negotiation between the different Englishes. (Adams 62) But it is also a negotiation of the cultural essence of each English used.

17 The various Englishes in the story are as follows:

18The narrator/daughter’s fluent Standard American English:

‘What are you picking on her for?’ I said carelessly.‘She’s pretty good. Maybe she’s not the best, but she’s trying hard.’ (Tan 449)

19The mother’s semi-bilingualism and her broken English:

‘Of course you can be prodigy, too. You can be best anything. What does Auntie Lindo know? Her daughter, she is only best tricky’. (446)

‘Play note right, but doesn’t sound good! No singing sound. (...) Just like you, ’ she said. ‘Not the best. Because you not trying.’ She gave a little huff as she let go of the sound dial. (449)

20The mother’s code switching (i. e. using both Chinese and English):

Ni-kan’ said my mother as Shirley’s eyes flooded with tears. ‘You already know how. Don’t need talent for crying!’ (446)

21The mother’s fluent Chinese translated into fluent English:

‘So ungrateful, ’ I heard her mutter in Chinese. ‘If she had as much talent as she has temper, she would be famous now.’ (450)

22The first point I would like to argue is how the syntax of Suyuan Woo’s broken English also conveys her cultural heritage. Mother and daughter have two serious arguments in the story. The first one arises when Jing-mei learns that she will have piano lessons.

When my mother told me this, I felt as though I had been sent to hell. I whined and then kicked my foot a little when I couldn’t stand it anymore.
‘Why don’t you like me the way I am? I’m not a genius! I can’t play piano. And even if I could, I wouldn’t go on TV if you paid me a million dollars!’ I cried.
My mother slapped me. ‘Who ask you be genius?’ she shouted. ‘Only ask you be your best. For you sake. You think I want you be genius? Hnnh! What for! Who ask you!’ (450)

23The perfect colloquial English of Jing-mei clashes with the fractured syntax of her mother’s, giving Jing-mei the linguistic upper hand. The violence of the mother’s slap (sign of a temper which surpasses her daughter’s) is delivered with a force that is intensified by the grammatical structure chosen to verbally express her fury and her authority. Even though her mother’s response, ‘Who ask you be genius?’ contains grammatical errors, she makes effective use of the rhetorical question form to imply a negative statement (i. e. ‘No one is asking you to be genius.’). Her statement has the form of an open question, but in fact the answer is already implied in the question. Alternatively, the question might simply be paraphrased by a negative declarative statement. The same analysis can be applied to ‘You think I want you be genius?’ Though structurally in declarative form, it asks a question which presupposes a negative response, or could be paraphrased as ‘You’re wrong in thinking I want you to be a genius.’

24For Huddleston and Pullum this type of interrogative structure falls into the category of biased question as the speaker has a preferred answer. Such questions are also indirect speech acts. An indirect speech act corresponds to an utterance where what is meant does not correspond to the grammatical form. They are indirect speech acts to the extent that they are disguised as questions but in fact convey their own answer. (Huddleston and Pullum 909). There is something more than a little manipulative about this type of question, as it leaves no space for the co-utterer—Jing-mei—to give an answer (Huddleston and Pullum 866, 879–881, 902, 909). In what way is this confrontation different from any other confrontation between a parent and a reticent child who does not want to take piano lessons? It is different because disobedience for the Western world parent is often more par for the course. Parents and children communicate with the same cultural codes. But Suyuan Woo is the product of a high-context culture, and Jing-mei a low-context culture:

  • 7 Accessed August 6, 2015.

A high-context culture is a culture in which the individual has internalized meaning and information, so that little is explicitly stated in written or spoken messages. In conversation, the listener knows what is meant; because the speaker and listener share the same knowledge and assumptions, the listener can piece together the speaker’s meaning. China is a high-context culture.
A low-context culture is one in which information and meaning are explicitly stated in the message or communication. Individuals in a low-context culture expect explanations when statements or situations are unclear, as they often are. Information and meaning are not internalized by the individual but are derived from context, e.g., from the situation or an event. The United States is a low-context culture.7

25This of course is a simplified generalization. In Canada for example, a French Canadian would be considered more low-context than their English Canadian counterpart. Nevertheless, there can be no doubt that this cultural dimension is present in the text, and it is present in the grammatical choices Tan made in crafting the dialogues between mother and daughter.

26Another element of the culture that is rendered is the high-context culture respect for authority:

The individual acquires cultural information from obedience to authority through observation and by imitation. [...] In such cultures the individual must know what is meant at the covert or unexpressed level: the individual is supposed to know and to react appropriately.

27Jing-mei, after months of piano lessons with a deaf piano teacher ‘whose eyes were too slow to keep up with the wrong notes I was playing’ (450), performs before an audience made up partially of all the couples of the Joy Luck Club. Since Jing-mei ‘was so determined not to try, not to be anybody different that I learned to play only the most ear splitting preludes, the most discordant hymns (451), the talent show is a fiasco. Surprisingly though, other than ‘a quiet, blank look that said she had lost everything’ (453 her mother says nothing, and this dismays and disappoints Jing-mei:

No accusations, no blame. And in a way I felt disappointed. I had been waiting for her to start shouting, so I could shout back and cry and blame her for all my misery. (454)

28The silence of the mother, the father humming one of the tunes from the talent show, no mention of the fiasco, is also a result of the culture clash. In high-context cultures:

  • 8 Accessed August 6, 2015.

In embarrassing or awkward situations, people act as though nothing happened. Individuality, minor disagreements, and personality clashes are ignored, so that no action has to be taken.8

29When the final clash does take place, Suyuan’s physical violence is once again punctuated by the imperfect English, but what’s more, this violence is an attempt to compensate for the fact that her internalized message is not intuitively understood:

She yanked me by the arm, pulled me off the floor, snapped off the TV. She was frighteningly strong, half pulling, half carrying me toward the piano as I kicked the throw rugs under my feet. She lifted me up and onto the hard bench. I was sobbing by now, looking at her bitterly. Her chest was heaving even more and her mouth was open, smiling crazily as if she were pleased I was crying.
‘You want me to be someone that I’m not!’ I sobbed. ‘I’ll never be the kind of daughter you want me to be! ’
‘Only two kinds of daughters, ’ she shouted in Chinese. ‘Those who are obedient and those who follow their own mind. Only one kind of daughter can live in the house. Obedient daughter!’
‘Then I wish I wasn’t your daughter. I wish you weren’t my mother, ’ I shouted. As I said these things I got scared. I felt like worms and toads and slimy things were crawling out of my chest, but it also felt good, as if this awful side of me had surfaced, at last.
‘Too late change this, ’ said my mother shrilly.
And I could sense her anger rising to its breaking point. I wanted to see it spill over. And that’s when I remembered the babies she had lost in China, the ones we never talked about. ‘Then I wish I’d never been born, ’ I shouted. ‘I wish I were dead! Like them.’
It was as if I had said the magic words, Alakazam! —and her face went blank, her mouth closed, her arms went slack, and she backed out of the room, stunned, as if she were blowing away like a small brown leaf, thin, brittle lifeless. (454)

30Several facets of the clash between the two cultures are evident in this violent exchange: the balking at authority on the part of Jing-mei— unacceptable in any culture, but incomprehensible to Suyuan; the humiliating situation of the piano talent show never even hinted at; and the fact that Jing-mei not only mentions the unmentionable, she throws it in her mother’s face, annihilating not only her mother‘s authority, but her mother herself.

  • 9 Adams explains that Tan’s more critical commenters consider The Joy Luck Club neoconservative, if n (...)

31Critics who lambast Tan for portraying a neoconservative mother do not take into consideration Tan’s weaving in of the high-context culture as it clashes with the low-context 1950’s American culture of the daughters.9

(...) as ambitious but devalued working-class immigrant mothers who speak broken English, they put their energies into realizing or translating the daughter/woman of their desires in a conservative mainstream middle—class American context as well. (Ho 1999: 155)

32 What might easily be glossed over in Tan’s text as simple ‘effets de réel’ are in fact tokens of this conservative mainstream middle-class America — Shirley Temple, Ripley’s Believe it or Not, Good Housekeeping, Reader’s Digest, the Bible, The Ed Sullivan Show, the Formica kitchen table. So not only does Tan portray the tradition bearing high-context culture community, ‘where language in use is closely tied to the expressions of the shared beliefs of that tradition, giving an historical dimension to languages which often fails to survive the translating process’, (Macintyre 1988: 384) she also includes token elements of the domestic culture of a 1950’s America. In fact, when Jing-mei makes her disastrous appearance on stage, the narrative voice, which is not the child narrator, but the adult narrator looking back at the event with hindsight, portrays the performer as a hodgepodge of middle class American culture based on the idea of ‘cuteness’:

I had on a white dress layered with sheets of lace and a pink bow in my Peter Pan haircut As I sat down I envisioned people jumping to their feet and Ed Sullivan rushing up to introduce me to everyone on TV.

33The culture codes of conservative middle-class America in the 50’s are suggested in portrayals such as this. This is the American culture through which the China narratives are related. So, yes, the ideological dimension, though perhaps not consciously on the part of Tan, is present, but if this so, it because it is inevitable in translation:

Translation is always ideological because it releases a domestic remainder, an inscription of values, beliefs, and representations linked to historical moments and social positions in the receiving culture. In serving domestic interests, a translation provides an ideological resolution for the linguistic and cultural differences of the foreign text.
(Venuti 498)

34The conflict of authority in ‘Two Kinds’ comes from the fact that both mother and daughter are receiving each other as a foreign text and the simultaneous translation that is necessary for them to communicate is faulty and incomplete because they cannot grasp the cultural codes that produce the language. And since it is language that is at the heart of the question of authority, Tan, the author finds herself in the same position as postcolonial authors who strive to translate the Other to a reading public who are not necessarily familiar with the cultural codes that are being translated. As Bassnett and Trivedi point out, ‘The colonial subject fixed to his native soil as well as the unsited migrant post-colonial are two equally translated people‘ (Bassnett and Trivedi 1999: 13). Quoting Bhabha, they add, ‘there is now a conceptual near synonymy between the “transnational” and the translational’, and the translated hybridity of the unhomed migrant now inhabits a Third Space’ (Bhabha 1994 in ibid. 13). So, though Tan cannot be considered a postcolonial author, I believe that the same challenges are at stake. For Bella Brodzki translation permeates every sphere of discourse:

Just as it has become impossible for example, to explore authorship, aging, subjectivity, performativity, multi-culturism, postcolonialism, transnationalism, diasporic literacy, and technological literacy without considering the impact of gender as an intersecting category of analysis so should it be inconceivable to overlook translation’s integral role in every discursive field. (Brodzki 2007: 2)

35Thus in writing about the immigrant experience Tan wants to stress the importance of translation and translation theory to the classic conflict between first and second generation immigrants in U.S. immigrant fiction. She also explores what Trivedi terms ‘locational disrupture’:

In current theoretical discourse, then to speak of postcolonial translation is a little short of tautology. In our age of (the valorisation of) migrancy, exile, and diaspora, the word translation seems to have come full circle and reverted from the figurative literary meaning of an interlingual transaction to the etymological physical meaning of locational disrupture, translation itself seems to have been translated back to its origin. As André Lefevere suggested: the time may have come to move beyond the word as such to promote it to the realm of metaphor, so to speak and leave it there. (Bassnett and Trivedi 1999: 13)

36It is thus that Two Kinds is not only to be understood in terms Suyuan Woo’s conception of daughters, but also the two kinds of culture which are diametrically opposed in regards to the place and the emergence of the subject.

37When we examine the dialogue between mother and daughter, we note that the only time Suyuan uses the pronoun ‘I’, it appears in a subordinate indirect interrogative form. (‘You think I want you be genius?’) The personal pronoun which appears constantly in her conversations with Jung-mei is ‘You’.

38For a linguist these exchanges are of interest because they are a remarkable illustration of Benveniste’s theory on the emergence of subject. Ideally, in conversation ‘I’ and ‘YOU’ alternate roles—‘I’ becoming ‘YOU’ and vice-versa. ‘I’ converses with ‘YOU’ about ‘something’—‘IT’, ‘HER’, ‘HIM’. This, for Benveniste belongs to the individual act of speech (Benveniste 1971 (1958): 224). It is in and through language, he contends, that we constitute ourselves as subjects, because language alone establishes the concept of ego.

39The dialogues between Jing-mei and her mother however do not obey this premise. In different conversations, in arguments, for example, instead of talking about ‘IT’, ‘I’ and ‘YOU’ converse about ‘YOU’. When ‘YOU’ becomes the grammatical subject of reprimands, of negative utterances, the subsequent debasing which takes place will most probably be received as an insult. Of course, we can argue that in a parent-child relationship it is normal that the child receive orders and reprimands from their parents. But what is depicted in ‘Two Kinds’ goes beyond the ‘old world Chinese conservatism’ (Snodgrass 2004: 117), characteristic of an overly strict parent, for it is at the heart of a much vital dilemma of functioning in the world as subject. We cannot help but consider the struggle and challenge for an emerging ‘I’ for Jing-mei, when her mother, the person who says ‘YOU’ to her, does not use ‘I’ herself:

Language is possible only because each speaker sets himself up as subject by referring to himself as I in his discourse. Because of this, I posits another person, the one who, being, as he is completely exterior to me, becomes my echo to whom I say you and who says you to me.
(Ibid. 225, italics in the original)

40Benveniste goes on to explain that in far Eastern cultures such as China, personal pronouns are not used in accordance with politeness codes:

A language without the expression of person cannot be imagined. It can only happen that in certain languages, under certain circumstances, these ‘pronouns’ are deliberately omitted: this is the case in most of the Far Eastern societies, in which a convention of politeness imposes the use of periphrases or of special forms between certain groups of individuals in order to replace the direct personal references. But these usages only serve to underline the value of the avoided forms, it is the implicit existence of these pronouns that gives social and cultural value to the substitutes imposed by class relationships. (Ibid. 226)

41It is the conception of the subject and the way it is posited which is so particular to each culture which Tan incorporates so deftly into her narrative.

42 In the mother/daughter dialogues Suyuan Woo only uses ‘I’ once, and it is in a subordinate clause. We can further note that when the first person does appear later on in one of Suyuan’s speech acts it appears in the plural: ” Our problem worser than yours. If we ask Jing-mei wash dish, she hear nothing but music. It’s like you can’t stop this natural talent”. (451) The use of ‘we’ and ‘our’ is yet another linguistic indication of Tan incorporating and translating a high-context culture into her text. The predominance of the group as opposed to the individual and the individual’s responsibility to the group is also a key element in high-context cultures:

  • 10 Accessed August 6, 2015.

The bonds among people are very strong in a high-context culture. People in authority are personally and literally responsible for the actions of subordinates, whether in government, in business, or in the family. (In the U.S., on the other hand, the general practice is to find a ‘fall guy’ or scapegoat who takes the blame for those with more power and status.) In a high-context culture, the forms (conventional ways of behaving) are important; the individual who does not observe the forms is perceived negatively; the negative judgments for an individual’s bad behavior may extend to the entire family.10

43It is this incorporating of high-context culture traits that invalidates the criticism against Tan. Not only has she avoided caricature she has managed to render Lecercle’s ‘remainder‘ in her story. As Venuti explains:

Cultural forms and practices are heterogeneous, composed of different elements with different temporalities and affiliated with different groups. In language, the dialects and discourses, register and styles that coexist in a particular period can be glimpsed in the remainder released by every communicative act. The remainder is ‘a diachrony-within-a-synchrony’ that stages ‘the return within language of past contradictions and struggles that make up the social, it is the persistence within language of past contradictions and struggles, and the anticipation of future ones’, (Lecercle 182, 215 in Venuti 485). Hence the domestic inscription in any translation is what Bloch calls an ‘anticipatory reconciliation’, a way of imagining a future reconciliation of linguistic and cultural difference, whether those that exist among domestic groups or those that divide the foreign and domestic cultures. (Venuti 486)

44Tan’s rendering of the Chineseness is this anticipatory reconciliation. At the end of ‘Two Kinds’ an adult Jing-mei has the piano tuned. Suyuan has died. She finds the music sheet to the Schumann piece, ‘Pleading Child’ which she had played at the talent show:

And for the first time, or so it seemed, I noticed the piece on the right hand side. It was called ‘Perfectly Contented.’ I tried to play this one as well. It had a lighter melody but the same flowing rhythm and turned out to be quite easy. ‘Pleading Child’ was shorter but slower; ‘Perfectly Contented’ was longer but faster. And after I played them both a few times, I realized they were two halves of the same song. (456)

  • 11 I wish to thank one of the anonymous peer reviewers for indicating this aspect of translation to me (...)

45There are multiple levels of translation involved here as well. Schuman’s German titles to their English versions; formal features of sound (rhythm, melody, phrasing to metaphors of human relationship.11 It is one further indication of how Tan the novelist, but also Tan the linguist, has translated culture into her story and in so doing, because of her linguistic dexterity, has rendered a narrative rich in voice and complex in story. She has intricately portrayed how and why, if Suyuan’s love for Jing-mei was indeed fierce, to the child the only facet that she could interpret was the ‘fierce’. But ultimately, as the closing passage quoted above implies, like the two halves of the same song, the love was also revealed—‘longer’, because ever present now to Jing-mei adult, and ‘faster’, because Jing-mei can now understand the implied messages in her mother high-context culture code.


Works Cited

Adams, Bella. Amy Tan. Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2005.

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1 This essay is the result of two papers given on the translation of English to English. The first one in 2013 with the University of Sherbrooke Québec and the second at the 2013 SCMLA conference in New Orleans. I wish to thank the organisers of the panels of these conferences, Christine Reynier and Carol Bunch Davis for inviting me to participate and for the questions and comments that have gone into this extensive revision of the initial papers. I also wish to thank the two blind peer reviewers for their questions and suggestions.

2 All references to ‘Two Kinds’ are from Beverly Lawn’s, 40 Short Stories, 2013.

3 Adams however takes issue with this depiction: ‘It is also the case that The Joy Luck Club promotes insights about ‘subaltern representation’. By having so many subalternized women speak for themselves, and in speaking, contest harmful stereotypes of the ‘Chinese American woman’, the text acknowledges the benefits of ‘subaltern representation’. On this count, then, it seems to endorse an essentialist, utopian politics’ that ‘restores’ in Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak’s words, ’the category of the sovereign subject within the theory that seems most to question it.’ (37)

4 Tan’s reaction to such criticism is summed up in the following quote: ‘Placing on writers the responsibility to represent a culture is an onerous burden. Someone who writes fiction is not necessarily writing a depiction of any generalized group, they’re writing a very specific story. There’s also a danger of Balkanizing literature, as if it should be read as sociology, or politics or that it should answer questions like what does The Hundred Secret Senses have to teach us about Chinese culture. As opposed to treating it as literature—as a story, language, memory’ (Adams 10).

5 Tan explains: ‘I decided I should envision a reader for the stories I would write. And the reader I decided upon was my mother.... So with this reader in mind—and in fact she did read my early drafts—I began to write using all the Englishes I grew up with: the English I spoke to my mother, which for lack of a better term might be described as ‘simple’; the English she used with me which for lack of a better term might be described as ‘broken‘; my translation of her Chinese, which could be certainly described as ‘watered down’; and what I imagined to be her translation of her Chinese if she could speak in perfect English, her internal language.’ (Adams 7)

6 Benjamin’s extremely complex text was translated into English by Zohn, but both De Man and Jacobs have argued that his translation of this passage is unsatisfactory. Following Adams, who herself follows De Man I have myself also chosen Jacob’s translation (see Benjamin Zohn, 260; Adams 63; De Man, 91).

7 Accessed August 6, 2015.

8 Accessed August 6, 2015.

9 Adams explains that Tan’s more critical commenters consider The Joy Luck Club neoconservative, if not neo-Orientalist and even neo-racist because of the persistence of ethnic stereotyping (Adams 50).

10 Accessed August 6, 2015.

11 I wish to thank one of the anonymous peer reviewers for indicating this aspect of translation to me in their reading of my article.


EMMA, Université Paul-Valéry Montpellier 3
Who before her retirement in 2015, was Associate Professor of Linguistics and Translation Studies at Paul-Valéry University Montpellier 3, now teaches translation online for Bowling Green State University. Her research is primarily devoted to the link between grammar and style, but thanks to the years teaching translation and an invitation as Visiting Professor at the University of Rajasthan and the University of Delhi, she has become interested in Standard Englishes and the concept of translating English into English when cultural codes clash.

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