Translator Yilin Wang addresses various forms of bias in translation from Asian Languages in this essay.
“You must teach yourself how to carry loan words,
tiny seeds gift-wrapped like hand-me-down heirlooms
as you crisscross past borders.”
— “A Sichuan Diaspora Daughter’s Kitchen,” a poem by Yilin Wang
As a racialized, genderqueer woman translator working with Chinese literature, I translate as a form of reclamation and resistance. There has been an increasing number of discussions in the literary translation community recently about whether any translator should have the right to translate any text. This question, however, can be quite simplistic and misleading. It overlooks the power dynamics at play in the field, such as the barriers that affect who can break into translation and the undervaluing of less formal forms of expertise such as lived experiences. It overlooks that, in addition to working as a translator on the page, marginalized translators often need to “translate” many times over, performing additional emotional labor when it comes to justifying their anti-oppressive approaches to translation and navigating biases in the publishing and translation industries.
Instead of asking “if anyone can translate anyone,” here are some questions I think it is important for translators to consider instead: Why do you want to translate a particular project? Do you have the ability and knowledge to understand the work’s nuances and handle them with care as you translate into the target language? Are you an ideal fit for the project as a translator, not only in terms of conventionally valued skills such as language abilities and a history of publishing translations, but also in terms of often overlooked and ignored factors such as lived experiences, cultural expertise, and personal ties to the subject matter? Have racialized translators and marginalized translators had their chance yet to translate these types of works yet, especially the ones depicting culturally specific experiences or experiences of oppressed peoples, and been widely supported in doing so? What impact might your translation have on the literary traditions you’re translating from and into, and on the people who are a part of those living communities and cultures?
The possibility of translating literature from Mandarin never occurred to me until three years ago, although now that I look back, it’s clear that I have been performing many acts of “translation” all my life. I grew up in a bilingual household with a Han Chinese mother and white Canadian stepfather, code-switching on a daily basis as I communicated with parents who each spoke a different preferred first language. As a daughter of immigrants who frequently moved, I also spent the first two decades of my life living and studying in eight cities across China, the United States, Canada, and the United Kingdom. While the experience of frequent relocations was quite challenging, it gave me the privilege of accessing many immersive language-learning environments, allowing me to learn to acquire language skills quickly and adapt easily to different regional variations of a language. By the time I started developing an interest in literary translation, I had already been reading Chinese literature extensively for most of my life and publishing my creative writing in English for nearly eight years. Close reading skills in the source language and writing abilities in the target language are two of the most important tools in a translator’s toolkit.
Despite all of this, I still never considered professional literary translation a possibility until I was in graduate school in my mid-twenties. Translators of Chinese literature seemed far removed from my everyday realities. No relatives, friends, or acquaintances had ever suggested that I try pursuing translation as a career path, although they frequently approached me with language questions. I repeatedly felt and continue to feel imposter syndrome about my Mandarin writing skills because I have spent many years living in the Sino diaspora rather than in my “motherland” and primarily uses English in daily life.
Even my mother expressed shock at my ability to convey the nuanced emotions of Chinese poetry in English. She held the unconscious bias that racialized 1.5 generation immigrants and third culture individuals like me, who spend our lives immersed in more than one language and culture, would still never become fully fluent in our second language. It’s a view that is unfortunately shared by many, an illusion shaped by the world around us. I don’t ever recall seeing a Chinese name listed on the spines of books of translated Chinese literature or meeting Chinese heritage speaker translators at literary events, not until I started actively searching. The lack of role models can lead to a deeply ingrained sense of not belonging for many folks like me.
This feeling of being an outsider in the literary translation world did not fade even as I started doing translation work. Only months after my first attempt at literary translation, I would witness a racist incident at a Vancouver book sale. A white man, who held multiple positions of power as a Canadian bookseller, retired library studies professor, and board member of a literary awards organization, repeatedly used slurs to describe a Chinese poet who had read poems in both Mandarin and English at a bilingual reading. Throughout this incident and its drawn-out aftermath, I was threatened for speaking up, continuously gaslit for years, and never received any sincere apology from the incident’s original perpetuator or his many enablers.
The incident left me deeply shaken. It also sparked in me a stronger, unwavering desire to translate, not only from a place of passion, but also from one of anger and of loss. If a gatekeeper thinks it’s acceptable to blatantly insult a writer and translator of color who works with non-English languages in public, I cannot imagine how much worse it could get behind closed doors. Given the lack of safe(r) spaces for racialized and marginalized translators, it’s no wonder we must fight so hard just to exist and thrive and be heard.
It was only in my Creative Writing MFA program that I finally encountered literary translation as a field of study and a possible career path. A 2017 Authors Guild Survey of Literary Translators’ Working Conditions shows that 77% of working literary translators hold an MA, PhD, or equivalent degree. Although formal education is never a requirement for becoming a translator, this strong correlation demonstrates that a clear majority of working literary translators have completed graduate school education and suggests this education would be quite beneficial for aspiring translators who want to break into the field. Yet MFAs and graduate Area Studies programs, where translation is taught and encouraged as a subject, can be inaccessible to many people due to barriers like lack of time, financial cost, inability to relocate, absence of diverse faculty supervisors, and unconscious bias in the admission process. These barriers disproportionately affect marginalized folks, who often have less access to resources and mentorship to begin with, perpetuating a cycle in which fewer marginalized folks are able to enter and complete these programs and to become translators.
When it comes to Chinese-English poetry translation in the Anglophone world, there is a strong overlap between translators of Chinese poetry and Chinese Studies scholars working to study and understand the “Far East.” Not only does this overlap pose a strong barrier for aspiring translators who are not able to access this education, but the history of Chinese Studies also traces its roots to a colonial discipline known as Orientalism. In the decades since its creation, the field of Orientalism has become rebranded as Asian Studies, but the majority of its practitioners have yet to address this problematic history. Graduates from these programs generally have a much more straightforward path into literary translation. Their way is paved by their higher education credentials in a foreign language and culture, whether or not they recognize or acknowledge their privilege.
As a first-time translator in a multi-genre writing workshop in my MFA program, I was surrounded by a classroom of peers who were writers with very little understanding of translation and who had extremely limited exposure to Chinese literature. The only other student who had some experience with translation was white and translated ancient Latin texts. In addition to submitting my translations of Classical Chinese poetry, I also had to “translate” a second time for my workshop peers. I had to unpack for them the cultures and traditions I was working from, the ways that Chinese and English poetry differ, and the complex power dynamics that shaped the history of Chinese-English translation, even as I was just beginning to learn about those issues myself.
Janey Tracey’s article “The Modernist Revision of a Foreign Culture in Ezra Pound’s Cathay” expresses concern about how Ezra Pound has been credited as an “inventor” of Chinese poetry despite the fact he did not understand Chinese. He relied on the notes of a white scholar of Japanese art who was also not fluent in Chinese, and heavily revised translations to conform to his aesthetics as an American modernist poet while introducing many misinterpretations of the source text. Pound’s translations continue to influence perceptions of Chinese poetry in Anglophone literary spaces while Chinese heritage speaker translators are often overlooked.
The type of “translation” that Pound did continues to this day, in a similar practice known as “bridge translation,” which is discussed by Jen Calleja and Sophie Collins in their essay “She knows too much: ‘Bridge Translations,’ ‘Literal Translations,’ and Long-Term Harm.” In the Chinese-to-English translation space, it’s common for a native speaker of a Chinese language to be treated as an “informant” and paired with a writer, often white, monolingual, and possessing the prestige that comes with a history of publishing writing in English. The writer does not know the source language and often lacks cultural context yet is given the power to craft the final poem. Their skill in writing in the target language is put on a pedestal above all else.
Calleja and Collins have already discussed extensively in their article how bridge translation can be problematic when it comes to unequal recognition of labor; the writer’s name may be featured more prominently, often credited as a translator or a co-translator, while the bridge translator is overlooked. I want to add that this form of collaborative translation is especially prevalent when it comes to literary works written in non-European languages and to literature by racialized people who already face many existing barriers in the translation field. Although collaboration can certainly be productive and invaluable in some contexts, why are BIPOC translators seen as less capable of working independently and of writing skillfully in English? Whose skills and experiences are being celebrated versus dismissed? And at what cost, to the translation and representation of literatures by people of color, especially when so few of their translations are published and recognized?
This lack of faith in racialized translators played itself out in the responses that I received when I announced the publication of my translations of some poetry by Chinese feminist poet Qiu Jin. Despite the overwhelmingly positive feedback I received, a Chinese reader replied to my publication announcement with a recommendation that I read another white woman translator’s translation of Qiu Jin’s work. Those early translations, dated to the early twentieth century, were full of exoticizing language that resulted from a misunderstanding of Chinese grammar. The country name “Japan” (日本）was broken up arbitrarily into the characters “日” (sun, warmth, day) and “本” (original, core), and then translated literally as “Sun’s Root Land.” A term that roughly means “suffering” or “difficulties” (磨折) was similarly misinterpreted as “snapped off, ground to powder.” In response to these inaccurate translations, another white male reader reached out to me repeatedly to demand the source text. With complete disregard for the fact that I am a translator of Qiu Jin’s work, he stated that he wanted to translate the poems using Google Translate and piece together their meaning himself.
The power structures that dominate the real world, the translation and publishing industries, and the hierarchy of languages are deeply intertwined with the decisions that translators make on the page, whether big or small. Translators of color and marginalized translators are burdened with the extra challenge of navigating the norms of so-called Standard English, the gatekeeping of style guides, and preconceptions about what a story or poem should look like in the target language. When it comes to literary works rooted in the personal lived experiences of marginalized peoples, which may feature complex topics such as identity, social inequities, slurs, and gendered language, the choices we have to make become increasingly numerous and nuanced.
I often have to “translate” a second time when I explain to editors my decision to resist the white gaze and to translate for readers who may approach my work from positionalities other than the dominant one. In response to publishing professionals who introduce italics into my translations, interviews, and translator’s notes, I had to “translate” for them the politics of italicizing words; many of them never had to think about how italics are not applied equally to loan words from all languages and can serve as a form of othering. Likewise, I have had to “translate” my decisions to use footnotes, add glosses, or preserve idioms that may complicate a “smooth” reading experience.
As a translator who is also a writer, I find some slight comfort in the fact that the publishing world has been having more and more discussions about the issue of representation, even though it still has a long way to go. Writers and publishing professionals alike have been engaging in conversations about the dangers of cultural appropriation, the need for more and better representation, and the benefits and limitations of publishing #OwnVoices, a movement that encourages support for books featuring marginalized characters written by authors who share the same identity. We have also had discussions about the problems of tokenism and how representation alone is never enough without dismantling the larger systemic inequities at play.
Given the nature of a translator’s work as someone navigating the spaces between languages and cultures, these conversations must also occur in the translation community, where they are urgently and desperately needed. It’s time for those who care about translated literature––whether translators, editors, or those who read translations––to recognize the many forms of undervalued labor and invisible layers of “translation” that marginalized translators perform on the page and beyond it, to confront the privileges, challenges, and inequities that are present when it comes to who gets supported in translating different literatures into English.
© 2021 by Yilin Wang. All rights reserved.