Based on a comparative discourse analysis of the 2001 English translation of the pioneering “beauty writer” Wei Hui’s semi-autobiographical novel Shanghai Baby and the original Chinese work (1999), this paper aims to demonstrate how the reception of non-specialist readers in the form of online book reviews is influenced by the politics of reception in the Western world as well as the translational shifts in the text. Building the investigation upon the nineteenth-century sinologist translation model that packages Chinese culture as clichéd Chineseness in addition to the Western reception model that packages Chinese women as reckless lovers and escapees from communist despotism, the study argues that largely subject to the stereotypical expectations of Western readers about the Third World culture and women, the shifts reinforcing the prevalent stereotypes in the translation overshadow the author’s original intention of speaking for a small tribe of young people exploring their unorthodox existence in China. Lastly, the study concludes with the affirmation of Shanghai Baby’s social impact on both host and source culture in an attempt to relate its significance to a global context.
- Shanghai Baby,
- literary translation,
- discourse analysis,
- western packaging,
- reading context
À partir d’une analyse comparative du discours de la version originale (1999) et de la traduction anglaise du roman semi-autobiographique chinois Shanghai Baby (2001) de l’écrivaine contemporaine Wei Hui, connue comme étant une « beauty writer », cet article cherche à démontrer comment la réception de la version anglaise de ce roman – sous forme de critiques littéraires en ligne – par les lecteurs non spécialistes est influencée par la politique de la réception des oeuvres étrangères dans le monde occidental, ainsi que par les glissements de traduction dans le texte cible. En s’appuyant sur les modèles de réception occidentaux, qui représentent les femmes chinoises comme des amantes imprudentes cherchant à s’évader du despotisme communiste, et sur le modèle sinologue du dix-neuvième siècle, qui offre une représentation stéréotypée de la sinité et de la culture chinoise, cette étude démontre que, largement soumis aux attentes stéréotypées des lecteurs occidentaux sur les femmes et la culture dans les pays en développement, les glissements renforçant dans la traduction les stéréotypes communs éclipsent l’intention originale de l’auteur d’évoquer un groupe de jeunes cherchant à explorer leur existence peu orthodoxe en Chine. Finalement, l’étude confirme l’impact social de Shanghai Baby sur les cultures source et cible dans une tentative de lier sa signification à un contexte mondial.
- Shanghai Baby,
- traduction littéraire,
- analyse du discours,
- représentation occidentale,
- contexte de lecture
Basado en el análisis comparativo de la traducción al inglés en el 2001 de la obra semi autobiográfica, Shanghai Baby, de Wei Hui, autora y precursora de la nueva generación de escritoras chinas conocidas como “beauty writer”, y del texto original publicado en 1999, este estudio propone demostrar el efecto que ejercen las teorías occidentales de recepción lectora así como los cambios en la traducción en el texto, sobre la respuesta del lector no especializado a las reseñas bibliográficas en línea. Cimentada tanto en el modelo de traducción sinologista del siglo XIX, que resalta el elemento cursi de la cultura china, como en el modelo occidental que representa a la mujer china como amante temeraria y siempre tratando de escapar del despotismo comunista, la presente investigación argumenta que los cambios que refuerzan los estereotipos prevalentes en la traducción –dominados en su mayoría por las expectativas estereotipadas de los lectores occidentales sobre la cultura y las mujeres de países tercermundistas– tienden a eclipsar la intención original del autor al hablar en defensa de una minoría joven que explora su existencia poco ortodoxa en China. Por último, el estudio trata el tema del impacto social que ejerce Shanghai Baby sobre la cultura anfitriona y la de origen y la relevancia de dicho impacto en el contexto global.
- Shanghai Baby,
- traducción literaria,
- análisis del discurso,
- representación occidental,
- contexto de lectura
At the turn of the twenty-first century, a new type of novel took China’s literary scene by storm. Written by young female authors who throw a spotlight on topics generally regarded as taboo in China, this fictional subcategory foregrounds “a tribe of sons and daughters of the well-to-do” leading a wild and extravagant lifestyle. These writers came to be nicknamed “beauty writers” for their flashy and sexy looks. Their unprecedented flaunting of female sexuality, individuality and materialism in China soon resulted in the banning of their works. Shanghai Baby (上海宝贝) a representative work of a pioneer beauty writer Wei Hui, was “banished to the West” soon after its publication in China in 1999 (Koetze 2012: 8). One of the reasons the translations of many such contemporary Chinese works became bestsellers in the Western world is that they were banned in their birthplace of China. As Shen (2000) argues, “These commercial writers and the censors have become strange bedfellows, forming a unique combination of authoritarianism and commercialism.”
Translated into 34 different languages, Shanghai Baby has sold over six million copies in 45 countries (Basu 2011). In addition to its market success, another reason for selecting Shanghai Baby for this study is that it is the most reviewed English translation of a Chinese novel by a female writer on amazon.com, which suggests that it has aroused more interest among translation readers than other contemporary Chinese novels translated into English. The study attempts to shift the focus away from the marketing hype over this controversial work and to highlight the voices of common readers by analyzing reader reviews posted on the leading US-based online retailer website, amazon.com. The objective is to outline a more representative reception environment by supplementing the reading context as manifested in the scholarly literature (Koetze 2012; Liu 2011; Weber 2002) with the voices of non-specialist readers at large.
Before jumping into the analysis of online reviews, it is important to note that most overseas readers and critics depend solely on the translation in their native languages to form their opinions about Shanghai Baby and never refer back to the original Chinese version. As a result, most readers tend to accept all the rewriting, obliteration and abridgment of the translator as if these shifts were “originally” there. By examining meaningful shifts in Bruce Humes’ 2001 English translation of Shanghai Baby, this study explores the possibility of integrating St. André’s (2010) conception of translation as cross-identity performance with Kahf’s (2010) analysis of the packaging of U.S. feminism in translations of works by third-world women to better account for the transfiguration of a semiautobiographical novel “from one reading context to another” (Kahf 2010: 28). The readers’ feedback can then be compared against the understanding acquired from the discourse analysis of Shanghai Baby and of published interviews with the translator to study “the balance between the environment of reception and the translator’s individual role” (Kahf 2010: 29) in generating one-sided representations of the Chinese world.
1.1 Packaging Chinese Culture: Cross-identity Performance and “Chineseness”
Shanghai Baby, written in the first person, revolves around the everyday life of a young woman, Coco, living in Shanghai. Coco writes about her life ambitions, thought-provoking social encounters, and “most importantly, about the city itself” (Koetze 2012: 8). She writes about the city’s artistic scene where she meets artists and journalists, as well as the trendy parties where she meets young people living a life no less unorthodox than her own. Overall, this is the story of a woman searching for her own identity, caught in a web of traditionally-held Chinese norms and newly-emerging Western influences.
Self-discovery, as with feminine identification, is deeply rooted in culture. How do target readers, then, respond to Chinese culture translated into English as depicted in a Westernized “sex, drug and rock n’ roll” novel like Shanghai Baby? This case study is further inspired by St. André’s question of whether all translation activities can fit into the various models of passing he proposes (St. André 2006: 258). According to St. André, the concept of passing, as it has been developed in African-American studies and queer theory, usually involves members of a minority/oppressed group in society learning to mimic the looks, speech and behavior of the dominant majority or vice versa. In St. André’s theorization of the nineteenth-century sinological translation (St. André 2006: 255), passing is commonly embodied by “a concentration and exaggeration of certain linguistic features for effect” to establish a stereotyped “Chineseness” that keeps the Western readers at a comfortable distance, allowing them to enjoy the exotic “oriental tales.” In a later work (St. André 2010: 276), he further organizes the relevant metaphors for translation under one umbrella term – cross-identity performance, which both challenges and reinforces stereotypical social identities and established power relationships. Slumming is defined in this work as members of a dominant class in society learning to mimic those of the dominated class, while passing is redefined as mimicry in the opposite direction. The current study thus explores in what way Shanghai Baby as a translation illustrates St. André’s taxonomy of cross-identity performance.
By mapping the “Chineseness” contrivances found in a more recent literary work, Shanghai Baby, onto one or more forms of crossing-identity performance through analysis of both the translation product and target reader reviews, this study strives to achieve a more balanced and coherent understanding of translational shifts influenced both by the translator’s individual choice and by the reception environment.
1.2 Packaging Chinese Women in the Receiving Culture
As Coco gains more success as a writer, her love life starts to unravel into a racy story of a 25-year-old waitress and aspiring writer who finds herself torn between her beloved boyfriend, impotent, drug-abusing Chinese artist Tian Tian, and her secret boyfriend, virile German expatriate Mark (Fang 2013). Although politics is completely absent from the narrative, the quasi-autobiography of a Chinese woman leading an erotically-charged life can hardly escape a feminist interpretation.
According to Kahf (2010: 31), Third World women have been packaged in the United States reception environment within one or more of the three categories--victim, escapee or pawn. Moreover, when discussing the stereotyping of women in erotic writing, Flotow argues that a female character “has hitherto been described in terms of the stereotypes of ‘the lover (‘whore’), the devoted and unsexed mother, or the untouchable Holy Virgin’” (1997: 17). The following sections will show that the translated work under discussion does not escape these two dimensions of stereotyping. Shanghai Baby, a work known for erotically-charged scenes set against the backdrop of a conservative China, was projected onto the feminist expectations of the Western receiving culture the moment it entered the English-speaking market, as indicated by the Amazon editorial review of Shanghai Baby: “Coco’s forays into in the territory of love and lust cross the borders between two cultures – awakening her guilt and fears of discovery, yet stimulating her emerging sexual self.”
Following Kahf’s approach involving comparative discourse analysis of the English translation and original Arabic version of Huda Sha’rawi’s memoir (2010), the authors intend to locate similar reception-oriented shifts in the English translation of Shanghai Baby. Furthermore, the study explores whether the translator takes an active part in addressing these stereotypes and how the translator’s agency in this regard influences translation readers.
1.3 An Overview of Reader Reviews Posted on Amazon.com
Our online query over the U.S.-based online retail website Amazon.com, conducted on February 10, 2016, returned 91 book reviews for Shanghai Baby, 27 of which were positive and 64 negative, as indicated by Amazon’s five-star rating system (a rating of 3 or more stars corresponds to a positive review while a rating of 2.5 or fewer stars corresponds to a negative one). In other words, almost 70 percent of the commenting readers had a low opinion of the book as a whole. While it is tempting to apply the majority rule in a one-sided match like this, a closer look into the minority pool of positive reviews generates some interesting findings, which shed light on alternative interpretive possibilities.
Of all the positive reviews, 92 percent claimed surprise or even shock at the overall low rating this book received. This means that most of the positive reviews were given in full awareness of the overwhelmingly negative feedback. In addition, 74 percent reported some familiarity with China or Chinese culture before reading this book, such as travelling or reading experiences, in contrast to 36 percent in the pool of negative reviews, which may, to some extent, testify to the reliability of the positive reviews. The authors thus identified the major counter-arguments in the positive reviews against the negative reviews and discuss in the following section in what way the translation may have affected the recurring criticism of Shanghai Baby.
2. Comparing 上海宝贝 to Shanghai Baby
As the translator’s first attempt at literary translation, Shanghai Baby, the English translation of 上海宝贝, became a bestseller in Hong Kong and Singapore soon after its publication. The Chinese original was then translated into several other languages, including French, German, Italian and Japanese. The translator of Shanghai Baby is an American, though greatly influenced by European culture, as he admitted in an interview (Fang 2013) and, as the market success of the English translation has to a great extent motivated the translation into other languages, it should be a good starting point for a study of the voices of those non-specialist English readers who were interested enough to post online reviews.
The existing comparative studies of Shanghai Baby and its original text are based on the theoretical model of orientalism (Liu 2011); the translational shifts are cited to illustrate that the translator, with an orientalist agenda, intentionally manipulates the text to reinforce the binary opposition of the West as the progressive, cultured dominator and the Orient as the underdeveloped, unenlightened dominated, such that Western colonization (in the narrow sense in the colonial age, and as cultural and economic hegemon in the postcolonial age) can be justified to educate or “civilize” the Orient. While previous studies have looked at the role of editorial reviews in promoting east-versus-west stereotypes, the current study is built upon the theoretical models of translation as cross-identity performance and feminist packaging in hopes of adding greater nuance to the discourse analysis. In addition, it turns to the reviews of non-specialist readers and observes their responses to relevant stereotyping contrivances and the role played by the translator (deliberately or not) in reinforcing or diluting the packaging of Chinese culture and women.
2.1 It All Starts with the Paratext
Quite a few readers (34% of all reviews) report that the intriguing cover of Shanghai Baby is what first captures their attention. The front cover of the English translation features the author’s airbrushed half-portrait showing her naked left shoulder on which the tattoo-like characters “Wei Hui” are inscribed, while that of the Chinese version is simply Wei Hui’s headshot. This graphic shift in the English translation highlights the mystery and eroticism of Chinese women.
Even more eye-catching to the English readers is the book’s blurb that reads “a story of love, sex and self-discovery – banned in China.” As one reader puts it, “Is it the fact that it has been banned by a government widely held to be whimsical and oppressive, and that by buying and promoting it we feel that in some small way we are striking a blow for freedom?” For the purpose of the current study, rather than exploring why the Chinese government banned a book highlighting “drug, sex and rock n’ roll” deemed commonplace in the West, we are more interested in the statement right before “banned in China” as it prepares the reader to expect a story and nothing else. Although it seems undeniable that a work of fiction always tells a story, this semi-autographical novel presents itself as a story of self-identification, as the author declares, “I’m looking for a voice for my generation.” In contrast, according to one interview (Fang 2013), the translator chose this novel to introduce to the West because “it’s sexy… it’s in your face,” which means that the storyline of this Sex and the City wannabe and the provocative writing style constitute the main selling points of the novel. Therefore, the translation undergoes corresponding shifts that appear to serve the sole purpose of highlighting love and sex, more often than not at the expense of self-reflexive exploration. These shifts contribute to the stereotyped packaging of an exotic and erotic Chinese woman into the expected “comfort zone” of the English translation’s reception environment.
For a final note on paratextual analysis, the emphasis on a story-oriented construction is also reflected in the “pocketbook” composition of the published translation: the Tables of Content are all omitted in this series of pocketbooks published by Smith & Schuster, Inc., and Shanghai Baby is no exception. This approach promotes a prescriptive categorization of these fictional writings into run-of-the-mill airport or train station reading where readers simply journey straight through to enjoy a story and no part of the writing is insightful enough to return to for re-reading. Accordingly, the translation accommodates the demands of this market by cleansing the text of those elements that might “sabotage” the development of the story, as illustrated and discussed in the following sections.
2.2 Packaging Chinese Culture in Translation
Shanghai Baby serves as an excellent example for studying translation as cross-identity performance from different perspectives. To begin with, the original Chinese novel depicts a small “circle” of young people attracted to and influenced by a Western lifestyle; they attend wild parties and hang out in bars and cafés. The Chinese group within the dominated culture mimicking Western conduct is in itself a form of cross-identity performance, or passing. Second, the American translator disguises himself as a member of the Chinese community in his translation, stating as his purpose to introduce “the lower class” to the dominant culture (slumming and yellowface, another two forms of cross-identity performance). Finally, a male translator impersonates a female writer to recount a woman’s journey of self-discovery (the drag show, yet another form of cross-identity performance that shows the constructed nature of gender roles (St. André 2010: 276-79)). Cross-identity performance “functioned as a delineation of boundaries by crossing those bounds of social construction, in which language was always an important element” (Itzkovitz 2001: 39).
One case in point to illustrate the ways in which Shanghai Baby embodies cross-identity performance occurs during a contentious conversation between Coco, her friend Madonna, and an elderly American lady. The lady asked them to stop partying on the lawn near her house, but the young women did not take her words seriously at first since they believed the lawn was open to the public. After the lady threatens to report them to the authorities, the young people give in, saying rather provocatively before leaving “See you later” in English. The translation renders this part of this passage in the following way: “Madonna, to prove her street savvy, feigned a smile but got her English wrong. ‘Okay,’ she said. ‘We’ll be leaving. See you late.’” By intentionally adding “got her English wrong” and giving a grammatically incorrect sentence as simple as “see you later” (the original text actually uses the correct “see you later”), the translator presents Madonna’s spoken English as laughable (an awkward mimicking of the dominating culture), which undermines her “street savvy.”
Furthermore, the stereotypical Chineseness characterized by overloaded figurative speech, maxims and proverbs (St. André 2006: 244) is accentuated by word-for-word translation widely applied in Shanghai Baby for many idioms and similes unique to Chinese culture. In the source context, the presence of these rhetorical devices is essential to enlivening the text. However, too many idioms and similes in unidiomatic English render the translated text redundant and nonsensical, thus entertaining the English-speaking readers with an illusion of linguistic superiority. Examples for this abound in Shanghai Baby: idioms associated with praise and admiration were rendered as denigrating, while those associated with irony and criticism were neutralized as bland, negligible comments; creative metaphors invented by the writer that underlie the poetics of this work were reduced by verbatim translation to ambiguous, trivial descriptions in the English reading context (see Appendix 1 for example-specific analyses). Since modern English tends to avoid the use of idioms and clichés, as identified by Crystal (2012: 182), Chineseness thus constructed in English translation reinforces the comforting boundary between the Chinese culture and the one in which the Western readers live.
2.3 Packaging Chinese Women in Translation
Contrary to the author’s well-intentioned attempt to speak out for her generation, most readers of the English translation (78% of negative reviews) are critical of the protagonist’s monologues delivered at parties, bars and cafés: a “boring and clichéd” description of materialistic life by name-dropping appears both “superficial” and “pseudo-intellectual.” On the one hand, the high-consumption lifestyle underlying Shanghai Baby, while unprecedented and thus mind-blowing to the contemporary Chinese readers at the time of the book’s publication, is commonplace for the coeval English readers. On the other hand, the self-reflective scenes that translation readers find unbearably frequent have to do with the tradition of unrestrained self-praise in twentieth-century Chinese novels (McDougall 2003: 104), which appears in sharp contrast to contemporary U.S. fiction, which is largely influenced by a long tradition of anti-intellectualism (McDougall 2003: 37, 109). Therefore, not surprisingly, some readers of the English translation detect a lack of “any sense of humor” (or sarcasm) in the self-narrative of Shanghai Baby. In reality, the innovativeness of Shanghai Baby lies in the fact that the narrator’s self-obsessiveness is directed toward an end quite different from that of mainstream Chinese fiction of the past century. While the narcissism in most Chinese novels “leads not to a cultivation of an autonomous individual self but to a justification of intellectuals as a group and the confirmation of their moral worth” (McDougall 2003: 108), Shanghai Baby is one of the few contemporary novels in which the author “feels detached enough to explore the non-sociocentric self” (McDougall 2003: 110). And the protagonist Coco, as depicted in Shanghai Baby, revolutionizes the image of Chinese writers in the early twentieth century by achieving the transformation “from an intellectual, the conscience of society, the architect of the soul, to a celebrity in a consumer economy at best, a self-styled outsider at worst” (Lu 2008: 178). Therefore, the uniqueness of Shanghai Baby’s narcissism lies in its purpose of exploring the Chinese individual self within the context of east-west cultural collision and blending.
The translator, on the other hand, has interpreted this as self-indulgence in Shanghai Baby, and so takes some countermeasures to tone down the autobiographical nature of the novel by removing a few Chinese cultural images unfamiliar to English-speaking readers along with some of Coco’s self-reflections that seem irrelevant to the unfolding of the plot. Although the resultant shifts tone down Coco’s self-obsessiveness to advance the agenda of storyline development, they end up situating the voice of the Chinese female protagonist within a Westernized context that English readers unsurprisingly find hackneyed.
Appendix 2 lists a selection of the relevant texts removed in the English translation and explains the integral role they play in the original. This approach to rhetorically challenging texts echoes the one identified by Schaffer and Song (2006) in the English translation of Chen Ran’s A Private Life. Their study found that the omission of several paragraphs limits the access of the translation readers to important stylistic elements present in the original text, including “the fusion of Western concepts and philosophical perspectives with indigenous Chinese myth and traditions” (Schaffer and Song 2006: 8). Deprived of the figurative speeches that transform Coco’s materialistic pursuits into spiritual self-exploration, Shanghai Baby is flattened out as a prosaic ad for Western pop culture with the “other” perspective missing. In addition, Coco’s monologue, which acknowledges and justifies the unorthodox lifestyle of her friends and herself, as well as her subversive reflection on prevailing feminist initiatives, goes missing in the translation, thus divesting Shanghai Baby of the distinctive cultural context that allows Coco’s life to be interpreted from a Chinese woman’s standpoint. Furthermore, Coco’s wise reflections and poetic introspection are abridged, which puts more attention on her fondness for brand names, symbolizing her materialism.
On top of the removal and abridgment of the protagonist’s monologue of self-identification and discovery, another possible explanation for the unanimous criticism among translation readers of Shanghai Baby’s self-obsessiveness and egocentricity is that the translation portrays the protagonist as a lust-driven woman by playing down the presence of other female characters and by explicitly rendering erotic scenes.
When asked if he had learned anything new about Chinese women from this work, the translator replied, “my experience of Chinese females is already much richer than the two-dimensional portraits that dominate in the book” (Fang 2013). Therefore, it is understandable that the translation has reinforced this impression of “fragile” supporting characters. Appendix 3 illustrates the strategies applied in foregrounding the main storyline at the expense of supporting characters: text omission as well as paragraph merging or splitting. Through these different means of text manipulation, the weakened interactions between Coco and her parents and Coco and her friends contribute to creating an image of a self-obsessed protagonist detached from her Generation X peers and from other social contexts.
While Coco’s social presence is undermined in the English translation, her sexual self is given greater prominence. Hidden beneath Coco’s sexy look and unrestrained behavior in the Chinese source text is an irresistible urge to explore and discover her true self. Coco rebels against the traditional moral system and social conventions for women and pursues love, happiness, and ultimately self-identity in the rapidly evolving city of Shanghai, which is struggling with the conflict between East and West, old traditions and new values. Within this context, erotic scenes are not merely meant for titillating entertainment – it is sex with a message. In “Never This Wild: Sexing the Cultural Revolution,” Larson (1999) discusses sexuality in post-Mao literature and film, arguing that a “discourse of desire” was a way of suppressing the socialist cultural theory to become part of a cultural movement that uses sexual expression as a way to process China’s past, present and future, and to place Chinese culture within a global context (Larson 1999: 423).
Nevertheless, such a conception of sex is largely silenced in the English translation in order to create an image of undisrupted eroticism in Shanghai Baby. As a result of the strategy of explicitation applied in the translation of all the erotic scenes, the protagonist is transformed into a debauched woman who can easily separate love from sex and have multiple sexual partners with no guilt, thus reinforcing the brazen narcissism the translation readers find “disgusting.” See Appendix 4 for a relevant example-specific analysis of use of explicitation.
As a final touch to the construction of a gendered self in Shanghai Baby, it is interesting to note a consistent translational shift in 女孩 (girl) in Coco’s monologue (no similar shift can be found for all the other female characters). 女孩 within the context of Coco’s self-reflection is either translated into “woman” or simply omitted whereas its translation “girl” is consistently retained in other contexts such as those referring to others, conversations with other characters, or conversations among members of the older generation (see Appendix 5 for example-specific analysis). The translator may find the “university-educated” 25-year-old protagonist too sophisticated to be called a “girl,” but this stereotypical shift defies the complexity of humanity as illustrated in the Chinese idiom: “there is a little girl (boy) in every woman (man)’s heart.” Moreover, there is actually more to 女孩 in contemporary Chinese than age and marital status. The transition from girl to woman typically occurs after one graduates from school to take a job, live independently and socialize with others. During the protagonist’s exposure of her inner self, her self-declaration as a “girl” engenders the assurance that her cherished values and dreams have been kept intact over time. Furthermore, as an implied metaphor of Shanghai subculture, the protagonist is “also bordering between girl and womanhood, between being Chinese and becoming Westernized” (Koetze 2012: 19). One important reason why the English readers are intolerant of Shanghai Baby’s monologue is that they fail to see the mix of sophistication and innocence in the female protagonist due to the translator’s interventions.
To summarize the packaging of Chinese women in Shanghai Baby, the translator, for the sake of storyline development, either curtails or manipulates the “trivial” characters (Chinese women in particular) and other details that serve to add a self-exploratory dimension to the characters. Erotic scenes are explicitly described with such thick and heavy colors that some English readers report “overtones of sex.” Coco, the Chinese female protagonist in Shanghai Baby, is thus rendered lust-driven, superficial, and egocentric. However, few readers of the translation get trapped into generalizing the protagonist as an image of Chinese women at large; instead, most criticize the author for her atypical characterization. Whether a good novel has to reflect a larger picture of social life with representative characters is beyond the scope of the current study, but what has to be acknowledged here is that the textual intervention of the translator flattens the protagonist by packaging her as a frivolous, lustful Chinese woman, an image that fits into the Western feminist model of a reckless escapee from Communist despotism, as well as the erotic model of a shameless “lover (whore).” Had the poetic lyrical passages of self-exploration been retained for the receiving culture, the author’s “talent for using the simile and metaphor to create a mood and describe situations” (quoting an observant reader) might have been granted an opportunity to shine.
2.4 Contrasting the Western Character with “the Other”
Coupled with clichéd characterizations, single-minded Western worship may also be responsible for the criticism directed by Anglophone readers at the protagonist Coco in Shanghai Baby, focusing first and foremost on her “biased” stance in the tug-of-war between her “reclusive, impotent, occasional drug-using” Chinese boyfriend, Tian Tian, and her “powerful, virile and competitive” German lover, Mark, showing a clear preference for the latter. Coco is accordingly labeled as a heartless decadent woman who chooses sex over love. The comparison of the translation and the original, however, reveals significant shifts that serve to sharpen the contrast between the two male leading characters. Specifically, Coco’s platonic interactions with Tian Tian, which she found fulfilling and delightful, were abridged while her non-sexual encounters with Mark were curtailed; and sentences were relocated to contrast the two male leading characters (see Appendix 6 for example-specific analyses). Again, these shifts may be intended to fortify the storyline, but they essentially downplay the protagonist’s perplexity in pursuing both physical and spiritual satisfaction.
3. Concluding Remarks: Reopening Shanghai Baby
In spite of painstaking efforts made by the translator to lend prominence to the main storyline, most English readers complain about the simplicity and platitudes of the novel’s erotically-charged love triangle and suspect that Shanghai Baby should attribute its success in “the free world” to its having been banned by a conservative government rather than to its literary merits. Admittedly, the one-sided advocacy of a Western lifestyle alone can never become a selling point when imported into the West. However, the author’s mastery of Chinese rhetorical elements and her incisive observations in her uniquely poetic narrative, which constitute the work’s indispensable competitive edge in China, are silenced or inhibited for the sake of highlighting the love-and-sex theme in the translation, thus overshadowing the ultimate agenda of feminist self-discovery in the original text.
As the author’s first published full-length novel and as a piece of experimental female writing, Shanghai Baby’s clever and artful use of the Chinese language with a distinctively feminine touch is noteworthy, though this may not be as impressive as the boldness and courage in “setting a precedent for female writers to write about sex (traditionally an exclusively male domain) as they experience it, or as they imagine it, from the woman’s point of view” (Fang 2013). More importantly, the novel’s unprecendented success should be accounted for within a specific context: a time when sex was considered taboo in China since it “expressed individualism, which was believed to harm the wellbeing of the greater collective” (Koetze 2012: 16). Therefore, the novel’s depiction of sexual experience “cannot only be understood as a release of sexual freedom, but also as a counter-reaction to China’s modern past” (Koetze 2012: 16). At any rate, there is no denying that the shifts introduced in Shanghai Baby by the translator sustain the prevailing stereotypes held in the Western world about Third World culture and women, the former identified by St. André (2010) while the latter by Kahf (2010) and Flotow (1997), even though all the Chinese women depicted in this novel lead a modern Westernized life. The labels stay the same: a lust-driven lover and a West-worshipping escapee from the culture of Chineseness. It seems that the translator has implemented the aforementioned shifts to promote in vain the atypical existence of a Chinese woman speaking from an “in-group” perspective for the Generation X deemed “non-mainstream” in their home country.
In spite of the foregoing discussion of translational distortions and manipulations, we should warn against the danger of “emphasizing the metaphorical dimension of translation – involving an analytics of replacement and substitution – at the expense of a metonymic dimension which would prioritize, instead, contexts and connections” (Tymoczko 1999: 55). According to Tymoczko’s conception of a translation as a metonym of its source – that is, as “a form of representation in which parts or aspects of the source text come to stand for the whole” (Tymoczko 1999: 55), translations need to be rethought not so much as falling short of their sources but as productively falling elsewhere in relation to their sources (Harvey 2003: 5). Also, it is worth noting that pleasing all is a “mission impossible” in creative writing. If a character is unique, some readers maintain that it is unrepresentative of the society at large and renders the writing superficial; if the character is representative enough, some others may argue that it is lacking distinction and boring. Therefore, it seems that what stands out in the long run is writing for one’s own voice to be heard, in other words, the individualized use of language or writing style. This puts the translator under a seemingly insurmountable obligation: How can a translation render an authorial style that has made a resounding impact on the source culture in a way that evokes similar (divergent) reactions in target readers, thus replicating the market success or buzz in the target culture? Shanghai Baby, after all, “did prevail in every way; it affects people. It provokes, disappoints, angers, hurts, surprises, shocks, amuses or bemuses them – but does not leave them untouched” (Koetze 2012: 31). In this regard, Shanghai Baby may have received its success as a translation, since it evoked the “garbage-or-gem” reviews from the English readers that are no less polarized and heated than those from its Chinese readers.
Hopefully, the approach taken by the current study of reviewing the voices of non-specialist readers in the form of online book reviews can shed new light on the promotion of Chinese literary works to the rest of the world; these comments can be triangulated with the editorial and academic reviews for a comprehensive view of the literary and aesthetic devices at work. For follow-up studies, online reader reviews along with professional book reviews of Shanghai Baby from English-speaking regions other than the USA need to be incorporated for a fuller picture of the Anglophone reception environment. Moreover, the analytical framework the current study follows may undergo further adaptation and application in the reception studies of other literary translations, including but not limited to the language pair of Chinese and English.
Appendix 1. Verbatim Translation to Fortify Chineseness (partial listing)
Appendix 2. Omission of Monologues and Chinese Cultural Images (partial listing)
Appendix 3. Strategies for Foregrounding the Main Storyline at the Expense of Supporting Characters (partial listing)
Appendix 4. Explicitation of Erotic Scenes (partial listing)
Appendix 5. “女孩 (Girl)” Missing in Self-reflection (partial listing)
Appendix 6. Examples of Contrasting the Competitive Western Character with the Inferior “Other” (partial listing)
Wei, Hui (2001): Shanghai Baby. (Translated from Chinese to English by Bruce Humes). New York: Washington Square Press.
Wei, Hui (1999): 上海宝贝 [Shanghai Baby]. Visited Sep 2014, <http://www.oklink.net/00/0323/index.htm>.
We searched for the English translation of Chinese fiction on amazon.com on February 10, 2016 and sorted the results by average customer reviews. Of all the works we located, Shanghai Baby received the most customer reviews (92 reviews); the second most reviewed (74 reviews) translated work was Red Sorghum: A Novel of China, written by the Nobel Prize-awarded author Mo Yan.
Except for a scene of an argument at a party between an American student and a Serbian student concerning the U.S. bombing of Belgrade.
Refer to <http://www.amazon.com/Shanghai-Baby-Novel-Wei-Hui/dp/0743421574> (Visited on Sep 2014).
The translation was actually completed by a team in which Humes played a leading role. He described the whole work procedure in an interview (Fang 2013): “(I first) had a native Chinese read the chapter aloud to me, which immediately resolved some of the original questions I had, because some of my original questions had been due to incorrect reading on my part; Finished draft and sent to a couple (she Shanghainese, he American) for proofing and polishing. Their approach: She rarely looked at my English. A professional conference interpreter, she preferred to do a running interpretation of the original, with her English-speaking husband noting differences between her version and mine on his computer. He would then discuss these areas with her, and having checked both versions against the Chinese original again, then change the English accordingly. This worked well because he was younger than I and less fluent in Chinese, and thus a better writer of contemporary English, particularly conversational English.” For the conciseness of discussion, the “translator” hereinafter refers to the team and all the other relevant parties that may influence the published edition of Shanghai Baby.
Refer to http://www.lijiazhang.com/downloads/files/China_girls.pdf (Visited on Sep 2014).
This refers to the generation born after the Cultural Revolution (1966-1976), which did not experience Mao’s rule. Although the PRC officially remained a communist nation, society was quickly turning capitalistic. The consequences of this binary system affected the young people that were growing up during this period. “On the one hand, they took on the individualistic lifestyle that came with the growing consumer society, on the other hand, they were still supposed to behave according to the collectivistic standards their parents grew up with” (Weber 2002: 347).
Furthermore, the Chinese cultural elements have undergone a further deduction in the translation, as illustrated in Appendix 1.
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