This is one of a number of pieces covering events at the Edinburgh International Book Festival, which runs from 9th–25th August 2014 at Charlotte Square Gardens, Edinburgh. Xiaolu Guo read at the Edinburgh International Book Festival on 9th August 2014. Editor Rebecca DeWald went to a reading of her most recent novel I Am China at the Free Word Centre in London last month where Guo talked about censorship and untranslatability.

by Rebecca DeWald 

Before the reading at the Free Word Centre in London, I had a debate with fellow translators about what it means to be “A Granta Best Young British Novelist,” the journal’s predicted list of British writers under 40 to significantly influence the literary scene in the next decade. Guo’s first novel Village of Stone (2005) was written in Chinese and translated into English by Cindy Carter. Subsequently, in her 12 years of living in the UK, Guo has published a further three novels, such as the bestseller A Concise Chinese-English Dictionary for Lovers (2007), and a short story collection, all written in English. The prose is usually simple and straightforward, and includes the odd typo, left out or superfluous article or conjunction. What might be considered grammatical mistakes reminds the reader that the author’s first language is one other than English. Besides these elements, Guo’s style contains further reminders of her Chinese origin, particularly in her use of metaphors which appear in extended form and as translated idioms and give her prose a very particular colouration. A strong example of this is her essay ‘Go the Way of the Dinosaursfor the Free Word Centre’s Weather Stations project, where the metaphor of short-sightedness is applied to our moral compass when it comes to climate change.

I Am China is a novel of many differences and of culture shock, but predominantly a novel about translation. Scottish translator Iona Kilpatrick is handed a pile of copied letters and diary entries to translate from Chinese into English. As is often the case with translation jobs, she is not given any context for these documents and in piecing this together she finds herself emotionally entangled in the love story of a young Chinese couple in Beijing and the political dimensions of their relationship. The reader finds out early on that Jian wrote a contentious manifesto which he insisted on disseminating, despite Mu’s objections, and that this letter is probably the reason for the couple’s geographical and emotional separation. What is often a nuisance to translators—the lack of contextual material provided—becomes the main plot device in Guo’s novel as the  reader is journeys alongside the translator as she attempts to decipher the material’s in its context. 

“This novel is about two things: love or sexuality and the political,” Guo says at the reading. “And you could never write that in China.” 

Censorship becomes a focus of the discussion at the FWC as we discuss restrictions and ways in which a writer can gain a bit of freedom in a strict political setting. The freedom gained through writing in English, however, needs to be taken with a grain of salt. In reply to the question whether censorship issues drove her to publishing in English, Guo responds: 

I was driven by intellectual awareness, a fast and furious writer driven by journalism, film scripts, TV soaps. And suddenly in the UK I lost my language. I have to write, but who can translate me? And then I would have to send it to China to get censored so I have to write in English. 

Her response, rather than being entirely positive about the opportunities English gave her, is more nuanced and shows an underlying urgency and practicality which overtly nationalist defenders of the English language might almost consider an affront. It seems the switch to English could not happen without the initial loss of a language, and also with a certain uncertainty about the possibility of being translated. The latter, rather than being the expression of a general distrust towards translation and translators, however, might be due to the Chinese government’s strategy in promoting Chinese authors. Nicky Harman, a Chinese to English translator accompanying the talk, explains this agenda, which means that some, more avant-garde, writers will never find a European or American publisher because China does not support their publication.

The Chinese government wants to get its best authors out into the world but that’s not necessarily what publishers want to publish. It’s not just good that the Chinese government thrusts money at publishers to translate something that’s not necessarily good. On the whole, I don’t think that the cultural or linguistic differences are the main problem. 

The cultural differences between East and West—which feature in I Am China as well when the Chinese government tries to force the London publishers to drop their publication plans for the letters and diary entries—are continued in the private story of the lovers Mu and Jian. They position themselves at almost irreconcilable ends of the political spectrum, as Jian notes in one of his letters:

Isn’t it a perfect example of our difference that she studies Western literature and I am reading Chinese history? 

This vast gap between East and West appears to be a reason for the untranslatability of certain terms Iona struggles to interpret in their letters, where their youth slang, their very personal slang, and even the handwriting of the revolutionary Jian become obstacles. However, untranslatability rather becomes a very personal issue for the translator: Iona does not understand the commitment the people she is translating have to each other and to a political cause. The issue of untranslatability is deferred from the cultural and linguistic sphere to the level of communication and empathy. As Guo says: 

Iona can’t grasp the importance of these love letters and the political sphere and that’s her problem with it. Iona is a typical young generation character who doesn’t want to live with a national baggage. 

Besides Iona’s fear of engaging in any sort of meaningful relationship—her love life of casual pub and internet acquaintances is repeated throughout the novel, to the extent that it sometimes borders on a stereotypical depiction of a “modern youth”—she also tries to distance herself from her Scottish home, the Isle of Mull, and the family she left behind there. In this, however, the choice of a Scottish character as an emblem of a young generation longing to be absolved of national baggage in the year of the Scottish referendum is questionable. This is particularly so since Iona’s Scottish past and her longing for the island bearing her name, which was so close to her home island and yet out of reach, becomes a continuous feature in the development and revelation of her character to the reader. Furthermore, her Scottishness is often referred to but is not reflected in her writing style, with Americanisms like “garbage” appearing as odd oversights in her translations from Chinese.

What becomes clear through Iona—maybe as a homeless Scot in multicultural London—is the translator’s need to straddle different cultures but particularly to think outside oneself. In many ways, the strength of I Am China lies in the multiple aspects of translation it depicts. This is not just limited to “translation proper,” which Guo describes marvellously, such as the process involved in finding the right term, which she depicts through the inclusion of Chinese characters in English passages to symbolise that the translator has not found the appropriate expression yet. Iona herself, much like Mu and Jian’s relationship, is split by juggling multiple cultures in one person, which only sometimes coincide: 

All leather jackets and the familiar attitude of punk – a metallic youth, she thinks, and the phrase comes to her in Chinese and in English. 

Much like the metaphorical prose, which is not typically British English though undoubtedly works in English, Iona’s thinking is determined by influences from the source culture she translates, and the target culture she has made her new home. The novel reads like a novel in translation—and that is to be taken as a compliment. 

The question Guo’s inclusion in the famous Granta list poses is then unavoidable:, what is British writing today? In response to a question from the audience as to whether Guo would ever go back to writing in Chinese, she says: 

Say I got a job in Taiwan or Japan, I would of course go back to writing in Chinese. We always write in the language we live in. I refuse to write in a language that is remote from your reality. Who would write in Shakespeare English now? 

And maybe this is where the debate around British literature originates. Britain as a multicultural society, extended to the Commonwealth nations, is bound together by English as a unifying language, even though this language offers different variations, like a Glasgow twang or Cockney English, and is as much in flux and subject to translation as any other form of identification. After all, the Commonwealth now includes many non-English speaking nations as well. Maybe writers like Guo, and the mere existence of translation, remind us that we just have to accept that English does not exist in one form but is multiple and might not last forever in its pristine and almost mythological BBC form.

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