Literature, National Culture, and Translated Modernity–China, 1900-1937

Translingual Practice: Literature, National Culture, and Translated Modernity–China, 1900-1937

Wang, Ban

TRANSLINGUAL PRACTICE: LITERATURE, NATIONAL CULTURE, AND TRANSLATED MODERNITY-CHINA, 1900-1937. By Lydia Liu. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1995. 474 p.

In the global market it no longer makes sense to insist that a certain product is made in America or in Japan. This recognition of mixture has provided critical wisdom for understanding cultural goods and even cultural formations, which often involve the convergence of multiple traditions and cultures in their making. Taking a historical and dynamic approach to partnership or “coauthorship” (p. 46) in cultural production through translation, this book addresses experiences of modernity in China’s contact and collision with Western languages and literatures from the turn of the century to the beginning of the Anti-Japanese War in 1937, a period that witnessed “the rise of modern literature and its early canonization” (p. xvi) . It is a scholarly truism that modern Chinese culture came into being as a response to the violent pressures and challenges of the West and is a mixture of Eastern and Western cultural resources. But it is far from Lydia Liu’s purpose to rehash exhausted influence studies or to retread much traveled terrains of hybridity, traveling theory, or migration of culture. On the contrary, the book tries to unmask the rigid binaries between East and West that inform much contemporary theory, Chinese studies, and cross-cultural interpretations.

An extended concept of translation, as implied in the title’s “Translingual Practice” and “Translated Modernity,” is the key to this study of the formation and legitimation of modern Chinese literature. Liu takes translation far more metaphorically than literally. The literal aspect, to be sure, is given the meticulous attention of a literary historian and linguist, as in her detailed and erudite description of loanwords and neologisms that circulated from the West to China to Japan and then back to China. The Appendixes, a very large collection of loanwords traversing several languages, attest to the immensity of the scholarly effort that went into just the literal aspect of translation. These loanwords and neologisms were so numerous that they changed the Chinese language and constituted modern Chinese vernacular. Liu argues persuasively from empirical data that it is impossible to consider the rise of modern Chinese literary discourse without reference to a vast supply of translated western literature and discourses. Modern Chinese literature resulted from a cross-cultural breeding facilitated by translation.

More important, however, is translation as a trope. Mere translation and borrowing do not lead to the creation of a new literature or national culture. There are questions of what to translate and why. Liu frames the question thus: “In whose terms, for which linguistic constituency, and in the name of what kinds of knowledge or intellectual authority does one perform acts of translation between cultures?” (p. 1). She uses the term “translingual practice” to designate a dynamic process of meaning making and culture building in the historical contact between China and the West. “Broadly defined, the study of translingual practice examines the process by which new words, meanings, discourses, and modes of representation arise, circulate, and acquire legitimacy within the host language due to, or in spite of, the latter’s contact/collision with the guest language. Meanings, therefore, are not so much ‘transformed’ when concepts pass from the guest language to the host language as invented within the local environment of the latter” (p. 26).

The concept of translingual practice opens a new perspective in cross-cultural analysis by challenging a number of deeply entrenched assumptions. It questions cultural universalism, which assumes ideal equivalence between two different languages or cultures in the manner of a bilingual dictionary, and cultural relativism, which assumes untranslatable difference tightly sealed within cultural essence. It also takes issue with Edward Said’s traveling theory, in which the figure of theory seems to travel of its own accord and for its own pleasure, unaware of such powerinflected questions as who launches and plans the itinerary of the travel/ translation and for what purpose. This methodological innovation will have an important impact on Chinese studies or any comparative study of Third World cultures, Debates about change in the Third World are often burdened with essentialist terms that set up boundaries between tradition and modernity, East and West, past and present-in Chinese studies between impact and response, in postcolonial studies between Western domination and native resistance. The corollary image is often a passive native traumatically jolted out of his age-old lethargy (China as a sleeping lion, for example) and launched on the way of “transition” from tradition to modernity. Rather than redeploy these terms, Liu draws attention to contingencies, struggles, and surprising twists and turns of events at each moment of confrontation between China, Japan, and the West at the site of translation, or wherever the languages happen to meet, for this is where the irreducible differences between the host language and the guest language are fought out, authorities invoked or challenged, and ambiguities dissolved or created” (p. 32).

What emerges from this confrontation is the powerful creative agency of Chinese writers and intellectuals, who did not just borrow and parrot Western terms and images, but actively translated, criticized, distorted, parodied, appropriated, and recreated Western literature and discourses for their own purposes-to legitimate a new culture and to wield power in struggles, local or transnational. At stake is the politics of translingual practice, not the aesthetics or techniques of translation in the usual sense. Because “hypothetical equivalencies” (p.16) between languages or cultures did get and are still getting established, the critic must look into the equivalencies’ “manner of becoming.” “For it is the making of hypothetical equivalencies that enables the modus operandi of translation and its politics” (p.16).

A good example of how hypothetical equivalencies become established is provided by Liu’s analysis of the discourse of individualism, rendered in Chinese as geren zhuyi, in Chapter 3. Geren zhuyi is a graphic loanword that was imported from Meiji Japan even though there was no lack of Chinese characters to translate the term, such as ziwo, wo, ji and so on. Controversy over individualism in contemporary Chinese scholarship turns on the authenticity of its Chinese edition and its incompatibility with native conditions; or on its varied conceptions of the relation of the individual to collectivities such as family, nation and state. Disengaging from these attempts to get at the essential meaning of individualism, Liu carefully traces the trajectory of this term in the debate in the early Republican period and provides what I would call a discursive etymology of individualism and the political uses to which the discourse was put. She argues convincingly that the discourse of individualism is “invested in the major process of power reconfiguration in ways that defy simplistic closure” (p. 86). The meaning of individualism, in short, is what you do under the rubric of individualism in a nexus of authority, power, and needs in order to meet historical exigencies.

To my knowledge there are in Chinese studies only scattered articles on cultural formation based on translation. This book stands far ahead of the field in its theoretical reach and magnitude of materials. It is an excellent example of comparative literary study; it is also cultural history and theoretical reflection. It is a genuinely interdisciplinary work, encompassing literary criticism, textual analysis, linguistics, the philosophy of language, and history, and it shows an admirable command of Eastern and Western languages. The Introduction, a theoretical chapter, is followed by eight chapters, each dealing with an instance of translingual practice in the building of the national culture. Liu astutely analyzes literary texts, delving into novelistic realism, stylistic innovations, deixis of writing in the first person, the trope of gender in signifying modernity, representations of the inner psyche, and appropriations of psychoanalytical symbolism. Although at times her textual analysis and historical narration seem to lapse from the central concern of translingual practice, these pages are still stimulating for their passion and insight. Her story about the publication of the Compendium of Modern Chinese Literature is very engaging and shows her talent both as a historian and literary critic. Translingual Practice will provoke a rethinking about modern Chinese literature and culture and set the major terms for future research and discussion on cross-cultural interpretation, Chinese modernity, East-West encounter, and comparative literature.


Copyright Comparative Literature Summer 1997

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