Cultural Translation and the Exorcist: A Reading of Kingston's and Tan's Ghost Stories

By Lee, Ken-fang | MELUS, Summer 2004 | Go to article overview

Cultural Translation and the Exorcist: A Reading of Kingston's and Tan's Ghost Stories


Lee, Ken-fang, MELUS


The task of the feminist translator is to consider language as a clue to the workings of gendered agency.

--Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak, "The Politics of Translation"

Translation has won substantial attention only in recent years when many scholars have discussed its relation to culture exchange, inequity between languages/cultures, and what role a translator may play in this complicated process of cultural production. (1) As Sherry Simon puts it, "the globalization of culture means that we all live in 'translated' worlds" (134). Ideas about translation cannot remain solely on the linguistic or technical level anymore. Instead, translation studies involve a whole range of cultural spaces and different media. As diasporic experiences and migrations continue to bring hybridity into the host cultures, cable TV programs familiarize global audiences with the forceful consumer culture, and post-modern media display the power of transnational representations, all these messages demand translation to decode and produce meanings, making meaning of cultural differences.

If we take gender issues into account, the study of translation is more complex since there is a long history of most translators being women and translation being regarded as a feminized field. Compared to the "original" text, the translated text was normally considered inferior and secondary, which is similar to the situation that a woman confronts in a patriarchal society. (2) In the male-centered literary hierarchy, translation became a means for women to participate in literary activity. Thus, feminism and translation studies share some similar concerns about "secondariness," about how the "canon" is established, and about how cultural differences are represented.

In this article, I will examine the concept of "cultural translation" in formulating a cultural identity for those who struggle between two cultures and/or languages, in this case, two Chinese American women writers, and how ghosts exemplify their "in-between" situation. Ghosts are exorcised by writing and translating the past to construct their future. (3)

It is Homi Bhabha's notion that translation is a generative and creative activity. For Bhabha, "the third space" is the site where cultural translation takes place and ensures that the "meaning and symbols of culture have no primordial unity or fixity" (Location 37). The intervention of the third space makes the structure of meaning and reference an ambivalent process and can avoid the trap of binary thinking and enable other positions to emerge. The third space, or "in-betweenness," opens up new possibilities to eschew oppositional thinking and offers a different strategy to defend against the appropriation and interpellation of dominant cultural hegemony. I found this point particularly fruitful in approaching these two Chinese American women writers. The dehyphenated identity, the Chinese American, takes the place of neither/nor as well as of both/and at once. It is more like a third space in which they are caught in-between.

As Bhabha suggests, "the borderline work of culture demands an encounter with 'newness' that is not part of the continuum of past and present. It creates a sense of the new as an insurgent act of cultural translation" (Location 7). In weaving the old cultural references from both Chinese and American backgrounds into their work, Tan and Kingston also bring the "newness" and "foreignness" into the wor(l)d. I would like to emphasize the element of "defamiliarization" in their work. Egyptian scholar Samia Mehrez argues that this process of defamiliarization is one where

   the language of Other comes to encode messages which are not
   readily decoded by the monolingual reader whose referential world
   continues to exclude, ignore, and deny the existence of other
   referential worlds that are crucial to a more global rather than
   "colonialist," "imperialist" reading of the text. … 

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Cultural Translation and the Exorcist: A Reading of Kingston's and Tan's Ghost Stories
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